The Jerusalem Post
A tale of one city
Raed stood in the doorway of his darkened restaurant. “There’s no sense in keeping open for two diners,” he said with a rueful smile to two hungry passersby hoping for a plate of hummus and warm pita.
“It’s been 15 months since I’ve been open. It’s got nothing to do with the government or regulations. It’s all in God’s hands. We can get vaccinated and then get a third shot, but it’s not going to matter. We’re at the mercy of what’s up there,” the well-dressed older gentleman added, pointing to the dusky sky peeking out from the narrow road of the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City earlier this week.
Raed has owned the spacious establishment just inside Jaffa Gate for the last 25 years, through the fallow times of the Second Intifada and through the years of record tourism. He’s lived in the Christian Quarter his entire life.
“I still have to pay arnona, a huge amount, and all the utilities. And we haven’t received any discounts from the city,” he said. “Nobody cares about us. Back when Teddy Kollek was mayor, once or twice a month he would walk through the neighborhood and stop to talk to us. Puffing a cigar, he would ask how we were doing and what problems we had. And he had somebody write them down, and often they’d be taken care of.”
On this night, there would have been nobody for Kollek to talk to.
Since the pandemic, Raed’s place, along with the dozen or so other eateries, cafes and bars in the neighborhood have struggled to stay afloat. Some open during the day for regular local clientele and others have remained shuttered for the entire period. All of them, on a sultry July evening when the street should be brimming with humanity, music and food, are locked up with hardly a pedestrian in sight. Outside a makolet, four local men were sitting around a small circular table, sharing cigarettes and drinking bottles of water.
Raed gestured up and down the abandoned street.
“Moshe Lion has never walked through. I see him entering the Old City every week on the way to the Kotel, and he never looks right or left. It’s as if we don’t exist. It’s another world here.”
A couple of hundred meters and a staircase away, it was indeed another world. The Mamilla plaza promenade was packed, with mostly Israeli shoppers and diners. Aroma, Arcaffe, the Rimon Café and Joy were bustling with patrons, delighted to be eating out after a year stuck inside.
Even as the COVID rate was rising daily, there was a sense that nothing was going to prevent the deprived populace from grabbing what was rightfully theirs – the
ability to spend money and order costly pasta and salads.
The glitzy lighting, upscale clothing and jewelry stores and the sheer liveliness contrasted sharply to the drab scene inside the Old City.
Sure, some of the well-heeled diners wouldn’t deem to patronize Nafoura or the Old City bistros, either due to kashrut restrictions, fears of mysterious shadows in the dimly lit streets or simply a reluctance to spend money in a non-Jewish establishment.
Without tourists, that leaves little clientele for Raed and his fellow restaurateurs.
There’s an east and a west to the city, but it’s all Jerusalem – the swanky attraction of Mamilla and the old-world beauty of the Christian Quarter. But in traversing those 200 meters from one neighborhood to the other, it feels like it’s not only distance, but also time that has been measured. One is running on 21st-century time and
the other’s clock has stopped somewhere between General Allenby’s grand entrance in 1917 and that of the IDF soldiers who reunited the divided cradle of history in 1967.
It’s a tale of one city that hasn’t yet decided it’s one city.
Raed began to lock the front door to his restaurant. He still shows up every day, maintaining, cleaning and hoping for the day when diners return. Despite the ignominies of the reality around him, he’s kept his dignity.
“I don’t blame anyone, I just want my business to survive.” he said, walking away. “In America, if there’s a dollar on the street, they’ll shoot you over it. I hope it doesn’t come to that here.”
The two passersby headed back to Mamilla and shared an overpriced, but delicious, tortellini dish stuffed with chestnut cream and a couple cafe hafuchs. However, it wasn’t enough to wash away the sour taste emanating from around the corner.