Kristine L Ming

Beer and music bring life to West Bank town

Some 4,500 Palestinians and foreigners were dancing to sounds of a mix of Arabic and English music at a concert venue in the Bethlehem area, while many firmly held onto their glasses of locally brewed Palestinian beer.

Just meters away from an IDF watchtower on the outskirts of Beit Sahour, a Christian-majority town, one of the largest Palestinian beer companies, Shepherds, kicked off its second annual beer festival on Saturday.

The beer festival is a unique event in the Palestinian territories, where many people do not consume alcohol in accordance with Islamic law. The festival featured a number of popular Palestinian bands including Apo and the Apostles and Ta3lelah, popular Arabic delicacies such as Shawerma, and of course beer.

29-year-old Alaa Sayej, the founder of Shepherds, believes that beer and the Middle East go hand in hand, as the beverage is believed to have been invented in the region.

“Why not make beer in Palestine when it comes from the Middle East?,” Sayej asked rhetorically, speaking on the sidelines of the festival.

Beer was first produced in Sumer and Babylonia, located in modern-day Iraq, some 8,000 years ago, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Sayej initially brewed beer as a hobby in his dorm room while pursuing a dual master’s degree in finance and investment management in the United Kingdom in the early 2010s.

“I was fascinated by all the beers and the ales sold in English bars. Every month there was a new brew,” he remarked.

After completing his degree, Sayej established Shepherds in November 2013 in Bir Zeit, a university town north of Ramallah, where he was born and raised, but he did not start selling beer until June 2015. According to Sayej, he initially faced a number of obstacles in launching his beer business from Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli authorities did not process the import of his brewing equipment in a timely manner, incurring hefty demurrage charges, and each Israeli supplier demanded that raw materials only be purchased from his or her company, Sayej recalled.

The PA Economy Ministry also did not want to register his company because it said that its logo, a picture of a fully-bearded shepherd with the Christmas star in the distance, is one of Jesus.

“I explained to them that it isn’t a picture of Jesus,” he stated, “But rather a shepherd with the [Christmas] star, which is a reference to the story of the wise men. When that story took place Jesus was a baby and there’s no baby in the picture.”

After Sayej secured a meeting with then Economy Minister Jawad Hirzallah, the PA approved Shepherd’s registration.

Today the brewery permanently employs 11 Palestinians and annually produces hundreds of thousands of liters of beer, which is delivered to the local Palestinian market and east Jerusalem.

Shepherds previously sold its beers in Haifa, but following a disagreement with a distributor, stopped sending beers there. The company wants to renew its shipments to Israeli bars and is currently looking for a new distributor.

Shepherds is also expanding to the international market and plans to make its first exports to Italy, the United States and Chile in the coming weeks.

Sayej, who tasted his first beer at the age of seventeen, said the beer festival is a part of a broader effort to provide Palestinians with opportunity to enjoy quality nightlife in the Palestinian territories.

“We have nightlife that is better than Tel Aviv,” he stated with a smile on his face. “Not many Israelis know that.”

Back at the festival, Apo and the Apostles took center stage. The crowd jumped up and down as the Palestinian group sang many of its popular songs. 

The group then performed “Lina,” its most well-known tune, as the crowd enthusiastically chanted out the name of the song overwhelmed with excitement.

25-year-old Ayoub from Silwan, a neighborhood in Jerusalem, said that he has experienced nightlife in Israel, but enjoys it more in the Palestinian territories.

“I used to go to festivals in Tel Aviv, but I felt like I do not belong there. Here I feel like this is ours,” he said.

25-year-old Wajd Abbas from Kufr Aqab, a neighborhood in the northernmost part of Jerusalem, said that holding a beer festival in the Palestinian territories shows that Palestinians are like people all over the world.

“The outside sees the contradictions, problems, and wars in our society,” Abbas, “The beer festival is opportunity for the outside to see we are normal people who love life and want to have fun.”


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