Lewis Baston spent six days with a Labour2Palestine delegation to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Here we publish his diary day by day.
Day 5 – RAMALLAH NIGHTS
Our group adopted a little corner of Ramallah as our entertainment base. There is a road junction near the Municipality with a cluster of cafes and restaurants – there are others, it is a fair-sized city, but this was the area we got to know. We sampled several establishments; usually at the end of each emotionally draining day there was an appetite among those members who did drink for a little alcohol. Palestine is pretty liberal and secular in terms of enforced religious doctrine – for instance, I was surprised to see genuine pepperoni on sale rather than the non-porcine equivalent one finds in most Arab countries – and even produces some very pleasant wine and beer. Taybeh beer (http://www.taybehbeer.com/) is brewed in a Christian village not far out of Ramallah and is a clear, crisp and thirst-quenching lager. It is the national beer of Palestine and while it is most easily found on the West Bank there are places in East Jerusalem that stock it. Palestine also has several vineyards producing more than acceptable red wine, including Cremisan (http://www.cremisan.org/html/landmark.html) on the artificial border between the West Bank and Jerusalem, and Deir Rafat, a Palestinian village within Israel, the winery a happy product of an Italian monastic settlement dating to 1928. I am far happier with the idea of supporting the Palestinian economy by buying products made by its entrepreneurs and family businesses than I am with boycotting Israel (see BDS… Umm… (to be written)), although the Israeli security guys at the airport may ask you some questions about where it comes from if you travel back with it.
We enjoyed our time in the Upside café (whose powerful WiFi would occasionally cause one’s phone to start burbling with emails if the bus stopped for longer than a few seconds in the general area), and the Pronto Resto-Café (http://prontorestocafe.ps/) run by a cheerful guy who had spent some time in Ealing in the 1980s. Our big dinner with the Fatah leaders was in the Zahout restaurant across the road. We felt guilty for not having given any custom to the elegant Café de la Paix, whose cakes looked mouth-watering but which did not sell alcohol. We were never around in the afternoon, but if you are ever in town do go there…
We ended up most often in StoneS, a loud, smoky café-bar which seemed to be favoured by the bright young things of Ramallah. There was international football on the big screens and Taybeh on tap, and one could have been anywhere except for the fug of cigarette smoke. Health and safety legislation has some way to go in the West Bank. There was also the aromatic scent of shisha smoke (I still have to remember –ask for some shisha, not shiksa…) hanging in the air.
Palestinian Muslims sometimes consume alcohol, and there seems little shame or furtiveness about places like StoneS. How it might be if Hamas came to power is something that troubles many people in Ramallah, who as well as not supporting its militant tactics and strident ideology fear its impact on personal freedom. Palestinian Muslims seem proud of being part of a mixed community under a secular state (or rather, secular quasi-state Authority); even though the number of Christians living in the West Bank has dwindled (many have joined the diaspora).
Cocktails have some way to go in Ramallah – a skill that they will have to sharpen up if Hamas introduces Prohibition, because as 1920s Americans found they are the best way of surreptitious serving of alcohol. A couple of us tried the formidable ‘StoneS Shaker’ cocktail, a fearsome looking luminous green concoction that tasted somewhat of battery acid. My friend was teargassed at the Bil’in Friday demonstration and therefore had an opportunity to compare the experiences. He thought Israeli teargas marginally the less noxious substance. But we still finished the Shaker anyway.
Lewis Baston writes for The Guardian, Progress and LSE Politics and Policy blog on elections and politics.