Saturday, May 03, 2008

Middle Eastern MicroBrew

For years, Hannah has been talking about Taybeh Beer. Thursday night I found a great bar in Tel Aviv that served it, and I had one. I liked it. So with time running out on my time here, and having put it off and put it off, I finally relented today and went off with her and Sophie to the Christian West Bank village of Taybeh, just north of Ramallah, to visit this amazing micro-brewery . It was the first time in 9 years I've ventured deep into Palestine, and I must say that my Israeli hosts seriously advised against it. For them, this is hostile enemy territory -- the last 9 years have been devoted to separating Israel from Palestine not only physically but also psychologically. In their minds, what I did today was insane, immature, and irresponsible -- but most importantly, dangerous. Indeed, today at an Israel checkpoint in the southern West Bank a 30 year-old Palestinian man brandishing a knife reportedly lunged at an Israeli soldier, and was shot to death. Something like that could conceivably have happened just as easily at one of the 5 checkpoints I had to traverse today (though no one left their car or truck). But I am convinced that I cannot possibly talk or teach about the Arab-Israeli conflict with any credibility or self-respect without crossing over to the other side. And the truth is, the way that Israel has cantonized the West Bank, I barely crossed to the other side. On the main highways of the West Bank, the Israeli yellow license plate rules the roads, many of which are laid out to allow Israelis to traverse the West Bank without traveling through or near Palestinian towns. For the first time in my 2 months here, I finally saw the formerly familiar green license plates of Palestine. At one entry checkpoint, we were separated by license plates....those of us with Israeli plates were sent right through on a separate lane. Those with green were sent aside to await inspection, if only identity papers.

We ended picking the long route to Taybeh, going out towards the West Bank on the 5 freeway. East of Rosh ha-Ayin, we hit our first road barrier, but were waved right through. On either side of the road were high fences topped with barbed-wire; the notorious security barrier at this point was nothing more than that, with constant patrols. Just a bit before Ariel, 5 quit being a highway and became a decent 2-lane inter-urban road, the 505. At Ariel, a West Bank Israeli settlement (?) of over 18,000 people that is easily 20 km beyond the former green line, we fueled up. At the Tapuach checkpoint we were divided by license plates, and then went south on the 60. Whenever we passed by an Israeli settlement, Israel flags were affixed to lightpoles as if we were in Jerusalem. Finally at Ofra, we turned onto what our map said was the northern entrance to Taybeh via the 449 road; we barely got a km when we came to a closed gate, and an Israeli soldier (wearing dental braces -- if he were 19 I'd be surprised) told us that we could not got to Taybeh this way. So we continued down 60 until we found the southern route into Taybeh. The Israeli road map told us not to traverse the entry road to Taybeh without Israeli Army escort -- and I have to admit that this gave me the creeps. Turns out that Israeli citizens are not permitted by Israeli law into what is called Area A, and while residents of Taybeh insist they are in Area C, the IDF treats it as A. At the intersection leading to the road to Taybeh, there was an IDF camp, but no soldiers could be seen. There were big signs in white letters on red background at the entrance to the road leading to Taybeh warning Israeli citizens to not go any further. We drove on.

It was easy finding the Taybeh Brewing Co. and we were greeted by brewmaster Nadim Khoury with an unusual kind of Middle Eastern hospitality -- instead of a cup of Turkish coffee, we were offered a taste of delicious Taybeh Amber. Nadim lived for years in the 70's and 80's in Brookline, MA, and as a college student in business administration he did what most college students do -- he home brewed. Eventually it became an obsession, and he went to study the process, and when the Oslo peace process promised a bright future, he was one of many ex-patriot sons and daughters of Palestine who decided to return and make a living and thereby produce a unique Palestinian product: alcoholic beer. The company's tagline? "Drink Palestinian: Taste the Revolution." Cute.

Others have told the story better than I. Articles have been written around the world about Nadim and his dream (see this NYT article from 1996). All I can say is that he was totally gracious and friendly towards us, and thoroughly professional in his approach to brewing. Having been to Scotland last year to visit whiskey distilleries, I was excited to see my first beer brewery, insofar as the first step in making malt whiskey is exactly the same as the malt beer process. Nadim Khoury follows the German 1516 purity law for beer, and his beer -- which these days (since the 2nd intifada) is hard to find in many Israeli establishments -- has no preservatives and like most micro-brews, is best drunk soon after bottling. He is excited about introducing a non-alcoholic beer to the local market, particularly now that famous Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has ruled that it is permitted to drink non-alcoholic beer. There is even a Facebook group devoted to the beer.

Taybeh is one of the only all-Christian villages in the West Bank. In fact, it might be the only one. Church spires, not minarets, dot its skyline. Israeli Jewish settlements are off in the distance on three of its sides. It seems to be an island of Christianity in a sea of crashing Muslim and Jewish waves. And yes, there is an Octoberfest celebration sponsored by Taybeh Brewing Co. every year since 2005 (though last year it was held in September so as not to conflict with Ramadan). Sadly, I won't be around this October.

We left Taybeh with a case of beer and other mementos, and when we got to the end of the 2 km entry road, where the 2 red signs stood, the IDF soldiers had come out of their camp to run a spot checkpoint. This time there was a very slowly moving queue of cars and trucks. When we inched up towards the barricades, a young Israeli soldier signalled I think for me to stop over 30 meters short of the forward water tanker whose driver was being inspected. Apparently, I failed to react fast enough for his 19 year-old tastes, and so he unshouldered his automatic weapon and aimed it straight at me. Is running a checkpoint outside a Christian village so dangerous that you have to level a gun at a rental car carrying 3 Jews and a case of beer? In my entire time on the occupied West Bank -- where I was warned by Israelis that a Palestinian kid might throw a rock at my car; a Palestinian sniper might shoot at my car; a Palestinian terrorist might slit my throat -- the only time I faced anything remotely threatening, if only with gestures, was by an Israeli soldier. What an irony: some bored punk stuck in a shit job (sitting on this intersection leading to an all-Christian village), possibly rattled because an incident had occurred somewhere else on the West Bank earlier in the day, didn't hesitate for a second and pointed an automatic assault rifle at me. Fuck him.

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