Coronavirus: Old City merchants cope with pandemic, aftermath

Vendors in Jerusalem's Old City are hoping their lives will rebound and tourists will return

THERE IS virtually no traffic in places that are usually packed with tourists. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THERE IS virtually no traffic in places that are usually packed with tourists.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
 The middle-aged man standing in the doorway of his restaurant in the Muslim Quarter tried hard to hide his despair. 
“I come every day to open the restaurant as usual,” says Salah, adding with a shy smile, “but nobody comes. In regular times, you wouldn’t have been able to find a table available. Today I have one couple here, for the first time in weeks. That’s my daily reality.”
While most of the bars, restaurants and coffee shops on the west side of Jerusalem have reopened and are enjoying a growing number of customers, the picture in the east side is rather gloomy. Earlier this week, Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem and I went to the Old City to see for ourselves how people are coping with the pandemic and its aftermath. 
Based almost exclusively on tourism, Jerusalem’s Old City – with its abundant souvenirs, jewelry, restaurants and alleyways – remains sad and empty, even after the government decided to enable a gradual reopening. One after the other, the iron shutters of shops in the ancient capital are closed. No one is passing through the Jaffa Gate. Aside from a rare taxi meandering through the streets or a few religious Jews hurrying to the Western Wall, there is virtually no traffic in places that are usually packed with visitors and tourists.
MANY OF the business owners say they have fallen through the cracks. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)MANY OF the business owners say they have fallen through the cracks. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Many of the businesses owners say they have fallen between the cracks; that the support plans offered by the government do not really help, if they can be obtained at all. The municipality gave some help during 2020 with a three-month break from Arnona (municipal property tax). However, since the beginning of 2021, there have been no additional tax reductions or cancellations. 
“Israel has succeeded in fighting this virus” says Salah, the restaurant owner. “That’s very good, it saves lives, but in order to preserve this achievement, the government forbids entry of tourists from abroad, because in most countries, they are not yet vaccinated. But we work only with tourists, and until tourists will come back, we have no life.”
Hussam stands on the threshold of his souvenir shop, the only one open in the square opposite the Tower of David Museum. Upon seeing me stop by, he smiles, obviously believing a customer has finally appeared. Upon hearing that we’re doing a story and not shopping, the smile remains, perhaps a little smaller, but still welcoming. 
“All the three shops along the alley here are mine, of the family, but we decided to close them. What for? It’s just losing money. This week we decided to open only one of them, and I am here every day since, talking on the cellular, looking at the sky, sipping coffees and doing nothing. Nobody comes in, nobody!” 
Inside a nearby alley, Julani, a tall man in his early 30s, stands outside his jewelry shop and welcomes us. 
“I am here every day because my father who owns this shop asked me to do so. But frankly, I am here for nothing” he says. “I was born and live in Haifa, but my father, who is now 85, cannot come any more to open the shop, but on the other hand, he didn’t want to close it, so I am here, spending hours talking with some shopkeepers around, with zero income.”
SALAH AND JULANI point out that their problem is not only the lack of tourists and loss of income. 
“People are close to becoming hungry here in the Old City and in all the Arab neighborhoods,” explains Salah. “So we close the shops, but what else? There is no work, nothing. They all try to find a job meanwhile, to survive and feed the children, but there is nothing. No work available, not any job. 
“We are barely surviving on loans from the banks,” he continues. “Last year we used our savings, but now we take loans. But one day we will have to pay them back and I am afraid of that day, because none of us will be able to pay. No work, no income, nothing. We just sit at home and eat thanks to the loans and what about tomorrow? We don’t know.” 
Both Julani and Salah say the worst element of the pandemic is the lack of anywhere to go, and that the world has become alien and frightening. 
“We had the Intifada of 1987. We had the [2000] al-Aqsa Intifada. We had the [2015-2016] ‘Knives Intifada’” says Salah, “In all these periods, it was hard, tourists ran away. But it never lasted more than a few days or a few weeks. But this time it’s different. It’s now more than a year, and we don’t see the end of it. So OK, in Israel we are vaccinated and safe, but we shall die of hunger if not of the virus.”
Inside the Christian Quarter, silence hangs as heavily for shopkeepers as their lack of income. In the main alley leading to the Church of the Sepulchre, usually packed with pilgrims and tour guides, only four souvenir shops are open, though the owners don’t expect any customers. A group of them sit outside one of the shops, sipping coffee and speaking quietly. They seem to have so completely accepted the lack of visitors that they pay no attention to us. 
INSIDE THE Christian Quarter, silence hangs heavy. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)INSIDE THE Christian Quarter, silence hangs heavy. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
From the Via Dolorosa we reach the Muslim Quarter, where things looks a little different. Most of the shops sell basic products, the kinds of things people must have: vegetables, meat, babies’ clothing and basic household necessities. Here, customer traffic is a bit closer to normal. 
Amer, who owns a small market in Sharafat says he feels blessed compared to his neighbors. 
“I thought I should become more modern and open a fancy shop and sell fancy clothing and things like that,” he says. “Thank God I didn’t do it. I am the only open shop in my neighborhood because I sell basic things: food, cleaning products, things that people always buy.” He adds that he knows of many families who are surviving thanks only to charity associations that are supplying basic food. “But even these associations don’t get donations as they did in the past. People don’t have money for charity today.”
All the shopkeepers agree that some relief may come with Passover, as many Israelis will come to Jerusalem for the holiday. And some hope the relief will come with Ramadan in the second half of April. 
“But it will only be a small help,” sighs Salah. “Our businesses are based on pilgrims and tourists from the world, and these are not to be expected until perhaps next year. What will become of us until then? Only Allah knows.”