The rise and fall of Palestinian Oktoberfest

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

In 2011 I drove northeast of Jerusalem to the small village of Taybeh to do a preview of the Oktoberfest. It was October. The hills were thirsty for the fall rains. The Palestinian Christian village is small and easy to navigate. The brewery is located down a side road and next to a large villa evidently owned by the family that runs it.

I wrote at the time “Taybeh beer and its village are a family business. The company was started by Canaan Khoury and his sons Nadim and David. Today David is the mayor, and Nadim is the master brewer. David’s wife, Maria, is the organizer of the Oktoberfest and a spokeswoman for the brewery. The owners of Taybeh are proud of their Palestinian heritage.” Now it seems all that has fallen on its face. The veteran journalist Daoud Kuttab noted on October 10 “Palestinian village cancels Oktoberfest.” He explained:

“The tradition, however, will not be upheld this year on what was expected to be the festival’s tenth anniversary. The writing was on the wall a year ago, when Khoury decided not to run for mayor. A press release by the festival organizers at the time said that the newly formed Taybeh municipality ‘does not have the same vision as David Khoury, former mayor of Taybeh, who for eight years placed the tiny village on the international map.’”

The symbolic decline was clear last year when the festival was abruptly moved to Ramallah’s Movenpick hotel. The Guardian noted in 2013 “this weekend’s Taybeh beer festival has been forced to relocate from the tiny Christian village that is home to Palestine’s only brewery to the grounds of a five-star hotel in Ramallah. It is akin to moving Glastonbury to the London Hilton.”

At the brewery in 2012

At the brewery in 2012

So what happened to the iconic Oktoberfest? The launching of a Palestinian beer in 1994 by Nadim was always seen as a gamble. When one visits the beautifully appointed but simple brewery there is a video of the company’s history on a small TV. It discusses the struggles and hopes and dreams of the Khoury family. Nadim had been in Boston in the 1990s and thought that the Oslo Accords might represent a liberalizing of the Palestinian economy, the reduction of Israeli control of the West Bank and a general open minded trend. The beer received all the international hype one might expect over the years. Every story, whether at Time Magazine, CNN, Al-Jazeera or the Guardian provided a sort of Orientalist veneer of driving along among rolling hills to find a beer brewery in an exotic Palestinian surrounding.

Maria Khoury, the affable, whitty and charming PR maven of the company always described the company’s future as a struggle and the Oktoberfest along with it. In June she wrote: “The Taybeh Oktoberfest was the craziest idea anyone  could ever have for an event in Palestine.  During very harsh conditions of closure behind  a separation wall and hundreds of checkpoints all around a little Palestinian village, who can imagine trying to initiate a German-style festival in the heart of Palestine?” The eviction of the festival from its local digs was obviously an act of local partisan fighting. Last year when it moved to Movenpick Maria described an idea of having a roving festival. But that was not to be. “With the new Taybeh Municipality members continuing their lack of appreciation for Oktoberfest  activities, and the terrible backward vicious cycle of violence that just started in search of the three kidnapped teenagers it remains to be seen if there will be an Oktoberfest back in Taybeh in 2014,” she wrote in June. Indeed, it was not to be.

Oktoberfest and its rise and fall between 2005 and 2014 is a sort of symbol of a larger failure in Palestinian society. Consider the fact that this festival in 2011 had some 16,000 visitors. It had 17 sponsors, which included the PA Tourism Ministry, the consuls general of the US and Italy, a Japanese NGO, the Catholic NGO Caritas, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the local representatives of several other countries.

But local support was always the problem. It is easy to get foreign press and international activists who live full time in Ramallah and all the European diplomat types to come to a festival. It is easy to get support from the donor countries who give large sums to Palestinians. And there is a small section of Palestinian society that is open minded and enjoys cultural events like the beer festival.

Palestine Fashion Week (Seth J. Frantzman)

Palestine Fashion Week (Seth J. Frantzman)

But there is another side. Just as Palestine Fashion Week received sneers and snide remarks from people who claimed it wasn’t “patriotic” to have a “fashion show while Palestine is suffering”, there were remarks about Oktoberfest being to festive. Kuttab writes that the organizers claimed “The harsh conditions of Palestine have led to the decision to cancel the 10th Annual Taybeh Oktoberfest 2014.” Harsh conditions as an excuse to cancel events that are positive, fun and entertaining are part of a larger culture of martyrdom and focusing on suffering that is so ingrained in Palestinian society that it is like an elephant squeezes out other events.

One can fully sympathize with the Palestinian desire to focus on rebuilding Gaza or on issues that affect the poor or Israeli actions. But at what cost? Can a national society be built only on negative? Have not other societies that suffered, such as African-Americans, found positive expression from oppression? One might point out: What better way to let Israel win than for Palestinians to jettison anything that is light hearted, entertaining, liberal, secular and overly western and international?

Rawabi, the brainchild of Bashar Masri (Seth J. Frantzman)

Rawabi, the brainchild of Bashar Masri (Seth J. Frantzman)

Is it Islamic conservativism? When I was at the brewery three years ago they discussed how they had introduced a non-alcoholic beer because of fears of Islamisation of the West Bank. Those were in the days when Hamas was on the rise and it had won the parliamentary elections. But then Hamas was isolated in Gaza and Fatah rule was secured. It isn’t just about a conservative society. The festival did well over the years. The beer has sold well in Ramallah and Bethlehem, not to mention in Israel and abroad.

It isn’t just the petty politics either. The politicians used the eviction from the local venue to put the final nails in the coffin of the festival. Yes, there were jealous voices who didn’t like all the attention little Taybeh was getting. Yes, there were voices who were happy to wash the PA’s hands of a beer festival. Beer isn’t Palestinian. Dabka is Palestinian. Hummous is Palestinian.

an EU summer camp near Nablus, kids enjoyed the bagpipes, but would an annual festival take away from "traditional" events?

an EU summer camp near Nablus, kids enjoyed the bagpipes, but would an annual festival take away from “traditional” events? (Seth J. Frantzman)

In the end Palestinian society will be a loser in all this. People underestimate the degree to which the world can identify with Palestinians only vis-à-vis Israel. Of course that is one of the main ways people do identify. Mahmud Darwish once pointed out that people only cared about him and Palestinians because of who their enemy was, namely Israel. But people yearn to identify with a Palestinian identity that is more than that. Palestinians also have an interest in that multi-faceted identity, the one found in Lebanon, that blends the conservative and liberal, the modern and ancient. Oktoberfest, Palestine Fashion Week, and other events that seem “out of place” in Palestine, should have been built on to create more of them. They could be drivers of a Palestinian economy that deeply needs diversification in the modern world. Instead what we get is stories about Palestinian “high tech”, but it will go the way of Oktoberfest if people are not careful. The same is true of the small but interesting nightlife scene in Ramallah. It is incredibly fragile. In the last few years it attracted a burgeoning group of Palestinians who saw Ramallah as a cool place. But it is like Rawabi, another dream of basically one family, it teeters always closer to collapse than it looks. International articles don’t bare this out. But local support does. Palestine needs ten Rawabis. It has one. It needed ten Oktoberfests. It has none.

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