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Noga TarnopolskyDecember 22, 2022
The team at Morcos Nassar Palace. Photo courtesy of L’Arche-Bethlehem, Ma’an lil-Hayat.The team at Morcos Nassar Palace. Photo courtesy of L’Arche-Bethlehem, Ma’an lil-Hayat.

There’s a new star in the constellation of Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace: an inn with a purpose beyond mere hospitality.

The latest boutique hotel to open its doors in Bethlehem’s Old City, just minutes away from Manger Square, is the Morcos Nassar Palace, which doubles as a humanitarian project unique in Palestine and possibly in the Arab world.

The ornate structure was built between 1899 and 1910 as a family mansion by Paris-trained architect Morcos Nassar, a native son who died in 1936. Like many other local families, Nassar’s descendants fled the region after the war of 1948, to be dispersed around the world.

The latest boutique hotel to open its doors in Bethlehem’s Old City is the Morcos Nassar Palace, which doubles as a humanitarian project unique in Palestine and possibly in the Arab world.

The home changed hands numerous times, ending up in 2013, in some disrepair, as the office space for L’Arche, known locally as Ma’an lil-Hayat, “Together for Life.” The Bethlehem program is part of the international federation of L’Arche communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together.

Even before the hotel opened, L’Arche Bethlehem was singular for offering a productive and safe structure for disabled Palestinians. Ma’an lil-Hayat is known for the craft goods its members make from local wool sourced from Palestinian shepherds and, more recently, for its leatherwork.

Ma’an lil-Hayat’s director, Mahera Nassar Ghareeb—no relation to the palace’s original owner—noted that in Palestine there is no support structure specifically for families with intellectually disabled members. “If they don’t come to Ma’an lil-Hayat, they are locked in at home watching TV or running around on the streets,” she said, adding that disabled people in Palestine still face social stigma, though that is being mitigated with the growing awareness of the dignity of intellectually disabled people that is advocated by her organization.

It was Ms. Nassar Ghareeb who looked up at her dilapidated surroundings about eight years ago, saw the magnificence lying just beneath its surface, and thought: “This should not be our workshop. This masterpiece should be shared with the world.”

Thus a new mission was born—to turn the rundown palace into a boutique hotel that would draw visitors from all four corners of the world and showcase Palestinian society while offering a sense of purpose and, crucially for her, visibility, to the Palestinians with disabilities who would staff the establishment.

In Palestine there is no support structure specifically for families with intellectually disabled members. “If they don’t come to Ma’an lil-Hayat, they are locked in at home watching TV or running around on the streets.”

After a soft opening over the summer, the Morcos Nassar Palace’s 12 rooms were at full capacity by mid-November, staffed by four fully abled professionals and three of Ma’an lil-Hayat’s “core members,” including the hotel chef, who is a deaf and mute person.

The other L’Arche members handle room cleaning, breakfast service and clearing tables. One core member handles the gardening.

The reception desk, logistics and most guest interactions are handled by members of the fully abled staff. The hotel aims to attract pilgrims who seek a more meaningful interaction with Bethlehem and its people than what they might experience in the usual one-hour stop at the Church of the Nativity, and visitors seeking a deeper experience of Bethlehem's heritage and culture.

To achieve her goal, Ms. Nassar Ghareeb brought together the Palestinian Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation and Albergo Etico, an Italian organization that supports the creation of employment opportunities for young people with intellectual disabilities. To make the project sustainable and energy-wise, she brought in BEEP, the European Energy Efficiency Project. Bethlehem University’s business school accepted the challenge of creating a successful nonprofit hospitality venture in its incubator program.

The building’s painstaking overhaul, led by Italian artisans, took several years to complete, the work delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

After that travail, however, the result is a stunner.

The hotel’s floors, all made up of the villa’s original decoratively tinted tiles, shine. The dining room’s windows open onto a breathtaking view of the semi-arid Biblical slopes that spread out around Bethlehem, and its walls are adorned with a meticulously restored trompe l’oeil fresco of a colonnade.

Thus a new mission was born—to turn the rundown palace into a boutique hotel that would draw visitors from all four corners of the world while offering a sense of purpose and visibility to Palestinians with disabilities.

An elevator has been added to the building to conform to modern accessibility requirements.

Morcos Nassar’s lush gardens are now open to hotel guests, who sometimes sneak an orange off the trees.

Despite continuing worries of possible unrest erupting in the West Bank, and fears that the Covid-19 tourism collapse would persist into 2023, pilgrims—mostly Christians from the Americas—returned to Bethlehem as soon as pandemic restrictions were lifted.

Tourism in Bethlehem, a gem of a city on the Judean hills, has also been buoyed by the overflow from overbooked hotels in neighboring Jerusalem and a successful ad campaign that promoted Bethlehem’s many prosaic attractions, which include thousands of years of history, winding alleyways, fine local cuisine and its wild, native beauty.

Thus far, Ms. Nassar Ghareeb said, there have been “no stumbles” at the boutique hotel. She said the new employees “are very happy at their jobs, very proud of what they are doing.”

Between July, when the hotel first opened to the public, and October, there was a steady flow of guests, with up to eight of the hotel’s dozen rooms taken, but November brought a spike in occupancy. “When we opened it we did not expect that the whole world would be interested, or coming here,” she said.

Morcos Nassar’s lush gardens are now open to hotel guests, who sometimes sneak an orange off the trees.

Initial reviews on Booking.com are universally positive, with the hotel scoring 9.5 out of 10. In a review that typified others, Val from the United Kingdom wrote: “This is one of the best hotels we’ve stayed in. Our room was beautiful.... However, our biggest praise must go to the staff. They couldn’t do enough for us. What a wonderful team.”

The hotel was formally inaugurated on a breezy mid-June afternoon, with a rousing performance of the Palestinian national anthem and something of a hospitality rehearsal, with L’Arche members greeting an audience of family members and foreign emissaries, smilingly circulating with trays of finger food.

Palestinian Minister of Culture Atef Abu Saif, who attended the event with his young daughter, noted that Bethlehem has always been on the vanguard, a city of consequential affairs.

“The birth of Jesus Christ is the most important event that took place here in Bethlehem and made this humble town famous worldwide. But it is not the only event of significance. We have very rich cultural resources, one of them being these historic palaces.”

Bethlehem is home to about a dozen palatial homes that have, over the years, been transformed to various public uses. Acknowledging the Morcos Nassar Palace’s distinction—“it’s unique in Palestine, I don’t know about the whole Arab world”— Mr. Abu Saif looked as if he were close to bursting with pride.

“At this inauguration, yes, I feel very proud,” he said, “proud of being part of this important project to serve the community. It is not the story of a restoration, of how we preserved the building, or adapted it for its current use. It is the story of how we opened it up for the global community, which is the hope of our children.”

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