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Despite Government Resistance, Beer Flows Freely for Palestinians

Beer festivals are not common events in the Muslim majority West Bank, but the Taybeh Brewing Company, a Palestinian microbrewery, has made Oktoberfest an important part of the Palestinian cultural calendar. Hosting its 11th annual Oktoberfest this September, Taybeh Beer transformed Taybeh, a serene West Bank village, into a celebration of Palestinian beer. Thousands of Palestinians and foreign nationals of all ages attended the festival, including high- ranking Palestinian officials from the president’s office, and multiple consul generals such as Donald Blome, for the United States. The festival featured the company’s four beers and performances by local artists from Ramallah and the surrounding environs. While the earlier hours of the festival were not particularly busy, by nightfall long lines of eager beer drinkers formed outside the festival’s entrance.

Attendees came for a variety of reasons beyond simply drinking beer. Raed, a young Palestinian from Bethlehem, said, “We are here to drink beer, but also to support the Palestinian economy and listen to some great performers.” Maddie Ulanow, an American currently living in Amman who traveled to the West Bank to attend Oktoberfest, said, “My roommate and I decided to go to Taybeh to see both a different part of the region and a different part of Palestine.”

Taybeh, an all-Christian village located just 19 kilometers northeast of Ramallah, is considered the beer capital of Palestine. Nadim Khoury, the 55-year-old co-founder and “master brewer” of Taybeh, originally began brewing beer in his dormitory while studying at Hellenic College in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1978. He brought a beer-making kit to Taybeh one year during a family vacation, and brewed beer for his family. His family was impressed, calling it “magic,” and encouraged him to brew it commercially. After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Khoury and his brother Daoud Khoury, co-owner of the company and former mayor of Taybeh, returned to their birthplace following a 25-year stint in the United States to establish the first Palestinian beer company with their father, Canaan Khoury. Before officially moving forward with the project, the brothers traveled to Tunis to meet Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. According to Nadim Khoury, Arafat offered his approval by saying, “May God bless [this initiative].” The Khoury family then sold some of their property in the United States and dipped into their savings accounts to invest $1.2 million in building a factory. The Kourys began distributing beer in 1995. However, building a successful beer business in Palestine has not come without obstacles. As Nadim Khoury said in an interview at the Taybeh factory, “Brewing beer in Palestine is not like brewing beer anywhere else in the world.” He explained that not only does he import most of the raw materials and machinery, increasing the cost of production, but he also deals often with delays at Israeli crossing terminals. For example, according to Daoud Khoury, Taybeh Brewing Co. delivers beer shipments to various hotels in Jerusalem, and the delivery person cannot drive directly to Jerusalem but instead travels about two hours to the closest commercial checkpoint, Tarqumiya, near Hebron. Routine inspections often mean the driver does not arrive at the Jerusalem hotels on time and stays in Jerusalem overnight to complete the delivery the following day.

Image by Madees Khoury

Nonetheless, the Khoury family sells about 600,000 liters of beer per year. In comparison, Shapiro and Alexander, two well-known Israeli microbreweries, produce roughly 150,000 liters per year. Taybeh Beer is largely distributed in the West Bank and Israel, contracting with bars and stores in both predominantly Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The microbrewery also exports to Denmark, Japan, Italy, Sweden and Spain, and hopes to expand to the United States, but hefty taxes and uncertainty about its market have discouraged the company. Daoud Khoury said the microbrewery is exploring the possibility of building a factory in Boston.

The Khoury family also recently launched a wine line called “Nadim,” or “drinking partner” in Arabic. Moreover, Nadim Khoury said he plans to cooperate with his nephew, Victor Khoury, to distill liquors, including arak, whisky, gin and vodka.

Taybeh Oktoberfest has taken place since 2005. In its early years, the beer festival received support from Daoud Khoury, who served as a mayor at the time, and from the Taybeh municipality. When Khoury stepped down from politics and a new governing body was appointed in 2013, tensions broke out between Taybeh and the municipality.

Even though the new mayor, Nadim Barakat, the brother-in-law of Daoud and Nadim Khoury, supports the festival, Nadim Khoury said the other new members of the municipality demanded that Taybeh Brewing Co. pay 300,000 shekels for using municipality property, and five shekels for each beer sold in 2013. The company moved the festival to the Movenpick Hotel in Ramallah, a venue substantially different from the scenic landscape of Taybeh.

Jawad Hanna, deputy mayor of Taybeh, criticized the festival in a telephone interview, saying: “The festival does not benefit Taybeh and its people, but rather the owners of the beer factory…. They will not even have an official discussion with the members of the municipality.” Moreover, a Taybeh citizen who agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity said: “The Khoury family should pay the municipality at least some amount. There are a number of social costs paid by the village for hosting the festival, and the people of Taybeh deserve some form of compensation.”

Nadim and Daoud Khoury have rejected such claims, saying that the festival has attracted high-ranking diplomats who have donated funds for projects throughout Taybeh. For example, the elder brother said, “Diplomats come to Taybeh for the festival and later fund projects here because they see what Taybeh needs during their visit.” He also added that Oktoberfest allows local small businesses to make profits selling their food and goods.

In 2014, Taybeh Brewing Co. canceled Oktoberfest because of the Gaza war, but remained insistent on bringing the festival back to Taybeh for 2015. According to Daoud Khoury, the microbrewery again received substantial pushback from the municipality, which he said demanded 300,000 shekels, and five shekels for each beer sold.

Nonetheless, the Khoury family managed to evade working with the town, hosting Oktoberfest on its personal property and receiving the blessings of the Ministry of Tourism and the president’s office, which helped ensure that it could take place.

As Taybeh Oktoberfest approached its conclusion this year, attendees sang along to Ramallah Band, a popular group from Ramallah, and perspired while simultaneously dancing enthusiastically and keeping hold of their beers. Outside the entrance to the festival, cars, many driven by Arab Israelis, overflowed into the side streets as local onlookers smiled.

According to Majdi Habash, a young Palestinian from Ramallah who attended Oktoberfest: “Taybeh Oktoberfest says Palestine for all. Even in a small village with a majority of traditional Christians, I and many others from different backgrounds and cultures can come together and participate.”

Adam Rasgon is a Jerusalem-based journalist.

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