The Palestinian territories' first youth hostel welcomes backpackers to Ramallah


As we drove toward a checkpoint on our way from Ramallah to Jerusalem, Israel’s concrete wall towered above the Honda Civic that carried us. Despite the barrier’s long shadow, the young tourists who packed the car happily sang along to the Forrest Gump soundtrack.

“Joy to the world,” we shouted to the tune of Three Dog Night’s upbeat rendition of the folk song. “All the boys and girls…”

Like something out of a movie script, B. J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” came on as Israeli soldiers waved us across the border without searching the vehicle.

“Because I’m free, nothing’s worrying me,” sang Muhab Alami, who was driving the car. A Palestinian from Jerusalem, he laughed at the irony.

I had met the other tourists back in Ramallah and was happy to have found a ride to share. Private, budget-priced rooms are easy to come by in the developing world, but a lack of European-style dormitories means it can be hard to meet other backpackers.

Muhab’s brother, Chris, saw this as an opportunity to attract young visitors to the West Bank, which is part of the Palestinian territories.

Sitting on a couch next to a window overlooking part of downtown Ramallah, he explained that while there are inexpensive hotels throughout the Middle East, many are rundown and can be quite lonely, with guests retiring to simple rooms with few opportunities to interact with one another. To bring travellers together, Alami said, he wanted to create the type of hostel that students use to explore Europe.

As we talked late in the morning, tourists flopped on sofas in a common area connected to several mixed-sex dorm rooms. Alami’s young son played Grand Theft Auto under the tutelage of one of his father’s guests. In an adjoining kitchen, others cooked a shared breakfast of bread and hard-boiled eggs. A bag marked “Beer money” hung on the wall, the honour system being used to regulate a fridge stocked with lager imported from Jordan.

An eclectic bunch filled the hostel at the time of my visit in November. There was an American looking for work that would allow him to remain with his new Palestinian girlfriend. An older British woman who had recently completed a contract with the UN was taking time to brush up on her Arabic. And a group of Czechs—who were always chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes—said they were bringing Hula-Hoop therapy to refugees.

Alami recounted how his family in Jerusalem has a long history in the hospitality industry, but it wasn’t until a backpacking trip through Canada that he was inspired to open his own hostel in Ramallah.

“I stayed there for a year, enjoying travelling for a long time,” he said. “Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver. And the only way to do that is to find cheaper accommodation. And that’s how I got the idea, to make options as cheap as possible for young people.”

To that end, visiting Ramallah makes perfect sense, Alami continued.

“Only a 10-minute ride away, and it’s half the price of anything in Jerusalem,” he noted. “So actually, I have this ambition that people will stay here and from Ramallah travel to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or those other places.”

Alami went on to list of a number of nearby historical sites and other reasons to visit. There's also what he's perceived as a desire many travellers have to investigate the reality of the Palestinian territories compared to reports presented by mainstream media outlets.

News coverage of this part of the world is not so well balanced," he said. "This is one of the reasons why, actually, that people want to come here. Because they know this already, that the media is biased, and they want to see it for themselves."

Establishing the Hostel in Ramallah came with challenges unique to the region, Alami recalled. The Second Intifada and Israel’s related clampdown on East Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories set his plans back by as much as a decade. Finally, on June 30, 2013, Alami opened the first hostel in the West Bank. Two days later, he had his first guest—a young Canadian woman.

“I thought that was fitting, given my travels,” Alami said.

Paintings with social-justice themes have made sections of the Israeli wall near Bethlehem a relatively popular stop for tourists.
Travis Lupick

Access: Hostel in Ramallah is located on the edge of the city’s downtown core. To travel to Ramallah from Jerusalem, catch a bus from the station near the Old City's Damascus Gate. You can also take a taxi, provided the driver is willing to enter the Palestinian territories. Crossing into the West Bank is generally quick, easy, and safe for Canadians carrying a valid passport. A return trip to Israel can take longer, depending on border lineups.

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