Twilight Zone / Taybeh Revisited

The Taybeh American Association holds its annual convention in the West Bank, with hundreds of Palestinian-Americans exploring their roots in the Christian village. Taybeh looks very small, they say, compared to Los Angeles

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Maybe this is how we'd like the Palestinians to look: wearing Bermuda shorts, speaking English with an American accent, some of them students at Harvard, collecting donations to build a community center, not discussing politics and, best of all - not living here anymore. The Israeli vision of paradise.

That is how the streets of the Christian village of Taybeh, between Ramallah and Jericho, looked this week. In its well-tended streets, more English than Arabic was heard. Dozens of elegant stone mansions that stand shuttered and empty most of the year were filled with guests. Taybeh Beer flowed like water. The United Taybeh American Association chose a new president, and the visitors from America bought souvenirs for their grandchildren: hand-embroidered fabrics, locally produced honey and olive oil-based soap.

Taybeh Mayor David Khoury, owner of the Taybeh Beer company.Credit: Miki Kratsman

They roamed around their beautiful childhood village overlooking the Jordan Valley, reminisced about the faroff days before they became exiles, just like our diaspora Jews and Israelis who have left the country. With all the fund-raising and exchanges of business cards and other American-style behavior, it seemed for a moment that we had wandered into a UJA convention, while the stone churches and crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary made it seem like Europe.

But Taybeh is here, the last all-Christian village in the West Bank. The mayor, David (Daoud, originally ) Khoury, owner of the local brewery, returned here from Boston and takes pride in the fact that his village is entirely Christian - apart from the Muslim pharmacist who is married to a Russian woman. His pharmacy may be in the village, but he lives outside it. David-Daoud also boasts to us about how Taybeh is preserving its character, not to say its purity. An American tourist who overhears him tries to employ the political correctness she learned in the U.S. "We're all Palestinians," she says, but doesn't want her name published.

There are about 2,300 people left in the village, while some 12,000 former residents and their descendants now live in the U.S., Chile and Guatemala. The United Taybeh American Association (UTAA ) holds a big convention once a year and for the first time, they decided to hold the organization's 15th annual convention in their homeland, in Taybeh. More than 300 participants came from abroad to attend the event. A high quality advertising brochure was produced, with the names of all the donors and a picture of the new post office that was built in the village center.

The program for the two-day gathering included tours of the village led by young guides in English and French, tree-planting, entertainment for the children who came on this "roots" trip, traditional meals, a soccer match between a team of villagers and a team of emigrants, prayers for peace and candle-lighting in the churches, a picnic, a camp for the children and a bingo evening for the adults. The tour itinerary in the "Holy Land" included Jerusalem (for those with entry permits ); Ramallah (with a pilgrimage to the graves of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Darwish ), Jericho and the Dead Sea; and tours to Nazareth and Tiberias.

Wearing a thick gold chain bracelet and gold rings on his hands, dressed in a suit and tie, David Khoury greets us at the door to the council building. Outside in the yard, a children's theater group performs, and food stalls selling hot dogs and shwarma. "Taybeh is proud to host the 15th convention of its native sons," Khoury announces in his Boston accent. "I thank you for taking the time to come here."

They started to leave in 1948, and every war since then sparked another wave of emigration. After Oslo, people began to return, but after the second intifada, they started leaving again. Sixty percent of the village's inhabitants have American passports. Most of the delegates to the convention are staying in homes they bought here; a minority stay at the two guesthouses run by the village churches. About a thousand people participated in the opening ceremony, including the Palestinian Tourism Minister and the Latin Patriarch.

Khoury: "We are surrounded by 16 Muslim villages and we're proud to preserve our Christian character."

Before the Israeli occupation, there were 40 Muslim families in this village, but they moved to other villages in the area. There are about 450 new houses in the village - those of the expatriates - and 270 houses in the older part of the village, which Mayor Khoury wants to remodel.

Khoury was born in Taybeh and moved to Boston with his parents following the Six-Day War. Filled with hope after Oslo, his brother and father hastened to return to the homeland, believing that the Palestinian state was on its way. In 1995 they opened their brewery in Taybeh; David's brother Nadim had learned about beer-making in California. Yasser Arafat gave the father his blessing at the time.

David moved here in 2000, when the second intifada broke out, and the brewery almost shut down completely. He began lecturing at the faculty of business administration in nearby Birzeit University, and waited for the storm to pass. In 2005, he was elected mayor for the first time and has since focused his energies on various development projects. Ten kilometers of new roads, $1 million in donations to refurbish the old part of the village, and of course, the annual beer festival, held each year in October.

Khoury says he has "put Taybeh on the world map." Maria, his Greek wife, who heads the annual Taybeh Oktoberfest, gives us her card, which is in English only, and says: "Through the beer festival we try to give ourselves a feeling of normalcy, like in Europe, like in America." She tells us of the bands that will come from all over the world to perform at the festival this year. Would she have Israeli musicians? Maria: "In principle yes, but the Israelis have so many platforms on which to appear, so we give priority to bands that don't have other opportunities."

David wants to show convention visitors the plans for his community center. He's hoping the contributions will flow in on the convention's closing night. At the last convention a year ago, someone gave $50,000 for the cornerstone. Now he needs another $1 million. UNESCO and the Spanish government are among those who have pledged contributions, but because of the economic situation in Europe, only the Swedes have donated so far.

"The Israeli public knows how to appreciate a beer for the purity of its natural ingredients," says Khoury, touting his family's excellent product. Before the second intifada it was sold mostly to upscale bars in Israel; now it is now sold mostly in the West Bank. Six million liters a year, including exports to Japan. Khoury's daughter Helena enters the room. She is working on a doctorate in law in Boston. And here is his nephew, Kena'an, who is studying engineering at Harvard. Every summer they come here with their family. Once they finish their studies and establish themselves a bit in America, say these two almost-American young people, they'll come back to the village. They sound just like the children of Israeli expatriates.

After the children's show outside the council building is over, we meet Hani Habash. Born in Jerusalem in 1954, he moved to Taybeh, his parents' home village, as a child, but hasn't been here in 32 years, since 1978. His family left after 1967, too, and joined an uncle in Los Angeles. He's been there ever since. From 1969-73 Habash was on the U.S. national youth soccer team. He has been a truck driver, sold Levi's jeans and now has a grocery store in Los Angeles. He also worked as a sound technician and a drummer, performing at many events for Iraqi Jews in Los Angeles, playing the songs of the Syrian-Egyptian composer Farid al-Atrash. His wife is also from Taybeh. On this trip he has seen friends and family he hadn't met since he was a child. His family owns a house in the village, across from the church. The first floor now houses a health club and the second floor their empty apartment, where he is staying this week.

Suddenly everything looks so small, says Habash. The mountainside he recalled from his childhood, the streets, the church and the houses - after decades in big, spacious America, Taybeh seems so tiny. "Everything is so close here, compared to Los Angeles," he says with an abashed smile.