RAMALLAH - Against all odds, in Ramallah, in the heart of a ruined and deteriorating urban area, at the height of a war, a mall has been built. Is this good news for the city's residents?
The Plaza Shopping Center, the first mall in the Palestinian Authority, was designed by an architect from Ramallah. New and sparkling clean, it's gray and blue, and built of stone, metal and glass, with a facade of large arched windows. There is no building in the city as spacious, as air-conditioned or as new and complete. It's no more than a two minute drive from the ruins of the Muqata compound of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat. Beyond the mall parking lot stands the skeleton of a huge unfinished building; a few years ago the entrepreneur wanted to rent out space for offices, stores and a movie theater, but construction stopped in the eighth month of the intifada and never resumed.
The Bravo supermarket, which has been operating for a month on the street floor of the Plaza Mall, is the first branch of a new kind of marketing chain in the PA. It's a real American-style store: a large variety of products, spacious aisles, efficient air-conditioning, large departments for cheese, vegetables, baked goods and delicatessen, signs in English and a row of new and sophisticated cash registers.
There is also a large frozen food department. Sam Bahour, who manages the mall for the Arab-Palestinian Shopping Centers Company, says, "It's not customary here to use frozen food, it's not respectable. But there are more and more families here in which both parents work, and they don't have time to cook, so I assume that they'll also get used to using frozen foods, as in Israel and the United States."
The new cash registers are waiting for credit cards, but Bahour expects most of the customers will be paying in cash. Ramallah is not yet a city that shops with credit cards, nor is it common to take cash out of ATMs.
Bahour, a Palestinian born in the U.S., who moved to the Ramallah area in 1995, is trying to teach the city the values of the marketing culture on which he was raised: The cashiers will offer the customers membership cards (he calls them "loyalty cards"), and the store's staff, in green uniforms, is bagging purchases and accompanying anyone who asks to the parking lot.
A shopping center in Youngstown, Ohio, where Bahour grew up, inspired the store and the mall. In fact, one can imagine the Bravo supermarket in Ohio, or anywhere in America, almost as is. There's nothing missing except for alcoholic beverages; the mall stands at the edge of the area of jurisdiction of the conservative Muslim town of El Bireh, which forbids the sale of alcohol.
On Monday Bahour, tall and hefty, walked around his mall, proud, optimistic and excited. The cornerstone for the mall was laid on April 1, 1999, "and since then anything that could go wrong, did," he says.
The construction was completed despite the closure, the curfew, the checkpoints, tanks, destruction and violence that delayed the work. This naturally aroused skepticism among investors and despair among the managers.
Bahour says he is not only an American businessman, he is also a Palestinian who is committed to his people's struggle. He hopes to combine these two motivations in the supermarket and the mall.
"I don't agree with the demand of some of the residents here not to sell Israeli products," says Bahour. "I just make sure not to sell products from the settlements. But if customers are looking for a product that I can get in Israel, I'll supply it. There's a large variety of Tnuva products here, for example. Nevertheless, it's important to me to encourage local industry, and that's why every local product will bear a colorful, attractive label saying `Made in Palestine.' I am also trying to convince local manufacturers to add a bar code to their products, so it will be easy to move them through the cash registers. Even the Coca-Cola bottling plant in the territories hasn't added bar codes to its cans up to now."
Bahour is now handling last-minute transactions with retailers who want to lease space in the mall. Mondial Sport, which sells Nike products in the PA, has signed a lease as have Musicana, a CD store with another branch in the city center, and a jewelry chain with 11 stores in the West Bank. Now there is a move toward Israeli brands in the fashion field, including Fox and Mango.
The mall will also have the first retail outlet of Al Sarisi, a large Palestinian distributor of books and stationery supplies, the first store of a local toy distributor, shops for men's and women's shoes from local manufacturers, a pharmacy, a florist and an elegant fashion shop.
In the central square of the mall, an American-style fast-food restaurant has been open for two weeks: Mac Chain sells chicken nuggets for NIS 10 and a large combo hamburger for NIS 21. Alongside it will be the third branch of Henny Penny, a local fried chicken chain, and pizza and felafel and a traditional Arab restaurant. Metal chairs and tables appeared outside this week. A can of Coca-Cola in the vending machines costs NIS 2.50.
The sanitation and security workers in the mall earn no more than NIS 1,200 per month, for full-time work - six days a week, eight hours a day. That isn't the lowest salary in the city, say the residents.
Who can really afford to shop in Ramallah's first mall?
Bahour says he still hasn't done a market survey and cannot estimate the size of the city's well-heeled population. But many Ramallah residents have also lived for years in the European and American diasporas, and they will certainly come to buy. There is also a wealthy class, usually people associated with the regime, as well as many foreigners who work for human rights organizations. "Aside from that, anyone can buy in the supermarket," he says. "Everyone buys food and cleaning supplies, and our prices are relatively low."
The target audience for the mall, he adds, "expands and contracts in accordance with the movement of Israeli army jeeps. "There are about 20 villages around Ramallah, "some of them very wealthy," he says, but now they are cut off from the city, and the mall lies outside the area where they are permitted to travel. This fact is evident in the city: This past Monday not only was the mall empty, but Manara Square and nearby Al Ruqab Street, in the heart of Ramallah, looked very quiet relative to the routine before the intifada. Many stores in the area of the square are closed, and traffic flows easily on the main street.
Bahour is convinced that his initiative is good for the local community. "Finally there's an option here for shopping in a pleasant, cool and safe atmosphere," he says.
For the past month a real attraction has been operating in the mall, alongside the supermarket: a play center for children, Jawwal Land, sponsored by the local cellular phone company Jawwal. At the entrance, colorful fish swim peacefully in two large aquariums. The children can choose among racing cars, a bowling machine, a train, swings and other game machines operated with tokens. Each game cost one shekel, except for the cars and the bowling, which cost two. There is also a room for animated films on DVD and a small theater corner for reading stories and for children's plays and a coffee corner, where residents can organize private birthday parties.
Bahour is proud of his decision to choose only nonviolent games; there is only one somewhat aggressive game machine: You put in a shekel, a black pillow comes out, you hit it and the machine measures your arm strength. "Every evening we put this game into a back room and hide it there, because we saw that in the afternoon older boys come and play with it. We wanted to save it for children only. To maintain a pleasant atmosphere for children only," says Bahour.
The play center and the supermarket, both owned by the mall, are meant to be the location's anchors. The retail shops are supposed to benefit from their success. The play center has no real competition in the city, but the supermarket definitely does: In nearby Shekhem Street, there are a dozen grocery stores and a supermarket, which now have to compete with the new guest. "It's a process that happens in every city," says Bahour. "You move from the city center to distant neighborhoods, you build a new marketing model, and the owners of businesses in the old city center have to adapt themselves to innovations."
The malls built outside of Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem brought about the collapse of the city centers and the decline of the main streets in those cities. Will the same happen in Ramallah? Bahour believes that the traditional stores in the city center have an advantage: "They know the customers by name, they can open credit accounts for them, they only have to learn to arrange the merchandise nicely, to clean the shop windows, to progress with the times."
But the reality is more complex: A few dozen meters from the new mall, Rasimi Ghaisi's vegetable store and the Al Juli family's supermarket stand empty. Ghaisi says that in the past month, since the new supermarket opened, the number of customers in his store has fallen by half, "and I have been losing money for several weeks." The rent for the store is NIS 2,500 per month, and he cannot cover the expenses.
Ghaisi, a resident of the village of Beit Lakia, worked in Israel before the intifada. His family - 14 people are dependent on the store - gave up on working the land in the village years ago, because they couldn't compete with wholesale agricultural production in Israel, and started to work as hired hands in Israel, but lost their livelihood at the start of the intifada. They opened the vegetable store and barely made a living from it. Now it is the mall that is undermining their source of livelihood.
The Al Juli supermarket has been selling almost only cigarettes and phone cards in the past week. "Customers told me that they prefer the new supermarket because there are cheaper things there, and because everything is in one place," says the sales clerk in the overcrowded store, "but I can't reduce prices in order to compete. As it is, I don't earn more than 10 percent on each product." And Ghaisi adds: "We're afraid that in the end we will have to close because of the new mall."