IGP Stories

At The South

Mezna Qato

30 November 2022

Arms outstretched, he hollered from across the street, “Where’s my parade? Where’s the crowd?”

“What?” I stared at him. “Get over here!”, I shouted.

Grinning, K flung over to B and I, earning ear-splitting horns and shouts from windows. “That’s more like it!” All limbs and a crisp fade, he bellowed, “I just got out of jail, and no one even picked me up. I had to take a cab here!”

“WHAT?” B and I shouted at once. Then B took over. “What are you talking about? Sit down! You’re shaking, what happened?”

A bit up a gentle incline, past a string of posh coffee houses and eateries, and nestled into the back of the Ramallah Municipality is B’s hole in the wall, The South. There are tables inside, warmed in the glow of filament lights, trinkets and icons of the religious and national sort, a muted television broadcasting news and the latest football match. There’s also the bar, of course, where the drinks are unfussed and generous. But B and I were sitting outside, on stools and chairs overlooking the city’s outdoor soundstage. It was nearing midnight, on a Wednesday, but the traffic was heavy, and the crowds thick with friends ambling along in gaggles of four or nine, gushing, teasing, flirting. Before the jailbirds’ arrival, B and I had been catching up, sharing big thoughts and small gossip.

“We got our ass beat is what happened! They clocked H in the head. Hey H, come here, show them the gash!”

The day hadn’t started out that way for K, H and his friends. They’d been in rehearsals for a play they were putting on at Ishtar Theatre. K was directing, roping H - who was trying to get his screenplay off the ground - into set design. After a long day with finicky actors, a municipal theatre producer concerned about logistics, and hustling to sell some tickets, K and his buddies headed out to a concert at the Khalil Sakakini Center in Ein Munjed. A popular local band was going to perform their latest hits. Two songs in, however, a cortège of police cars had pulled up to the gate. Orders, they said, were to shut the concert down - on moral objection. K couldn’t figure out what happened next, but before he knew, him and a handful of friends were in the back of a police car, beaten up, bleeding and on their way to jail. With no grounds for keeping them, and mostly because they were more trouble than the officers wanted to deal with, they were let go a few hours later.

B and I huddled to listen over the traffic noise, K and H interjecting with non sequiturs, their story a series of pops, with commentary on characters, personalities, interspersed. Then, we all sat quiet. The adrenaline rush had plateaued, and K seemed downcast. Something had shifted in all of us. B lightly touched his shoulder. “Come, let me make you a sandwich.”

“No,” K said, “but can I get a drink?”

“Of course, it’s your first night out of jail after all!” Cheers were offered all around.

As news spread of this latest police invasion of a progressive cultural scene, I told friends of my encounter with one of its main characters (as least in my telling of it). With each retelling, I found myself more and more drawn to B’s role in this brief encounter. B, her partner and the little space they had carved for themselves, The South - and more importantly for their friends and comrades - for the lost, the freebirds, the thirsty and hungry, in the heart of a city growing harder to ground oneself in, where all sorts of inequalities seem to widen gaps of possible collectivity and sociality, and where, frankly, most of the restaurants are far too overpriced for not much value.

I hadn’t until then thought as carefully about a central, though seemingly overlooked character, in histories of revolutionary imaginaries among Palestinians - namely, about the caretaker. Who keeps imaginaries alive in the midst of despair - social, political and personal? Where and how and with what means do people create conditions where futures can be induced, worlds can be conjured?

I’m not sure yet what I want to say about all of this, but I think B offered me a glimpse of what it means. To listen, to host, to nurture, feed, quench thirst, laugh, offer shelter. Comfort and leisure, unrehearsed, purposeful, committed. It is a core of her politics, to leave the door open. I watched her greet nearly every other passerby, people who pop in to say, “hi,” have a quick drink, she’d make introductions, and then let us be to find our own way. For every dreamer, there is someone making a somewhere where dreams can find place. I want to find them too. The producers of imaginaries, the incubators.

By way of a story, this is also a restaurant review. If you find yourself in this breezy hilltop town, do visit The South. The salads are fresh and bright, the pizza is hearth-baked with a crackling crust, the cheese plates are piled high, and the company? A dream.

Mezna Qato is a Research Fellow at TAKHAYYUL, an ERC-funded project at the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP). Her research and teaching interests centre on histories and theories of social, economic and political transformation amongst refugee and stateless communities, the politics and practice of archives, and global micro-histories of movements and collectivities in the Middle East.

Photo Credit: Sameeh.K on Pexels

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