Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth - www.jonathan-cook.net

Three Palestinian cafes of change

The Outpost, Issue 2 – Summer 2013

Cafes have always been integral components of Arab culture, making room for cultural and political syntheses. With the gradual increase in the complexities of contemporary issues facing the Arab societies, cafes have developed into safe havens for different local communities to think openly, be different and exist in a free environment in the face of repressive and inhospitable surroundings. They have become active ingredients in the change the Arab world is witnessing. Now more than ever, these Change Cafes have become alternative venues to mainstream cultural acceptance. They have become funnels for a social renaissance.

Al-Reda Café: Restoring Arab pride

Al-Reda (Arabic for Contentment) cafe in Nazareth unabashedly recreates a mood of a time and place whose memory has faded from view. Owner Daher Zeidani is passionately committed to celebrating an Arab urban aesthetic from the era shortly before Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, started to see themselves as a defeated people.

Housed in a renovated grand mansion on the edge of Nazareth’s Old City, Al-Reda has the feel of a wealthy Palestinian home from the 20s. Arabic music from the 30s and 40s wafts through the open windows, while the walls feature many photographs of Zeidani’s recent ancestors.

Book-lined shelves cover topics of Arabic culture such as design, embroidery, architecture, food, historic markets, as well as Palestinian poetry. Even the food has a message: Zeidani has named one dessert “Cake Abdel Aziz” after a favorite customer. “Why do cakes have to be named after French or Russian women?” he asks.

Such an exercise in nostalgia risks sliding into sentimentality, but Zeidani is too eccentric and confrontational for that. It was fitting that his cafe’s moment of glory came in the 2009 film The Time That Remains, Elia Suleiman’s award-winning black comedy of the Nakba. In the relevant scene, a bewildered soldier of the Arab Liberation Army marches backwards and forwards past the front of Al-Reda, trying to find his comrades as a group of Nazarenes sipping coffee on the pavement outside watch him indifferently.

Today, a small notice is posted at the entrance advising – only half-jokingly – that an earlier demand that customers curse Winston Churchill and Britain’s Queen on entering has been lifted. The purpose behind the humor is gently to remind visitors – foreigners and locals alike – that Palestinians still live under the shadow of a dispossession in 1948 engineered by the British.

Zeidani calls Nazareth a “defeated city,” one he guiltily left in the 70s to set up a restaurant in Jerusalem and earn his fortune. On his return visits, the abandoned mansions of Nazareth’s Old City – “crumbling and unloved” – cried out to him. “These buildings were treated as though they were an embarrassment. Nazarenes wanted only what was new and western.”

In 2002 he returned to his hometown for good, bought a dilapidated building and restored it to its former grandeur. He opened Al-Reda, the first restaurant cafe in Nazareth in living memory, and one that was designed to restore a pride in Arab culture and identity after years of “Israelization.”

Al-Reda helped to revive Nazareth’s cafe scene in dramatic fashion, now with more than a dozen, mostly pale imitators in the city.

“Cafes provide a city with its social, cultural, political and aesthetic space,” he says. As a former political activist – he once ran against the controversial Israeli-Palestinian politician Azmi Bishara – he admits social affairs are more his interest than cuisine. Tourists regard the place as a restaurant, but Zeidani says he prefers the late evenings when the foreigners have mostly departed and his local customers arrive to sit, talk and drink into the early hours.

It is not a mood everyone can embrace. “Many people in Nazareth prefer western things,” he says. “They want to be more like our oppressors.” He also has little time for tourists, and especially Israeli Jews, who want to confine him to an Oriental caricature.

“They come with a fixed notion of the Arab humus restaurant owner. When they are presented with my elaborate desserts and salads, I see some feel threatened by my creativity and freedom.”

Al-Reda Cafe
@ 21 Al-Bishara Str.
Nazareth Old City, Israel

Beit Aneeseh: The Palestinian playground

Yazan Khalili tends to sound more like a philosopher than the owner of a cafe bar. “What is the meaning of freedom for a young person when they live under occupation?” he asks. “Is it going out having fun or is it resisting Israeli rule?”

The crowd who frequent Beit Aneeseh in Ramallah appear to believe it is possible to indulge both impulses, prioritizing both the personal and the collective. Here, the most politicized of the West Bank’s youth can be found alongside their counterparts from Jerusalem and the “48ers” – the Palestinians who live inside Israel – as well as foreigners, mainly journalists and those working in non-governmental organizations.

In Beit Aneeseh, all of these diverse groups, increasingly separated by Israel’s policy of erecting walls and checkpoints, have found a common social and political space in the West Bank’s most accessible city. Ramallans cannot easily leave the West Bank, but their peers in East Jerusalem and Israel can reach Ramallah.

Since its opening in early 2010, the cafe bar has become the exemplar of a social and cultural revolution in a city that was already more secular and liberal than its West Bank neighbors. Here the regulars switch effortlessly between drinking, dancing and discussing politics.

After the short-lived Palestinian economic “boom” began in 2008 – what Khalili refers to, with a characteristic skepticism, as a “fake” boom fuelled by aid money – Ramallah, home to the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mahmoud Abbas, saw its nightlife surge, along with the spending power of its middle and upper classes.

Khalili and his two partners, all in their late 20s and working in the arts scene, came up with the idea for Beit Aneeseh shortly after their involvement in Cherien Dabis’ 2009 movie Amreeka, the story of a single mother in Ramallah who emigrates with her teenage son to the United States. While on set, the three spotted the perfect location: a single-story, old stone house in a quiet residential neighborhood.

“Nightlife in Ramallah was very rigid and we were simply looking for an alternative kind of place where we could relax and hang out with friends.” In the home cum cafe, patrons crowd into the sunken terrace garden or huddle in groups in the recesses of the darkened interior.

Inevitably, the place has earned a bad reputation among the more conservative elements of Ramallah society, with gossip persisting that it is a brothel and a drug den. That has proved a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has helped to ensure an exclusive space for its young, progressive clientele; on the other, Khalili and his partners face regular threats.

“This will be the first place to be attacked if the security state [developed by the PA] collapses,” Khalili says, only too happy to concede the paradox that Beit Aneeseh’s social freedoms depend in part on the strengthening of the PA security apparatus in the West Bank and the increasing timidity of the wider society in the face of such intimidation.

In another of those anomalies that Khalili appears to enjoy, he notes that the PA has taken an indulgent view of Beit Aneeseh because it prefers that Ramallah’s youth has an outlet, “a place where they can relax and feel they are fixing the world.”

Beit Aneeseh
@ Sakakini Street
Ramallah, Palestine

Yafa Café: A safe haven

Their timing could not have looked worse. Michel Elraheb and his partner Dina Lee established their joint Arab-Jewish cafe in the mixed city of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, in summer 2003, at the height of the second intifada and shortly after the US launched its invasion of Iraq. “People told us to our faces that we were crazy,” says Elraheb.

At the time, Palestinians inside Israel were being boycotted by most Jewish Israelis for their support of the uprising across the Green Line, while opinions about the legitimacy of the war on Iraq could not have been more polarized; Israeli Jews were almost universally in favor of the war, while Israel’s Palestinian minority was deeply opposed.

But the critics were proved wrong. Yafa Cafe has been a success, both commercially and, more importantly for Elraheb, in changing the habits and perceptions of both Palestinians and Jews in Jaffa.

The name of this coastal city has great resonance for Palestinians. It was once the commercial and cultural capital of Palestine, with coffee houses, bookshops, cinemas and theaters. But after the mass expulsion of the Palestinian residents in 1948, it became little more than a deprived suburb of south Tel Aviv. A small and poor Palestinian population was moved in to rent some of the crumbling buildings alongside Jewish immigrants.

In recent years the inhabitants faced a new threat as real estate developers began gentrifying the area, forcing out local families and building luxury apartments for Tel Aviv’s overspill.

Yafa Cafe has provided a lifeline to a community in crisis. It serves as a hybrid cafe, bookshop and community center, as well as a space to stage book talks, political debates, music evenings and Arabic classes. Its clientele varies from older people to students, as well as the area’s arts community.

Elraheb says he never intended Yafa Cafe as just a place to eat and drink. It was meant primarily as an Arabic bookshop, the only one serving Palestinians outside the distant population centers of Nazareth, Haifa and Jerusalem, and the first to open in Jaffa since the Nakba. The cafe, which offers mostly Arabic food and vegetarian options, was a way to attract customers and expose the local population to books.

Elraheb says the idea came to him on a holiday in Hungary, when he realized how surprised he was to see Hungarians reading a book even during a short wait for a bus or train. “We don’t have the reading habit in our society, and I felt that needed to change.”

He teamed up with Lee, a local communist activist who shared his vision. She encouraged him to write the title and a brief synopsis in Hebrew of each Arabic book on a note inside the cover, so that non-Arabic readers could get a sense of the richness and variety of Arabic literature and culture. Lee died of cancer last year, leaving Elraheb to manage the business on his own.

Today, the cafe stocks books in Arabic, English and Hebrew, with an emphasis on politics, feminism and children’s literature. Elraheb says his greatest joy is seeing people using the cafe to discuss books they have read or recommend a book to others.

Yafa Cafe
@ Yehuda Marguza 33
Jaffa, Israel

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