LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
O Little Town
30 December 2004
Happy Holidays! I spent Christmas in Bethlehem this
year, and I hoped it would be bucolic and spiritual.
In its better days, it definitely would have been.
But beautiful Bethlehem, with its hip Christians and
international cultural prominence and European feel,
is having a very bad decade.
Before I go into that, the highlight of my Christmas
was a Bach festival at the Ramallah Cultural Palace on
December 21. Internationals (mostly Europeans) and
Palestinians played and sang together with a European
conductor, singing in German and sounding all Baroque
and chambery. It was beautiful, an absolute high.
Every cultural performance like that in Palestine is
significant, a triumph, something hard-won and
beautiful amid overwhelming ugliness and despair and
violence. It's especially significant when
internationals are involved to witness firsthand what
the occupation means for artists and for everyone.
It's a powerful act of resistance to assert one's
artistic and cultural identity against such odds.
The last two songs were conducted by a woman I didn't
know, but everyone else seemed to - a famous
Palestinian conductor or musician. She was so old and
frail it took ages for her to make it from her seat to
the podium, and she cracked a joke on the way and
everyone laughed. Obviously a strong character. They
sang "O Come All Ye Faithful," and I remembered when
my best friend and I tried to sing it in Latin in
church all those years ago:
I don't know the rest-es,
Whatever comes next-es,
Chri-ist the Lord.
The last song was a Palestinian song sung in Arabic,
and the feeling of joy and pride in the audience was
overwhelming. The Europeans who sang must have felt
it. What a moment. The musicians received a standing
ovation with synchronized clapping like at the Bolshoi
in Moscow. I wished it could go on all night.
Christmas itself kind of passed me by, since the
Christians I was hanging out with on December 24-25 in
Bethlehem were both Greek Orthodox, which means they
don't celebrate Christmas until January 7, and
Communists. And I missed my family a lot.
But I had fun driving around the backroads of
Bethlehem on rainy Christmas Eve night with the hip
Christian Communists listening to Dire Straits and
Nirvana. It reminded me of cruising around Stigler
listening to good music while someone in a black
leather jacket drove around like a maniac. One of the
Communists was a tall, dark, and handsome musician
(plays the bagpipes and some obscure Arabic
instrument), another bore a striking resemblance to
John Cusack, and their mom was a great cook.
But other than that, it was just kind of rainy and
bleary and underwhelming. There were some
celebrations Christmas Eve morning, scout troops and
bagpipe groups marching and playing down Star Street
and through Manger Square, some kids dressed like
Santa Claus, some balloons, some choirs and candy and
good cheer. But it wouldn't even have passed for
Christmas in Stigler, Oklahoma, much less the
birthplace of Jesus Christ. Christmas in Bethlehem
used to be an epic citywide party attended by all
faiths from all nations. (See www.bethlehem2000.org)
Not any more.
The only tourists were a few busloads of Nigerian
pilgrims, the requisite intrepid Japanese contingent,
and Israel's Christian Filipino and Thai domestic
workers. The jewelry and Nativity scene sellers
sometimes spoke Hebrew, and I kept looking around for
Israelis until I realized that the Filipinos and Thais
all spoke Hebrew.
It had the trappings of the great international
convergence it could have been, which made the
emptiness even sadder.
Abu Mazen, Mustafa Barghouthi, and some bigshot
bishop/pope/patriarch guy all made an appearance
Christmas Eve night, which caused a moderate amount of
excitement among the modest crowd that was there.
There were some choirs singing in the drizzle on
Manger Square, but the sound system wasn't great, the
weather was as cold and damp as the spirits, and the
crowd was sparse. There was some good cheap sahlab
(hot milky pudding drink with coconut and cinnamon)
sold out of stands, which is always nice on a cold
On Christmas morning, there was a main mass in the
Church of the Nativity upstairs while tiny services
were held in different languages in each of the
cavelike chambers beneath the Church. It was neat but
I couldn't understand a word. None seemed to be in
English. And nobody seemed to be Protestant.
Everything seemed very Catholic, the rituals alien to
me. I kept thinking, "Can't somebody sing the Advent
Song or host a salad luncheon or something?" I missed
the comfort and familiarity of my family's Methodist
Church in Stigler.
I briefly wondered why Protestants have seemingly
abandoned any claim on the birthplace of their
professed Savior, especially on Christmas. Seems
strange that they sing about the Bethlehem of old in
their cozy middle America churches and never actually
peek in and think about what's happening there right
A little Jesus doll was placed on an olivewood manger
near the front of the upstairs church, and people
lined up to kiss him, run their hands over him, pray,
or pose with their arm around him while their partners
I saw the spot where Jesus was supposedly born, marked
by a silver star in a small chamber under the church
(used to be above ground, but land tends to rise with
the ages). It was pretty incredible, but the tiny
room was very crowded with pilgrims, tourists, and
irate Spanish monks: Don't push! Two at a time!
Wrong door! Stop hogging Jesus!
They didn't actually say 'stop hogging Jesus,' but
nevertheless it was kind of hard to get your holy on.
I'm sure I'll be back at a less crowded time.
Bethlehem itself is still beautiful from its glory
days before occupation, siege, bombings, shootings,
Walls, and closures. Very European-looking but with
that Arabic mystique. Gorgeous Old Town made of clean
light-colored stones and teal metalwork, beautiful
churches and nice mosques, laid-back friendly people.
The wealthy Christian suburb where I was staying, Beit
Jalla, has been extensively shelled from the nearby
Gilo settlement, a grey fortress-like abomination
built on a stolen hilltop above the idyllic Greater
Bethlehem area. Israeli West Jerusalemites call Gilo
The woman I stayed with in Beit Jalla, Nisreen, was a
friend of a brother of a friend of a friend of an
ex-roommate. If I had to describe her in five words,
they would be pretty, bubbly, intelligent, shortish,
and comfortable. She reminded me of my Aunt Mindy.
She said nearly every house in her neighborhood had
been damaged or destroyed in the past four years by
bombings from the settlement, which is also used as a
military base. This means Israeli forces effectively
use Gilo residents as human shields - and as an excuse
to call Bethlehem residents 'terrorists' if they try
to defend themselves by targeting the base/settlement
with the meager means at their disposal. Many other
settlements are similarly used. All of them,
actually, since it's impossible to steal something
that belongs to someone else in front of their eyes
without using violence, real or implied.
Nisreen works in the Beit Jalla municipality and said
that some families have come to her at least fifty
times for new water tanks after Israelis destroyed
theirs over and over.
Ironically, a lot of aid money for the reconstruction
comes from USAID. So America is paying for both
destruction and reconstruction in many cases in
Palestine. (We're doing a great deal more destruction
than construction, though, of course. No one is
reconstructing the razed neighborhoods in Rafah, and
no one can put back together a bombed kid.) Lots of
roads have been destroyed and rebuilt with our tax
money. An American guy who worked in Gaza told me
about water wells that USAID money built, US-funded
warplanes destroyed, and USAID money built again. Our
tax dollars at work.
All that tax money goes to American defense and
construction contractors with government ties. And a
permanent war economy props up our economic system,
for which wholesale destruction, followed by
rebuilding, means "growth" and "higher GDP". It also
means more of our tax dollars funneled to corporations
with mutually beneficial relationships with our
If they really wanted peace, they wouldn't just keep
selling more weapons and building more water tanks.
Nisreen's family's land is in Area C, which means it's
pretty much slated for isolation / destruction /
annexation if things go on like they seem to be going.
Under the Oslo Agreements, the Palestinian territories
were divided into three types of areas:
Area A: The Palestinian Authority has complete
security control and has control over civil
administration. 18% of the total area of the West
Bank and Gaza.
(Now that Israel has totally militarily re-occupied
everything, Area A has little real meaning. In Aboud,
a half-Christian village near Ramallah, a friend of
mine helps farmers build agricultural access roads IN
AREA A, and they have their equipment conficated
regularly by a nearby settlement. Then it's the same
old story: they call the District Coordinating
Officer, the settlement says, "Oops! Sorry, we'll
give it back," the settlers dump the bulldozer (or
whatever) by the side of the road beneath the
settlement, and my friend and his men pay 700 shekels
(nearly $200) to haul it back to the worksite and lose
a whole day, if not two, of work in the process. This
has happened more than once. I accompanied them one
time to try to reduce the chance of them being shot at
from the settlement while they were loading up.)
Area B: The Israeli military authority has
responsibility for security matters and the
Palestinian Authority has responsibility for some
civil administration authorities. 24% of the total
area of the West Bank and Gaza.
Area C: The Israelis manage all security and civil
affairs. 59% of the total area of the West Bank and
All of Area C is Palestinian land, and it corresponds
almost exactly to the area in the West Bank that
Sharon plans to annex with his Annexation Barrier, aka
security fence, aka Apartheid Wall, give or take a few
If you don't believe he's trying to annex this land
permanently, please explain to me why he is building a
new Jewish-only settlement on 'Area C' Jayyous land
located on the 'wrong' side of the Barrier as we
speak. That land was just razed, 600 olive trees
belonging to the family of a friend of mine destroyed
or stolen, in the past two weeks. Right now in these
times so hopeful for peace, when everyone's longing
for a breakthrough, Sharon is stabbing everyone,
American and Israeli citizens included, in the back.
He is clearly trying to make a just peace impossible.
The same Wall, which is ghettoizing the pretty town of
Bethlehem (surrounding it on three sides, stealing
land and turning life into an obscene nightmare that
seems worse than prison, because I'd rather be trapped
alone than have my whole community collectively
destroyed), is being built as fast as Sharon can build
Nisreen's family's land, her inheritance, her
childhood, her future, is also in Area C and on the
wrong side of the Wall. All those apples and pears
and apricots, all those jams and desserts, picnics and
pride (she was obviously proud when serving me her
apricot preserves from last year), might soon be taken
away from her and her family in that same ugly way
while everyone is distracted by 'disengagement' and
elections and whatnot. Once elections are over,
everyone will be distracted by 'peace talks' and
pulling settlers out of Gaza (some of whom will very
likely move to the West Bank!) while Israeli theft and
violence continue unabated in the West Bank, if past
experience is any indication. I hope I'm wrong, but
we will see.
Nisreen said to me, "You know, these things happen,
and you can't believe it, can't imagine it. You think
it can't possibly happen here. And then it does. And
you are surprised. And then you get used to it. And
then something else happens, something worse, and you
are surprised again. And then you get used to it
again. It keeps going on like this."
Bethlehem is a great world city with a lot of
character and immense religious significance. Seeing
it treated collectively like a common criminal (much
worse, actually) by a mad racist occupying force,
which by its actions says, "Christian or Muslim,
militant or civilian, as long as you're Arab, as long
as you're not Jewish, you're not wanted here..." Here
in their own homes! I'm running out of superlatives.
It's just unbelievable.
The retired generals who run Israel seem to have no
shame whatsoever. They're even trying to militarize
Israeli high schools in a bizarre and openly fascistic
move that Israeli students are protesting, outraged.
And just the fact that Bethlehem is the epicenter of
the biggest holiday of the Christian year and of so
many childhoods, Bethlehem is what we sang about all
during Advent and all year long when I was a kid, and
to see it now, besieged, neglected, forlorn, isolated,
it was profoundly sad and moving. Almost all the
giftshops and many businesses were shuttered even on
this biggest day of the Bethlehem year, and the open
ones were very empty.
Ten percent of the Christian population has been
forced to flee, mostly due to fear and economic
hardship caused by the occupation, in the past four
years. But even the churches of the world have not
raised a peep about this ethnic cleansing of
Christians from one of Christianity's holiest sites.
Bethlehem used to be overwhelmingly mostly Christians
with long and deep ties to this land. But the
refugees brought in by conflicts with Israel, plus
Christian emigration, have left Christians only 35% of
Anyway, that was Christmas in Bethlehem in 2004, a
subset of Palestine, a parade of horrors amid an
incredibly tired but resilient population in a
beautiful land with a lot of hope and a lot of
promise. If only they can be allowed to live their
own lives on their own land in peace.
The next day, back in Ramallah, Santa Claus, aka Abu
Ali, brought my Christmas package from Jerusalem
(where my parents mailed it, because mailing things to
Occupied Territories is a dubious enterprise at best),
and unwrapping those shiny packages, which is the real
meaning of Christmas after all, put me right back in
the mood again. So thanks for that, Mom. Really it
cheered me up.
New Years should be better. I signed up for a massive
open party at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jericho
with some officemates, $90 for a room, two meals, and
the party. I predict a big fat Western-style
dancing-to-bad-pop-music drinking-till-you-puke kinda
party with wall-to-wall progressive Palestinians and
Europeans. It will be anything but bucolic and
spiritual, but nice in its own way.
And may the Walls come tumblin' down.
Here are some Christmas Carols rewritten for
Palestine. I ganked the idea from someone who made a
CD of similarly-themed carols and added my own words
And if you missed it before, the parody of George W.
Bush's State of the Union Address (a three-minute video
of spliced-together Bush footage) is classic. It's
such a relief to hear him say what he really means.
Peace in 2005,
"People are scared in this country [the US] to say
wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful -
very powerful. Well, so what? For goodness sake...
We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government
was very powerful, but today it no longer exists.
Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and
Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit
the dust. Injustice and oppression will never
prevail. Those who are powerful have to remember the
litmus test that God gives to the powerful: what is
your treatment of the poor, the hungry, the voiceless?
And on the basis of that, God passes judgment."
~ Desmond Tutu, South African Bishop and peace
activist, at a conference on Ending the Israeli
Occupation held in Boston, Massachusetts, in April
Next: Israelis and Palestinians Ring in the New Year together in Jayyous