As you chat with Basil Eleiwa over a chilled strawberry-and-fresh-lemonade cocktail in his 11th-floor restaurant Level Up, it’s surprisingly easy to believe him when he predicts that his native city could yet become one of the great tourist hubs of the Middle East.
With breathtaking views from its terrace, of the sea to the west and over the city to the north and east, you can understand why it’s become a favourite haunt of the middle class here – whether it’s the young women (many with head coverings, some more daringly without) and men sipping tea and sucking water pipes filled with sweet-flavoured tobacco delivered by a narghila man in a fez, or the families out for an evening treat enjoying caesar salads or pepper steaks brought to their tables by impeccably black-tunicked waiters. It could be a popular hangout in Dubai or Sharm El Sheikh – only classier.
But hang on. This is Gaza. At night, especially when the city is plunged into darkness by the daily power cuts of eight hours or more, you can see the beams of boats fishing off the coast to one side, and the twinkling of lights in Israel on the other – so near and yet so unreachable for the imprisoned vast majority of the city’s 700,000 inhabitants.
At such moments, with its own, generator-powered lights shining out from the top of the Zafer tower, Level Up seems like a beacon of sophistication in a city that has been under siege, and suffered three devastating Israeli military onslaughts, over the nine years since Hamas took control.
Somehow, elements of another Gaza have survived what has been – literally and metaphorically – its darkest decade: stylish, civilised, worthy of a history stretching back five millennia. While few other cities have been more fought over or occupied – by the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Abbasids, Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks, British, Egypt again and Israel – there have also been long periods when Gaza was a centre of culture and learning, as well as a flourishing port and trading centre.
Today, the all too regular TV images of plumes of black smoke soaring from burning, bombed-out buildings obscure its stubborn endurance as not only the biggest but the most metropolitan of Palestinian cities. There are two major universities, internationally exhibited artists, a music school that is part of the Edward Said network of conservatories, some of the region’s best rappers, a few hotels and restaurants as good as any in the Holy Land, and a well-designed museum of treasures from Gaza’s rich past built by Jawdat al Khodari, a fellow Gazan entrepreneur with a passion for archaeology.
But Eleiwa remains an optimist. As a serial owner of fashionable hotels and restaurants in a market imploded by war and economic blockade, what else could he be?
Level Up’s owner comes from an old family of wheat traders who also owned many acres of – now obliterated – orange groves in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip. His career in what he calls the “hospitality and tourism” business started 1991 as a “hobby”, when he was working as a human resources manager and development expert for an international aid agency.
Eleiwa opened a small beach restaurant at a time when it could only open for a few hours because of an Israeli-imposed curfew. “The [first] intifada was still going,” he recalls. “People needed to breathe, to be able to live their lives.”
A quarter of a century later, he says they still do. Eleiwa opened Level up in 2014, just before the third and bloodiest of the Gaza wars. Three weeks in, the building’s developer, Mohammed Abu Mathkour, was phoned by an Israeli intelligence officer and told to take down a communications antenna that had been installed on the roof by Hamas. Caught between two colliding enemies, Mathkour said he couldn’t do that without the permission of Hamas’s interior ministry.
The day after, Israeli tank shells hit the upper floors of the tower, causing serious damage in the first of two attacks – but not so serious that the restaurant could not be quickly repaired and re-opened after the war ended.
Level Up was an instant success with a clientele that Eleiwa insists is not “elite” but “middle and even lower-middle class”. While many, if not most, Gazans could not afford to eat here, Eleiwa says he keeps his prices as low as possible while making a modest profit. The pepper steak may be £10, but hummus or baba ganoush (a crushed aubergine and tahini salad) and tea cost nine shekels (£1.60).
When Eleiwa recruited his first 20 workers, he had well over 400 applications without even advertising – hardly surprisingly when the World Bank puts Gaza’s unemployment rate at around 40%, among the highest in the world. Monthly Level Up salaries start at around 1,600 shekels (around £280) for a newly recruited cleaner, competitive by Gaza standards, plus progressive fringe benefits.
Now Eleiwa has 32 full-time employees, boasts a “virtually zero” turnover of staff, and – remarkably – is planning a new hotel on the beach here. His first, the once-famous five-star Windmill Hotel, literally went up in flames in October 2000, when Islamist protesters attacked it for allowing guests to drink their own alcohol on the premises.
So why would he embark on another – alcohol-free, of course – hotel when bed occupancy in the city is only 20%? “Because it’s my business, and in this line of business, if you excel, if you distinguish yourself based on better service and better quality, you will have your share of the market.”
But beyond this borderline management-speak, Eleiwa has another, more emotional response. “This is my Gaza; I belong to this place. One day Gaza will have its opportunity in this line of business, and I assure you it will compete with the region – because we have the basic factors for this industry to excel: wonderful weather, a wonderful beach, and most of the Gaza people enjoy hospitality by nature.”
But even supposing the political circumstances were miraculously transformed, wouldn’t it take forever to restore the city’s infrastructure, clean its coastal waters – heavily polluted with sewage – and market Gaza as the most improbable of all holiday destinations? Isn’t the city’s fate to be continually preparing for a future that never comes?
“Palestinian people have sacrificed a lot throughout the last six decades,” Eleiwa says. “At one point we might get a leadership that will light this candle at the end of the tunnel for us.”
He suggests that, “while not taking Israel out of the picture as the main factor in our misery”, a lack of effective leadership that has left the two main Palestinian factions desperately split is also “a fundamental problem of the Palestinian people”.
Amid all these challenges, Eleiwa is determinedly “working for our future generation” – one which, with 18,000 graduates every year hinting for a handful of jobs, has been left “with no hope … We’re maintaining good service standards that could one day be the basis of our competition with the region and the world.”
And in the mean time, he is ensuring that at least a corner of Gaza’s economy does not go dark. “Even if the business gets worse and I’m still able to pay my suppliers and my staff, that’s more than enough.”
On the terrace of Level Up, high above the city, it’s easy to forget the harsh facts of life in the Gaza strip: 80% of families aid dependent; repairs completed on just 2% of more than 9,000 UN-managed housing units destroyed in a 2014 war which killed over 2,100 Palestinians; an estimated 53% of young adults “likely” to suffer clinical depression.
Yet for all their pain, Eleiwa insists enjoyment is embedded in Gazans’ “coastal culture”. Every Friday, he says, “You will go the beach and see the poorest people are there with their small sandwich and a cup of tea. We love to live our lives.”
That last sentence is a conscious echo of a line Eleiwa likes to quote from Mahmoud Darwish, the most famous of all Palestinian poets: “We love life, if we can find a way to it.”
Source: The Guardian
Date uploaded: July 28, 2016