Jerusalem – Bethlehem – Hebron, the very heart
The time has come to follow the star to Bethlehem. I’m planning to be there for the grand finale, of course, but knowing just how uber-overcrowded the city becomes on Christmas Eve, I figured a pre-holiday visit would offer more insight.
Besides, there was a guest to show around. Matt, a Glaswegian, arrived here with his friend John two days ago. Since John has a recorded history of activism in the West Bank, he was instantly deported by the Israeli authorities: dragged handcuffed and ankle-cuffed to the plane, which took off. There is an international rule whereby a pilot may not take off with an unwilling passenger on board. That rule was not observed.
Matt, being a first-time visitor, did make it through, and a mutual friend matched us up. Here I was then, traveling to Jerusalem to meet a stranger from the rainy lands across the channel. That being the case. I spent the ride reading Dylan Thomas’ unmatched prose wonder “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
It’s striking how distant this literature is from our reality – and also how undistant. I changed only five words in the following passage, and it turned into something from a Palestinian memoir:
Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Palestine, and birds the color of red headscarves whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in dry front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the Israelis and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback.
Matt was waiting for me by the walls of old Jerusalem.
He instantly struck me as precisely the kind of guy with whom I’d enjoy spending a day on the road: easy-going, down to earth, knowledgeable yet curious. I hastened to ask him about Scottish Christmas traditions, and learned that they involve a certain amount of drinking.
“Mulled wine? Egg nog?”
Should have known. His family’s Christmas, however, features other traditions. Matt’s mother is Irish. His father rears from the Catholic community of Basra, Iraq. At Christmas dinners, the family listens to the songs of the inimitable Ilham Al-Madfai.
We took Palestinian bus #21 to Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. This route uses the “Tunnel Road,” paved to allow Jewish settlers a quick, Bethlehem-less passage into the southern West Bank.
Before we turned off to a Palestinian road, Matt noticed a strange wall, the top of which is bent over the road. He knew it not to be the notorious Separation Wall, and wondered whether it is meant to deter stone throwers.
“Precisely,” I said, and thought back to another passage of Dylan Thomas, the one describing the delight of a snowball fight, so easily transformed when a dozen words are altered:
All the demonstrations roll down toward the two-tongued wall, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the barbed wire-edged, blood freezing concrete panels, and I plunge my hands in the gravel and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that earth-tinted bell-tongued ball of protest resting at the rim of the gunshot-singing wall, and out comes Mr. Arafat.
In Beit Jala. The other wall made an appearance, forming a fjord that keeps Rachel’s tomb on the Israeli side. I took Matt’s portrait with a corner of it , the foot of a watchtower, the arm of a Disney-esque mural, the rooftops of Aida refugee camp and the top of Beit Jala’s hill.
Then we went on searching for Christmas. This is one place in the world where Christmas decorations are naturally permanent.
And the one in which impermanent Christmas decorations have no choice but to be splendid. Upon reaching Bethlehem proper, we were greeted by this spectacular tree. Behind it is the Church of the Nativity, and around it is the square that in five days is to be invisible under the feet of thousands.
The photo above was taken thanks to the courtesy of a gentleman working at Bethlehem’s City Hall, who let us shoot out of his office. One floor below, we met city council member Khalil Shokeh, of the Fatah party.
Shokeh is delighted with the state of the city on this holiday season. The tree outside was donated by Nicola Kanawati, local businessman and owner of a gift emporium. It is far grander than any that Bethlehem has seen in the past.
“The lighting of the tree is usually more local, but this time we tried to make it regional,” Shokeh said, “We try to use this event to raise the morale of all the people, because as you know the situation around us is a little bit frustrating.”
I asked Shokeh, a Muslim, how Palestinian Muslims regard the holiday.
“It is a national day,” he said, “especially for the real Bethlehamian Muslim. This is a national day for everybody. On Christmas Eve, when Chairman Abu Mazen arrives, leading a procession of boy scouts and marching bands, that is the peak of the festivities.
Christmas is the national holiday of a nation that is losing its Christians. Great numbers of them immigrated abroad during the second Intifada. The Christian community, more affluent and better connected around the world, was more equipped to leave.
What remains is a primarily Muslim city, which derives its prosperity as well as its pride from a Christian treasure. The Church of the Nativity is a striking symphony composed over many centuries and featuring elegant variations on the theme of Christian aesthetics. On the day of our visit, The Catholic compound’s cloister featured a life-sized nativity scene.
While the main chapel, reserved for the Orthodox church, abounded as usual with chandeliers and containers of incense.
The site of the world’s most famous barn is a subterranean grotto with a narrow entrance.
Inside, the faithful kneel down and kiss a star of silver, placed over the presumed site of the birth itself.
I wanted to ask those around me how they experienced a pilgrimage to a place as significant as this, but no one present shared any language with me. Most were Russian nuns.
Russian nuns travel past concrete walls secured by Israeli soldiers to visit the city of my friend Hussam. Who wouldn’t? A five-minute cab ride from the church, at “The Tent” restaurant in the suburb of Beit Sahour, waited one of the people I love most in this world: a basketball trainer, conflict resolution adviser and tour-guide extraordinaire.
The Tent was certainly decorated for Christmas.
It didn’t always look so good. A few months after the restaurant’s initial opening, in 2001, it was hit by an Israeli shell and burned to the ground, just like Mrs. Prothero’s kitchen, on the outskirts of Swansea.
And we ran down the street, with the stones in our arms, toward the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining room and the gong was bombilating, and Mr Arafat was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Palestine standing on the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with stones, and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.
Hussam himself was a child of the first Intifada. He spent a year in Israeli prisons for stone-throwing. I can’t even fathom what a childhood under the occupation look like. Perhaps full of gifts such as
pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would go throw stones at the armored cars and did and were caught; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.
That wasp line was unaltered.
Today he is involved in different activities, such as guiding dual narrative-tours with yours truly (we are both active with MEJDI, which offers such tours), and consulting his friend Imad on organizing a Santa Claus extravaganza.
Imad’s idea was to get 14,001 people to dress up as Santa in Bethlehem this Christmas. This would break the previous Guiness record, which stands at 14,000. He appealed to several big companies for sponsership, but no one would pay for the suits and the project plunged right down the chimney.
Matt and Hussam share a love of sports – Matt is an avid fan of the Glasgow Celtics and holds season tickets to the stadium. Through sports, another connection is made – a political one. The Palestinian cause has been adopted by Celtics fans and Palestinian flags are often flown during matches. In short, we have a lot to chat about on this pleasant afternoon.
With our stomachs filled and our coffee cups emptied, it was time to move on to the day’s final destination: Hebron. I didn’t expect many traces of Christmas to be found in a city with no significant Christian community, but seeking them is all the fun of the Christmas journey.
Soon we caught a “service” minibus into the hills studded with villages and settlements, refugee camps and watchtowers. They were beautiful like a biblical story and awful like organized religion, beautiful like the spirit of Bethlehem and awful like walls and bad memories, beautiful like “A Child Christmas in Wales” and awful like the drunk death that came to take its author. “After all of this,” said Matt, “I’m going to sleep like a rock.”
Hebron’s main street offered a single holiday-kissed shop window.
But in the midst of the city was an enormous example of something millions around the world identify with Christmas: A shopping mall. With your permission, I will conclude this portion of the journey with Dylan Thomas’ memory of the “unuseful gifts” he received as a child – fully unaltered, and accompanied with images of “Hebron Center” mall. Is the tale of a visit to the birthplace of Jesus not compatible with such mundane sights? That is for you to decide. For now, here’s a toy laptop that can read aloud the entire Koran.
Bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by mistake that no one could explain, a little hatchet; and a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow;
and a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds. Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladders. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo!
And a whistle to make the dogs bark to wake up the old man next door to make him beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the wall. And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it. And then it was breakfast under the balloons.
About the Christmas Journey:
This December, Yuval Ben-Ami embarks on a 10-day journey across Israel and Palestine – to tell the stories of Christmas as it’s celebrated today, in the holy land.
As a volunteer-based media organization with a small budget, +972 Magazine must look externally to cover basic travel expenses needed for special projects like these. Please support the Christmas Journey by making a contribution here, and spreading the word to friends and family!