I stared down at my flip-flop sandals, trying to avoid eye contact with soldiers cradling machine guns. Concrete barricades and barbed wire corralled me deeper into the military checkpoint, like a sheep to the sheers.
“Are you traveling together?” an Israeli soldier barked, as I handed him my passport.
I glanced over at Joe. “Yes. We’re together,” I said.
“How do you know each other?”
“We’re best friends.” I tried hard to keep my voice from shaking. The soldier was in his late 20s—around the same age as me. He scowled at my tattooed arm and puffed his chest out further.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
You’re holding my passport, asshole.
“We’re from Canada,” I replied.
“What were you doing in Israel?”
The soldier’s chin moved upwards so he could look further down his nose at me. “What is your business in Palestine?”
Joe and I were on our way to Taybeh, a small village in Palestine’s West Bank, 15 kilometers north of Jerusalem. The day before we had heard of a unique event—one which didn’t seem to belong in a place like the Middle East.
“We’re going to beer festival,” I said to the soldier.
He clenched his jaw, taking one last look at our passports before handing them back. He maintained eye contact with me as he flicked his head toward the exit. We pushed through a full-height turnstile and stepped into dusty Palestine.
Yellow taxis were parked outside and the drivers stood in the shade of a nearby eucalyptus tree. One of the men noticed us and jogged over, his round belly bouncing as he went.
“You go to beer festival?” he puffed.
Joe and I smiled and nodded. Was it that obvious, I wondered?
“No problem, my friends. My name is Mohammed. Let’s go.”
We hopped in his taxi. Mohammed offered us a cigarette, a common gesture by Middle Eastern cab drivers. As usual, Joe declined and I accepted. “Shukran,” I said, one of the few Arabic words I knew. Mohammed’s black moustache curled into a smile and the car accelerated into the desert.
“So, Mohammed,” I said, “what do you think about the beer festival?”
“I like,” he replied in a thick accent. “Festival brings tourists and money. It is goo’d for village. But many people no like beer so they leave village.” He paused, and took a drag of his cigarette. “But I am Muslim and I think beer and festival are goo’d. This is busy time for me. I drive tourists all day. David Khoury, he started brewery—and the festival. Now he is mayor of village. He goo’d man.”
We drove for ten minutes through a colourless landscape before Taybeh came into view. The hillside village was constructed exclusively of white stone and it glowed in the midday sun.
Mohammed took us as far into the village as he could. He stopped beside a Palestinian soldier who was blocking cars from driving farther up the hill. An orange banner hung above the soldier’s head stating ‘Taybeh Oktoberfest’ in English and Arabic.
“You must walk from here, but not far,” Mohammed said, pointing up the hill. “Goodbye, my friends.”
The hill curled up to the right, and I could smell burning charcoal and grilled lamb wafting down. Shrieking and smiling children played in the street. The sound of music thumping and the din of a crowd got louder with every step.
At the top of the hill a basketball court overlooking the village had been transformed into a beer garden. People sat on concrete bleachers and plastic chairs; others stood in circles around the perimeter. Everyone was laughing and drinking beer from plastic cups. A group of dancers—men and women wearing black pants and white headscarves—kicked their legs and bounced in circles on an elevated stage.
A bartender wearing sunglasses on top of his head poured me a beer from a shiny tap. The head was thick and velvety like Guinness, but the taste was closer to Labatt 50. The beer went down easy in the hot and festive atmosphere.
In a blur, day turned into night.
I don’t remember specific conversations and names of people I met that day, but I do remember feeling relaxed and unafraid. Machine guns, military checkpoints, and conflict were absent from my mind. The fun and relaxed atmosphere of the beer festival was contagious; locals and tourists, Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, all shared a common ground.
Was beer the solution to the struggles afflicting this area of the world?
Maybe not—but it couldn’t hurt to try.
It was around midnight—ten hours since my first beer—when Joe and I left the party to find our way back to Jerusalem. We stumbled down the hill, into a cab, and back to the Israeli military checkpoint.
We shuffled through the familiar maze of barriers, fencing, and turnstiles. I tripped over my own feet and bumped into Joe. He pushed me and we giggled like drunken fools.
I approached a soldier blocking our way and tried to compose myself. I noticed that the soldier’s chest was deflated and his gun hung limply at his side, unlike his tense compatriot who checked my passport earlier that day.
I struggled to stand up straight, swaying like a bulrush in the wind. The soldier’s eyes alternated from me to Joe.
“Oktoberfest?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” Joe and I slurred.
The soldier smiled. He waved us through without looking at our passports, chuckling to himself as we fell into the night.