Rabu, 6 April 2011

The Star Online: World Updates

The Star Online: World Updates

Cafe culture blooms in West Bank's Ramallah

Posted: 06 Apr 2011 06:44 AM PDT

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - While Paris's Left Bank is famous for its fine restaurants and bustling cafes, Palestine's West Bank is not. But that might be about to change.

The hilly city of Ramallah, which lies just to the north of Jerusalem, has undergone a massive boom in recent years on the back of Western donor support, with new smart eateries and bars mushrooming alongside a plethora of pristine office blocks.

Latest data says Ramallah and the adjacent town of Al-Bireh that it has utterly engulfed have more than 120 coffee shops and some 300 restaurants, with 50 new diners opening in 2010 alone.

"When I started, I was competing with three to four other places, now I compete with many," said Peter Nasir, who turned an abandoned family house into a bustling restaurant in 2007, which draws around 150 customers a day.

"Restaurants are good business," said Nasir, whose popular Azure restaurant lies close to the city centre.

Until recently a small town in the occupied West Bank, Ramallah has seen its population double in the last decade to around 100,000, and plays host to a growing army of NGO workers, diplomats and an increasingly wealthy, middle-class elite.

"These people need food, need to sit down and talk, need to hold receptions. This explains the increase in restaurants," said Mohammad Amin, head of Ramallah Chamber of Commerce.

The Palestinians dream of establishing a capital for their longed-desired independent state in nearby Jerusalem. But that city is fully controlled by Israel and with no Middle East peace deal in sight, Ramallah has rapidly risen to the fore.

The Palestinian Authority set up camp here when it was created in 1994 and is determinedly building an array of state institutions in the city in readiness for a wildly expected unilateral push for independence later this year.


Not everyone is happy with the accompanying boom in the service sector, and some long-standing businesses say there are not enough clients to go around.

"Ramallah is over-saturated with restaurants," said Nidal Hassan, who opened his establishment 'Stones' in 1999, a year before the outbreak of the second Intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation that nearly destroyed the local economy.

'Stones' survived that dark period, only to suffer in the upturn, says Hassan, with his income plunging 40 percent in 2010 because of the "mad increase" in competition.

"There are new restaurants but we have the same number of restaurant goers. People should think twice where to invest their money," he added.

But other investors are more upbeat and see a rosy future for restaurants in a place which offers little competition when it comes to other forms of entertainment, with only one cinema to boast of and no public parks for picnics.

In addition, many Palestinians from adjoining East Jerusalem prefer to head into the liberal Ramallah for a relaxing evening, rather than stay in their own, tenser neighbourhood, which has seen little development in recent times.

"This is a small country. We have no places for fun and entertainment besides the restaurants," said Jaber Khader, who opened 'Karaz', featuring French and Italian cuisine, in March.

The ever-expanding sector is also a good thing for local gourmets, ensuring that restaurateurs constantly have to up their game or else risk closure.

Many places at present offer similar menus of unadventurous Middle Eastern fare or bland international food and have no chance of winning a coveted Michelin star should the famous French restaurant guide ever come to town.

The growing number of eateries is not only bringing more variety but also a discernible rise in quality.

"Competition is good. It pushes us to be more creative," said Azure's Nasir, who nonetheless admits that the clientele is not growing as quickly as the number of new bistros.

"When there are few customers at my restaurant I know that it must be crowded elsewhere as the same people rotate around."

(Editing by Crispian Balmer)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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Cultural heart beats again on Baghdad bookseller street

Posted: 06 Apr 2011 06:44 AM PDT

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - "We have a saying: Cairo writes. Beirut prints. Baghdad reads," says Abdul-Wahab Mizher al-Radi, proprietor of the House of Scientific Books, one of countless bookshops crammed along Baghdad's Mutanabi Street.

Residents shop for books at Mutanabi Street in Baghdad April 5, 2011. (REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen)

Reading books, buying books and discussing books are the defining pleasures of being a Baghdad intellectual, and for generations the life of the mind has orbited around this lane, the booksellers' market of the Iraqi capital.

Four years ago, in a blow felt deeply by Iraq's intelligentsia, a car bomb killed 26 people here. Now, the street is again open, guarded and seemingly safe, and jammed every Friday with students, professors and professionals.

The street begins, overlooking the Tigris, at a statue of Mutanabi, a 10th century poet and one of the towering figures of Arabic literature. It runs past ransacked Ottoman-era government buildings into the heart of Baghdad's old town.

"Mutanabi Street is the cultural catharsis point for Iraqis," says al-Radi. "Mutanabi is a place where intellectuals of Iraq come, not just to buy books but to see the new place, to see the statue of Mutanabi, to meet friends on a Friday."

The book business, which dwindled to nothing at the height of Iraq's sectarian violence from 2006-07, is now booming like never before, he says.

"There has been a jump forward in demand for buying books, from students, intellectuals, the youth. Young people are looking for youthful books. Intellectuals are buying cultural books. Professionals and students are buying reference books."


Baghdad is still not a normal city: explosions hit somewhere in the Iraqi capital every day, usually around dawn. But the black-masked militiamen of three or four years ago no longer control its neighbourhoods and the U.S. armoured convoys are off its streets.

Families now stroll in its riverside parks. Crowds turn out for bingo night at the social club. But there is perhaps no better sign of the city's hunger to return to what it once was than the rebuilding of Mutanabi Street.

At the Shabandar Cafe, a landmark at the street's end, old men puff on water pipes, sipping thick tea and scouring newspapers below portraits of Iraq's old royal family. Parakeets languidly tweet in wooden cages hanging from the ceiling.

Black ribbons on portraits on the wall commemorate people killed in the explosion, but otherwise, says Hussein Ali Ismail, it is the same as he recalls from his youth, before dictator Saddam Hussein and Iraq's wars sapped intellectual life.

"This is not a place where you gather. Here, it is the place that gathers you," he explains in soft-spoken English with a faint Texas twang acquired in years working as an oil engineer.

"You are happy to see a writer from the newspaper. You like his column. And you are happy to talk to him, to exchange ideas. Anything that's on your mind. To see your friends. To see the latest book issued," he says.

Hassan Abbas, 61, who has worked in the cafe fetching tea and tending the coal in customers' water pipes for 30 years, was out running an errand when the bombers struck. He ran back and found the sons of the cafe owner lying dead in the street.

"It was a criminal attack against humanity, against culture, against heritage," he says. Today, the cafe is again as busy as it ever was, although it now closes at 3:00 in the afternoon instead of 10:00 at night as in the old days.

Many of the Mutanabi Street bookshops also function as publishing houses, printing up copies of whatever they think will sell. Al-Radi points to the stacks of books produced so far in 2011 by his publishing house, now for sale in his shop.

"Economics, Arabic language, energy and security, history, politics, psychology. The authors are Iraqi and the books are being printed here," he says.

In the early days after the fall of Saddam Hussein, there was a surge of interest in religious books, and the most lavish editions in Mutanabi Street are of multi-volume religious tracts. But at al-Qairawan bookshop, proprietor Abu Ahmed said sectarian war had sapped demand for religious books.

Interest lately was in secular subjects, such as human resources, development, politics, history and linguistics. He has noticed a surge lately in customers interested in Marxism.

Most of the books are still written by authors elsewhere in the region, but Iraqi authors are beginning to write too, especially exiled Iraqis writing abroad, he said.

Back at the Shabandar Cafe, Dr Nabeel al-Qaisi, a cardiologist who now lives in Australia but is visiting Iraq for a month, has come to soak up the life he remembers as a youth, amid the pictures of the old royal family on the wall.

"I feel like I am in old, ancient Baghdad, like before, when there was peace.... I have many friends. So many of them died. I am very sad that one day I will come here and I will be alone."

(Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary, Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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