The announcement appeared on a Japanese website: the first sushi restaurant had just been opened in Ramallah. I immediately thought of the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and his policy for the West Bank. With the peace talks going nowhere, why not create the modern trappings of a real country that one day could become a real state? New roads, banks, “five-star” hotels, office towers, condominiums. He calls it “ending the occupation, despite the occupation.”
A visitor to Ramallah is immediately struck by the cranes and scaffolding of fresh construction. That and the Palestinian gendarmerie in red or green berets patrolling the streets, young men trained and equipped largely with US money, and overseen first by US Lieutenant General Keith Dayton and since last October by Lieutenant General Michael Moller.
This is the new Palestine, collaborating with Israel and the US to smarten up the West Bank and keep down Hamas, even though Prime Minister Fayyad was never elected, and Hamas won the last Palestinian elections in 2006. Under President Mahmoud Abbas, and his prime minister, the West Bank is supposed to outdo Islamist Gaza in prosperity and security. The Soho Sushi and Seafood Restaurant had to be linked to this enterprise.
Located inside the Caesar Hotel, a modern building in a plush Ramallah suburb, the Soho restaurant was empty when we arrived for lunch. Like the mausoleum of Yasser Arafat, erected in polished Jerusalem stone on the ruins of his old headquarters—shot to pieces by the Israeli army during the last years of his life—everything looked brand new, shiny, still unused. Phil Collins was singing softly in the background. A friendly waitress with long curly dark hair and black pants took our orders for sushi rolls. Her name was Amira; she was a Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem.
Amira explained that the seven Palestinian sushi chefs employed by the hotel had been trained by a Japanese lady from Tel Aviv. They had had to learn how to make sushi in two months. The result, so far, was mixed. Business was picking up, Amira said. But there was a slight drawback. The Jordanian man who sold the land to the Palestinian owners of the Caesar Hotel had stipulated that alcohol may not be served on the premises.
Although she had never been to the US, Amira carried an American passport, as well as Palestinian identity papers. Her parents had become US citizens before returning to Palestine, where her father taught Arab literature in Bethlehem. This was her home, Amira said, in perfect English. She explained that she had been trained in restaurant management in Spain, in the Basque country. The Spanish, she found, were confounded by her …