O Little Town

Pamela Olson
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:

    Adeste fideles,
    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 night.

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 now.

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 snapped photos.

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 'a suburb'.

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 government.

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 Gaza.

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 percent.

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 it.

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 the population.

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 citations.

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 2002.

Next: Israelis and Palestinians Ring in the New Year together in Jayyous

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