People dancing at Palestine’s Oktoberfest.
On an autumnal Sunday in Ramallah, the courtyard of the $60 million Movenpick hotel is swarming with hundreds of drunk Palestinians. On a stage at one end of the crowd, the Jerusalem band Khallas are playing their own brand of “oriental metal”. Meanwhile, groups of young Palestinians do the classical dance known as the dabke, in step to a song that sounds somewhere between early Black Sabbath and traditional Arab folk.
It’s the second day of the Palestinian Oktoberfest, an annual event staged by the Taybeh Brewery, the only Palestinian beer producer in all the Israeli-occupied territories. The Palestinian beer festival is notably more reserved than the German original, but over the past nine years it’s still managed to draw in hundreds of thousands of people – often young, wealthy Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim – to celebrate beer by drinking lots of it.
Started in 2005 by Taybeh’s owner Nadim Khoury, Palestine’s Oktoberfest was originally held in the Christian town that gave the brewery its name, just north of Ramallah. According to Nadim, the purpose of the festival was to “boost the economy of the village, promote local products and present a new face of Palestine under occupation”.
Nadim Khoury pouring a bottle of his Taybeh beer
After studying to be a brewing engineer at a Californian university, Nadim – like many Palestinians – returned to his home country after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1994, saying that the peace agreement “gave us hope”. However, the situation that Nadim and his countrymen hoped for hasn’t been realised; the Israeli state apparatus remains and Palestinian autonomy, sovereignty and territory continues to slip further away. “We’re still under occupation,” says Nadim. “We don’t have a country yet, but we do have our own beer. I’m proud of that.”
Oktoberfest organiser and Nadim’s sister-in-law, Maria Khoury, claims that the festival has helped people to deal with the failure of the Oslo Accords and the outbreak of the Second Intifada: “It brought a much needed sense of normality,” she says. “For several years, people had been really down – the violence, the curfews, the completion of the separation wall… Oktoberfest helped people escape the harsh realities.”
While the idea of a beer festival voiding two decades of systematic persecution from their neighbours in Israel might seem a little far-fetched, Oktoberfest has been a great success story in a country that isn’t known for having much success. For the eight years that the festival was held in Taybeh, around 15,000 revellers would descend on the West Bank village every autumn to enjoy the craft brews, live music and homemade falafel.
Tourists at Palestine’s Oktoberfest
Unfortunately, internal politics (including a new Taybeh mayor who wasn’t so supportive of the festival) and Oktoberfest’s rising popularity caused tensions in the Taybeh community, forcing Nadim to move the event to the obnoxious five-star Movenpick hotel in the wealthy Masyoun neighbourhood of Ramallah. Most festival-goers I spoke to were disappointed in the change of venue; as one young Palestinian guy said as he walked past the infinity pool, “This place is gross.”
The exact reasons behind the move aren’t entirely clear. Yes, the festival has outgrown its humble beginnings and there isn’t nearly enough space in Taybeh to hold the growing numbers of attendees, but according to Nadim it has more to do with politics. “There is jealousy in the town,” he explains. “The new municipality is narrow-minded – they don’t know what Oktoberfest has been bringing to Taybeh over the past eight years.”
While the Oktoberfest issue is the latest and perhaps most visible of its problems, the Taybeh brewery is no stranger to adversity. Since starting in 1994, it’s faced plenty of challenges navigating the numerous social and political obstacles that make Palestine the uniquely complicated place that it is. “We are the only brewery in all of Palestine – obstacles are everywhere,” Nadim says. “The occupation, economic siege and closures – not to mention the cultural and religious aspects – there are so many of them that you could write a book.”
“Yeah, I think many people disagree with the lifestyle,” Maria says, speaking about the fact that drinking alcohol is still taboo in the majority Muslim country. “We at Taybeh believe in responsible drinking, but of course in a country where 99 percent of the population shouldn’t be drinking, Oktoberfest and the brewery itself are very sensitive things,” she explains. “But we want people to have a good time, enjoy the local food and drink. We want to build a Palestine that can encompass everyone in its diversity – it is a beautiful, rich culture.”
Talking to one of the bartenders in the Movenpick hotel, he echoes Maria’s sentiment: “Oktoberfest doesn’t fit into people’s expectations of Palestine, but there is an established Christian community in and around Ramallah,” he says. A Muslim friend of mine agrees: “It’s not surprising, really – there are lots of foreigners, Christians and a surprising amount of of nonobservant Muslims here,” he tells me, before taking a sip of his beer and smiling. “In fact, you’re looking at one!”
Yet, events like this always stir controversy in the complicated social space of Ramallah. Despite the fact it’s made a point of presenting itself as a modern, Western-friendly, cosmopolitan city, not all residents are as supportive of Oktoberfest as Nadim and Maria would hope.
The entrance to the Taybeh Brewing Company in the Palestinian village of Taybeh
A local storeowner named Muhammed tells me, “There are no morals here, just lots of money and foreigners acting crazy. It’s no good.” And Fadi, a Palestinian student who grew up in Chicago, shares a similar feeling: “I think it’s a shame they’re holding the event here,” he says. “I see people drinking in the streets – rich people, foreigners and Palestinians – and it’s disrespectful to the majority of us.”
The issue of foreign money and local wealth pops up often when discussing Oktoberfest with those who disapprove of the event. Because while religious and cultural standards undoubtedly contribute to the tensions, places like the Movenpick – a landmark of prosperity in Palestine’s de facto capital – and events like Oktoberfest also speak to the disparity in wealth in Ramallah and how that affects every Palestinian’s experience of the occupation.
As one of Fadi’s friends, a student at Birzeit University, tells me, “It’s not about drinking, but who can drink. It’s way expensive to buy alcohol here, and those who drink fit into that upper elite of Palestinian society – the same who seem quite comfortable amid this occupation.”
Inside the Taybeh brewery, the only brewery in Palestine
This tension is evident throughout Ramallah; a local cafe/bar close to the city centre is targeted with glass bottles on a weekly basis, and just last Thursday, one of the few bars that plays music in Ramallah was attacked with a Molotov cocktail.
While it’s unlikely that these tensions will ever completely recede, the people of Taybeh are proud of what they’re doing and say they’ll continue for as long as they can. As Maria tells me, “There are many more Oktoberfests to come. We want to build a country that’s democratic, that’s free, that’s liberal, that’s modern, so that we can exist with people who have different views to us. If we honour their views, we want the same respect and honour back.”
As Nadim says, “Taybeh beer means everything to us – it means more than beer. We’re not asking for much; we’re asking for freedom. And when that time comes, maybe we will use Taybeh beer – even if it’s our non-alcoholic version – to toast to peace and freedom.”
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