Niamh Donnellan

Life in Anticipation

I squinted in the harsh sun and stepped into bustling Ramallah. Outside the shadowy cool of the guesthouse, the sun beat down and the dust and noise of the city rushed towards me. Birdsong was soon drowned out by the shouts of market traders and blaring of car horns. Life was in full swing here in Palestine.

Olive trees lined the cracked pavement outside. Every morning I saw families spreading old bed sheets beneath their branches and resting ladders against their gnarled trunks. Children climbed and picked the olives, dropping them to the ground where they were gathered into containers of all shapes and sizes.  Each family seemed to have its tree, or each tree its family. This was a scene unchanged in its essence for thousands of years.  

A few doors down from my lodgings a white-haired carpenter worked alone in his dark workshop. I had hurried by him each day on my way to seminars but now I stopped to watch him work. He wore a frayed baseball hat and his short-sleeved blue check shirt hung loose over thin, muscled arms. He reminded me of my grandfather not in looks but in the easy movement of a man who knows his craft. He nodded to me as he stood at the open doors, seeming nonplussed that I had stepped in from the street. This was not a shop but a place of work. He was sanding down a door, smoothing its coarse sides. The smell of fresh wood was thick in the air. Behind him, the small space was packed with lengths of wood, tins and jars of waxes and paints and well-worn tools. A picture of a stern mustachioed man in a suit glowered down at me, politician or prophet, I wasn’t sure.  

The windowsill held, among a jumble of other things, a stack of beautifully simple olive wood bowls. I picked one up and felt its smooth heft in my hands. The weight of history. I held the bowl out to him expectantly. He scrawled a price on a scrap of paper and I counted out a few notes while he put it in a thin plastic bag. When he moved from behind his workbench I saw that he walked with a stick, intricately carved and polished.  

Beside his workshop there was a bread-making factory of sorts. Here was where the staple of my breakfast, lunch and dinner was made. Dipped in hummus, topped with the freshest tomatoes and cucumber or slathered in za’atar. Bags of flour were stacked in the corner beside clanking machinery. A large mixing bowl worked the dough before it was scooped up into small balls and then patted down into flat circles. Onwards along a conveyor belt to an oven where thin shelves rose and fell rhythmically until the bread was baked. There was a hypnotic, timeless quality to the process. The messy complexity of baking stripped bare to its essentials. 

Automation had its limits however and a group of young men behind a shop counter gathered the freshly baked pita bread into plastic bags and handed it out to a steady stream of customers. They talked and laughed to and at each other as they worked. The shop was alive with their energy. I wanted to bring some home with me but it would be stale by the time I reached Ireland.

I walked along uneven pathways for a few more minutes until I found what I needed. I entered the pharmacy expecting a rush of cool air. No luck, the air was heavy inside. The door stood open, inviting in customers, friends, passers-by, and the dust thrown up by the busy street. The glass windows magnified the heat. The smell of coffee from a café next door wafted through to meld with the antiseptic aroma of the pharmacy.

Inside the shop two old men sat on either side of the counter. Slouched in wicker chairs they stopped their conversation and surveyed me, an interesting interlude in their day. There was a game of backgammon underway, the wooden pieces worn to a shine with use. They were drinking Arabic coffee from small glasses. 

I greeted them with a nod and asked haltingly for saline solution for contact lenses pointing to my eye hopefully. 

‘Yes, we have that.’ The pharmacist behind the counter responded in English. He didn’t rise from his chair but adjusted his glasses the better to survey me. ‘Where are you from?’


The other man smiled and raised his hands in the air. ’Ireland!  Very good’.

The pharmacist rested his hands back on his belly. ‘Do you know what is happening here?’

I had grown used to this question over the course of my short time in Palestine. Here politics, like the weather back home, was seen by many as a perfectly reasonable conversation opener. 

‘I’m trying to learn.’

He began to speak, his friend chiming in with additions and corrections. He told me of his family divided between Ramallah, Gaza and Haifa and the terrible premonition that his children and grandchildren were destined to the same fate. He asked about the parallels with Northern Ireland but as a 30-something Dubliner I wasn’t going to pronounce upon a conflict I was too young to really remember.  

Who was I to tell my island’s story? To unravel and smooth a tangled mess of politics and religion, of nationalism and identity. Again and again in Palestine I had found myself unequal to the task. With each new conversation my impressions and thoughts were flung into the air and settled in new kaleidoscopic patterns. Only a fool would rush in with simple answers.

The second man tutted loudly and shook his head at my reticence. The pharmacist too seemed disappointed in my lack of political insight but nonetheless he persevered in my education. He told me of a life lived in anticipation. Not hope, there was too much optimism in that word, but a watchful knowledge that this story, the story of Israel and Palestine was still unfolding. He knew that he was living history, the good and the bad of it, every day. 

Eventually I glanced at my watch. He noticed and stopped mid-sentence.

‘I’m sorry, I need to catch my bus.’  

‘Yes, yes! Go, go!’  

He rose and picked up my bottle, wrapping it in a small paper bag. I took the solution and left. 

A few hours later, I sat on a stuffy bus staring out the window at the bleak border wall. Smoke rose from a smouldering heap of rubbish, stray dogs trotted along sniffing out scraps. Colourful graffiti made pointed remarks, some obvious even to my eyes, some lost to translation and context. Young soldiers, male and female came on board checking passports and documents. At that point, Palestinians were made to get off the bus and walk across the border. The man sitting beside me stood up and carried his sleeping daughter outside. She stirred as he rose to his feet, her eyes opening to take in the soldiers before snuggling down deeper into her father’s embrace.

My mind drifted as the bus waited on. Back to a rare sunny Irish summer’s day. Three of us, crammed in the back of a Toyota Starlet driving from Dublin to Fermanagh to visit relations. No high-walled border, just an army station on a quiet country road, cars in an orderly queue. We had been dozing until then, myself, my brother and sister, our lullaby the dulcet tones of Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh commentating on a hurling match. My father switched off the radio, stopped the car and rolled down the window for a brief exchange with a baby-faced soldier. I stared wide-eyed at the watchtower and the guns until they were lost in the turn of the road.  

Niamh Donnellan is a writer and poet from Co. Meath. She visited Palestine in 2017. She won the Anthology Short Story Award 2020. Her website can be found at