A change of scene for Palestine's Oktoberfest

West Bank town leaders uproot region's only beer festival, citing attendees'™ unruly behavior

Palestinians and foreign visitors gather at the 2012 Taybeh Oktoberfest beer festival in the West Bank Christian village of Taybeh, near Ramallah, on Oct. 6, 2012.
Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

The West Bank village of Taybeh is unique in many ways: It was visited by Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, in the days when it was known as Ephraim. It’s the last fully Christian-owned locale in the Palestinian territories. And it’s also the proud home of the only Palestinian beer brewery.

The tiny community of 1,500 has long been a popular stop for Christian pilgrims touring the Holy Land, and more recently has sought to attract tourists by staging a popular Palestinian version of the German Oktoberfest, centered on its local brewery. But a backlash among locals against what they see as an unwelcome bacchanalian intrusion has put the festival under threat.

An Orthodox church in Taybeh
Nadine Ajaka

Like many other villages nearby, Taybeh has been battered by decades of conflict. "Many people of Taybeh have left because of the occupation, because of the wars, the '48 the '67 wars, and the intifada," says Nadim Khoury, owner of Taybeh Beer. "It’s a shame, but what can you do?"

The brewery’s story began with the promise of peace and the Oslo Accords, when Khoury and his family returned to Taybeh in 1995 after 30 years in Boston. They began brewing beer to sell across the West Bank and Israel, and more recently started holding an Oktoberfest on the town’s municipal grounds, which last year drew 16,000 visitors.

Long renowned as a Palestinian success story, Taybeh Beer’s founders have navigated countless roadblocks set in place by Palestinian and Israeli authorities, but the company has been told that its internationally famous Oktoberfest will be barred from Taybeh this year. Local officials say the spectacle had grown too large and raucous for their sleepy town

"New municipality members were elected this year, and that’s when the decision came that they didn’t want to have Oktoberfest in Taybeh — actually, they didn’t want to have it at all," said Madees Khoury, Nadim’s daughter and assistant brewer. As a result, this year’s Oktoberfest, scheduled for Oct. 5 and 6, will instead be held at the ritzy Mövenpick hotel in neighboring Ramallah.

Taybeh Mayor Nadeem Barakat said the council had voted to boot Oktoberfest because the event had become too disorderly, and said that the town of Taybeh did not profit enough from it.

"Members of the municipality had an opinion that they were not ready for this year’s festival, and they had their own ideas about the festival that were not positive," Barakat said.

'Not so liberal'

Taybeh is considered more open-minded than neighboring villages in the predominantly Muslim West Bank, although still very conservative compared to larger cities.

"Taybeh is not so liberal, it is a small traditional Palestinian village. But we in the brewery believe in liberal things," says Maria Khoury, the organizer of Oktoberfest. "It’s hard in a place where people have old-fashioned values."

Nehmeh Mikhael, 82, has lived in Taybeh her entire life, and sees tension rising between its traditional way of life and contemporary aspirations.

"Taybeh now wants to make itself more advanced, and people want to live a life of imitation," she says. "Young men have started to cut their hair like foreigners, they’ve started to drink beer, they live differently now. We cannot reconcile the past with the present."

Adds Jerusalem resident Alaa Ghosheh, who has attended Oktoberfest for the past several years, "I don’t think people there appreciate the invasion of their village every year," pointing out that "harassment, drugs, fights" have been brought to the town by the festival.

Frequent attendees differ on the extent of transgressive behavior around the festival, but all agree that holding  an international event in a small traditional community brings together people with different concepts of the subjective line between the offensive and the acceptable.

"I was furious," said David Khoury, Nadim’s brother and the former mayor of Taybeh, of the local council’s vote last March. "Last year was a great success for the entire village — people bought honey, olive oil, they took taxis and everyone made money."

Taybeh’s local government, in fact, backtracked at the last minute. Five days before the festival, the council reversed its decision, offering to host it if the Khoury family paid a sum of 100,000 shekels to the municipality. The reversal came too late to reach agreement.

Some villagers complain that the brewery and Oktoberfest are of little value to the town.

"The beer brewery is for its owners, it’s not for Taybeh," says Mikhael. "If they employ five or six people, it might help those people. But the money is for the owners of the factory. There’s almost no money coming to Taybeh except for charity from outside."

‘It’s not easy’

The Khoury family has employed a new marketing strategy to deal with this unexpected setback. This year, the vision of the Oktoberfest has changed to adapt to its new location.

"I hope this is upgrading the Oktoberfest. Instead of having it as a village event, it could be a mobile event — Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethlehem — benefitting Palestinians as a whole on a larger scale," Madees said. "I’m thinking positively."

Still, a roving beer festival in a region known for both its religiosity and political bureaucracy is an ambitious undertaking. In Ramallah, the festival will shrink in scale to fit the indoor space of the Mövenpick, because the local government did not want it held outdoors.

"I don’t know if the vision of a Palestine Oktoberfest will succeed, so we are ready to bring the festival back to Taybeh," he added. That’s if the town reverses its restrictions. But dealing with such challenges is simply part of doing business as a brewery in the Palestinian territories.

"Running a business in Palestine is not like running a business anywhere else in the world, because we’re in the end of nowhere here," Nadim said. "There are no borders, no port, no airport, you have to use other borders, and you have to apply for permits from the Palestinian side and from the Israeli side."

"It’s not easy," he says.

As they try to keep micro-brewing alive in Palestine and wait to hear whether they’ll be allowed to stage Oktoberfest in Taybeh next year, the spirit behind the festival remains unchanged: It is for Palestinians.

"I don’t want the festival to just be for the wealthy in the Mövenpick," says David Khoury. "It should be a no-cost event where profits go to the village of Taybeh, where we boost the economy and the well-being of people, to bring a sense of normality to Palestine."

While the residents of Taybeh may have a different definition of what is normal, the brewery says it will continue to push those boundaries.

"We have always wanted to bring a different face to Palestine, to celebrate life and fun," Maria said.

"But some people didn’t see this as such a positive."

Al Jazeera




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