Old City Voices: Jamal

“We live in a prison. We can’t move freely. There are checkpoints everywhere, and you never know if you will be allowed to pass, or if you will be stopped, IDed and searched. This can happen even on the street or on the sidewalk. How can we expect customers to come to our shops?”

Jamal is a shopkeeper in the Old City of Hebron. He sells shawls, handwoven Bedouin rugs, fancy dresses with hand embroidery, handbags made by village women and other textile items from the region.

He had a thriving business in the hustle and bustle of the Old City market until the 1st Intifada in the early 1990s. After that business declined modestly until the 2nd Intifada in 2000. Then his business crashed and has yet to recover.

In the “old days”, when his father and grandfather were merchants in the Old City, people came from all over the West Bank to Hebron because of the variety and quality of the product sand the cheap prices. Hebron is known for its grapes and other agricultural products, its glass, its textiles, and quality craft and industrial products.

The heart of the Old City is under Israeli occupational control; and, slowly but surely, life is becoming impossible. The goal is to keep the Palestinian land and eliminate as many Palestinians as possible forcing the shops to close for lack of customers and the families to emigrate for lack of income.

Palestinians are some of the best educated and most skilled people in the Arab world and can be found as doctors, educators, crafts persons and skilled workers in many countries.

Jamal, for example, claims that his best investment has been in the education of his children: one son is now a civil engineer in Kazakhstan, a second is just finishing his engineering studies in Ramallah, and his daughter is a teacher.

Jamal comes each day and stands or sits at the front of his small shop encouraging the few passing visitors to the Old City to look and buy.  However, he often sits or visits with other shopkeepers all day for lack of paying customers.

The politically curious come to look at the closed shops with their Israeli welded shut doors or the wire mesh and fabric awnings that protect the streets below from the trash thrown down by the Israeli settlers. Religious tourists come to see the Ibrahimi Mosque/Synagogue. Both give only a passing glance to Jamal and his shop.

What Jamal and his colleagues need is tourist customers: who realize that Palestinians are a friendly, welcoming people. Who want to see the massive stone architecture of the Old City and wander its ancient stone streets. Who want to experience the rich Palestinian heritage as they breathe the air filled with the odors of cooking falafels, bread, sweets and spices and hear the welcoming voices of Jamal and the other Palestinian people.

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