Friday, December 25, 2009

REFLECTION: Christmas in Bethlehem ...

They've bought some Bethlehem to Chauvel Street and Cutler Parade this year. Each year, these two streets in the Sydney suburb of North Ryde come alive with a gorgeous multicoloured light display showing lots of Santa and reindeers and snowmen and even the odd scene of Bethlehem.

It takes me back to my school nativity plays at Ryde East Public School, when Mary and Joseph were played by blonde-headed white kids while not-so-white kids like me played the three wise men from the east.

Our Christmas is the stuff of fairytales. If you don't believe me, try answering the following multiple-choice questions:

Where is Bethlehem?

A. The North Pole
B. In my neighbour's front yard
C. Rome
D. The West Bank/Palestine

What language do they speak in Bethlehem?

A. English
B. French
C. Latin
D. Arabic

What nationality do the people of Bethlehem belong to?

A. Egyptian
B. Palestinian
C. Spanish
D. Roman

What word do Bethlehem locals use for God when they pray?

A. God
B. Jehovah
C. Allah
D. Yahweh

My 11-year-old nephew only got one of these questions right. He tells me he's probably representative of most kids in his class.

Of course, some bigots never tire of reminding us Australia is a Christian nation. They use this as a means to insist that people who look almost as Middle Eastern as Jesus and Mary are not welcome here. They're scared their neighbourhood might resemble Bethlehem too much.

Still, we are not the only people to impose our cultural fetishes on the real nativity scene. In 1998, I visited Brazil. In the world's largest Catholic country, I saw icons of Jesus and Mary everywhere. There was one not-so-subtle difference between these and the icons I see in Australia. For millions of Brazilian Catholics, the Blessed Virgin with child both had black skin.

But if you want to really inject some Jesus and Mary and even the odd wise man into Christmas, nothing beats paying a visit to Beyt Lahm (literally House of Meat, as Bethlehem locals refer to their city in Arabic). While you're there, you can pay a visit to Santa also. The real Santa Claus was a 5th century Byzantine bishop who lived in the neighbouring hillside village of Beyt Jala.

I've never been to Beyt Lahm or Beyt Jala, but I've read a fair few accounts by people who have visited the place. I’ve even met some people from the city.

In June 2007, a group of prominent Bethlehem civic leaders visited Australia to sign a sister-city agreement with the city of Marrickville. Among them were the Mayor Dr Victor Batarseh and the then-parish priest Father Amjad Sabbara.

Father Amjad told me a little about the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where it is believed Christ was born. I asked Father Amjad the word or name his congregation used when addressing their prayers. The good priest told me that when praying to God in their native Arabic,

... we address God as Allah. For us, of course, Allah is Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Father Amjad also told me he would be leaving Bethlehem soon to take up a position at a church in Nazareth. No prizes for guessing what name they use to address God there.

Believe it or not, Christianity (like its sister faiths Judaism and Islam) is a religion born in the Middle East. The descendants of the neighbourhood where Christ was born are Palestinians. Anti-Palestinian racists have tried to paint Palestinians as nasty blood-thirsty terrorists.

In 1989, still in 2nd year uni, I saw a Palestinian student at Orientation Week harassed for displaying a symbol of terrorism (the chequered kefiyyeh head dress). At the time, I presumed his opponents from the Union of Jewish Students had a point.

The 1993 Oslo Accords changed all that. It suddenly became respectable to wear a kefiyyeh and support Palestine. The two-state solution which had been maligned for all those years became political orthodoxy.

Bethlehem was one of the many West Bank towns conquered by Israel following the Six Day War in 1967. The Church of the Nativity was the subject of a 39-day siege in the spring of 2002. During that same year, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had occupied the city four times, the longest stay being three months.

Imagine bringing up your kids in Bethlehem. Australian writer Randa Abdel Fattah’s most recent novel Where The Streets Had A Name tells the story of a Palestinian teenage girl from Bethlehem whose journeys to her grandmother's ancestral home in Jerusalem on one of the rare days when the IDF hadn't enforced a curfew. The trip was hardly ten kilometres, but the girl and her friend must navigate numerous checkpoints, a permit system and the wall that divides the West Bank from itself and from Israel.

The wall also divides Bethlehem from itself and from the rest of the West Bank. This has had disastrous results for the Bethlehem economy. In his book Us And Them veteran journalist Peter Manning describes his own visit to Bethlehem a few years back. Locals told Manning that the reduced tourism is caused by Israeli tourist operators scaring away Christian tourists by telling them that Bethlehem is too dangerous. One site that especially troubled Manning was to see children begging in the streets, something he had not seen anywhere else in the Middle East.

Although we normally associate Beyt Lahm with peace on earth and goodwill to all men, not much goodwill gets shown at the Israeli checkpoints, border crossings etc. In the nearby Christian village of Beyt Jala, Jewish settlements are being built on stolen land. Then again, suicide bombers don't show much goodwill either.

This Christmas, while you're munching on turkey and opening presents, spare a thought and perhaps even a prayer for the people of Bethlehem.

Words © 2008-09 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

OPINION: Santa Claus is an Australian politician ...

With Christmas coming up, and before the tabloids start printing stories about nasty non-Christians conspiring against nativity scenes in shopping centres, I thought I'd write something about Santa Claus.

Now before you all start exclaiming three words beginning with the letters 'W', 'T' and 'F', read this. As Conservative American humorist PJ O'Rouke puts it in the Preface to his 1991 classic Parliament of Whores - A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government:

Conservatism favours the restraint of government. A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them.

He then goes onto explain how conservatism is a political philosophy ...

... that relies upon personal responsibility and promotes private liberty ...

... as opposed to its opposite which focuses more on feeding cake to the peasants. And those familiar with last-minute Christmas shopping will certainly relate to O'Rourke when he writes:

Everyone with any sense and experience in life would rather take his fellows one by one than in a crowd. Crowds are noisy, unreasonable and impatient. They can trample you easier than a single person can. And a crowd will never buy you lunch.

Now here's where Santa Claus comes in. O'Rourke writes that he has ...

... only one firm belief about the American political system... God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat.

Naturally, if O'Rourke was familiar with Australian politics, he would declare that God is a Coalition supporter while Santa Claus wears a Kevin-07 t-shirt. After all, the ALP is all about the welfare state. They fit O'Rourke's description of Santa Claus:

He gives everyone everything they want without a thought of a quid pro quo... Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: There is no such thing as Santa Claus.

Or rather, Santa Claus seems to have abandoned the ALP. With all this me-tooing and fro-ing, it's nice to hear Kevin Rudd prepared to remind himself of the need not to spend too much of our money. Because let's face it - if Kevin Rudd had spent one cent beyond the $47.4 billion he has committed in election promises since the Federal Budget, many of us could be forgiven for believing that he wasn't exactly the most fiscally conservative chap this side of the North Pole.

Liberals (or should that read Conservatives?), on the other hand, are supposed to be about keeping government's grubby hands out of our pockets and our lives.

At least that's the theory. In a desperate attempt to get re-elected, John Howard has thrown conservative political theory (read consensus) off the sleigh for Rudolph to munch on.

According to the Australian Financial Review's spendometer, Mr Howard has committed around $62.6 billion since the last budget. Some $9.3 billion of this was spent just in his campaign launch speech. As Laura Tingle notes in the Fin Review on 15 November, that's $667 million per minute.

Now feel free to shout from the rooftops those three words beginning with 'W', 'T' and 'F' respectively.

Now apparently Santa Claus rewards good kiddies that go to school. But Santa Howard goes further, rewarding their parents as well. Around $6.4 billion in tax breaks is being awarded to parents for school expenses including private school fees and uniform.

So if you are one of Howard's battlers sending your child to one of those Struggle Street schools (such as Kings, Sydney Grammar or Wesley College), you can rely on Santa Howard to come to the rescue. And anyone who doesn't like it, even if they be private school principals, can go join Julia Gillard at the Socialist Forum Alumni Collective.

(Where they might also bump into Peter Costello!)

To make matters worse, it seems the Coalition has a habit of dishing out the dough in an effort to win the most marginal seats in regional and rural areas. The ALP refuses to scrap the regional grants program. I wonder why.

Of course, the ALP are being totally responsible also. Santa Rudd only spent $135 million a minute in his election launch speech.

So there you have it, folks. With all this upper-middle class welfare being thrown around by both major parties in the current campaign, many wealthier voters must feel like it's Christmas already!

This article was first published in The Drum Unleashed on 16 November 2007.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

CRIKEY: What would L Ron Hubbard do? Roll up for religion at $195 a pop ...

Ah, religion — such a wonderful force for good in an otherwise uncharitable world. So many great deeds of generosity and self-sacrifice are committed each day in the name of it. 

Over the weekend, I saw many such deeds on display at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held at the Melbourne Convention Centre. My desired destination was the exhibition hall to purchase some incense or perhaps even a copy of my book on sale (at the Readings booth). 

But as I approached the gates of the heavenly pavilion, some rather unheavenly-looking angels stopped and insisted I could not enter without registering for the entire Parliament. 

I sidled up to the registration desk to inquire on how I could enter paradise and share in the joy, peace, love and crystals on offer. A helpful avatar seated behind the registration desk recited the following mantra:
For two sessions, it’s $100. For three sessions, it’s $150. Otherwise it’s $195 for the day.
Meanwhile, a member of the organising committee (let’s call him Dr God) approached me looking rather pleased to see me and even more pleased with himself. When I asked Dr God how much manna from Canberra the event had received, he quoted a figure of $4.5 million.

(A spokesman for the Parliament has confirmed to Crikey that these funds were sourced from the City of Melbourne, the Victorian government and the Commonwealth.)

A few minutes later, I saw a poor young earthling trying to register. He wasn’t as well-dressed as many of the international guests representing various faiths (and the way some dressed, various galaxies). Indeed, the peasant was probably dressed more like one of Jesus’ disciples or like one of the poor people Buddha first came across after he slipped out of his royal dad’s palace. 

This sincere seeker of truth pleaded with the staff member to allow him in. The man was unemployed and hence unable to afford the 30-plus pieces of silver required to enjoy the company of his teacher/guru/imam/whatever. I felt like taking out my chequebook and paying for his spot, but I’d left the wretched thing back at the guesthouse. 

I’m not sure what happened to the man. Perhaps he had gotten on a camel and entered the eye of a more affordable needle. 

Personally I wasn’t much bothered by the price. $195 a day is quite reasonable compared to the $500 I’m used to paying just to attend an all-day professional education seminar. But this Parliament of the Gods was no professional development for lawyers. 

And so it seems the money changers have turned the tables on the Messiah and taken over the temple. A poor man cannot be allowed to sit through one session and an overweight solicitor cannot even buy a copy of his own book without sacrificing much to enter so sacred an event. But it doesn’t end there. Most speakers had to pay just to appear. One volunteer who did not wish to be named told Crikey that even volunteers were charged $140 a day. 

What would Jesus have said of this? Then again, what would Buddha have said? Or Muhammad? Or Krishna? Or Guru Nanak? Or L Ron Hubbard? Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf