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Wed 6 Apr 2011 06:16 PM

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Cafe culture blooms in West Bank's Ramallah

Foreign cash injection sees restaurants, cafes take root in flourishing Ramallah

Cafe culture blooms in West Bank's Ramallah
Stars & Bucks cafe in Ramallah, Palestinian West Bank
Cafe culture blooms in West Bank's Ramallah
Cafe culture in Ramallah, Palestinian West Bank

While
Paris's Left Bank is famous for its fine restaurants and bustling cafes,
Palestine's West Bank is not. But that might be about to change.

The
hilly city of Ramallah, which lies just to the north of Jerusalem, has
undergone a massive boom in recent years on the back of Western donor support,
with new smart eateries and bars mushrooming alongside a plethora of pristine
office blocks.

Latest
data says Ramallah and the adjacent town of Al-Bireh that it has utterly engulfed
have more than 120 coffee shops and some 300 restaurants, with 50 new diners
opening in 2010 alone.

"When
I started, I was competing with three to four other places, now I compete with
many," said Peter Nasir, who turned an abandoned family house into a
bustling restaurant in 2007, which draws around 150 customers a day.

"Restaurants
are good business," said Nasir, whose popular Azure restaurant lies close
to the city centre.

Until
recently a small town in the occupied West Bank, Ramallah has seen its
population double in the last decade to around 100,000, and plays host to a
growing army of NGO workers, diplomats and an increasingly wealthy,
middle-class elite.

"These
people need food, need to sit down and talk, need to hold receptions. This
explains the increase in restaurants," said Mohammad Amin, head of
Ramallah Chamber of Commerce.

The
Palestinians dream of establishing a capital for their longed-desired
independent state in nearby Jerusalem. But that city is fully controlled by
Israel and with no Middle East peace deal in sight, Ramallah has rapidly risen
to the fore.

The
Palestinian Authority set up camp here when it was created in 1994 and is
determinedly building an array of state institutions in the city in readiness
for a wildly expected unilateral push for independence later this year.

Not
everyone is happy with the accompanying boom in the service sector, and some
long-standing businesses say there are not enough clients to go around.

"Ramallah
is over-saturated with restaurants," said Nidal Hassan, who opened his
establishment 'Stones' in 1999, a year before the outbreak of the second
Intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation that nearly destroyed the
local economy.

'Stones'
survived that dark period, only to suffer in the upturn, says Hassan, with his
income plunging 40 percent in 2010 because of the "mad increase" in
competition.

"There
are new restaurants but we have the same number of restaurant goers. People
should think twice where to invest their money," he added.

But
other investors are more upbeat and see a rosy future for restaurants in a
place which offers little competition when it comes to other forms of
entertainment, with only one cinema to boast of and no public parks for
picnics.

In
addition, many Palestinians from adjoining East Jerusalem prefer to head into
the liberal Ramallah for a relaxing evening, rather than stay in their own,
tenser neighbourhood, which has seen little development in recent times.

"This
is a small country. We have no places for fun and entertainment besides the
restaurants," said Jaber Khader, who opened 'Karaz', featuring French and
Italian cuisine, in March.

The
ever-expanding sector is also a good thing for local gourmets, ensuring that
restaurateurs constantly have to up their game or else risk closure.

Many
places at present offer similar menus of unadventurous Middle Eastern fare or
bland international food and have no chance of winning a coveted Michelin star
should the famous French restaurant guide ever come to town.

The
growing number of eateries is not only bringing more variety but also a
discernible rise in quality.

"Competition
is good. It pushes us to be more creative," said Azure's Nasir, who
nonetheless admits that the clientele is not growing as quickly as the number
of new bistros.

"When
there are few customers at my restaurant I know that it must be crowded
elsewhere as the same people rotate around."

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