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Sunday, 19 December 2010

New Stars Light Up Bethlehem Nightlife

AOL NEWS, Dec 19, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- For as long as anyone can remember, young people have had nothing much to do in Bethlehem after nightfall. When the Israeli army and Palestinian gunmen finally quit the streets in 2005, restaurants and cafes continued to observe an unofficial 10 p.m. curfew, and anyone seeking some action had to head north to Ramallah, a tortuous, hourlong journey through military checkpoints and death-defying mountain roads.

"I spend my evenings at home on the Internet because there is nothing to do here for people our age," said Sally Zaghmout, 19, a student at Bethlehem University. "There are no bowling alleys, no cinemas, no big fields where you can go and play sports. It's really hard. If people of my age go to discos some gossip will start because it's a really conservative country and everybody knows everybody."

TABOO Restaurant and Cafe
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Twin brothers Firas and Ruslan Mukarker opened Taboo, the first venue in Bethlehem to stay open every night until dawn.

But this season, something is happening in Bethlehem. In recent months, a growing number of hip nightspots have opened around town, drawing packed crowds until well past midnight -- a signal, perhaps, of a new confidence on the part of young entrepreneurs and a shift toward some kind of normality after a decade of violence and economic privation.

Bethlehem's economy fell to pieces after the outbreak of the intifada uprising in September 2000. Tourists, who provide the city's main source of income, stopped coming. On Star Street, the traditional gateway to the old city, 88 of the 102 shops are still shuttered. Thousands of residents emigrated.

When the intifada ended in 2005, Bethlehem, recognized by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, was surrounded by an Israeli security barrier and military checkpoints that cut off its residents from nearby Jerusalem and deterred all but the most determined pilgrims.

The first signs of life after dark appeared in 2006 when a local entrepreneur opened a late-night disco, discreetly situated on the upper floor of a failed holiday complex in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. A hefty entrance charge and a couples-only policy kept out troublemakers. Now renamed the Layal Lounge, the club attracts crowds from all over the West Bank from Thursday to Saturday nights.

The same year, twin brothers Firas and Ruslan Mukarker opened Taboo, the first venue to stay open every night until dawn. Taboo's chill-out music, tiger-skin wall-hangings, soft red lighting, display of African masks and nude paintings announced a new generation of Christian Bethlehem nightlife.

"In 2006 it was the first place called a bar in Bethlehem, it was something really new," Firas Mukarker told AOL News. "We called it Taboo because there was pork and alcohol. No one had the guts to put pork on the menu. We were the first in Palestine."

But the successes in Beit Jala didn't catch on inside the city itself. The Palestinian economy remained depressed and unemployment in Bethlehem stayed close to 40 percent. In 2008, Mike Canawati, a prominent local businessman, opened the Square on Manger Square, opposite the Church of the Nativity. Spread over three floors and with an international menu, the Square brought the new nightlife into the middle of town for the first time.

"We started this new trend of staying open until 1 a.m.," Canawati said. "Two years ago there was nowhere else in this area open until that late. Now there are a few. We serve European food -- Italian, French. Our menu was the first of its kind in Bethlehem. We wanted to make something new. Not everybody wants to eat kebab and lamb chops and hummus."

Now the tourists have returned. Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, the Palestinian minister of tourism, said that nearly 1.5 million people will have visited Bethlehem by the end of 2010, up 60 percent over last year and an all-time record.

Unemployment in Bethlehem has fallen to 22 percent. A dozen new souvenir shops have opened in recent months, and property owners are scrambling to turn every available building into accommodation for tourists.

Samir Hazboun, chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told AOL News the number of hotels has grown from six in 1995 to 31 today, with three more under construction and four others in the planning stages.

The new investors have benefited from a series of economic reforms that have made bank loans widely available to Palestinians for the first time in living memory. The result has been a massive 9 percent growth in gross domestic product over the last year and rising employment across the West Bank.

Jihad al-Wazir, head of the Palestinian Monetary Authority, said the new regulations had freed up some $750 million in loans for individuals and the 94 percent of local businesses that have four employees or fewer.

"There was a tremendous increase in lending," said Wazir. "The Palestinian economy is dependent on these very small-scale enterprises that are the drivers of the economy. It's great that the entrepreneurial spirit is catching up. People see other young kids doing the new projects and so they emulate it and so it starts a chain reaction where the overall impact is very positive."

Sami Matar and his business partner, David Salti, secured a loan to transform a shop wrecked in intifada gun battles, in the shadow of an Israeli military watchtower in the security wall, into the Divano Cafe and Restaurant, a classy new nightspot with a European menu that boasts the largest aquarium in the West Bank and the most extensive cocktail menu in Bethlehem.

"I wanted a mixture of something elegant and cool," said Matar, 27. "We wanted it to be friendly. The classic restaurants here aren't cool. I lived in the U.S. for two years. I wanted to create something like you would find there."

The result is a youthful mix of soft couches, subtle red lighting, dark wood paneling and European-style wall paintings where the elegant presentation of the food matches the ambiance. It appears to be a winning formula. Divano is packed every night, mainly with locals, and it's impossible to get a table after 6 p.m. without a prior booking. Divano serves about 200 every day and has to turn away another 50.

Outside the restaurant, the grim concrete wall and watchtower across the street surrounding the shrine at Rachel's Tomb is a reminder that the venture could be destroyed at any moment by a new outbreak of violence.

"It's a risk," Matar acknowledged. "I know that and my partner knows that, but we couldn't find a better place than this. We will trust in God."

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