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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