After Hamas came to power in Gaza 2007, the group quickly instituted a number of new laws, including a ban on the possession of alcohol. Currently, if a person is caught with alcohol, it’s often thrown out. According to Isa, a Christian winemaker living in Gaza, there also might be some form of punishment—but he fears it could be worse for a Muslim than for the Christians.
What the punishment will be, Isa doesn’t say. Instead, he and his friend Tony explain they have to speak in code when they want to get together to share the wine, often around Christmas, birthdays, and other excuses for a celebration.
“I just share with trusted persons,” Isa states. “I don’t want to get in trouble with the government.” Isa doesn’t share his wine with Muslim friends for fear of who might inform Hamas.
Most Christians make wine in their homes, Tony tells me, though they certainly don’t advertise it, especially during the latest conflict with Israel. But despite the fact that he lives in a Hamas-heavy neighborhood, Tony says would rather keeping making and drinking alcohol than be confined to the group’s rule, he says. Wine is simply part of life.
Gaza is home to a close-knit community of approximately 2,000 Christians who subscribe to a variety of denominations. All are highly devout and practice their faith openly: They attend church, and their women walk outside without their heads covered. As with Gaza’s other Christians, Isa’s faith is clearly important to him—his home is decorated with Jesus and Virgin Mary relics—and celebrating with wine is part of that.
Isa learned the craft from his father, which has always been a covert one for him. He grew up in Yemen, where alcohol was also forbidden, before coming back to Palestine after Hamas took over Gaza. Isa says now his own children often help him mash the grapes with their feet, just as he did as a boy.
When he makes a new batch of wine, Isa buys 265 pounds of grapes from local markets—though much of Gaza’s grapes are also imported from Israel—to produce 40 liters of wine. He prefers the darker grapes for red wine, and says the best season is at the end of October. In the summer, however, only green grapes are available for white wine.
At that point, Isa’s wife Neda pipes in, saying she would like her husband to make her some white wine. Isa smiles and takes a moment to play with his children. He even lets them sip from his glass. Wine used to help his son sleep.
Isa pours me a small shot glass of wine. It is sweet, a dessert-style wine, slightly carbonated. He claims it’s a potent 70 proof.
Isa washes the grapes thoroughly and then mashes them with his hands, though he often uses a blender, too. “When I crush the grapes and take them to the sun,” Isa tells me, “I put them in a gallon [container] and cover it with a blanket and put it on the balcony for more warmth, so it can mix inside.”The fermentation process lasts for about 40 days. About halfway through, he filters the wine and lets it sit longer.
“It’s not the best way,” says Toni, “but it’s the way we know how.” Italians have the luxury of time to age their wine, he says, but in Gaza they must drink right away. They have to enjoy it while they can for fear of getting caught.
“No place is safe,” Isa says. He never knows when he might have to leave his home. In 2008, Hamas leaders bought the main apartment in the building and it was bombed by Israelis. While he doesn’t want to discuss politics much, Isa says he is in favor of Fatah, as are most of the Christians, and that it would be better if Hamas left. But he does hope that if a unity government is able to come together it will help ease some of the tensions that both he and other groups must currently navigate.
As for the wine, Isa doesn’t drink to get drunk. It’s good for his health, he says, and in the winter it keeps him warm. He admits, however, that he enjoys drinking during wartime and keeping the fellowship of his friends.
Isa says that many Christian Gazans drink to forget, and that there are those who do other things like “smoke weed or take pills” to cope with the ongoing strife. But for him, drinking wine is about living his life, and having a small measure of freedom when few opportunities for it currently exist.