No Lights in Bethlehem This Year
A letter exchange between a Palestinian and her American friend
What are you thinking as your Christmas holiday arrives preempting our Ramadan? Will this God of ours and of the Hebrews, too, intervene and give us peace as the cards you send suggest? You tell me that you're not seeing much in the news about our struggle. You suggest that Americans are bored hearing about our cause, a war they do not understand. Murder and yet another holocaust is old stuff carried on by barbarians on the other side of the ocean. Both sides are crazy your friends say as they prepare to celebrate the man who spoke of peace and love. That the Israelis want to take everything that lies in their path to salvation and we Palestinians want to be safe in our homes is of no consequence to those of you who are safe in "the land of the free and the home of the brave."
I guess the last story I told you before Thanksgiving was about an Israeli helicopter whirling above the integrated Christian/Muslim village of Beit Sahour. Many Americans, I think, do not know that there are Christian Palestinians.
If they do know, Betsy, do they care? I think Americans put their heads down and plod through life, glancing up only occasionally in order to assuage their boredom and pep up their ineffectiveness and embarrassment in handling the political process. When things get too crazy in America, then the population points a finger at us and names us the world's primitives acting out yet another version of God's will.
After all, our fights are always news because people the world over have heard of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, particularly at Christmas time. Did I finish telling you about Beit Sahour, Betsy? The Israelis took over the air space above Beit Sahour in their American machine of war looking to assassinate a leader of the Fateh Party's militia,which the Palestinian Authority supposedly failed to control.
Silencing a leader was not just a provocation; it was a missionary visit intended, the Israelis later told the press, as a preemptive strike against the Muslims to protect the Christian Arabs. First, the Israelis explained, we had to stop the man responsible for shooting attacks on the Gilo Israeli Settlement. Because we stopped one terrorist, we helped the Palestinian Christians because now the Palestinian Muslims will not use their towns to launch attacks on us. How many over there in America who read the Israeli explanation would understand the meaning of this statement? To kill a Muslim leader and to hint that Christian Palestinians should fear Muslim Palestinians is an old British imperialist's trick. It's that famous old divide-and-conquer idea, the kind of thinking that led to the seventeen-year war in Lebanon. That two genuinely innocent women passing by on the day of the helicopter shooting were killed by Israelis and a dozen other Christians and Muslims seriously injured seems beside the point to those who feel they have a right to our land and our lives.
What a story to report without the explanation just before America turned its attention to elections! As in all the tales sent via the press to America, there was no mention of why we Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, dare to struggle against mighty Israel. Murder by helicopter is a great deal more dramatic than the text of the Oslo Agreement with its uneven, unjust accords that leave Palestinians with nothing and the Israelis with everything. How many of your friends who say that Israel and Palestine are so close to peace have actually read the requirements of giving up that we Palestinians face?
Given that the patriots who fought to take America had little mercy on the native inhabitants, isn't it ironic that helicopters called "Apaches" are a gift to Israel from the heirs of the New World? These American Apaches crumble my world as if all this was planned out, signed and sealed by God and America. The images sting my soul.
To use a Christian image, the Holy Land is being crucified, Betsy. With hundreds dead, more than 10,000 injured in our hospitals, kids dying every day in unpublicized sniper attacks, Christmas coming and Ramadan upon us, what reality has all our religious, moral sensibility given us? Today, in Bethlehem it seems as if Christ was stillborn and all we have is analogical stories proven false by time. Christmas has been cancelled.
There will be no celebration in Bethlehem this year. Last year, the year 2000, Arab Bethlehem received world news coverage as people crowded Manger Square to dance and sing. Plans for visitors occupied us. We Palestinians were like a mother when told that her son must die, wakes in the morning supposing this news is only a bad dream. We, like the sad mother, wake in a fury of hopeful efforts designed to allow us a little more denial. We awake, now, however, aware that our nightmare is our reality. One year ago, we were not thinking of war; we, Palestinian Christian and Muslim alike, were busy with plans and hope. We did not anticipate Apache helicopters, tanks, missiles closer to home than any sent to Lebanon in what Israelis call a "necessary tragedy."
Israelis now send missiles to take down our homes, our schools, water, electricity, infrastructure, and hospitals. On the ground they tear up our olive groves and citrus groves because they say there is no reason for them to exist. The Israelis kill us economically as well as physically and emotionally. Then, they tell the world that they have to do this to stop Arafat's violence. They slide in the idea that "sneaky" Muslims use Christian villages to launch their violence on Israeli settlements. They absolve Arab Christians so as not to offend American Christians, but they kill Arab Christians just the same.
Betsy, night shelling is not exclusive to Muslim or Christian-Muslim towns, the Israeli missiles violate the peaceful nights of almost every Palestinian town and city, killing and wounding many people. It's time for Christian holidays, but I can tell you that our Christian Arab kids are not going off to sleep with dreams of sugar plums nor will our Muslim Arab kids dream happily on the eve of Eid. Palestinian children know only terror. Where is Christmas, Betsy? Where is the God you and I both celebrate through our different rites and prayers? I write to you through confusion. Has nothing changed since the Europeans conquered the Native Americans? Have we not evolved at all toward reason and acceptance of each other? Let me say again, Betsy, there is no holy night in Bethlehem this year.
With love and sadness,
Yes, the holiday season is upon us here in America. I'm afraid it is religious for only a few. It isn't a holiday season, it's the commercial season. It affects me like everyone else because I am part of this culture. I want to make my family happy. I have a tree to cut (that's how we do it in Iowa) and decorate, feasts to serve, gifts to buy that lose relevance when I realize how broke I'll be in just one month, and two houses (mine and my mother's) to decorate with an array of heirloom "treasures" that would open wide the eyes of King Midas, even with the red and green among the gold.
"Come on, Betsy," my mother, my best friend and my kids inform me, "you have too much to do in December to think about Palestine."
I give my loved ones a look they can construe as a smile. They think they've talked me out of my preoccupation with your world. Like most people around me, they are indifferent to the place our children, wearing fake kaffiyas and robes from grandma's closet, will portray in pageants and too concerned with a batch of cookies to wonder who died on the streets of Bethlehem today. You tell me, Samah, that at least five or more young people die of war wounds in what we consider Christ's birth town every day or in Nazareth, the setting of Jesus' boyhood. Even Palestinians with Israeli ID cards die and the Israelis do not blink, but suggest that this is war and might is right. If God didn't say so, America did.
Here, we've become desensitized to violence many decry as savage and inexcusable, not worthy of our attention. Here, we cover our eyes and our awareness and see, instead, with trivial perception, news of chads, voters' marks, that will, one way or another, add up to give us a new President who will no doubt disappoint you, regardless of who he turns out to be. You will have cause not to like the winner, because the new American leader will undoubtedly fail to see your struggle from your point-of-view. If you're lucky, he will realize that neither side presents a monolithic wall of truth and will bend to serve both sides.
You tell me, Samah, that you would like one day in Ames, Iowa, a vacation from violence. I, for my part, would like one day in Jerusalem. I miss the energy of dangerous silence on the West Bank and lament the ease of life here where all the stores are ten minutes away and all the people are preoccupied with outdoing their neighbors with Christmas lights, lights that will not reach all the way to Bethlehem.
In short, Samah, I miss the tension in the Old City's air. In the quiet of night, barbed wire clearly visible in unflattering lights most people dare not mingle among, I once felt the stealth of fear and, for me, it was more life giving than the calm of the country where the stars shine brightly. I wish you could have your day here. It wouldn't matter, though. Calm may persist, but peace departs forever when one learns that death through war is not just a primal, gut wrenching expectation, but a bloody, pain instigating reality. Few generals long for war once they've seen the consequences, that is, if they achieve a state of compassion.
Know this, though, beloved Samah. If I bake sugar stars and candy Christmas trees, and I will, unable to resist the need to mother, I will do it with you in mind. I'll do the expected task of giving in honor of you and the boys who die the same day on the streets of Bethlehem. Honor for you in my doing is what I have to give you. I'll bow my head in church on Christmas Eve and sing "O, Little Town of Bethlehem," but I will know that Bethlehem is dark like a stage on which a play has ended. There is no God to interfere with us at all. We hope for heaven, but we dwell on earth in the manner of our place and time and being and most often this has nothing at all to do with anything holy.
I wish I could send you a package of peace wrapped up with a bow of doves. What I do send is remembrance and a promise to never forget the truth of your life and the lives of all those who live in the reality of oppression and displacement. In my knowing and in yours is our mutual hope. You and I will offer a new generation of survivors who, in their turn, may begin the endless path of evolutionary progress. One day after all the swinging back and forth of time and place and being, these inheritors of what we leave behind will put truth and justice and peace ahead of having to have it all. If this happens, it will be because human intelligence evolved into believing that Eden or Zion, call it what you will, does not belong to one people or another, but to every single one of us.
With love and honor,
Samah Jabr is a seventh year medical student at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. Betsy Mayfield lives in Ames, Iowa.
Topics: Palestine, United States Of America