Palestinian Brewer Leads Struggle for Economic Progress

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 5, 2009

TAYBEH, West Bank, Oct. 4 -- There's more than a bit of Sam Adams in David Khoury, the mayor of this tiny Christian village in the occupied West Bank. Along with being a politician and patriot, he is a brewer, and he sees the craft as a symbol of the Palestinian state he hopes will emerge here one day.

To the usual images of conflict, checkpoints -- and in the case of areas influenced by Islamist groups such as Hamas, an intolerance of alcohol -- Khoury and his family-owned Taybeh brewery have added an Oktoberfest, a weekend of music, dancing, local crafts and free-flowing suds, just to the east of Ramallah and across the valley from nearby Israeli settlements. To the usual lineup of traditional products like olive oil and honey, he has added a lager that has caught on in Japan and been franchised for production in Germany.

"This is the other side of the coin," Khoury said of the two-day festival held this weekend outside his office. "It shows political freedom and democracy. It is resisting occupation by showing that we can grow the economy and build it."

It is a theme that is being heard more often among Palestinian officials and businesspeople these days. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has issued a two-year plan to build the institutions needed for a Palestinian state and has argued that Palestinians should work toward that goal as if Israel were no longer present in the West Bank, rather than wait for an uncertain peace process to change the facts on the ground.

The few thousand people that migrated to Taybeh this weekend might seem a small contribution to that end. But it shows some of the larger dynamics at work in the West Bank, as the small and somewhat off-the-beaten-path village has put its stamp on Palestinian society.

Taybeh is by reputation the only village in the West Bank without a mosque, and its thousand or so year-round residents are dominated by two families, the Khourys and the Khouriehs.

The brewery was started in 1995 by David Khoury and his brother Nadim, who had returned from the United States with his head full of ideas about hops and German beer-purity laws as well as his own recipes. They almost went broke during the intifada that erupted in 2000, and while never directly challenged by Islamist groups, they feared that the enterprise would be pushed to the fringes of Palestinian society.

That has changed. The brewery now turns a profit, the beer is widely available at restaurants in the West Bank and Israel, and the Oktoberfest, now in its fifth year, is helping brand the town as a once-a-year destination.

Along with a handicraft bazaar, falafel stands and plenty of beer taps, the stage acts brought a sense of the West Bank's diversity -- traditional dubka dance groups alongside Palestine rock-rappers CultureShoc and the hip-hop band Ramallah Underground.

"It has been great," said Manar Naber, a handicrafts salesman who said that, beyond the occasional busload of Christian tourists coming to look at the local churches, there was rarely a crowd in Taybeh before the Oktoberfest.

The growing sense of normalcy in the West Bank has been important, Khoury said, though he added it should not be misunderstood.

As a businessman, he notes that his trucks of draft beer still have to travel to a special industrial checkpoint far to the south before crossing into Israel for delivery to restaurants in Jerusalem, turning a half-hour trip into a four-hour excursion.

As a politician, he sees the limits of what Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has done so far in pursuit of what he calls economic peace. Checkpoints and barriers have been removed, people are moving more freely into and around the West Bank, and the economy is picking up as a result. But industrial development, capital projects and private-sector risk-taking remain at a minimum, he said, something also noted by World Bank and other studies which have concluded that the West Bank economy remains heavily dependent on public spending and money from donor nations.

But as a brewer, he has to say that life is good. The Taybeh Brewing Co. sold more than 150,000 gallons last year and has been marketing a nonalcoholic "halal" beer to extend its reach to Muslims.

And just like Sam Adams, he has his eye on Boston. He has children in graduate school in New England, and the hope is to use a family-owned liquor store in the Brookline area as a takeoff point for U.S. distribution.

"It is life, liberty and the pursuit of good beer," Khoury said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company