Frustrated Documentary Maker Opens Cafe In West Bank

Small businesses make up the vast majority of companies in the West Bank. Before opening a cafe, Palestinian Tariq el-Ayyan worked on documentary films. Two months in, the cafe seems to be succeeding, with two paid employees and steady traffic.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, economic growth has been slowing this year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has proposed an ambitious plan to lure large-scale foreign investment. But details of his plan remain under wraps. Small businesses make up the vast majority of companies in the West Bank.

Small businesses make up the vast majority of companies in the West Bank. NPR's Emily Harris has this profiles of one new one.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Before opening a cafe, Palestinian Tariq el-Ayyan worked on documentary films.

TARIQ EL-AYYAN: All the projects I worked in were about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It's tiring.

HARRIS: His wife, Kristel el-Ayyan, says he'd come home not just tired but frustrated.

KRISTEL EL-AYYAN: You want to see hope for a future where everybody is equal, but you don't see it happening. For each film, if you are confronted with this kind of information, then it makes you a little bit upset. Yeah.

TARIQ EL-AYYAN: Upset, angry, not really nice to other people. So yeah, I prefer making people happy with my coffee.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Two months in, they seem to be succeeding, with two paid employees and steady traffic. The Singer Cafe is in the old quarter of Beit Sahour, a small Palestinian town down the hill from Bethlehem. The cafe has a long wooden bar, a lending library, table games and free Wi-Fi. For the U.S., Europe, and even Israel, just on the other side of the tall concrete separation wall - this type of place is normal. But not here, says Palestinian student Lara Hodaly.

LARA HODALY: No, it's not normal. For here, for people here.

HARRIS: For starters, she says, there's a no-smoking room. But more than that, says her friend, Miral Ama, this cafe feels different than other local spots.

MIRAL AMA: Here, like, you can be yourself. You find interesting people, interesting books, interesting things to see.

HARRIS: Lamps, made locally, of clothespins, hang from high arched ceilings. Old sewing machines are everywhere - for no reason except Tariq thinks old sewing tables are really cool. Only espresso coffee drinks are available. Tariq didn't want to serve Arabic coffee, traditionally swirled in a copper pot over an open flame and flavored with cardamom.

Everybody can drink Arabic coffee at home. So this is to experience different kind of coffee.

But while he - and wife Kristel, who's Dutch, prefer European coffee, they see their new business as a way to keep telling stories about Palestinian life for foreign visitors. Just as Tariq did in his documentary film work.

KRISTEL EL-AYYAN: We started offering people tours. We show them the wall, the settlements, showing them the refugee camps and telling them about life of the refugees. And then having lunch or having coffee in the café and meeting other Palestinians to continue talking about the life here and how people experience that.

HARRIS: Some experiences of West Bank life don't help business. The local water pressure is so low the espresso machine has to have a special pump. Tariq and Kristel cross an Israeli military checkpoint to and from home just minutes away in Jerusalem. And there is always the possibility of instability or violence that could put their $30,000 investment at risk. But for now, they're doing business in coffee and conversation.

Emily Harris, NPR News.

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