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THE CUTTING EDGE / CYBERCULTURE | THE SCENE / RAMALLAH,
West Bank

Coffee and a Byte to Eat

Cafe Is Gateway for People Who Hunger to 'Visit' Closed Areas

May 26, 1997|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The K5M is a hole in the wall on the main drag here, a diner whose hamburgers, draft beer and cappuccino have long appealed to the city's ample Arab American crowd. Now it is expanding its menu to include megabytes, hoping to lure a generation of Palestinian computer mavens into the West Bank's first Internet cafe.

Proprietor Majed Totah inaugurated the landmark cafe earlier this month with four computers in a renovated back room and a high-profile ad campaign in the Palestinian press.

The opening was a big hit, but customers have been slow to show in the early weeks.

"This is a new idea in town, and it's going to take some time," Totah, 33, said confidently. "We are getting university students, Arab Americans and some foreigners. We get people who don't have computers or telephone lines at home . . . and some people who never even saw a computer before and want to play."

Computers are a luxury item for most Palestinians, telephone lines are hard to come by in the self-rule area, and Ramallah is not exactly bursting with Kinkos outlets.

But the city has a substantial middle class, and for the computer-savvy among them, K5M offers more than the average techno-gateway to the world. The cafe--and the unusual Internet access company, owned by Totah's brother, that connects it to the global computer network--are a means to beat the frequent Israeli closures on the West Bank. Ramallah residents can now leave town without leaving town and "meet" with friends and relatives in Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian diaspora.

Moreover, customers may travel from the small, fan-cooled cafe in the troubled West Bank to a happier "virtual Palestine," where their efforts to build an independent state are lauded on myriad Palestinian Web sites.

"May Palestine live as long as the grass grows and the Jordan flows," Ray Volkwine wrote from Knoxville, Tenn., on the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center's Web site.

"Long live Palestine," hailed Mutassem Othman from San Francisco.

"Minneapolis is a nice place to roam, but Ramallah will always be my home," David Yousef added from middle America.

At the K5M on a recent Thursday evening--the beginning of the Palestinian weekend--computer customer Mustafa Deeb traveled the Internet to neighboring Egypt, where he has never actually set foot, and to Israel, which he is not permitted to visit.

"Chatting is the only way for me to go to Israel," Deeb, 19, a computer science student at Bir Zeit University, said as he clicked into an Israeli chat room.

"Hey, guys," he typed enthusiastically into Israeli cyberspace. "I'm talking from the first Internet cafe in Palestine."

No response.

Then Deeb made contact with "Roni," a 16-year-old online in Tel Aviv.

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"Ramallah, Palestine," he wrote.

"Really?"

"Yep."

"Cool. So how is life over there?"

"It's peaceful nowadays."

Smile.

The Totah family opened the K5M--shorthand for the names of the family's six children--in 1985, two years after Majed returned from studying in San Francisco and saw a market for American diner and deli food among his peers who were also coming home.

"We brought new ideas, and we're always looking to update them," Totah said.

Totah started cruising the Internet for recipes and eventually began chatting with Internet cafes around the world. Then he decided to start his own, with about $10,000 in computer equipment.

To circumvent the scarcity of phone lines in Ramallah, Totah uses a wireless Net service provider called Palnet that was co-founded, not incidentally, by his brother, Marwan.

Marwan Totah and his partner, Maan Bseiso, began Palnet in 1995 as an e-mail service, with one computer and modem and a server at a friend's house in New York. Last year, the company moved its base of operations just over the "border" to Israel, where dedicated phone lines are available. They set up a microwave network to serve their phone-less customers in Ramallah and surrounding areas. Palnet now has about 2,000 customers--1,200 of them on the wireless network--including Bir Zeit University, Arab banks and the governing Palestinian Authority.

The cafe (K5M@palnet.com) charges about $5.59 per hour on the computer for customers who have their own Palnet accounts and $7.35 per hour for nonmembers--although no one seems to watch the clock very strictly. A Palnet subscription (info@palnet.com) is $15 a month for an e-mail account and $25 a month for a full Internet account.

"The beauty of this system is that it's not for the sake of technology, it's because of the lack of infrastructure," Bseiso said over coffee at the cafe. "These devices were intended for the office, and we adapted them with antennas to work outside."

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