Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A glimpse of freedom at Shepherdĺs Beer Festival

By Naomi Kundera - August 21, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [Bethlehem]

On a pleasantly warm Saturday evening on the outskirts of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, the third annual Shepherd’s Beer Festival was underway. The crowd was thin at the start and the music was a bit over-energized for the daylight, but an air of endless possibilities was about.

“It gives freedom to the people here. It’s something different,” Nassri, 22, said regarding the beer festival taking place in Palestine. While enjoying a shwarma sandwich near the entrance of the festival, Nassri and his friends spoke about the importance of events like this.
As a Palestinian-American, Matthew Hadway, 23, was excited when he found out through his friends in Bethlehem that his home country would be hosting a beer and musical festival like the ones he attends in the United States (US). It’s a rather Western concept, he admits, but he expressed its importance for Palestinians who might not have the luxury of traveling and experiencing a more “open-minded” event.
In talking about Palestinian society, Hadway stated; “sometimes culture, society, religion [etc] can kind of pound you into a certain mind-set.” A beer festival like the one Shepherd’s threw has the potential to get people to “see things differently.”
Bringing beer “back” to Palestine
In the midst of running around the event grounds with his phone endlessly ringing, co-founder of Birzeit Brewery and organizer of the Shepherd’s Beer Festival, Alaa Sayej, managed to take a breath and talk about how it all started.
“Beer was invented in Palestine and the Middle East,” Sayej claimed.
After the Agricultural Revolution (10,000 BC) the accidental discovery of fermented barley occured in ancient Mesopotamia, around modern-day Iraq and southwest Asia. The actual brewing of beer is dated back to 5,000 years ago in Pharaonic Egypt, where it became a food staple.
As a part of the Mesopotamia, or “Fertile Crescent,” Sayej is attempting to bring back beer to its partial home of Palestine.
On top of reclaiming beer to land, Birzeit Brewery works hard to ensure a completely localized business that is both sustainable and self-sufficient. The Brewery grows its own wheat malt and barley and brews everything in Birzeit, near Ramallah.
“I’m really proud to say that [Shepherd’s is] 100 percent Palestinian beer,” Sayej smiled.
Self-sufficiency is crucial when establishing a business under occupation.
“We’re not living in a free country. We don’t have borders,” Sayej pointed out the extremely high costs of sending his product even a few kilometers, let alone exporting it to another country, due to the Israeli separation wall.
According to Sayej, It takes $1500 USD to send a single cargo container of beer from Birzeit to the port of Haifa and another $1000 to ship it across the Atlantic.
These costs remove their competitive advantage of a uniquely Palestinian beer as the occupation creates high costs for the end consumer.
But in the end, Sayej seemed satisfied to be producing a local experience through his beer. When people travel, they want to experience the local cuisine and culture, he explained. So when people come to Palestine, they can now enjoy a Shepherd’s as part and parcel to their localized experience.
Drinking culture in a conservative society
It was expressed numerous times that a beer festival would not be possible anywhere else in Palestine other than in Bethlehem or Ramallah. Being predominantly Christian cities with a large number of internationals, these areas are known to be a bit more “open-minded” than the rest of the country.
After a quick trip to the liquor store to buy extra cases of alcohol in preparation for the swarm of post-festival partiers, Baha’ AbuShanab, 24, discussed the importance of open spaces for Palestinian youth to gather.
Speaking as a Bethlehem local and bartender at the popular Beit Sahour watering hole Al-Jisser, AbuShanab enjoyed the idea of a beer festival in Palestine. This event gives “ space and some time for the youth of Bethlehem to wander around with themselves and their friends and their girlfriends and boyfriends and to just have a little bit of space to breath again,” he said while squeezing lemons for a cocktail mixer.
Beer and musical festivals, along with the everyday bar and coffee shop, are important places for young Palestinians to hangout in a judgement-free environment.
“Bars and these kinds of spaces are important for [like-minded] people to meet… where you could talk freely, and not be afraid to express any opinion you might have.” AbuShanab added that, unfortunately, there isn’t any sort of public park or large physical space where people can just spend time together and relax.
Of course there has been backlash from the local community, even in more “open” cities like Bethlehem, but Sayej told Palestine Monitor that after their first festival three years ago he hasn’t received any trouble. Today, “nobody can talk,” he said. “We are successful and its completely boosting the economy.”
According to AbuShanab, the main trouble seems to originate in the home and among society members in general, rather than against the actual production and selling of alcohol products. There’s a harsh religious and gendered stigma against drinking in Palestine, but it all depends on specific family environments and the individual willingness to resist societal restrictions.
“As Palestinians, we need to stop struggling [against] each other with what we want, with standards, and whatever God tells us,” said AbuShanab. “If they think that I’m doing something wrong in the eyes of God or religion, then let God decide.”

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