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West Bank disco one of few places where Palestinians can let loose

BEIT JALA, West Bank—It's well past midnight and the dance floor is packed. Waiters weave through the crowd with loaded trays of beer and blue-tinted margaritas that glow under the black lights. The music blends effortlessly from Western favorites Shakira and the Gipsy Kings to Lebanese pop stars Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe.

This is Cosmos, the West Bank's only real disco—and one of the few places in the Hamas-led territories where Palestinians can let loose, amid a tilt toward more conservative Muslim values and a deepening economic depression.

Inside the third-floor octagon-shaped club in this village outside Bethlehem, gay Palestinians feel free enough to take to the dance floor. Young, unmarried couples who've told their parents they're staying with friends sneak away to Cosmos for a night on the town. And the club is one of the few in the Muslim-dominated region to feature a full bar.

"There's no place like this in the West Bank," Ghassan Bannoura, 26, who works for a center dedicated to peace issues, said one night as he took a break from dancing. "This is the place that keeps Bethlehem running."

Cosmos is run by Peter Hosh, a skinny, reserved 32-year-old former DJ and college dropout who decided to make his passion for music his profession.

"I like to party," Hosh said recently as a dozen waiters and bartenders prepared for the night ahead. "I like to dance."

The disco opened its doors under different owners six years ago as an anchor in The Olive Tree Village, an ambitious $5 million mini-mall on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the West Bank's largest Christian enclave. The mall included a restaurant, summer swimming pool, trinket shops with a photogenic camel for tourists to sit on, and the dance club.

Four months after the mall opened, the West Bank was engulfed by the second Palestinian uprising, and the business venture collapsed. "Very bad timing," said Wael Zeidan, whose family owns the mall.

To make matters worse, Israel walled off Bethlehem behind its 25-foot-tall security wall, effectively isolating the biblical birthplace of Jesus from nearby Jerusalem and further crippling its anemic tourist-based economy.

Last year, after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared an official end to the uprising, Hosh saw his chance to put a little rhythm back into Bethlehem. He took over the darkened club, painted the walls with astrological signs, installed a full bar, hired his younger brother as DJ, and renamed it Cosmos.

Then, just as things started to pick up, Palestinian voters installed the religiously conservative Hamas to replace the secular Fatah as the country's ruling party. In the Gaza Strip, Islamic militants had burned and bombed places that served alcohol, so there were concerns that the new government would impose fundamentalist Islam in the West Bank, forcing headscarves on women and shuttering places that served alcohol.

So far, the fears have proved unfounded. Since it took power in March, Hamas has been struggling just to keep the government running in the face of an international economic boycott. It's had little time to even think about places like Cosmos.

Hosh tries to keep politics outside the club and hopes that the government will leave him alone.

"We don't like a government that says do this, do this, do this," he said. "People want to do what they want."

The club also benefits from the fact that it has few neighbors—and therefore draws few complaints. But there are still some, and Hosh said militant groups sometimes try to shake him down for "protection" money. Each time, he said, he refuses to pay.

Things don't really get going until after midnight. That's when the DJ shifts to the more popular tunes from America, Europe and the Middle East, couples have had a few drinks, and the dance floor begins to fill.

One recent night just before dawn, Khader Abu Khader, a 29-year-old supermarket owner, stood outside Cosmos smoking a final cigarette before heading home with his wife.

The disco is one place he and his wife can come to escape the daily pressures of trying to raise three children and running a supermarket in a struggling Palestinian economy.

Khader grew up in Ramallah at a time when there were more bars and nightlife and even some underground dance parties. But now that he's in Bethlehem, Cosmos is the place he goes for a break.

"We come to have some fun," Khader said, before tossing his cigarette to the curb and heading home. "There's no other place to go."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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