No Christian - no person - can remain untouched by the sight of the Italian nuns, chaste and serious, singing a joyful and devoted hallelujah accompanied by guitars in the depth of the grotto, at the center of the impressive church. Just for this image, these sounds and this tranquillity it is worth making the trip here.
But many aren't making the trip here. The hopes for prosperity following the pope's March 2000 visit have faded. In past years there have been occasional upswings, groups of tourists arrive and the adjacent hostel, Casa Nova, is filled with guests, the church comes to life and the sisters' singing is joined by a hundred voices of believers in a cacophony of tongues, another hotel or two returns to business and the knafe (sweet pastry) the halva (sesame sweet), the kaffiyahs, the icons and other memorabilia are sold by the dozens.
And then, something very bad happens and the city draws to a halt: the October 2000 riots, the intifada, 9/11, a local conflict regarding the mosque they asked to erect besides the basilica - every time Nazareth recuperates, sees the tourists flowing back in and the rouge back on its cheeks, it is struck and sedated.
Only this past January Haaretz reporter Daniel Ben Simon excitedly reported that "Nazareth is back to its old self," and that "on Saturday the city was buzzing with tourists filling every site, every restaurant and every steakhouse." On Sunday, according to the same report, "there was a continuous traffic of pilgrims on their way to the Sunday mass at the Church of the Annunciation. Pilgrims from Nigeria, Korea, Poland and other countries."
But this Sunday the church had only one single visitor - Eduardo, in his 60s, who lives in the Milano region of Italy and is recently retired. He came to Nazareth in early July to help guide the pilgrims. At first, he says, "there really were plenty of groups here, hundreds of pilgrims from all over the world every day, and I had something to do, it was nice. But since the war started there is no one, so I help here and there with some carpentry and metal work, the days go by, and soon I will return home."
Elias Faran, the church's security guard, says that in the weeks prior to the war, some "200 to 300 tourists visited here every day," but this Sunday only the few Catholics who live in town (the larger, Orthodox community prays in another church) came to the morning mass, and besides "there is nothing here. I don't even know why they need a guard," he says, reminding us that two children died in the city and only sheer luck saved the lives of the workers of a garage which was hit by a rocket.
On Sunday afternoon, the waiters and cooks at the Dianna restaurant on the main road were listening, bored but alert, to an Arab radio station. Before there were a few diners in the restaurant, but after the alarms sounded they all left, and the waiter leaned on the counter deep inside the deserted restaurant, waiting for the day to end. "The rockets here fell near by, in Migdal Haemek," he says, "the windows shook."
Also at Mahrum Sweets, the large store with a reputation for some of the country's finest knafe, the clerks were sitting idly. The television in the corner holds their gaze and they sit intently watching a Saudi drama. "A war between two families, a war that is going on for 40 years," says Amar, one of the viewers, "just like our war here; doesn't end." Occasionally they switch channels, stopping for a short while to hear what Ronnie Daniel has to report on the battles in Lebanon, and return to the Saudi desert and the heat of emotions on the screen.
All in vain
Abdullah Zo'abi, a junior high school teacher, says that perhaps the war did not scare the people in Nazareth, but it did deflate them, "We have here an atmosphere of war, a paralysis of commerce, work - there is none." He himself teaches in the Afula area, and in the summer vacation he tried keeping in touch with students, making sure they are weathering out the bombings. He says everybody knows that "in the end there will be negotiations, and all this killing will be in vain," but he no longer expects a thing, since ignorance, he says, is widespread and acknowledged, and there is no stopping it.
"On the other hand, it's fun the way it's a little quiet here," says T.Z, a geography student at Haifa University, who sits with a friend in the clean and stylized square in front of the basilica, smoking a cigarette. "Poor Mary," he smiles and says. "There is no one to party with her, they all ran away." He thinks Nazareth's frustrating situation is interesting since "it's a special case. For the Jews - the North is the periphery. For the Arabs in Israel - it is the center. From Umm al Fahm northwards, together with Haifa, Nazareth and all the Arab villages, this is the center of Arab society, culture and politics in Israel. Rockets on Nazareth and its surroundings is for us what rockets on Tel Aviv would have been for you."
"And there is one thing I want to tell everyone," says A.Z, who stands with Zo'abi at the door of Mukhtar Sweets. "Listen well: Nasrallah is a son of a bitch." He says this with a straight face, and goes on to explain: "He is a son of a bitch, because he called on all the Arab residents of Haifa to evacuate the city and find refuge with relatives, and now I'm stuck here at home with nine relatives who barged into my house. As far as I'm concerned the Border Police can come and take my uncles back home to Haifa and we can return to our daily routine."
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