At a long table in the Level Up restaurant, 11 stories above Gaza City, Basil Eleiwa got a cake with a sparkling candle on top — to honor his eatery's second birthday.
"We opened two or three weeks before the 2014 war," Level Up's founder and co-owner notes, referring to the conflict that began in July 2014 between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that runs the Gaza strip.
The restaurant had closed during the seven weeks of fighting.
"The building was hit a number of times," Eleiwa says. "It didn't fall down."
Since then, he says business has been "sort of steady."
On this night, a dozen or so customers have arrived for iftar dinner, to break their daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Among them are recently married couple Ramzy Nashwan, 24, and Malak Mahdouna, 20. They come about once a week to enjoy themselves at what Nashwan calls the "only place that's fancy" in Gaza. They can afford to eat here because he has a decent job as a hotel manager, Nashwan says. But for most Gazans, Level Up is "not a little expensive, it's very expensive," he says. "I wish everyone were able to be in a place like this, but life is hard in Gaza."
Most people in this small enclave are poor — they rely on basic food supplies handed out by the United Nations. Last year, the World Bank ranked Gaza as having the highest unemployment rate in the world. One Palestinian media outlet wrote this week about Gazans taking their iftar meals to the beach because a lack of electricity meant their homes were hot and dark.
Level Up has its own generators, so it can keep the lights on all the time. Here, the iftar dinner buffet costs about $20 per person. "This menu is special for Ramadan," says chef Jamal Soboh. "Traditional food only."
Among the offerings are chicken legs, dressed with thinly sliced hot green peppers, lemon and garlic, and lamb baked in small clay casserole dishes. Of course, per Ramadan tradition, there are dates, along with qamar al-deen — literally translated from Arabic as "moon of religion" — a chilled drink made from dried apricots. And the mellow orange of the qamar al-deen complements tamer Hindi and kharoub, both dark purple-brown beverages flavored with tamarind and carob, respectively.
The restaurant's regular menu is more international — it includes dishes like chicken Caesar salad (for $5) and deep-fried breaded shrimp ($17).These dishes reflect owner Eleiwa's cross-cultural experiences. He was born and raised in Gaza, but he studied in the U.S. and spent years working in human resource development for international agencies.
Eleiwa says he got into the restaurant business as a hobby, opening a place on the beach in Gaza back in 1991. The complexities and challenges of the restaurant business suit him, he says. "Satisfying hundreds of tastes is not an easy task, and I find myself challenged all the time."
His second venture was a fast-food cafe near one of the universities here, and then he opened a successful fine-dining restaurant in central Gaza City. He sold these businesses to move to the West Bank for a university job. When he returned and opened Level Up two years ago, Eleiwa says, many would-be customers were gone — they had left Gaza due to wars, instability and a lack of opportunity.
"My niche was fine dining," he says. But with his customer base diminished, he says, "I targeted the middle class, even lower middle class." Still, he insists he's maintaining the same quality as in the past, with lower prices.
Despite these aims, Eleiwa acknowledges that his menu is unaffordable for most Gazans right now. The number of customers who do come by depends, he says, on "the political situation, whether the borders are open or not, whether the building materials come through or not."
Last fall, reconstruction of buildings damaged during the 2014 war was a significant driver of Gaza's economy. But Israel maintains strict security procedures that have periodically cut off the cement available for private contractors in Gaza to purchase, and the Israeli government has banned altogether certain building materials that militants could use for military purposes.
And there are other challenges to keeping a high-end restaurant going in Gaza. Fifteen years ago, arsonists burned down the restaurant that Eleiwa was running that the time. He says he was targeted because he allowed foreigners to bring their own alcohol to pair with meals. Many Muslims don't drink alcohol, citing religious law, and since Hamas took over Gaza nearly a decade ago, alcohol has been entirely banned.
More recently, Eleiwa says, the Israeli military revoked — with no explanation --his business permit to travel to Israel and the West Bank. This makes him feel angry and caged in, he says, but there's a practical consequence, too: He used those trips to get ingredients like saffron, cranberries and some vegetables that are hard to find in Gaza."I used to carry them by hand from the Israeli market," he says.
But despite such difficulties, Eleiwa plans to continue. He's started a discount club for regular customers, which now has about 700 members.
"I feel my value here. All of these projects I started in Gaza employ people," he says. This is his way of helping society.
Level Up's floor-to-ceiling windows are open to the breeze on summer days. To the west, there's a view of the city backed by the sea. North-facing windows look down on an old prison and a police training ground.
A group of young women who came in after iftar dinner say it's better to eat here in the morning, when both the view and falafel — a favorite local breakfast — are divine.
As they and other post-dinner customers drift in to smoke hookah water pipes and watch the European soccer championships, Nashwan and Mahdouna — the recently married couple — linger over dessert in a quiet corner. He has a plate of fresh fruit; she chooses sweets.
She especially loves qatayef — small pancakes stuffed with apples or cheese. They're a Ramadan specialty.
The ones at Level Up aren't as good as her homemade ones, she says. But both she and her husband love the chicken steak in mushroom sauce, Mahdouna says, so they'll be back again soon.