The week before Christmas is traditionally a joyous time in Nazareth. In Mary’s Well Square stands the Middle East’s tallest Christmas Tree, at 35 meters. Church bells ring, stores hang decorations and the pedestrian street in the center of town hosts a Christmas market, with dozens of stands offering souvenirs and food from morning into the night.
In past years the city was packed with Israeli and foreign tourists coming to experience the holiday spirit. Parking was impossible. This year the tree towers over the square and the stores are decorated, but the streets are empty and the mood is heavy.
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The Samer family, from the mainly Christian Western Galilee community of Mi’ilya, said that even their small village was more festive this year than Nazareth.
Zahi Greib owns a corner grocery near the square. He says he misses the days when the city had 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a day. “Even selling water brought in enough revenue to keep me going for months,” he says. “We haven’t seen any tourists for 10 months. The coronavirus killed the Christmas market, and with it the Christmas spirit.”
Greib says he sells a few items to locals, but revenue is down by at least 90%. He’s been unable to service his loans and has asked suppliers to wait to be paid, he says.
“Everyone knows everyone here, so you manage, but it’s hard. Luckily my store is in a space that belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, so the rent is low,” he says.
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At the Mashwari bakery, which typically draws customers from all over the country, things look bleak. “We’re working all the time, but we’re hurting,” says owner Munir Hassan. “Even though we’re open, I see all the stores around me closed, and it doesn’t give me hope.”
Hassan says that Nazareth’s merchants still haven’t recovered from the first and second pandemic lockdown and from the disappearance of tourists. “Half of the stores are up for rent or sale, 70% of the restaurants are closed, and who knows whether they’ll reopen.”
His bakery manages to survive because people always buy pita, but that’s all they’re buying, he says.
“There’s no foreign tourism, no domestic tourism and the locals don’t come to indulge in the bakery’s treats,” he says. Furthermore, the bakery has lost all its restaurant customers.
The bakery is staffed by Hassan’s wife and children, so he doesn’t have to pay salaries to external workers, but he’s still worried. “I don’t want to think about a third lockdown,” he says.
Abu Ali Aonalla, owner of the city’s well-known El Janina restaurant overlooking the square, sits under a 110-year-old tree and worries about the future. “We have a few delivery orders, but there’s no work,” he says. Revenue is down more than 90% since the pandemic began, he says.
“I’ve been at this restaurant for 56 years; it was opened in 1940. We survived wars, but we never had anything like this,” he says. The restaurant missed out on Ramadan, and now it’ll miss out on Christmas, he says. “If there’s a third lockdown, we’ll go bankrupt,” he says.