My uncle used to drink a lot. We’re talking way back, when a bottle of arak set you back a mere Shekel.” Ramzi’s eyes tell the story with vigor. His hands add to the narrative with exaggerated swigging motions. “He sure liked his arak. Over the years though, the stuff gradually got more and more expensive attaining, one ominous morning, the threshold of seven Shekels.”

Ramzi’s son, his wife, and two boys listen appreciatively. A third boy provides futuristic sound effects playing Tetris.

My uncle was a poor man, and seven Shekels for arak, despite a clinging fondness for the stuff, proved too big a bite from his budget. So instead, he goes down to the café to sit and play backgammon with his Muslim friends. He starts complaining to them; Arak costs seven Shekels now. That’s your fault. You guys are not supposed to drink alcohol. That’s for Christians only. For you, it’s a sin, so don’t. Supply and demand. If you stop drinking, and just stick to tea, the price will go down again and everybody’s happy.”

Ramzi, a sprightly octogenarian, loves the story so much that he promptly tells it again, showing wide grins in between phrases, greasing it with the whiskey I brought.

I’m at my landlord’s for Christmas lunch; a feast of chicken, rice and assorted veggies. There’s quite more to it than that of course, but this is as far as my culinary skills allow me to recount. In addition my Arabic still has a long way to go in terms of ingredients and all things pertaining to the amazing Palestinian kitchen. Damned I’ll miss this food.

By the time Ramzi begins to tell the arak story for the third time his son Mitri switches topics, asking whether I heard the ruckus in the garden on Christmas eve?

I occupy a small studio apartment underneath the house of the landlord in Al-Bireh, Ramallah’s joined-at-the-hip twin municipality.

Yeah, now that you mention it,” I say. For a couple of hours the streets were abuzz with accelerating engines, shrieking tires, and shouting shabab (the general term for a local male youth between the age of 14-ish and 30).

Israeli jeeps, coming from Bet El came to arrest someone.” His eyebrows hop once, no doubt reminiscing another Christmas some years ago at the height of the Intifada when soldiers plucked him from the house at gunpoint and forced him to throw about a suspicious object in the street until it was deemed innocuous enough for non-Palestinians to drive past.

Happy holidays. They usually don’t roll in until after midnight, but I’ve on many occasions popped out for a late-night Twix fix and thought better of it, menaced by vehicle-mounted searchlights. I assume they can see I’m a tad more swankily dressed than the kids who throw bottles at their armored cars. I assume they see that I’m white, and know that Belgium, after six harrowing months, has a government again that will cry foul if something happens to me. Why, it might actually make the newspapers. Imagine.

This time as well I assumed I’d be safe, but stayed indoors anyway, if only cause I promised mum to be careful in these last months that I’m here. “Yeah, don’t worry. I won’t get into trouble.”

Outside the jeeps did their carrousel around the block. A bear swatting at flies it thinks are bees. In Ramallah, which is run rather tight by the P.A., armed fighters don’t much show their faces nowadays, let alone brandish anything more threatening than a Zippo lighter outside the context of a wedding celebration.

What’s left is a little cat and mouse, a few rocks, and broken bottles. It’s good to be young.


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