Christmas morning all I wanted to do was sleep in, but no no! It’s Sunday and it’s Christmas we are in Bethlehem, so I dragged myself out of bed. Several of my companions didn’t because of various illnesses (colds, sinus infections, general malaise—almost all probably brought on by traipsing about in the rain and wind, and spending so much time damp and crowded and standing....oh, and lack of sleep.) I was REALLY glad I did. We headed up the hill again to Christmas Lutheran for the morning service which was amazing. It was truly international again—a German couple was in front of me, there was another American group from a church in Minnesota, there were some other northern European visitors, plus the Palestinians who call this their home church. The service was conducted mostly in Arabic with some English (a reading, a prayer, a song or two...). The children presented a Christmas pageant (mostly in traditional Arab dress) from the beginning of the story to epiphany—literally! They sang songs, told the story, did some minor acting…there were a few moments of forgotten lines and some really awful singing, but also some really memorable moments and wonderful choruses of the "Gloria in excelsis deo" part of Angels We Have Heard On High (except it was all in Arabic). There was a point when one of the shepherds turned to another shepherd and said, very loudly, "EH?" ("What?"). The narrator was a teenage girl with a loud voice who spoke very quickly. The whole thing probably took about half an hour, and it was great! It happened before the sermon, though….and then there was a 15 minute sermon (in Arabic). And then, very cool, we had communion. It was extremely moving to go up for communion in a Palestinian, Arabic-speaking church and be served communion—in Arabic. The pastor spoke English, and there is an American co-pastor of the church, but they served even the Americans (us and another group) in Arabic. It was neat.
The service was about an hour and a half or maybe even a little more, and then we went up to Mitri Raheb’s flat (the manse, if you will) for some fellowship. Coffee, shortbread, crème de menthe, chocolates, and lots of people! It was great. We didn’t stay long, as we wanted to make a stop at the Arab Women’s League shop before heading back for lunch. The shop sells goods decorated in Palestinian-style needlework. They have dresses, pillowcases, table runners, purses, wallets, wall hangings, scarves, and everything you ever wanted—all covered in delicate needlework in bright colors, and done by Palestinian women. Talk about a good cause. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything I really wanted so I passed. While we were inside, it began to rain, and then to hail! I watched out the window as pea-sized hail pelted the streets and the people. We waited until it had passed back into rain before we ventured out. And, of course, we were late for lunch. Are you sensing a theme in my Bethlehem experience here? I was late to probably every meal. LOL.
After lunch we had some free time, which for me looked like nap time! Then I once again dragged myself out of bed for a visit to the Dheisheh (pronounced HAY-shah) refugee camp. All of us except Lynn headed out with Niveen and her friend Mohammed, who lives in the camp, into the rain for a brisk walk to a taxi stand on the edge of downtown. By the time we got taxis, we were soaked! I was glad we took the taxis, though, because it was definitely a little way out, and mostly uphill. We arrived at the camp which, frankly, looks much like the rest of the outlying areas of the town—cement buildings. In fact, if Mohammed hadn’t said, "and now you can see the Dheisheh camp on your left" I probably wouldn’t have noticed. We "got down"” from the taxis and headed up the hill and then I could tell a difference. The streets are narrow—barely as wide as a car. There is graffiti everywhere, mostly of faces. "“The martyrs." Those faces are the likenesses of people killed in the camp by Israelis. There are slogans, too--"Free Palestine" is the most common, obviously.
It is dusk as we walk through the narrow winding streets, all of which look like back alleys. Soon we arrive at a small doorway and we’re led inside—to Mohammed’s family’s home. We enter a small living room, attached to which is a small bedroom/office. There’s also a hallway that leads to somewhere else, presumably a kitchen and bathroom. The entire building is made of cement and it is cold. We sit down and Mohammed’s sister brings in a space heater and takes orders for tea. One of Mohammed’s brothers waves at us from the bed—he’s under the covers to keep warm. Another brother comes out and says hello. After a bit, Mohammed’s father appears wearing a red-checked kefiyya with the black cords keeping it on. He looks about 65 or 70, but may be older. After greeting each of us personally, he sits down and beckons Niveen over to translate for him. After she tells him about who we are and what we are doing, he begins to tell his story.
In 1948 he and his family were forced to flee their village of Zakariyya. Zakariyya is the traditional burial place of the prophet Zechariah and is also, traditionally, the hometown of some of the Virgin Mary’s family. It’s also a wonderful agriculture-based village, where his family has "always" lived and worked. It sounds as if his ancestors have been living and dying in the village for generations. One winter night, in the middle of the night, they all had to flee their homes. They took nothing. They stayed in fields for a little while, before hearing about the group of refugees gathering in Bethlehem. The family went to Bethlehem, on foot and with no belongings, wet and cold, and found thousands of other refugees living on a hillside. Eventually the UN brought tents, but water ran through the bottom and covered the floor. After a year or so of this, the refugees dug trenches through the camp to channel the water away from the tents, but it was only partially successful. After many years of living in tents, the UN gave permission and materials to build a one-room concrete house for each family. This way at least the rainwater wouldn’t run in. The rooms were not big—in fact I suspect that the living room we were sitting in was the original one room. Soon the family was parents and 12 children—a typical size for a Palestinian family during this period. Sometime in the late 80’s, the refugees began to add on to their one room homes (without permits or permission, and without any help from the UN). Now they have several rooms, which is better at least, but still no heat and I would venture a guess that some of the homes lack indoor running water. Now new generations are growing up here. The population is booming—there are currently 11,000 residents of the camp, and 6,000 of those are children. Meanwhile, the village of Zakariyya has been destroyed and rebuilt as an Israeli settlement. Mohammed’s father’s house is no longer there—he was allowed to travel there once a few years ago. Mohammed himself has never been to the village. As a young Palestinian man, he can’t even get permission to go to Jerusalem, let alone a village he claims as his homeland.
Mohammed’s father wants to return to his village. He says that even if it was Israeli controlled, all he wants is to go back to his homeland. He tells us that he believes Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Palestinians and Israelis, are all the same. We’re all people, we’re all children of God, so it doesn’t matter who controls the land. All he wants is to live in it. It’s been 55 ½ years since he and his family fled. He was probably a teenager then. But it is alive for him, it is his homeland, the land of his ancestors, the land of his livelihood, the land of his identity. He will probably never go back there. His son will probably never get permission to visit. The Israeli settlers are firmly entrenched. And we in the West wonder why Palestinians refer to the founding of the State of Israel as "the tragedy."
After a group photo, we left the house and went into the dark damp night. We headed toward the entrance to the camp, and on the way we ran across a mural of a child. It turns out that during one of the Israeli-imposed and army-enforced "curfew" periods when people in the camp were not allowed to leave their houses, a 12 year old child had gone outside to play and was shot dead in the street by an Israeli soldier. He is now among the "martyrs" and this mural is on the outer wall of his family’s home.
We walked down the hill and came to the Ibdaa center, which is a refugee-run center for education and social activities. "Ibdaa" means "to create something out of nothing." It began with a need to stop overlooking the new generation, which was growing up in the refugee camp. Since for a while there had been a fence (complete with barbed wire and one revolving-"door" entrance/exit) around the camp, there was a serious need for the children to have somewhere to go, something to do, other than sit in their homes or be cooped up by barbed wire fences. Something to counter the psychological effect of growing up in the "zoo", children of people who looked mainly at the past and hoped for a future that seemed impossible. Some people decided that a "cross cultural experience" co-ed dance troupe was just the thing. 15 girls and 15 boys trained for a year to share the Palestinian refugee story through music and dance. The founders encountered resistance in the camp for being co-ed, but went ahead. They taught the children French, dance, and music, and performed in Paris. Then they began to travel elsewhere in the world, dancing. Soon the children were growing up and the founders decided to expand to other children and other programs. Now they are on their fourth of fifth generation dance troupe, they have a women’s basketball team, they have a library, they have programs for women, they have after school activities and tutoring, they have co-ed nursery and kindergarten, they have workshops on health and leadership, they have a computer lab, they have art classes. It’s quite a community center! We talked with one of the founders, and he was an amazing man. I am incredibly impressed with what they have created out of nothing: a place for community, for growth, for hope in the midst of sorrow, oppression, and fear. "and God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light, and it was good."
The camp was our last organized activity in Bethlehem, and it was a great way to really get in and see what things are like. People are living lives here. It doesn’t look like a refugee camp “should” look. There are permanent-looking structures, schools, a small hospital, the Ibdaa center, shops, and some of the people even have jobs. But the fence didn’t come down all that long ago, and the Israeli army still has leave to come in and take people away, shoot on sight, or impose “curfew” (which isn’t just a time when you have to be in, but a 24-hour stay-in-your-house-or-get-shot extravaganza).
After our visit to the camp some of us headed to the olive wood shop owned by Adnan, the brother of Nidal, our tour guide from Christmas Eve. It’s a great shop, with hundreds of nativities and other scenes in olive wood, plus some really beautiful jewelry. We were served wonderful white wine (two glasses for me!), and tea with mint (yum) while we browsed. We were the only people in the shop, and I suspect that was probably true all day. After convincing myself I didn’t need another Jerusalem cross necklace or another olive wood nativity, I did decide to buy two really beautiful olive wood candlesticks. (
They were marked at $14 US each, but Adnan had told us when we came in that everything was 50% off for us (I suspect for everyone, frankly, because Bethlehem is so tourist starved). When I came up to pay my $14 for two candlesticks, Adnan took them from me, wrapped them up, and said "Merry Christmas." He refused to let me pay for them at all, insisting they were his gift to me. I’m sure this has something to do with Nidal’s knowledge of what had happened our first night, but I was blown away by this generosity. Here’s a Palestinian man, trying to run a tourist-oriented business in a town where tourism is down 90% from five years ago, and he’s giving away two beautiful olive wood candlesticks to an American woman who had $100 US stolen. It was amazing and beautiful and wonderful. I thanked him profusely, insisted that he be in a photo with me, and then we were on our way to dinner.
Nidal accompanied us to dinner for our last meal at the CasaNova. As we walked up the street, he finally told us that he is a Muslim but is non-practicing. We had been speculating, since during our tour the day before Sarah had asked him if he worshiped in one of these churches? He had refused to answer in any sort of definitive manner. During our conversation tonight, though, he said he is Muslim but he grew up going to Catholic school (for all 12 years!), he had studied religions in university, and he "knows more about Christianity than many Christians."” He probably also knows more about Islam than many Christians or Muslims, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, he doesn’t go to the mosque and he isn’t Christian for the same reason: hypocrisy. He feels that it is not right to go in to a holy place to pray and confess and then to go out and do the same things over again, to continue to act in the same way even while claiming one’s life is changed or in submission to God or whatever. He says he feels more honest by being a secular Muslim (my phrase, not his).
While I understand this sentiment, and think it’s a prevalent one today, I disagree pretty much wholeheartedly. Obviously I think that faith and grace can and do change lives. I also think that it’s normal for that to take some time….it’s a process, not a single event, and yes things happen and people make mistakes and people aren’t always changed perfectly. But to worship and pray and learn and be in community is a part of that journey that really is crucial. Did I say anything like this in the moment? no. I wish I had, but the topic changed and then we’d arrived and the moment was gone. But if Nidal ever reads this, he’ll know. And I hope he can find joy in the community even if it isn’t made up of perfect people.