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Nicola, restaurant owner at Rachel’s Tomb

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 25.11.2011:

Nicola (34), restaurant owner at Rachel’s Tomb

“Do you think I will stay at home? Never!”

By Sytske van Bruggen

Nicola’s restaurant is located in a strange spot near Rachel’s Tomb. When you enter the street, you immediately see the massive grey blocks of the Separation Wall in front of you. Although the street is quite broad, there hardly is anyone there. There are plenty of shops. But most of them are closed since a long time. It gives the street a lost and somehow spooky image. When you look to the right at a distance of 200 meter, the street is blocked by the cold, military checkpoint to Jerusalem. The only people on the street are cab drivers waiting for customers coming from Jerusalem.

After a short walk in the direction of the checkpoint, there is all off a sudden the smell of fresh falafel. It comes from a cozy restaurant. When having passed the door, you immediately see Nicola, smiling happily, and baking his falafel. He speaks from behind his oil pan. During the interview, his hands are non-stop preparing falafel balls

“People want to keep some life in this area,” says Nicola. “The cab drivers want to have a nice place for dinner in the neighborhood. Therefore, they come themselves and send also tourists to my restaurant.”

Nicola is famous for his delicious falafel. As a thirteen-year old boy, he already specialized in the secrets of making a great falafel. He rents this restaurant since ten years. He named it the “Christmas Tree Restaurant” because his family used to have a falafel restaurant in the centre of Bethlehem just next to a Christmas tree that was there all year. In the nineties the Bethlehem municipality decided to start the Bethlehem 2000 project. They built the Peace Center at Manger Square, a place just in front of the world-famous Nativity Church. Therefore the former restaurant had to be demolished.

In the first years, business was going very well. Nicola worked hard, and kept his restaurant open until 22:00 at night. On Sunday he took a day off.

But when the Second Intifada started, Nicola experienced a hard time at his new location. “The last six years were difficult. Often Israeli soldiers ordered me to close my restaurant. Even when my place was full of people, they could order me to close the restaurant in five minutes.” But he was smart: “If people went to a place in Bethlehem, I sent the food by taxi.” In this way he was more or less able to earn his living.

When the Wall was built he had to stay home for three months. That was very hard for him. Afterwards he closed his restaurant at 16:00. “Why should I stay longer? After 18:00 no one is coming anymore.” To earn enough, he started to work on Sundays as well.

It is clear that Nicola is fully dependent on the checkpoint traffic and the moves the Israelis make. “Within two days, the patriarch of Jerusalem will come because of the Christmas celebration. The Israelis allow him to use the main road which is normally closed.” That will take just some five minutes. But for ‘security reasons’ the Israelis will close the road for any one else from at least 12:00 until 15:00. Nicola, with a desperate voice:” So now I think about closing my restaurant all day!”

But despite all the difficulties he experienced in building up his restaurant, one thing is sure. He knows how to survive. With fire in his eyes: “Do you think I will stay at home? Never!”

Sytske van Bruggen is a volunteer at AEI-Open Windows and YMCA, and free lance journalist

October 2009.

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