From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Bethlehem's business owners sing the blues
20 Feb 2001 13:55:43
Note #6387 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
Bethlehem's business owners sing the blues
After six months of violence, tourists are staying away in droves
by Alexa Smith
BETHLEHEM -- George Khader Ali sits quietly, puffing on a cigarette.
For 21 years, Ali has been the proprietor of The Ruins, an upscale
restaurant that sits on prime real estate property -- just 15 meters from
the Basilica of the Nativity, the church that marks the site where Jesus
reputedly was born, Bethlehem's top tourist attraction.
Not so long ago, Ali employed a staff of four. Now he hires part-timers
when he needs them.
Every morning he gets up, gets dressed, puts on his jacket and cap and goes
to his restaurant and sits, waiting for a customer. In late afternoon, he
closes briefly and wonders whether it would be worth his while to go back
for a few hours in the evening.
Sometimes, when he closes The Ruins, he heads down the hill to the 11-story
Alexander Hotel, which is similarly empty of customers.
He sits there with Johnny Canavati, who runs a souvenir shop on Bethlehem's
main drag; Charlie Juha, who just shut down his St. George Restaurant; Farid
Aziza, whose coffee shop is doing so poorly that he's threatening to apply
for a visa to the United States, where he could be closer to his daughter;
Ray Jaar, whose olive-wood factory has been shut down for five months;
Joseph Canavati, who owns the hotel and serves up petite but potent cups of
Turkish coffee, with sugar or not, for his buddies; and Father Spiridon
Sammour, a Greek Orthodox priest whose thumb and forefinger move restlessly
over a strand of red worry beads.
Often the clicking of worry beads is the only evidence of life in the
hotel's vacuous marble lobby.
Once a week these fellows go out for a guys-only dinner.
But every afternoon, they sit. They say the beads slip through their
fingers faster when they are angry, slower when they pray. They chomp on
chewing gum. They smoke and talk. They drink coffee. They tease the guy who
wants to get married but doesn't have the cash. They slap each other on the
back. They guffaw. But mostly they sit idly waiting for the current
political crisis to end, so they can all go back to work.
"At first, I was depressed, nervous. Every time I'd go to the house, I'd
see the children, the bills, the taxes," says Johnny Canavati, who has kept
his employees on the payroll, but cut their salaries by half. "There's no
work, but you pay and you pay. I'm lucky to come here with friends and talk
for four or five hours. Go to sleep at 12 o'clock, then wake up at 3 with
"How to pay the banks? How to pay the laborers? It is very, very bad. When
they go home, they've got nothing to do. They just sit at home."
There is the choice of the day: Sit at home or sit downtown.
You could take a back road to nearby Beit Sahour, the once-prosperous,
largely Christian community built near what is called the shepherd's fields
(where shepherds were visited by the Christmas angel), although, there are
more rusted-out refrigerators and old washers than sheep lying along the
Back routes are about the only roads available; you need a permit to get
past the handful of security checkpoints that tightened up around Bethlehem
last September, at the beginning of what is now called the "the Al Aqsa
Uprising," named after the mosque in Jerusalem's Old City where the current
rioting began. Most Palestinians don't have permits.
Some day laborers with permits do catch authorized rides into Jerusalem,
which is only nine kilometers away. Others smuggle themselves into the city
to earn about $30 a day.
The business people of Bethlehem say Palestinian exports are going nowhere
-- olives, textiles, religious artifacts. In fact, in the past four months
Palestinian exports in the whole country (not just Bethlehem) have fallen by
85 percent, according to statistics published in The Palestinian Digest.
Israel's economy grew by 6 percent in 2000, the magazine said, while the
Palestinian economy shrank by 13 percent.
Even the Palestinian Authority is sweating out economic woes, according to
The Irish Times, which said recently that civil service and police wages are
being paid with loans from the European Union and Arab neighbors. Because of
non-payment of bills, the Ministry of Economy and Trade in Ramallah is
without land-based telephone service and must rely entirely on mobile phones
But in Bethlehem's tourism-based economy, no one needs a magazine or
newspaper to know how bad things are.
A few tourists do still come, but very few. Most of those who do visit
come by the back roads. Locals said 15 or 20 passengers at a time switch
from Israeli buses to Palestinian buses just beyond Beith Jala, a nearby
town that marks the limit for yellow-plated Israeli vehicles. The sparsely
filled buses stop at the church there turn back.
This is why Ali wants to sell, or maybe rent out, his restaurant.
Last night he had four local customers. Sometimes four or five days go by
without one, and he has to throw away meat and salads. He said Israeli
guides are nervous about staying long in Bethlehem, and will probably remain
nervous even when the troubles settle down. So Ali is thinking about opening
a restaurant near Rachel's Tomb, thought to be the burial site of the wife
of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, because it's at the city limit and is
venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims.
He has another option -- leaving the country.
As Joseph Canavati puts it: "Honestly, everyone is depressed. Some people
have money to last a few months; but, at the same time, it is like a prison
here. Every day it is the same thing. You get up. Go out. There is nothing
to do. No work. At least when we used to work, time was passing."
Last September, the Alexander Hotel's 42 rooms were booked through 2001,
partly in anticipation of the much-touted millennial celebration of Jesus'
birth. So Canavati added two more floors and an elevator. When the shooting
started on Sept. 28, the cancellations began. By Oct. 8, the last convoy of
tourist buses chugged out of Bethlehem, and the millennial bash went bust.
By November Canavati had $300,000 invested in construction and needed
$500,000 more to finish -- when his money ran out. Every day, another
travel agent calls to cancel a tour group booked for Easter.
As if that's not stressful enough, there is the nightly shelling.
In Bethlehem, one hears the rumbling from Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, just
over the hillside. It causes occasional tremors and short power blackouts.
Beit Jala was steadily and heavily shelled in the fall, when the uprising
began. There's been shooting between Beit Jala and Gilo, one of the oldest
Israeli enclaves on the West Bank. Gilo is a hillside complex that Israelis
call a town and Palestinians a settlement, built on land taken from Arab
owners. The shelling resumed a few days ago after a settler was shot near
A group of homes near an Israeli military base in Beit Sahour has been
destroyed or badly damaged; their Palestinian residents have moved to safer
A few days ago, gunfire near Rachel's Tomb caused minor damage to property
inside the city limits.
The people of Bethlehem believe the heavy military retaliation and the
strict closures are meant to destroy the Palestinians' economy and force
compromises on the highly emotional issues that repeatedly bring political
negotiations to a stalemate: the return of refugees; the existence of
Israeli settlements; and control of land in Jerusalem's Old City that is
sacred to both Jews and Muslims.
Johnny Canavati said he knows the months of stress have changed his
behavior in ways he doesn't like. His temper is shorter. He has no appetite.
His brother Joseph said he's smoking non-stop and drinking too much coffee,
ruining his stomach. He stays awake half the night reading international
newspapers on the Internet, then stays in bed past noon.
It is no comfort to the Canavati brothers that it will take years to bring
tourism in Bethlehem back to where it was in 2000.
"I come here to get this off my chest," Johnny said, acknowledging that the
daily ritual has become a form of therapy. He said he is tired of being at
work at 8:30 a.m. and closing by 2 p.m.
Sammour, the gray-robed Greek Orthodox priest, looked around the room and
said through a translator that his best advice is not to become bitter, but
to trust God.
"They're depressed, depressed," he said of his circle of friends gathered
in the hotel's darkening lobby at sunset. "If this goes on one year ...
they'll all have to go to a mental hospital."
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