West Bank Brewery Pours Amidst Conflict

Small and smartly dressed in an elegant black and white outfit to match the slight streaks of grey in her long black hair, Maria Khoury easily shuttles one clutch of American tourists out the door and immediately turns to start another tour for a group of Spaniards. She offers her guests free samples of her family’s product: the Taybeh beer, which makes its home in Taybeh, the West Bank.

The facility is one large room. Eleven huge vats stand at the back of the hall, actively fermenting the beer and contributing to the general smell of yeast and breadiness in the air. Spare parts and knicknacks fill up the shelves that line the high walls. Near the entrance in the little gift shop, articles about the Khoury family and the Taybeh brewery in Hebrew, German, Norwegian, French and English line the walls of the factory, along with a few reliefs of St. George slaying his dragon.

Maria Khoury, a Greek Christian, married into a Palestinian family.

Maria Khoury, a Greek Christian, married into a Palestinian family.

Taybeh was historically a Christian town, and still is, even though the population these days hovers between 1,000 and 2,000 people, Khoury said. The Khourys, Palestinian Christians,  had no major religious objection to alcohol in the way the Muslims might.

But even those Muslims in the West Bank have yet to object to having an alcohol producer and worldwide distributor in their midst. Since 2005, the Khourys have been hosting the West Bank’s very own Octoberfest in Taybeh, an event Khoury said has been increasingly well attended.

The Taybeh Brewing Company was one of the West Bank’s first privately owned businesses after the Oslo accords were signed in 1993. For the founders, the father-son-son team of Canaan, Daoud and Nadim Khoury, the desire to create a new business in their homeland and to rebuild Palestine came naturally.

For Maria Khoury, Daoud’s wife, the association of Palestine as a home and as a cause to fight for came in a more roundabout way.

“I didn’t even know Palestinians existed until I met my husband,” she said with a smile, sitting in the Taybeh Beer Brewery.

She and Daoud met in 1980 in college, she said. “My parents sent me to a small Greek college, thinking it’d be safe, and I managed to meet the one non-Greek there!”

Khoury graduated from Hellenic College in Massachusettes in 1982. She and Daoud have three children, Elena, Canaan, and Constantine.

Khoury was born in Tripoli, Greece and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 6. A dignified woman who speaks perfect if just slightly accented English, Khoury is the tour guide and head of communications at the Taybeh beer company.

But that’s just her day job.

Prior to September 28, 2000, a date that holds much significance for Palestinians as the day when Israel re-occupied the West Bank, Khoury was an educator, training teachers at private schools around Palestine. Of course, that date holds some significance for Israelis as well: It’s the date when rightist leader Ariel Sharon went up to visit the Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque compound with riot police, an act credited with sparking the Second Intifada. During that intense period of conflict, Israel closed many of the roads in the West Bank, making it impossible, she said, for her to do her job.

In order to “not go crazy,” Khoury said, she took up volunteer jobs with the Christian community and began working in the brewery, a side job that she said every member of the Khoury family has.

Maria Khoury leads tours of the brewery owned by her husband's family.

Maria Khoury leads tours of the brewery owned by her husband’s family.

Khoury is clearly passionate about Palestinian rights. Even in her tours of the brewery, she laces in language about the Israeli occupation and its effect on the Palestinians. In an explanation to the Spaniards about Taybeh’s shipping practices, Khoury described the seemingly random roadblocks that are thrown in the way of Palestinian business owners. “Sometimes a five-minute errand, or a 45-minute drive, can become an eight-hour nightmare.”

Taybeh, the last fully Christian community in the West Bank, lies about 30 minutes north of Jerusalem. The Taybeh brewery’s trucks used to be able pass through the checkpoints near Jerusalem, Khoury said. They’ve since been re-routed to Hebron, a drive that can take up to three hours, which makes exporting their product more costly and time consuming.

Khoury said it’s inconveniences like this, the little things and big problems, that are a constant reminder that “we don’t have freedom.” On a recent Saturday, Khoury described how Taybeh had been without running water for more than 10 days. Meanwhile the Israeli settlements around them, Khoury said, had fully functioning facilities.

“I wouldn’t mind co-existing [with the settlements] if we all had the same access to resources and permits. But that’s not the way it is.”

Even Khoury’s children, who are all American citizens, can’t fly into Ben Gurion International  airport in Tel Aviv, about an hour’s drive from Taybeh, because of their dual Palestinian citizenship.  Instead, they have to fly in through the Jordan Airport in Amman, and drive 170 miles to the south, go through Eilat, and drive back north some four hours.

Despite these obstacles, the business has managed to stay open because the brewery and land on which the brewery sits are family owned, Khoury said.

But the Khourys had to watch many in the community around them close up shop because of the difficulties of conducting business in the West Bank.

In terms of the peace talks, Khoury echoes a lot of the sentiments of resignation reported elsewhere in the Palestinian community.

“My husband sees the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. But she herself is not so sure.

“It’s hard to be peaceful when your rights are being violated every day,” she said. “A lot of our people are just normal people on both sides. It’s the extremists who are swallowing up our voices. But most people don’t believe in stripping ourselves and blowing ourselves up. I’m tired of Israel wanting to punish Palestinians.”

The brewery is the Khoury family’s way of working toward peace, Just up the street and around the corner, close to Taybeh’s old city, Nadim and his son Canaan (Maria’s brother-in-law and nephew, newly returned from the States with a Harvard degree in hand), are loading in vats to prepare for what will one day be the Taybeh winery.

“This is our peaceful resistance,” Maria said. “Our nonviolent action means making a good product, keeping our home here, having our business here.”

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