Christmas in Bethlehem (Beit Laham, Aramaic for House of Laham, the Canaanitic God) is still a very special and meaningful time even under the brutal Israeli apartheid occupation. We are not talking about the visual aspects and the unique religious services at the Church of Nativity (you can now follow these live stream for example on the link shown below). It is special because reflection here is special. Nowhere is there an exhibit of “Occupation Art” shown in a “Peace Center” in front of a large Christmas tree in front of one of the holiest places in Christianity. Nowhere on earth do people pray that the wall suffocating them is dismantled then watch and listen to Christmas carols from around the world after admiring such exhibits. Nowhere can we hear the same singers mix Christmas and patriotic songs in the Manger Square and the Shepherds’ Field.
Figure: teargas canisters shaped as a peace sign in Nativity Square.
In my town of Beit Sahour, the Shepherds Field, we just concluded two nights of the three nights called “Shepherds’ Night”. Yesterday Reem Al-Banna the famous Palestinian singer entertained hundreds. Today a magician entertained children and hundreds of them (Muslim and Christian) received gifts from Santa Clause. Later in the evening the crowds enjoyed the patriotic music of Thaer Barghouthi who gained fame as the musician and composer for the 1987-1991 uprising (of which Beit Sahour was then at the forefront).
Reem Al-Banna at Shepherds’ Night Festival
Tomorrow on Christmas day (Western calendar) starting at 4:30 PM we will have a candlelight march under the banner “Light a candle for Self Determination” in Beit Sahour (organized by Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between People and the Joint YMCA/YWCA Advocacy Initiative). We demand that Bethlehem is freed from the occupation and colonization that now limits us to develop only 13% of our district. We demand the right of return and self determination for all Palestinians.
The end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 is a time to reflect that some 2.5 billion human beings believe in a message that originated with a Palestinian child thought to be born in a manger over 2000 years ago. The land was called Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth and also for hundreds of years before he was born and it is still geographically Palestine today. It is also a time to reflect on the real message of Jesus, sometimes distorted (like happened with the Crusaders and with the marginal misnamed “Christian Zionists”). It is still a message of hope, peace, joy, justice, love, and harmony.
It is the busiest time of the year for us. This is a time when we are asked to speak to a lot of visiting delegations, most of them Christian pilgrims. We also get invited to all sorts of events and prayer vigils organized by many Palestinian groups (in the last few days alone YMCA/YWCA, Bethlehem University, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Presbyterians). We reflect with them on our mixed backgrounds and history and the future of our joint humanity. They all pray for people in Syria, Gaza and elsewhere where there is suffering.
Gaza is 1.8 million Palestinians besieged in a semi-Arid strip. 1.1 million of them are refugees who can look across the "fence" built on their lands and see the rest of their lands and many of their original destroyed villages across this fake "border". Places like "Sderot" and "Ashqelon" after all were not empty lands before 1948 (see palestineremembered.com or Zochrot.org). 1.8 million people will soon start to starve in large scale. The UN said it is a humanitarian catastrophe and will be unlivable by 2020. Just today, on Christmas eve, Israeli forces also bombed Gaza killing at least two including a 3-year-old girl and injuring others in her family. So many Palestinians in Bethlehem and in the churches directed our Christmas gifts to people of Gaza and people of Syria. And most of us (me included) are barred from entering our city of Jerusalem which is methodically being stripped of its Palestinian population (Christians and Muslims) and isolated by walls (physical and psychological). But with all this suffering why are we Palestinians filled with hope, peace, and joy?
It is because we take a long view of history. Some 150,000 years ago, humans migrated from Africa using Palestine as the passage way to Western Asia and then the rest of the world. 15,000 years ago, this Western Asian area (dubbed by the European colonizers as “Middle East”) was the center of development of agriculture and we call it the Fertile Crescent. This region was where we humans first domesticated animals (sheep, goats, donkeys) and plants (wheat, barley, chickpeas, lentils). This move from hunter-gather societies to agricultural societies quickly spread around the world. It was also a key transformation because it allowed people to have time to evolve what we now call “civilization”. Hence the first writings (also in the Fertile Crescent) and the first thoughts of deities (Gods). Here in the Eastern Mediterranean region our ancestors were called Canaanites (hence my 2004 book was titled “Sharing the Land of Canaan”). They spoke a language we refer to now as proto-Aramaic. From this language and its first alphabet came the Arabic, Syriac, and Hebrew languages and alphabets. The more advanced Aramaic was spoken by Jesus. It is closest to Syriac Aramaic now spoken by few villages in the Fertile Crescent some of them threatened (like Maaloula in Syria that briefly was over-run by Salafists zealots just this year). But also the Canaanitic Phoenicians evolved the Aramaic alphabet and delivered it to Europe and it became the Latin alphabet which is now what I am typing with. A is from Aramaic Alpha (turn upside down to be the symbol of the bull; b from beit (=house), turn to side to see a domed house, J is from Jamal (became Camel, letter hump shaped) and so on. This human connect history needs to be taught in schools as a source of hope.
Evolution of the Aramaic alphabet
(Taken from Qumsiyeh, 2004, "Sharing the Land of Canaan")
For the 15,000 years of civilization, there were thankfully very few attempts to transform Palestine from a mixed society of various religions and backgrounds to make it monolithic (a Christian state, a Muslim state, a Jewish state...). Thankfully, these attempts lasted a tiny percentage of our long history and all failed or are failing (Saccaries, one Islamic ruler, the Crusaders, and now the Zionists). We are grateful that in this year 2013, there has been tremendous growth of actions by civil society around the world to push for human rights and justice in Palestine, the Holy Land. This included some really significant actions for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions from Apartheid Israel. This happened even with such prestigious American societies like the American Studies Association (ASA) and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). This was the best Christmas gift they could give us. Together we can create a more just and humane society.
So we are happy this Christmas. I am especially blessed with a mixed family that can celebrate many holidays: my mother’s family is Lutheran (celebrate Christmas December 25) and my father’s side of the family is Greek Orthodox (celebrate it January 7), my wife is Chinese American whose family is leaning more Buddhist, my sister studied in Utah and is a committed Mormon, my son was born in Texas and lives in California, and that is just my immediate family! My extended family and my close friends cover the spectrum of all other major religions (and agnostics and atheists) and backgrounds.
My grandparents were born in a world that did not have fax machines, phones, cars, airplanes, or emails (let alone Facebook!). The world was disconnected and full of diseases with no cures. Life expectancy was short. Children here in Palestine were sometimes not named until they were 2 years old because most of them perished before then. One of my grandparents lost his parents and siblings within a span of three years (1914-1917) and was an orphan. Even though things are very difficult now in Palestine, the Holy Land, we have to remember that 12-15% of the native Palestinians perished in WWI and between 1936-1939 nearly 10% of the native Palestinians (Christian and Muslim) were killed or injured. Today many people grumble a lot but we are more connected than ever and we hold in our (people) hand more power than we ever had before. History teaches us that injustice cannot last long especially when so many people join the struggle. The thousands celebrating in Bethlehem tonight give us hope. Merry Christmas everyone (and we do mean every human being on earth).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit : for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn : for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek : for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness : for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful : for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart : for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers : for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake : for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Palestinian Jesus of Nazareth
Live stream of Christmas events in Bethlehem
Videos/Images of Christmas 2013 in the birthplace of Jesus
Bethlehem Images and Arabic Christmas song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saQoSrioNr0
Message from Palestinian Christians http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bipIGTu6H2Q
Message from the PLO http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9_QyL_5piI
Message from ARIJ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjbkqNO9Ep0