The National – 13 October 2008
TAYBEH, WEST BANK // The small village of Taybeh, nestling in the mountains of the West Bank, has established several Palestinian firsts, but it hopes its latest will make it a household name in the Arab world.
As well as being the only entirely Christian village in the Palestinian territories and running the only Palestinian brewery, it now hopes to export what it is calling a “non-alcoholic beverage”, modelled on its popular Golden Taybeh beer, to Muslims across the Middle East.
The new drink was launched last weekend at the village’s annual beer festival, where the green-labelled bottles were sold alongside regular draught beer.
In the West Bank Palestinians are already dubbing it “Hamas beer”, seeing it as the brewery’s response to the growing influence of the Islamic movement in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Taybeh, located close to Ramallah, has been staging its beer festival for the past four years, modelling the event on the Oktoberfest staged in Munich.
The microbrewery, established in 1995, is the brainchild of brothers Nadim and David Khoury, who were lured back to Taybeh by the signing of the Oslo accords after more than two decades in the United States.
Believing like many others that a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was on the horizon, they ploughed US$1.2 million (Dh4.4m) of their own money into the factory. They also won the endorsement of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader then, to forestall any backlash.
The 1,300 inhabitants of Taybeh, which means “delicious” in Arabic, have come largely to depend on the beer for their livelihoods.
But after initial commercial success and plaudits from connoisseurs for the quality of their ale, which is brewed to the highest German purity standards, the business has been struggling since the outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000.
Profits have been squeezed both by the obstructions imposed by the Israeli army on all Palestinian exports from the occupied territories and by Hamas’s success in keeping many Palestinian areas “dry”.
Sales of the beer are restricted mainly to Christian concentrations in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Beit Sahour and Beit Jalla.
But with Christians numbering only a few per cent of the total Palestinian population, Taybeh has been keen to find way to reach the rest of the Palestinian population. To do this, they have had to import special equipment from Germany to de-alcoholise the beer.
It is too early, however, to say whether green-label Taybeh will be selling soon in shops and restaurants in Hamas-controlled Gaza. The brewery is waiting to talk to Hamas officials to seek their approval.
But Nadim Khoury, 48, also has his sights on a far larger market in the Arab world.
“One of our tasks is showing the world, including the Arab public, that the Palestinians can produce a world-class product,” he said. “And our new drink means all Palestinians can share in the success story.”
But if they are to succeed with their export business, the Khoury brothers must first find a way to get their beer out of the West Bank.
“Israel controls all the borders, so we can’t do anything unless they are prepared to help,” said David Khoury, who is also Taybeh’s mayor. “But so far what we have faced is harassment in the name of security.”
He noted that even when the checkpoints are open, Israel holds up the company’s trucks for many hours while bottles are unloaded and individually inspected with sniffer dogs. Then the bottles have to be reloaded on to Israeli trucks on the other side of the checkpoint.
Apart from local spring water, all the beer’s ingredients and the bottles are imported from Europe, adding further logistical problems at Israeli ports.
After the intifada, Taybeh’s output of more than 600,000 litres a year slumped by 80 per cent. Although this year has been the best since 2000, the brewery is still facing major difficulties reaching its main markets, particularly Jerusalem and Israel.
Limited supplies are sold to Israeli cities that include a significant number of Christians, such as Nazareth, Haifa and Jaffa; a few Jewish establishments in Tel Aviv offer the beer.
The most pressing problem is the lack of a high-tech scanner to screen beer kegs at the nearest checkpoint into Israel, at Ofer. This would allow Taybeh to compete with other major beers in Israel by exporting kegs to provide beer on tap to hotels and
But so far Israel has restricted such scanners to two checkpoints, far away and near the Muslim cities of Tulkarm and Hebron. Given sensitivities in both cities, Taybeh has decided not to use either crossing point.
David Khoury noted that Israel has absolute freedom to flood the occupied territories with its own products. “The policy is clearly meant to harm businesses like ours. Israel freely sells its Maccabeh and Goldstar beers in the West Bank.”
Ultimately, he added, the success of local businesses like his was the key to developing the Palestinian economy, improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians and moving peace nearer.
“Without a Palestinian state, there cannot be peace.”
Nadim Khoury said delays at the Israeli checkpoints and ports made exporting the beer further afield impractical for the time being. However, Taybeh is selling to markets in Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom from a Belgian plant under licence, the first Palestinian franchise ever sold abroad.
He hoped a similar arrangement might be possible in the Arab world.