- With new upscale restaurants, bars, and theater, the West Bank city
is undergoing a cultural revival.
Palestinians take back the night in Ramallah
By Joshua Mitnick
Aug. 31, 2004
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK Just a few minutes drive from Yasser Arafat's
half-destroyed headquarters, Usama Khalaf's version of upscale
Ramallah dining is taking off.
His restaurant called Darna occupies a grand renovated stone villa
with high-ceilinged archways and a second-floor patio that draws
scores of young Palestinians. It serves large dishes of innovative
Middle Eastern fare, but, more importantly, offers fragments of
normalcy, which has become so elusive during the past four years.
The $800,000 spent by the restaurateur to open Darna - where waiters
sport snappy bow ties and tuxedo vests - represents more than a
shrewd bid to attract the city's bourgeois; it signals a revival of
the cultural scene that made Ramallah a cosmopolitan capital for
In recent months new eateries have opened and the city's offerings
have expanded despite Israel checkpoints and military raids. For
Khalaf, opening Darna was simultaneously the fulfillment of a life's
dream and an act of political defiance.
"I had an obligation to my hometown," Khalaf says. "When they saw
someone investing despite the closures and incursions, it gave people
the willingness to stay."
In the 1950s under Jordanian rule, Arab vacationers would arrive in
Ramallah from the Persian Gulf in the summer to savor the cool
mountain breeze during the evening. Pleasant weather and pastoral
surroundings earned the tiny city the nickname "the Bride of
Palestine." When the West Bank came under Israeli control, the Arab
citizens of Israel would overrun the city's hotels on the weekends.
It boasted a thriving nightlife, which included the only jazz club in
the West Bank.
Danny Jafar, the grandson of a Ramallah hotelier, opened the Sangrias
restaurant during the first year of the fighting with just five
tables and a menu featuring nachos and burritos.
During the four months of daily military curfews in the summer of
2002, word of mouth spread that Sangrias had remained open for
journalists. Patrons desperate to break the monotony of the citywide
lockdown surreptitiously found their way to the bar. "I used to open
up when people would go home and the tanks would come out," Jafar
says. "Lights would be off and curtains would be drawn, but there
were people inside. It was a hangout."
Last month, Jafar opened a new lounge area out back and expanded
Sangrias' capacity to 45 tables. On a recent Saturday night,
recordings by American rapper 50 Cent played from a stereo in the
courtyard and smoke from nargilla water pipes floated among diners
under illuminated walnut trees.
"I could be at a funeral procession in the morning and I could be at
a bar at night," said Sameh Katkhuda, an information technology
consultant. "This isn't Ramallah. It's San Francisco."
Unlike other cities in the West Bank, Ramallah is a base for the
Palestinian government, nonprofit organizations, and foreign
diplomats, providing for a steady flow of disposable income. The
international presence in the city of 21,000 (the population goes up
to 250,000 if you count surrounding villages) has helped turn it into
hub for cultural institutions. The Ramallah Cultural Palace, a state-
of-the art auditorium that opened in July, has already hosted a film
festival and a production of "Al-Fawanees," the first Palestinian
"As an outsider, you would think that there's no place for cultural
activities or a cultural life," says Rita Janssen, a UN official who
is the director of the cultural palace. "But it seems to be more
important to them than when you're living in peace and quiet."
Hours after a performance of "Al-Fawanees," both Ms. Janssen and
casts members were dining at Darna, where 20-somethings wearing
American athletic jerseys had gathered to lounge in the patio.
When the restaurant was featured on Israeli television news magazine,
Ariel Sharon is said to have been "amazed" at the site of such an
establishment, owner Khalaf recalled with satisfaction.
"We're not just suicide bombers. We don't love just blood," Khalaf
said. "We have another face. Ultimately, we have a desire to live."
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