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Shopkeepers in Jerusalem face difficulties in sustaining their businesses

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Jerusalem, specifically right underneath the New Gate. This is one of the eight gates of the Old City wall. It provides direct access to the Christian Quarter, one of the four quarters of the Old City. The war of these last four weeks is changing life in Israel in all kinds of ways, among them, tourists, the economy. Are businesses open? We've come to spend a little bit of time walking around the Old City and taking a look. First stop, a wine bar named Taboon, just ahead on the left.

MIRAN KRIKORIAN: Hi.

KELLY: Good morning. Hi.

KRIKORIAN: Good morning. How are you?

KELLY: Mary Louise Kelly, NPR.

This is Miran Krikorian, the owner. He tells me this empty stone street is usually packed. But since the war began - he leads us inside his place - they haven't even bothered to set out tables.

You've got a lot of table and chairs. They're all stacked up, yeah.

KRIKORIAN: We have permits to put about 16 tables outside and four tables inside. So what we do is, usually, we stack everything here. We don't even use it. We only have those four tables that we put, outside and we hope for the best.

KELLY: Miran is third-generation Armenian. His grandparents fled to Jerusalem during the massacre of Armenians in 1915. He says his place is famous for Armenian food. He wants it to be famous for Armenian wine, which they were just starting to import when the war began.

KRIKORIAN: Right now, we're thinking about how to survive because we have rent and we have everything, so we're thinking how to manage all this. After that, we will think about importing wine because, you know, we're talking about big, huge sums of money.

KELLY: Miran says many of his friends are out of jobs right now and that the emotional weight of the conflict is heavy. His wife is Palestinian and has family in Gaza.

KRIKORIAN: So everyone is kind of, yeah, uneasy and depressed. I feel like at least we still have a home to go to, you know?

KELLY: Yeah.

KRIKORIAN: It's very hard, it's very hard.

KELLY: Miran and his wife have considered packing up, moving their family away from Jerusalem, away from Israel altogether. His dad counseled them otherwise.

KRIKORIAN: I was talking to my dad because my wife threw the idea of relocating somewhere else. And I was like, let's talk to my dad. He's been here at the '67 war, at the '73 war, at the first intifada. And he was like, don't get excited too much. It happens every few years. Everything goes down, you destroy everything, and then you start rebuilding everything again.

KELLY: Not everyone is in this mindset. Down a long, long set of stone steps winding down into the Old City, we find a business owned by a Palestinian Korean woman. She closed because of the war. She has not reopened, it is not clear when or whether she will.

NATALIE BAJJALI: Hi, hello. How are you?

KELLY: Hi. Natalie?

BAJJALI: Yeah.

KELLY: Natalie Bajjali owns Cafe Bajjali & Ko - spelled K, O - a Palestinian Korean fusion cafe. The name combines her father and her mother's surnames.

BAJJALI: We'll eat kimchi with maqluba, kimchi with a mujadara. So I just wanted to offer some food that's delicious the way I would enjoy it as well.

KELLY: Her cafe is gorgeous - arched stone ceilings, stained glass, sun streaming in, dappling the floor. Her family has owned this space since the 1920s. First they had a carpet store, then a coffee shop. It was just three months ago that Natalie took over and started cooking. She says all kinds of customers, especially tourists from Asia, could not get enough. Then came the war.

BAJJALI: Priorities have changed. My priority isn't, like, my business anymore, in a sense. My mind is elsewhere.

KELLY: She's still doing private catering gigs but coming here to the Old City feels scary now.

BAJJALI: As you can see, walking through the city, there's not many people, there's not much traffic. People are scared to come down.

KELLY: As far as the thought of reopening, it can wait.

BAJJALI: I'm not so concerned about selling and thriving in my business. I think we're all concerned about the future and what that holds. Because it's so unpredictable and we don't see what is coming, I think that's what we're focused on more than anything.

KELLY: So our next stop, we're trying to find an Israeli business, a business run by Jewish people, which is open here in the Old City. We're on Jewish Quarter Street. It is a ghost town. You can hear the echo of what is apparently usually a packed street.

Israel's tourism minister confirms the ghost town feeling is real. Before the war, on average, 15,000 tourists a day entered Israel. On October 30, so last week, it was 26 tourists for the whole country. Under a row of ancient arches off Jewish Quarter Street, I stopped to chat with a man wearing an artist smock, wielding a paintbrush, busy painting a huge, maybe eight-foot-tall canvas. He told me I was the first person he'd seen all morning. He declined to be interviewed on tape because, he said, the media is anti-Israel and would twist his words. But he agreed to chat and to show me his gallery, and agreed for me to share his view that many of his fellow Israelis aren't bothering to open their shops these days because it's too expensive to pay for air conditioning and to turn the lights on when all their customers have vanished. We were about to give up when we met Itay Levy (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

KELLY: His store is the only one open around here. It's lined with tall shelves of intricately carved wooden harps.

ITAY LEVY: This is called kinnor. It's a Jewish instrument that King David was playing here. And it's like a little harp, eight-string harp.

KELLY: Do they all work, can we play them?

LEVY: Yeah, of course. It's a very, very thin instrument.

KELLY: Would you - can we hear it?

LEVY: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Levy carves these harps himself from cypress wood. He's new in the neighborhood.

LEVY: Owned this shop for three months. Ah. Yes, I'm new here. And I start to build here and, oops. (Sighing). No, it's OK, it's OK.

KELLY: It's OK?

LEVY: Everything OK.

KELLY: Is it always this quiet since the war?

LEVY: Since the war? Yeah, yeah, yeah. We are in a war.

KELLY: So why is he here? What keeps him going?

LEVY: I - this is the situation, and we'll deal it. That's all.

KELLY: Each day, take what comes, figure it out?

LEVY: Yeah. Each day, it's more - (non-English language spoken).

SAUSAN KHALIF, BYLINE: Every day is like an adventure.

LEVY: Adventure, a new adventure, yeah.

KELLY: Yes.

Our local producer Sausan Khalif (ph) helps to translate. Levy and I chat a bit longer. I almost forget to ask.

What is the name of your store?

LEVY: (Non-English language spoken) - The Work of Peace.

KELLY: The Work of Peace?

LEVY: Yeah.

KELLY: That's beautiful.

Elsewhere on the program, we visit the occupied West Bank, where we witnessed a Palestinian farmer being blocked from his family land.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That was our ALL THINGS CONSIDERED co-host Mary Louise Kelly. She and the team have been reporting from the Middle East all this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUSTIN FARWELL'S "DREAMING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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