Beer & Politics – Never A Good Mix

Myself and Hamed on our way to visit Taybeh
Myself and Hamed on our way to visit Taybeh

What is your most abiding memory of when beer and politics didn’t mix well?

I’m sure there must be plenty of stories on this subject in our much loved Northwest. This tale starts at 7am with me standing out on the street, waiting for Hamed, our UN contact to turn up and give me a lift in his lovely air-conditioned jeep.

He is taking his time but finally appears looking shaky and pale – The Muslim feast (or fast) of Ramadan had started yesterday – no food or water between sun up and sun down, and in 40 degree heat, this is no joke. Hamed tells me that he’s spent most of last night throwing up – I am in awe of the fact that he can continue working in this condition but I doubt that anything could get in the way of this man’s compassion and so after a comfortable drive of 1 ½ hours we have reached the bright and vibrant city of Ramallah where Hamed will be organising a fundraiser for local schools and I’ll be heading off up the hills to Taybeh.

The journey turns out to be a little different than I anticipated. Looking at the map last night, it seemed that this rural Christian municipality is situated just 15 minutes from Ramallah. I nearly have a heart attack when the driver tells me that it will cost 100 Shekel to get there. I haggle him down to 70 (about £13) which is still more than I can afford but soon realise what lies behind this extortionist price.

The main road to Taybeh has been blocked off to Palestinian cars for the past eleven years and so we have to take what is for the most part a steep and rocky track to get to our destination.

40 minutes later, we are in Taybeh a pretty town of less than 2,000 people, a place virtually unheard of (and reputedly not even on the West Bank map) until it was made famous by the Khoury family.

Full of hope for the future after the Oslo peace accords of 1993 (designed to bring an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict) David (now the local mayor) and Nadim Khoury returned home from the US with their families to set up the first ever micro-brewery in the Middle East. The plan was to make an excellent product which would be exported across the world, a taste of what was to come for this new, peaceful and more economically secure Palestinian state.

Made from a mix of malted barley from Belgium, hops from Bavaria, pure Palestinian water and U.K. yeast, Taybeh (which, coincidentally is the Arabic word for delicious) does what it says on the tin. And of course the rest is history. But not the history you might hope for. Whilst the peace accords opened the way for Palestinian businesses to finally flourish on the international market, the Israeli Authorities had other ideas. One of the first things Nadim shows me upon my arrival is a beer keg sawn in half. When, one year after setting up this family business the Khoury’s attempted to export outside of Palestine, the Israelis began to throw cold water on their dreams. The kegs were deemed a security risk. How could the Israelis know that they did not contain explosive devices? In an effort to demonstrate how impossible it would be to use these kegs for anything but beer, Nadim cut one in half and showed the authorities that they were custom-made, air-tight, sealed with an Israeli label and could not be opened any other way than through the keg valve. Still the Israelis did not believe him and slowly Nadim and David’s plans for a successful export business began to fade.

I tell Maria, David’s wife about how a friend of mine who works for a bar in Derry would like to be able to import Taybeh. She laughs quietly to herself. “Of course” she says “we can do this but it would be more an act of resistance than a measure for profit. It nearly costs us more to export than it does to make the beer in the first place. In Ireland and the UK, I am sure that money makes money but that’s not the case here. The Israelis make it so hard for us that trying to sell our product anywhere but the West Bank is a nightmare. We tried to prove ourselves as partners in peace but the Israelis not accept this.” Maria’s son Constantine, who earns his college money working as a driver for the company explains. “In order to export our beer to Israel or any other country, we should only have to go through Jerusalem which is just 25 miles away. But the commercial crossing near to our factory does not have electronic scanners to make sure we are not carrying bombs. Israeli goods have unrestricted access to the West Bank and so come here via bypass roads without any checkpoints, But it is different for us Palestinians and so, we have to travel south for three hours to Tarqumiya, queue at the checkpoint there for up to three more hours whilst they check our paperwork, transfer our stock onto an Israeli truck (Palestinian trucks are not allowed through) and then, after all this we have to make a further journey on to the port. Here it gets worse... we queue again for up to five hours, there is another lengthy paperwork check and if we are passed (frequently Palestinian goods are turned back with little explanation) we may load our goods onto a ship. But of course there are other risks too, the port is besieged with strikes and many times, trucks get turned away because no one is available to do the checking.”

All of this makes me think of my favourite Arabic word ‘majnoon’ (meaning crazy) which is used so often in relation to the conflict here in this country. According to the President of the Hebron Chamber of Commerce, Israelis pay just 3% of the cost of their goods towards transport but for Palestinians, the costs frequently run up to 35% (remembering that, in addition, the back-to-back system whereby the goods have to change lorry at Tarqumiya often leads to breakages).

Maria sounds like a woman who is at the end of her tether with all these barricades to progress. “I can understand that the Israelis are worried about suicide bombings and threats to their safety” she tells me. “...but we are ordinary people, we do not harm anyone...Why do they not let us get on with our lives? The illegal Jewish settlements just over the hill from us have running water 24/7, yet we have to operate our business with no access to water (apart from what we can get from storage tanks) for 5 whole days out of every week. This is pure injustice... This is our land and yet we are treated as if we are not equal.”

After I have bought my fill of souvenir T-shirts, mugs and car stickers, Maria assures me that, whatever happens, Taybeh will never give up. “We are not just a family business but a non-violent resistance movement.” She tells me “Our very existence demonstrates that Israel cannot to destroy the willpower of a people who want to be free.”

This year, the family will be running their seventh October fest in the town with international music acts and even a beer holding (rather than drinking) competition. In 2010, the Irish Government donated US$1,500 which was put straight back into the community through the hiring of a local band. “We invite the people of Ireland to come and join us” she tells me. “To see the injustice with their own eyes and provide the ultimate form of solidarity. We need to know that people are taking notice of what happening here. It is only when the world forgets about you that you become truly hopeless. If people come to learn more about us Palestinians then maybe they can go home and tell even just one neighbour or one government official about what the Israelis are doing. This we believe will make a difference” But of course it is not all about doom and gloom, Maria explains. “Here in Taybeh, your people from Derry and Donegal can enjoy bands and rappers from all around the world, but more importantly acts from our own local area. Here, they can savour our beer, our rural lifestyle, products made by the women of Taybeh and all the time they will be contributing to Palestine.” As she asks me if I know any bands from the Northwest who might like to participate, I wish I was young again, with a guitar in my hand and no time restrictions.

Personally, I can’t imagine anything more fantastic than standing on this beautiful hillside in the balmy heat, drinking this delicious beer and listening to happy tunes – all in the name of a good cause. So if any of you are lucky enough to be able to scrape together the modest funds and have some time free, check out their website;

Next week I will be in the beautiful town of Beit Umar, looking into a recent spate of child arrests and talking to a wonderful young university student who has been to Ireland as part of a peace exchange programme.

But for now I am back in Jerusalem enjoying a day off and an icy cold Taybeh. So as they say in Arabic... ‘Sechtak ‘(cheers).