Palestinians Take Back the Night in Ramallah ; with New Upscale Restaurants, Bars, and Theater, the West Bank City Is Undergoing a Cultural Revival

Article excerpt

Just a few minutes drive from Yasser Arafat's half-destroyed headquarters, Usama Khalaf's version of upscale Ramallah dining is taking off.

His restaurant called Darna occupies a grand renovated stone villa with high-ceilinged archways and a second-floor patio that draws scores of young Palestinians. It serves large dishes of innovative Middle Eastern fare, but, more importantly, offers fragments of normalcy, which has become so elusive during the past four years.

The $800,000 spent by the restaurateur to open Darna - where waiters sport snappy bow ties and tuxedo vests - represents more than a shrewd bid to attract the city's bourgeois; it signals a revival of the cultural scene that made Ramallah a cosmopolitan capital for Palestinians.

In recent months new eateries have opened and the city's offerings have expanded despite Israel checkpoints and military raids. For Khalaf, opening Darna was simultaneously the fulfillment of a life's dream and an act of political defiance.

"I had an obligation to my hometown," Khalaf says. "When they saw someone investing despite the closures and incursions, it gave people the willingness to stay."

In the 1950s under Jordanian rule, Arab vacationers would arrive in Ramallah from the Persian Gulf in the summer to savor the cool mountain breeze during the evening. Pleasant weather and pastoral surroundings earned the tiny city the nickname "the Bride of Palestine." When the West Bank came under Israeli control, the Arab citizens of Israel would overrun the city's hotels on the weekends. It boasted a thriving nightlife, which included the only jazz club in the West Bank.

Danny Jafar, the grandson of a Ramallah hotelier, opened the Sangrias restaurant during the first year of the fighting with just five tables and a menu featuring nachos and burritos.

During the four months of daily military curfews in the summer of 2002, word of mouth spread that Sangrias had remained open for journalists. Patrons desperate to break the monotony of the citywide lockdown surreptitiously found their way to the bar. …