Palestinians take back the night in Ramallah

With new upscale restaurants, bars, and theater, the West Bank city is undergoing a cultural revival.

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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 Palestinians.

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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 musical.

"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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