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Israelis And Palestinians Are Quarantined Together In Hotel Corona


About 200 people - Israelis, Palestinians, religious, non-religious - all recovering from COVID-19, all forced to live together in a hotel in Jerusalem until they're not contagious anymore. The patients call it Hotel Corona. It's all being taped. And people at home are tuning in, including NPR's Daniel Estrin.


DANIEL ESTRIN: The very first guests to arrive at Hotel Corona is 19-year-old Aysha Abu Shhab. She's a janitor at a hospital. That's where she caught the virus. More and more guests check into the hotel. And one evening, she hears dinner announced over the hotel PA system.

BARUCH SHPITZER: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: And she looks for people to sit with.

AYSHA ABU SHHAB: The religion Jewish was together.

ESTRIN: She sees the religious Jews are with the other religious Jews. The secular are with the secular.

ABU SHHAB: And the Arab was together.

ESTRIN: Aysha grew up in a Bedouin city in the desert. She knows about sticking with your own kind. But she lands on an older religious Jewish couple Amram and Gina Maman.

ABU SHHAB: They was laughing all the time. So I chose them.

AMRAM MAMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Amram's 66, spent a couple decades serving in the army. He told me he thinks he got the coronavirus at his Orthodox synagogue and infected his wife. So they sit together and eat. And then they sing together, one in the kippah, one in the hijab.

AYSHA, AMRAM AND GINA: (Singing in non-English language).

ESTRIN: This simple act is unusual in a country where Jews and Arabs tend to live separately. Aysha documents this on her phone, which began happening a lot at Hotel Corona, people filming themselves dancing, sunbathing together. The images go viral and get picked up by the Israeli news. Aysha says she starts having conversations she's never had before.

ABU SHHAB: I asked them about them religion, like, about the Jewish people. Like, why when the women get married, she started to cover her hair? And why the guys wearing the kippah? And they explain me a lot.

ESTRIN: The Jews in the hotel ask her the most sensitive questions that a Palestinian citizen of Israel can face. Like, do you consider yourself more Israeli or Palestinian? But the question here felt friendly, genuinely curious.

ABU SHHAB: They didn't judge me. Like, I'm Arabian. I'm Muslim. I'm that. No. I'm human, that you can talk to me. Like, there is no difference between us.

ESTRIN: But then there were fraught moments, too, like when Aysha was walking back to her room and a guy collapsed.

ABU SHHAB: He's look like Vincent van Gogh.

ESTRIN: He's gaunt, pale and bearded, an Orthodox Jew now having an asthma attack on the hallway carpet. Aysha rushes to help, but wonders - am I allowed to touch him?

ABU SHHAB: Like, I'm a Muslim. Maybe I cannot talk to him. I cannot touch him.

ESTRIN: Maybe if she helps him, he'll be offended. So she calls the medics. But until they can get on the protective equipment and enter the hotel, they need her to step in.

ABU SHHAB: And I asked the medical what I have to do.

ESTRIN: Do you think you saved his life?

ABU SHHAB: Actually, maybe. I don't know.

ESTRIN: One of the guests, a Jewish nurse, told her she'd done something great. Aysha confessed to her she'd always dreamed of being a nurse, not a hospital janitor.

ABU SHHAB: She told me you can be a doctor, not a nurse, when she talked to me.

ESTRIN: These unlikely friendships were put to the test on Passover. The guests planned to gather in the banquet hall for one big Passover Seder. The young patients at the hotel really wanted to film this for their families back home. But ultra-Orthodox Jews forbid electronics at a Seder. Some ultra-Orthodox guests approached the hotel management. Reception manager Baruch Shpitzer (ph).

SHPITZER: It wasn't demand. It was a polite request. We want to celebrate traditionally. And the young people wanted to celebrate differently. And if you don't mind, if it's possible to divide it.

ESTRIN: To divide the banquet hall.

SHPITZER: One for the ultra-Orthodox and one for the rest.

ESTRIN: They set up a floor-to-ceiling divider. And in walks Amram and Gina Maman, the religious Jewish couple.

MAMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He says he remembers coming in with his wife, Gina. She took one look at that partition wall. And she tells him, I can't do Seder like this. I'm going to cry.

MAMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He tells his wife, give me two minutes. And we're going to move this barrier. It's too big for him to push alone, so he calls over some younger guys. And they start to slide the wall, when an ultra-Orthodox man jumps up. But he's not there to stop them.

MAMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He tells him, I'm so happy you're moving this partition. And he helps him. And altogether, they push that divider back into the corner. And then, as one room, 180 people, they bless the wine. The Seder begins. Aysha and other Muslim guests in the hotel are there, too, celebrating with them.

ABU SHHAB: They invite me to sit with them, to eat with them.

ESTRIN: And by the very last night of Passover, Aysha is sitting at the ultra-Orthodox table.

ABU SHHAB: It was a great conversation. Like, we take shots.


ABU SHHAB: No. Not me, them. But I enjoyed them, like, sitting with them - not to drink, of course.

ESTRIN: Now, we do have a little video taken from the Seder, when some guests discreetly pulled out their iPhones.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

SHPITZER: They had a beautiful Seder. When you see them together, you know that they don't have the - all the rules and the barriers that you have now - that we have now. I believe that a lot of people in Israel a little bit envious (laughter) of that. People won't forget this Passover for a long time.

ESTRIN: The army is in charge of the quarantine hotels. It opened many other Corona Hotels after this one. But most of them are segregated, not mixed like this one. The army says there were so many ultra-Orthodox Jews who caught the virus, they opened hotels just for them, with special kosher food according to their needs and so they could be with their own kind. Baruch, the hotelier in Jerusalem, sees the logic of separate hotels, of keeping patients with their own kind at a time when they feel their most vulnerable?

SHPITZER: And we have to do the best we can to make them feel comfortable.

ESTRIN: He says, his job is not to orchestrate a social experiment, a reality TV show forcing a kind of peace between Israel's various tribes.

SHPITZER: No, because we are not in "The Love Boat." Or life (laughter) is not a movie.

ESTRIN: Try telling that to the cast of Hotel Corona.


KING: Daniel Estrin is our correspondent in Jerusalem. And that story is from NPR's international podcast Rough Translation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.