“Ahlan wa sahlan, habibi!” trumpets Nuha Musleh, engulfing each guest in an exuberant embrace.
Few who enter Ramallah’s Gallery Zeinab, which she co-owns with her husband, leave empty-handed – or hungry. In between canvassing warren-like markets for new wares and taking foreign journalists – including me – into remote Arab villages for interviews, she cooks heaping platters of Palestinian cuisine for guests at the gallery.
Then they feast on Oriental beauty, from pillows hand-embroidered in a refugee camp nearby to a vast array of necklaces, many accented with an Arabic pendant.
In a society where nearly every aspect of life is defined by the Israeli occupation, Nuha – so inimitable, no one bothers with her last name – has carved out a niche of total independence. Her wares reflect pure Palestinian identity, unfettered by conflict or victimhood. More than adornments, they’re symbols of the dignity, confidence, and stewardship she sees as essential in establishing a state.
By embracing their heritage more fully, Palestinians can strengthen their identity independent of Israeli policies.
“You make yourself what you want, when you want,” says Nuha, a native of East Jerusalem who taught English in Saudi Arabia for nearly a decade, studied in the West, and has worked for 15 years as a fixer and translator for foreign journalists.
“People want you because you offer something unique,” she adds – and that applies to global diplomacy, too. “You over-explain when you’re insecure.”
With her bold necklaces and even bolder speech, Nuha cuts a unique figure in Palestinian society, working dawn to midnight, forgoing the Muslim veil, and relentlessly challenging the bureaucratic, cultural, and political inertia of this place.
Despite her far-flung travels, Palestine remains her first love. She has the means to orbit exclusively in elite circles, or cultivate a lavish life abroad, but she doesn’t. She rides the cramped yellow taxi buses ubiquitous in Ramallah, and hitchhikes through the Qalandia checkpoint. She is as comfortable chatting up a government minister as comforting a mother in a Palestinian refugee camp whose son has been killed by Israeli forces.
“We lost a lot of people in history…. To me, these are the strong women who keep things going,” she says.
That resilience is summed up in a scene she’s never forgotten from the northern city of Nablus. It was during the second intifada, and everyone was in hiding as Israeli tanks patrolled the city’s streets and a gun battle ensued. Then the tanks pulled back briefly to allow people to get supplies.
“Immediately, people forgot their suffering, forgot everything, and got to their stores…. In five minutes, we were all having hummus in downtown Nablus,” she recalls.
Nuha says it’s only a matter of time before frustrations on both sides will suddenly materialize in a solution, ending that Palestinian feeling of being hemmed in by Israeli force, and the growing settlements. “So I’m not going to count inches or meters or kilometers [of territory]. In my view, people are resilient and strong here and I think they will make anything out of whatever they have in their hands.”