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Bethlehem 'Corona Sandwich' eases bite of tourism loss

Guillaume Lavallee
·3-min read

When the coronavirus pandemic left Bethlehem without its hordes of visitors, tour guide Raed Bannura needed a new source of income.

His plan, a sandwich shop, was hardly revolutionary and the ingredients of his signature dish -- meat with onions and spices wrapped in a tortilla -- were certainly not groundbreaking.

But, when it came to marketing, Bannura has grabbed attention.

"I have a special sandwich," he told AFP. "I call it 'Corona sandwich.'"

Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, hosts the majestic Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Before the pandemic, dozens of buses carrying pilgrims and other visitors would converge on the city each day from nearby Jerusalem through the towering Israeli-built grey concrete wall that encircles the West Bank.

Now Bethlehem guides chase after the few remaining visitors, while craft stores and hotels have mostly closed.

- 'Genius' vs 'stupidity' -

While tourism revenue was evaporating, Bannura said he had a brain-flash one day at "six o'clock in the morning."

"I woke up my wife; I told her listen, I know what I'm gonna call this restaurant... Corona."

Her first response was to call him crazy.

"I told her, 'this name will spread as fast as the virus,'" Bannura said.

Located in the shadow of the basilica, the small cafeteria is easily spotted by its huge red and yellow "Corona Sandwich" sign.

Also on the menu is the "Covid-19 hot-dog", with a beef and lamb sausage.

As to whether the name lacks sensitivity towards the devastation coronavirus has wrought, Bannura said: "I know that people die, that corona is a disease.

"But there are people who also die from sugar or tobacco and we do not ban those words from our vocabulary," he said.

"A philosopher once said that there is a hair's breadth between genius and stupidity...I still don't know on which side I am."

- Quiet Christmas? -

Christmas is typically peak season for Bethlehem businesses, but many have lost hope of the traditional holiday boost.

Ashraf Kawazba, frying falafel at the Abu Daoud restaurant, said that normally during Christmas holidays "everything is full and we work non-stop, but here it is dead."

Bethlehem mayor Anton Salman told AFP he was "not expecting anything," this Christmas season.

"We have never known anything like this," he said, including the Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas, of 1987-93 and 2000-2005.

"During the First and the Second Intifada it was difficult, but there were still tourism opportunities," he added.

"This year there is no tourism, no transportation, everything is frozen."

Salman said that since the outbreak of coronavirus unemployment in his city of around 30,000 people had more than doubled -- to 37 percent from around 15 percent.

Bannura dreams of holding out until the tourists return, but does not intend to rename his restaurant even then.

"I will keep the name," he said. "Because people will come here, they will say, 'I survived. I am proud, I am eating -- and I am burying that 'corona'."

gl/cgo/scw/bs/pjm