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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

East Jerusalem Cafe Draws Customers From All Sides

AOL NEWS August 11, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Aug. 11) -- The tiny cafe on Ali Ibn Abu Taleb Street has less than a dozen tables, and you could walk past the small shop front without knowing it was there. But in the few short weeks since it opened, Dina's has become a key meeting place for the cognoscenti of East Jerusalem.

It is the only place in town where a former Hamas minister for Jerusalem, hiding out in the nearby Red Cross headquarters as he fights deportation from his native city, rubs shoulders with a former Fatah minister for Jerusalem -- while the Israeli police official responsible for enforcing legal actions against both of them sips his coffee at an adjoining table.

Dina's is strategically placed midway between two symbols of conflicting claims to sovereignty in this divided city: the shuttered Orient House headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the barbed wire, armed guards and electronic gates of the Israeli Ministry of Justice. Israeli lawyers and their clients meet at Dina's to go over testimony before heading off to the Israeli District Court on the corner. Palestinians demonstrating in support of Sheikh Raed Salah, the Islamic Movement leader recently sentenced to jail at the District Court for spitting at a police officer, drop by for strong coffee before heading home.

Orient House officials exchange the latest gossip over double-strength espressos. Muslim women in full hijab sit alongside young Jewish women in strapless tops. The last Israeli military governor of Hebron sips a cappuccino, while at nearby tables foreign diplomats from the nearby offices of the Spanish Cooperation Agency and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency tuck into sweet desserts.

On Friday afternoons, exhausted left-wing Israeli and Arab demonstrators throw down their placards and take shelter here to recover from their beatings by Israeli police at the nearby protests against the Israeli takeover of Arab homes in Sheikh Jarrah. A few minutes later, the police officers who beat them flop down at a nearby table. They see eye to eye on very little, but the house rules at Dina's forbid noisy confrontation. All sides agree on ice-cold lemonade.

While foreign journalists and diplomats just off the boat head for the nearby American Colony Hotel, a traditional venue for high-level Israeli-Arab intrigue and discreet peace talks, many locals have relocated here.

"The prices there are insane, and the new security barriers installed since Tony Blair took up residence means it's impossible to park," says one regular at Dina's.

Blair moved into the fourth floor of the Colony in 2007 with a staff of 12 and a rotating four-man security team. Newly posted correspondents can be found hanging out in the cellar bar or the elegant gardens, hoping to eavesdrop on an interesting conversation.

But midlevel officials and local activists prefer the simpler airs of Dina's around the corner. "We call this a place for coexistence," says Ishaq Kawasmeh, an Orient House official and senior adviser to Hatem Abdel Qader, the local Fatah leader and former Palestinian minister for Jerusalem. "This is the only place in Jerusalem where you can find an Israeli police officer having breakfast next to a Fatah activist drinking espresso on the next table. That's what makes this place unique. People like me can't afford the prices at the American Colony."

In the early evening, when parking restrictions are lifted in the surrounding streets, the crowd becomes younger and hipper. Dina's is one of the few places in East Jerusalem where young men and women can meet for what in the West would be considered a mundane date over coffee and cake. Here, the very act of meeting without a chaperon gently pushes the boundaries of acceptable social conduct in this still highly traditional society.

Matt Beynon Rees, author of a series of crime novels about a fictional Palestinian detective, says the crowd at Dina's provides a rich vein of ideas for the characters who populate his books.

"It's a fascinating cross section of East Jerusalem society -- the ordinary people behind the headlines that foreigners rarely meet," says Rees, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine. "I can sit in Dina's for a couple of hours and encounter a range of people that it would take me a week's work in the field to find."

The cafe's instant acceptance among such a broad cross section of Jerusalemites also reflects the background of its proprietor, Tareq Abu Toameh, the soft-spoken youngest son of one of the city's most interesting families, with connections across Israeli and Palestinian society.

Abu Toameh's late father, Jamil, was a noted teacher and translator who became head of the Arab school system in East Jerusalem. His uncle Jamal is a prominent attorney who represents Muslim institutions and the PLO in legal battles with Israel. His brother is a prominent Palestinian journalist and commentator, and his sister is a teacher and activist in Neve Shalom, the Israeli-Arab coexistence village on the border of the West Bank.

One brother-in-law is a PLO diplomat in Vienna, another an expert on child psychology. His family still works a large cattle farm in Galilee, and some of his cousins are serving long sentences in Israeli jails for their role in the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades terror group.

"I'm not interested or involved in politics. I just wanted to open a cafe where I would feel comfortable to bring my friends and family in the old tradition of Arab hospitality," says Abu Toameh.

"Our family is a real mix of West Bankers and Palestinians from inside Israel, of villagers and city folks like me, quiet farmers and loud activists," he says. "If all the different characters in my family can get along, then why not have a place like this where different people from all over Jerusalem can meet and get to know each other?"

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