A Middle Eastern Christmas in Bethlehem



“On the night of Christmas, hatred will vanish. The Earth blooms. War is buried. Love is born.Where there is charity, God is to be Found.”

– Ubi Caritas

As I sit on Sulaiman’s cushy red couch, looking out at the pouring rain over the white brick and olive trees of Ramallah, I can recall a lovely Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, filled with excitement and a touch of sorrow…

Bethlehem was beautiful. The songs tell of a sleepy little town, and sleepy it was under a blanket of fog and chilly air. But first, there was the festivities.

Rachel and I arrive to the city center via “service” (Palestinian bus/taxi) after befriending a family from Belgium and spending the hour-long drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem translating from French to English to Hebrew in a swirl of holiday excitement…

It is almost World War 3 in the sherut (Israeli bus/taxi) en route to the holy city. The Arab driver wants to charge the Belgians extra money for their humongous suitcases, which we translate for him from Arabic to French. He next shouts at the Indians in the back of the bus to pay up (in Hebrew), which we translate to English. They shout back that 33 shekel is a rip-off and that they’ll call the police if he doesn’t lower the price. He roars with laughter. The Belgians look scared and confused, and the Chinese woman behind us mutters under her breath. The young Israeli demands to be let off before the old city much to his anger, and so we arrive at the Damascus Gate feeling both frazzled and exhilarated.

An hour and one (unguarded) checkpoint later, we’re in Bethlehem, following throngs of Christian pilgrims from all over the world in search of the rumored 50 foot Christmas tree and Jesus’s (rumored) birthplace: the Church of the Nativity.

We decide to follow the Germans, since they seem to know the way (as Germans often do)– a cheerful and adorable family of six that we had spotted on the bus. The father is dapper and unfazed by the cold in his snowflake sweater, jaunting along quickly with an adorable blonde daughter underarm.

We’re greeted by the Arabic version of “Jingle Bells” (Layla Tay-eid) blasting from a second floor cobblestone apartment window. We follow the Germans through narrow alleys crammed with stores selling shark balloons and Slutty Santa outfits. The smell of roasting nuts and Arab spices hits our noses, and the bustling of visitors from every corner of the world sweeps us along toward the center.

Suddenly, there stands the tree– rising from the stone square up in the crisp air and completely bedecked in glitzy lights. Blow-up Santas bearing the Palestinian flag draped diagonally across their chests teeter back and forth on their mechanic bases, and people hurry in and out of the gift shop selling everything “holy” (including holographic Jesus playing cards and bejeweled camel figurines)– “We’ll take 8 of these nativity sets,” bosses an American woman to the shopkeeper, “One for Joe, one for Maggie and Bob, two for the grandparents…oh, do you have bubble wrap?” I guess commercialism is not just a thing of the West and never has been…

We resist the urge to shop and duck into the Church of the Nativity, which I was at three years ago but have never seen so crowded. Everywhere I look are different faces: Africans, Asians, Arabs, South Americans, U.S. Americans, Europeans… and of course several familiar faces because you can’t go anywhere in the holy land without seeing people you know. I run into Aziza, a multi-lingual nun who works at the Free Clinic for Refugees with me in Jaffa during the candle-lighting service. Monks garbed in brown robes smile and joke with each other as they pass light from their candles into the pews… I feel my soul warm as my candle catches fire and the harp strikes up to begin the Latin prayers for Christmas.

After the church, we eat neon pink cotton candy in the street and run to meet up with Sulaiman– a friend I know through coexistence circles, and some of his friends from Europe. We drink mint tea in a cafe and then head to the Lutheran Church where I convince the whole group of us to sit for the “traditional Christmas songs in Arabic renditions” concert, and then through the Brass for Peace concert right after. I’m elated… In Exelcis Deo is my favorite song and we get to sing along, under the cover of a bright blue ceiling inscribed with gold Arabic writing.

We have dinner and dance the night away in Beit Jala after braving the pouring rain to get to a restaurant club where the sweet smoke of the argilleh and comfy couches can’t keep people away from the dance floor, where all of my preconceived notions about “proper” and “traditional” Arab culture once again fly out the window (they keep sneaking back in somehow, in Israel).

These Palestinians know how to MOVE! Men and women alike shake their hips like there’s no tomorrow, and Gigi, one of Sulaiman’s friends, performs a dance solo to a song crooned by the Palestinian MC/singer for the night while we all chant “Hayyaaa” (snake) and clap along loudly to the rhythm. Before we eat, Sulaiman asks us to hold hands and begins a prayer… “Thanks to God for this food and….” but suddenly the music starts up again and I find myself shimmying with my hands pumping joyfully in the air, clasped in Sayyeed’s. I wish wistfully that my Israeli friends could be here to take part in the celebration… both sides of the wall are so similar in their passion for fun… and yet they each make merry in total separation from the other.

The smoke and food and dancing has made us tired, so we head out– 3 Americans, a Palestinian, and a Cuban, to find a cab to Ramallah. At first the air is cold and clear, and I can see the famous shining star over Bethlehem over the sleepy little houses, tucked into the hillsides with twinkling lights protecting the city from any harm that might befall it on a less silent night. But then the rain starts fiercely pouring down on us and we surrender to a greedy cab driver who wants an outrageous 300 shekels to take us to Ramallah… in the end, perhaps the price is fair because we are stopped for 20 minutes at a sudden checkpoint at 2 in the morning where we watch the van in front of us unload six children (decked in their Christmas best) into the pouring rain at the soldier’s orders. I feel tired and frustrated, and our driver swears under his breath.

The whole day has felt peaceful, everyone helping one another and smiling with excitement as they bought sweets and made peace through their music. If only the true Christmas spirit could break free of its single day and place, and spread around the whole region paying no mind to borders or state religions. The checkpoint feels ugly and cold… out of place and unyielding even on the most charitable of holidays. I don’t breathe as the driver rolls down our window. We and the soldiers peer into each other’s faces, each scanning for signs of trust in the other’s eyes. I guess I should be grateful, because we pass through unscathed and are spared another rainy interlude.

The roads are windy and dark, slippery from the rain and flanked on either side by steep and rocky cliffs. The driver, though I distrust him out of paranoia for his greed (what if he kidnaps us for ransome?) drives slowly… coming almost to a stop round every curve. Our lives are all in the hands of the same God, no matter how different the name we call him. I think of how much I want to return safely home to Jaffa where my Israeli boyfriend (who was dressed as Santa Claus last I saw him) waits for me with warm arms and gentle Hebrew. I want to warm myself from the damp chill and return to the love and joy that belongs in this season of miracles.

We arrive safely, and at long last I release my breath. The driver speaks to us in Hebrew (I didn’t know he could) and laughs loudly at our surprise. He wants to show off what he knows, but we want to get inside where it’s warm. We’re damp and it’s early. Christmas Day. Christmas in the Middle East.

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4 comments

  1. Hey, Rose…very powerful, lovely and evocative prose, and thank you for sharing this with us! It is such an amazing experience to have your eyes, ears, mind and heart over there in those troubled, yet vital and so very alive, lands amidst such wonderful people! Short of being there, it is as good as it gets and I am very grateful to you for your writing! Love and peace to you…U Lee

  2. Sweetheart, another amzing blog, so beautifully written and so heart warming. You express your feelings so well, and I am learning so much from you. Keep it up, sammy. Your Nanny just kvells when I think of you, which is constantly.As Uncle Lee says,”Love and peace to you”
    Nanny

  3. you are truly a translator, not just among languages, but of the human experience. i loved the line, “all of my preconceived notions about “proper” and “traditional” Arab culture once again fly out the window” and wondered once again why we try so hard to box people into sizes we can handle. all the joys of the season, stay safe, and as wonderful as you are!


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