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Walking in Bethlehem this Christmas when peace is absent


A view of Bethlehem from a former mansion's porch, currently uninhabited. Only a hundred years ago all of this would have been olive groves. © Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

Watching the news from the Holy Land over the last few months hasn’t been a joyful or heart-warming experience. With the occupation of Palestine still in full swing, daily violence – structural, moral, physical, and systemic – on the rise, ‘Silent Nights’ are a world away from the realities of the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Bethlehem today – with its three refugee camps that were meant to be only temporary, 25-per-cent unemployment, lands constantly confiscated for the expansion of illegal Israeli settler-colonies, the Wall cutting the landscape and people from each other – can hardly be expected to host a happy party and tell exciting stories.

But she tries. With dignity.

On the corner of Star Street, a road which the Three Wise Men supposedly took, Sami the tea-coffee guy refuses to indicate exactly how much he charges for a hot drink. ‘Give whatever you think it’s worth,’ he insists and leaves you to it. That is his business strategy with foreigners. He told me once how his 2x2-metre cafeteria hosts dozens of men during Ramadan, when smoking and drinking in public would be considered (by both those who are fasting and those who aren’t) an offence lacking of any respect. So this is where they hang out drinking Sami’s tea and coffee during Ramadan, and this is where Sami watches – if he is not busy – the Patriarch on his way from Jerusalem to the Church of Nativity.

White stone walls with blueish doors is a characteristic feature of Bethlehem's Old City.

Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

To clear the way for the Patriarch through the crowds during his traditional Christmas procession is actually a job. Historically it was a paid job, but these days people do it for pride and respect, says Noor Awad, my guide on a ‘Bethlehem’s Quarters’ tour recently established by Visit Palestine, an independent hub aimed at promoting tourism in Palestine. There would be five or six people with sticks walking in front of the Patriarch until he reaches the Church of Nativity and there is a quarter in the Old City named after them. The Al-Kawawseh quarter was apparently famous for providing people to fill vacancies for this position.

Other Old City quarters on the tour include the tiny Syrian quarter, where Syrians and Armenians fleeing the genocide committed by Turkey established themselves in the early 20th century. Today their descendants call themselves Palestinian, yet they retain their specific identity that adds to the richness of cultures that has always been the essence of this region. A small community, some of its members still speak Aramaic, at least during Mass in their Syrian Orthodox church. Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the Greater Syria region that included Palestine, was also the language that Jesus and his crew most likely would have spoken.

There is also a Translators quarter, where lived people who, Noor says, have been translating for pilgrims and merchants for at least 1,000 years. Catering for visitors – religious and secular alike – is a well-established practice in this place, as Sami’s example clearly shows.

Israeli checkpoint in the Wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Nearby is Aida refugee camp.

Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

Christmas celebrations this year in Bethlehem are scaled down out of respect for the shuhada [martyrs] – more than 120 Palestinians killed by the Israeli army since the beginning of October; out of respect for their families as well as the injured, the imprisoned, and the shuhada of the future.

In Bethlehem, Christmas comes three times: first, for the Catholics on 25 December; then, on 7 January, the Orthodox celebrate theirs; and finally, 19 January is Christmas Day for the Armenians. In a land where at least 13 Christian Churches are present, in the city where the Church of Nativity stands with a crane looming over it – the roof was said to be unfit for worship, the building’s doors, walls and mosaics require restoration, which is being currently carried out to the disappointment of camera-armed tourists – in such a place Christmas comes thrice a year and every time it is welcomed by the community that used to be majority Christian until most of them left to find a better life elsewhere, preferably in the Americas.

This year’s Bethlehem Christmas motto, as defined by the city’s municipality, is ‘We have on this Earth what worths peace’ [sic]. It’s based on the opening lines of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, one of the greatest Palestinian poets of modern times, where he writes, ‘We have on this Earth what makes life worth living.’

A Nativity scene from Kenya, exhibited at the Peace Center every Christmas period.

Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

Peace was the underlying theme of Bethlehem’s official Christmas message to the world, repeated by the city’s mayor, Vera Baboun, numerous times during a press conference held at the beginning of December. Speaking to cameras ‘from the city of peace that lives no peace’, she reminded the world that ‘We are one injury, we are one pain; we are one tear, we are one joy.’ And because ‘Peace is absent’, we wish ‘Victory to peace’.

One year ago, Bethlehem’s Christmas motto was ‘All I want for Christmas is Peace.’ That wish still hasn’t been granted. And that is why, Baboun writes, ‘We urge you, people of conscience throughout the world, to intervene to stop this siege of Bethlehem and the continuing waterfall of our spilt blood.’

That is today. Noor the tour guide talks of the past.

He tells how Bethlehem – a village, never a city – historically never had stone walls to protect it from intruders, invaders, self-proclaimed ‘civilizers’ and their associates, as Jerusalem did (not that it helped her enough). But the people of Bethlehem built their houses on a hill so close to each other that all it would take to protect themselves from uninvited guests would have been shutting the heavy wooden doors placed in the narrow arched entrances to the inhabited area.

He tells how during the days of the Roman Empire, two canals delivered water from the surrounding area to both Bethlehem and Jerusalem; today, two of the city’s main roads run above what used to be Roman aqueducts. The vast olive groves and farmers’ fields that landowners would watch sipping sweet tea on their sunny mansion porches no longer surround the city, either. On their memory now stand family houses for Bethlehemites and illegal Israeli settlers.

He tells how at the beginning of the 19th century, during Ottoman rule, Bethlehem – a village, never a city – had seven quarters: six Christian and one Muslim. Named after the clans who occupied a certain area or the inhabitants’ favourite profession, the seven quarters today comprise the Old City of Bethlehem, but the religion ratio is no longer 6:1. With middle-class and well-off Christians emigrating en masse to foreign lands that are not military-occupied, today Bethlehem’s population is only around 15-per-cent Christian.

Christmas Tree in Bethlehem's Manger Square, December 2015. Right behind is the Church of Nativity, with the Peace Center to the left in the picture.

Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

The Christmas tree in Manger Square faces the Church of Nativity on one side and Omar mosque on the other. Noor retells an anecdote from December 1999 when, with only days left to the third millennium, the then-Pope John Paul II arrived in Bethlehem to deliver his speech. Preparations for such an important visit were very detailed, yet somehow the fact that Islam calls for Muslims to pray five times a day was forgotten. The Pope would have addressed the world and the muezzin the believers at the same time.

That didn’t happen though: before the Pope’s speech, the Sheikh announced through the mosque’s loudspeakers that out of respect for their Christian guest the Muslim call to prayer would be skipped that day. The Pope later thanked the Sheikh for this kind gesture, but foreign journalists reported that ‘Muslims interrupted the Pope’s speech,’ Noor says with a shrug. See, the Sheikh spoke in Arabic, his native tongue, the language of Bethlehem. That was 15 years ago. This year the Pope is not coming.

Manger Square itself, in the very heart of the City of Peace, where thousands of locals and foreigners celebrating Christ’s birthday mingle, was Bethlehem’s main market area until 1925 when it was moved inside the Old City. Today, Noor says, three kinds of products are sold there: fruit and veg, which mostly come from Israeli settlements; meat, both frozen and straight from the butcher; and products for those who cannot afford anything better: cheap plastic imports of almost anything, as well second- and third-hand goods.

‘Four kilos of mandarins for 10 shekel!’, ‘Come on, sisters, three kilos of bananas for a tenner!’, we hear the merchants around us. ‘The louder you shout, the more customers you will get. This is their strategy,’ Noor says. Does it work? ‘They believe it does.’

Sunset over Bethlehem.

Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

We all believe in something. Especially here, in the land the three monotheistic religions hold dear.

‘You know, the best aubergine [eggplant] in the world comes from Battir,’ Noor adds proudly. Battir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Bethlehem, a terraced village where sunset hikes ‘are truly beautiful’. The nearby village of Artas is famous locally for its lettuce. And Bethlehem’s honey is better than that of Ramallah, according to a Ramallah-based beekeeper. Merchants would agree.

Back on Manger Square, currently occupied by tourists and pilgrims, once stood a building that served as a police station and a prison. This is where the Ottoman rulers would torture Palestinians they didn’t like. During the British mandate of Palestine (1922-48), British occupiers followed the tradition and also imprisoned Palestinians they didn’t like. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, when the West Bank fell under Jordan’ s control, the Jordanians demolished it and built another structure in its place, to serve the same purpose. After the birth of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 the building was demolished once again; on its ruins was built what is today called the Peace Center, a multi-purpose complex with a well-stocked bookshop, souvenir shop, meeting halls, and an exhibition room that opens before Christmas and where one can observe the diversity of Nativity scenes from places as far away as Slovenia and Haiti.

Merry Christmas. With dignity.


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