Christ Mass in Palestine

From a blog I wrote in 2011

Aisha and I went into Bethlehem. The town was crowded, mostly with Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, who come from around the West Bank, Gaza and in Israel, but also with a much larger number of foreigners than usual. Eventually 100,000 visitors hit Bethlehem by Christmas Eve, the largest turnout for at least a decade.

We went to the Nativity Church but it was packed with visitors. There are two halves to the church, Orthodox and Catholic, and the place was crowded mainly with Italians, flashing their cameras and forming long queues to visit the shrines. We didn’t stay long. I don’t think Jesus would have done so either – though I can’t really speak for him. I reflected on the strange fact that, whenever I come to this church, I seem to be brought here by Muslims.

Aisha, a British Muslim, had to go home to Ramallah where she lived, so we had hummus and falafel at a friend’s cafe and then trogged up through the Old Town to Bab-al-Sqaq where she caught the 21 bus to Jerusalem. She was trying out this route because, though it requires passing through two major checkpoints near Bethlehem and Ramallah, it’s shorter and cheaper than going along the circuitous Palestinian main route around Jerusalem, staying within the West Bank.

I walked back as darkness fell toward Manger Square, taking photos and chatting with people. The square was heaving by now, with people streaming in from all directions. I spent much of the time with an enterprising young coffee seller, Mahmoud, who places his big charcoal-fired coffee pot on a concrete pedestal and does a roaring trade, selling coffee for a shekel (20p). We have an ongoing dialogue, and he likes his pet Englishman – except that I don’t support Real Madrid, but no one is perfect. I somehow doubt that Jesus supports Real Madrid either, or Barcelona for that matter, and told him so. “Ah, but Mohammed the Prophet supports Madrid!”, he joked.

Indonesian evangelism, no less

Soon a weird and very loud concert cranked up, by an Indonesian Christian rock band. The concert was sponsored by an Indonesian evangelical foundation. I heard the best rendering of the Lord’s Prayer that I have ever heard, quite tastefully done. One of them gave a lovely rap about harmony between Christians and Muslims, and everyone cheered, even though there was an embarrassing moment when he asked Christians, then Muslims, to stick up their hands, and the Muslims outnumbered the Christians by three to one – oops!

Before long I had had enough of harking to herald angels, soon degenerating into Santa and sleighbell songs, even though the music was rocking and rolling with vigour and aplomb, Indonesian style. Do Indonesians, or Palestinians for that matter, actually know what sleighbells are? I took refuge at my friend Alaa ad-Din’s shop, sitting people-watching as the endless crowds streamed down the narrow street. An old taxi-driver I knew drove past and I asked him to return in twenty minutes to pick me up.

I’ve never been one for Christmas – usually I go quiet and into retreat. This year I have felt more sociable about it but, suddenly, I realised that Bethlehem was becoming a nightmare. Why, in this source-point of the Christmas tradition, do they have to import all the Santa razzmatazz, all the commercial crap that has so ruined the spirit of Christmas, burying peace and goodwill under a mountain of consumptive blindness and artifice? After all, this is Bethlehem, the home of Christmas – it doesn’t need to import anything, and in fact it should by rights set the tone. When I had mentioned this to Aisha, she had said I was welcome to come to Ramallah to escape. Suddenly I knew I was going to Ramallah tomorrow, on Christmas Eve.

The taximan never came. After an hour of waiting – allowing for Palestine Inshallah Time – I waved goodbye to my friends at the shop, who were duly worried that I wasn’t enjoying myself, but I was just fine. In truth, if they stopped deluding themselves, most people in these crowds didn’t seem too happy to me either. But then, as someone aptly wrote recently, if you live inside a myth it looks like reality – though the gentleman in question was referring to the growth-economics of recent decades. Yet this rendering of Christmas, in my judgement, has more to do with growth-economics than Jesus, peace and goodwill. Or perhaps I’m just being Scrooge-like and grumpy, or becoming jaded?

It took a while to find a taxi, and then we had to weave around backstreets dodging the traffic-jams. Looking out at the crowds, it’s rather tragic that the majority of people here were Muslims. This isn’t a problem – it’s a blessing, saving the Christmas celebrations from moribund decline. What’s sad is that the Christian presence is so thin. Most of Palestine’s Christians have emigrated.

I had an image of Jesus coming down the street ranting at the desecration of his memory, vaulting onto the stage in Manger Square to unplug the amps and tell the privileged visitors in their allocated seats in front of the stage to yield them up to the poor and needy. Or perhaps just to go home and get on with the job of building Heaven on Earth and acting on His teachings. I’m sure there are spiritual moments for many people here, when they contemplate the tender meaning of the Christ Mass, of the shepherds who came up from Beit Sahour to see the newborn babe and of the Holy Mother and Child, but this… this is something else. I was glad to get out.

So, to all my dear readers, my apologies for omitting to give you a warm and toasty image of Christmas in Bethlehem! I’m sure it has its finer side, and it certainly puts this walled-in city on the world map, at least for a few days each year. It’s good to make a bit of a fuss about peace and goodwill, but why don’t we do this all year?

Ismael

Next day I pottered around the apartment tidying up and exercising my fingers on my computer keyboard, then I rang Ismael and left with him for the service-taxi station, to go to Ramallah. Ismael was a happy man today – his son Tareq had just been released early from jail, thanks to Hamas’ clever politics in exchanging a thousand Palestinian prisoners for one woe-begotten Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. This says something about Hamas’ strategy: they doggedly hold out for their principles without budging an inch, and this time it worked. Israel, which desperately believes Hamas is a bunch of terrorists, did the deal and paid the price. Ismael’s son was free.

Ismael had driven with his wife to the prison near Ramallah to meet him, but the Israelis kept everyone waiting until late into the night, to prevent an outburst of celebration and protest – though it hadn’t worked. There had been a near-riot outside the jail, and Ismael and his wife had beaten a retreat until things calmed down. Ismael is a respectable gentleman, by profession a surveyor but now redundant and a taxi-driver, and quite poor. But they found Tareq and brought him home at last. Their house had since then been busy for some days as people came by to congratulate the son and family, bringing gifts and partying. Released prisoners are heroes in Palestine. Tareq had been jailed for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who were raiding Deheisheh refugee camp, themselves breaking the rules of the Oslo Accords.

Ismael is trying to get Tareq into Abu Dis university. But he’s worried because the jail term has delayed his son’s entry into university, meaning that one of his daughters has reached the age for university too. He can’t afford to pay for both of them. This is deeply vexing to him, because Palestinians value education very highly. A while ago I had given Ismael 400 shekels toward the 8,000 shekel (£1,600 or $2,000) fine he would have to pay for his son on release in about nine months’ time, except the Hamas deal had cut this short and saved the fine, so I told him to put it in Tareq’s self-help fund. He was so grateful, it was touching, and we both cried a few tears together.

Bethlehem was choked with traffic. The place was crawling with armed security men because Abu Mazen, the president, and Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, were on their way here to deliver annual Christmas speeches – a tradition started by Yasser Arafat. There were loads of big SUVs everywhere, the cars of privileged members of the PA hierarchy – people who have done well from Western and Gulf subsidies that support this nation. Unfortunately these subsidies support the hierarchy more than the nation. There’s no major crime in Palestine except for this.

Eventually we reached the service-taxi station. I bundled into a van and we were soon off, down through Beit Sahour and onto the main trunk road northwards. Most of the traffic was coming the other way – not least the armed motorcade of the president and prime minister, with flashing blue lights and a swarm of big motorbikes out in front and in the rear.

This is a trunk road not because of its quality – in British terms it’s a bumpy old ‘B’ road – but because it’s the only road from the southern to the northern West Bank, from Bethlehem to Ramallah, avoiding Israeli controls. Most Palestinians are not permitted to enter Israel proper or Jerusalem, which would be the shortest route – 25km instead of 70km – so they have to go round Jerusalem along this convoluted mountain route.

Palestine Route One

This road is dramatic, a tremendous ride. At first it weaves along the top of the limestone plateaux east and north of Bethlehem, where there’s a view down into a deep valley and then, on the other side, high up, the walled-off outskirts of East Jerusalem. This is vivid enough in itself, but then it suddenly plunges dramatically 1,000ft (300m) down a steep switchback into Wadi Nar, the Valley of Fire, where it changes from a winding old road into a new USAid-modernised dual carriageway heading north to Abu Dis and Al Azariyah, through more wild semi-desert mountain landscape, and winding tortuously through Wadi Nar until it eventually joins the Israeli east-west Route 1 from Jerusalem to the King Hussein Bridge and Jordan. This is a full-scale modern dual carriageway, financed in the 1990s by the Japanese government as a peace road linking Jerusalem and Amman – except peace never came. As far as I know the Japanese never asked for their money back.

We cannonaded down this road, past the Ma’ale Adumim Israeli settlement, perched on a hilltop to the right, then we turned left toward Ramallah. More dramatic landscape, and a few impoverished Bedouin shack-villages. This certainly is a memorable trip, this road. It weaves around hither and thither, and the service-taxi drivers do it at breakneck speed – mercifully they seem to be good drivers. Eventually we reached Ramallah – and it suddenly started raining! This was the first rain for over a month. It was tipping down. I waited to meet Aisha at Manara Circle, the centre of town – a funny bi-directional roundabout with a monument in the middle, dating back to British Mandate times. The British used to come here to get out of Jerusalem and enjoy themselves – rather like a hill-station in the Indian Raj.

Aisha took me to a Latin (Catholic) church for the Christ Mass. It’s the first time I’ve been to a church service for, er, well, must be over a decade, heathen that I am. The service was in Arabic and the church was packed. I floated off into another world, standing up and sitting down when required, looking as if I knew what I was doing. I had been in rather an altered, spaced-out state during the day, so it was rather nice to let myself drift along with the choral singing.

Again, I was taken to a church by a Muslim. I didn’t understand a word of the sermon, but the priest, dressed in white robes with lovely embroidery on it, spoke quite clearly and slowly – useful to listen to, picking up Arabic words I’m beginning to recognise. I hadn’t realised until now that Christians also use the term ‘Allah’ in Arabic. But then, he’s the One God, so why shouldn’t they? For your interest, Allah means ‘The God’ – it has a slightly different nuance to the Western personalisation of ‘God’ as a name, while the Arabic term is a noun.

Ramallah – where the foreign money is

We emerged from the church into the pouring rain, dodging torrents of water, and found a taxi to take us to the village outside town where Aisha and her husband Ahmed live. He’s a web-designer and film-maker, and we had lots to chatter about. They’re moving to England in a few months’ time to work and study (inshallah, if the British do the right thing with his visa, at a cost of £800). Ahmed likes the relatively high educational and intellectual standards of the English. The idea of living in London gives me a sinking feeling, but they’re excited about it. Perhaps I’m just a provincial country bumpkin with moss in my brains.

Next morning, Christmas Day, I sat writing my blog – I was falling behind – while Aisha went out and Ahmed updated websites. It was raining hard – not a day for sightseeing or footling around outside. It was a slow, do-nothing-much day. The calling to prayers at the local mosque was particularly tuneful – though Aisha later told me that, unlike in Bethlehem where it is sung by live singers and therefore quite variable in quality, this was pre-recorded by star muezzin from Mecca or Medina, and pumped out through sound systems paid for by Saudi sheikhs. Then we had a chat and a late lunch, and I bade them farewell to return to Bethlehem. I was still feeling rather wobbly, and wanted to get home to be in my own space.

At the service-taxi station I had to wait some time for the taxi to fill up – it has space for eight passengers. The driver thought I was German, but when I told him in German that I wasn’t, and came from Britaniyya, he didn’t understand, so I stuttered it in Arabic. He was fascinated when I stood outside smoking my pipe – around here, the only pipe-smokers are wizened old Bedouin out in the hills. Eventually people came and we started out.

It was still swilling down with rain and progress was slow. Palestinian roads aren’t built for handling rain, so there were massive pools and floods, and we had some great moments of aquaplaning. Heavy rain in a desert landscape is quite paradoxical. When eventually we reached the steep, winding switchback at the far end of Wadi Nar there was a big traffic jam. People had ground to a halt on the 1-in-3 hill and, the road being covered with a film of rubber and oil from the customarily hot weather, they couldn’t get up. Neither could they back down because of the traffic jam behind them. But Palestinians are good at crises, and it sorted itself out in due course.

When we reached Bethlehem the taxi-station was closed. Since it was still bucketing down the passengers nagged the driver to take them up toward Manger Square, which he duly did, and we tipped out into the monsoon, running everywhichway. By now I was not just wobbly and vulnerable but cold and wet and, being a thin pile of bones, I decided to run for the nearest shelter to ring Ismael, to ask him to come and rescue me. The nearest shelter was a coffee bar called – wait for it – Stars and Bucks, a Palestinian chain that has taken this name to dig Starbucks in the ribs for avoiding setting up in Palestine. Some global corporations (such as Coca Cola, Wall’s ice cream or Nestle) come to Palestine and others, such as Starbucks, don’t. So it looks like Starbucks has lost its chance for business in Palestine – though they probably don’t care.

Whatever, Stars and Bucks had a heater on and served a good cup of tea, and I waited for Ismael. The guys there interviewed me about what I am doing in Palestine: Palestinians are so interested in foreigners, especially the ones who stay a long time and return repeatedly. The usual questions came about my family, my wife (haha), with the customary expression of surprise when I said I had grandchildren (to them I look young), and the questions about my work, where I was staying, and then the riveted attention watching me lighting my pipe.

Bethlehem Old Town

Ismael arrived at last and off we went, weaving around the Old Town, slowing for the virulent speed-bumps, stopping at a shop to get a few provisions and then water-skiing back to Al Khader. I promised to come to visit his son soon. We waved goodbye. Ismael and I are getting like brothers of the soul – he looks my age but he’s ten years younger. I’ll miss him when I go back to Britain, since it’s so good having someone who thinks of me and rings me regularly to make sure I’m alright. He also knows that, as an old revolutionary and dissident who has had his own problems with police and authorities, I understand his son and I have a few survival secrets to share with him.

The apartment was quiet and cold but, once I’d had a bite to eat and a cuppa, I put my hot water bottle on my lap and wrapped a big blanket around myself, finished and uploaded my blog about Hebron, processed my latest photos, did a few e-mails, did my meditation and then staggered off to bed.

So much for Christmas 2011. I went back to Britain in late March 2012.

If you enjoyed this, then take a look at my book Pictures of Palestine.