Christmas in Bethlehem makes me feel lonely. Walking around Manger Square, past the shops selling olive-wood kings and shepherds to busloads of Christian tourists, I realize how many of my old friends have emigrated, how much the city has changed beyond recognition. Today in Bethlehem, the sound of the Muslim call to prayer, ringing from dozens of mosques, all but drowns out the gentle church chimes.
I was 8 when my family moved to Bethlehem in 1949. We were Muslim refugees from the newly created Israel. Back then, nearly all the townspeople were Christian. I went to a Christian school and sang in a church choir. I loved to go to Sunday service and shut my eyes, listening to the cadences of Latin Mass--which I didn't understand--and breathing in the fragrance of incense.
Back then, "Christian" and "Muslim" were labels we kept in our pockets. It didn't matter what religion you belonged to. It was common for us Muslims to attend Sunday Mass, since we honor Jesus and Mary, or, as we call them in Arabic, Issa and Miriam. Muslim women prayed at the Milk Grotto, where Mary is said to have nursed Jesus, in order to be blessed with a child. We visited the homes of our Christian friends and picnicked with them in the spring, when the apricot trees blossom on the hills. At Christmas, Muslim and Christian children would dress in their finest, most colorful clothes. There were lights everywhere; as a child, I was dazzled.
There are still strings of lights draped around Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity--perhaps many more lights--but for me, every one of them burns with a memory of those splendid days lost and of my Christian friends who have left. Why did they go? After all, some of their families had lived here since the birth of Christ or even longer. The simple explanation is that Bethlehem's Christians are caught between the rise of Islamic extremism and the rigors of Israeli occupation. Because the city is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, Israeli security forces are building a 26-ft. (8 m) high concrete wall around it. The Israelis lump Christians in with all Palestinians as possible terrorists. My wife's hairdresser is a Christian who is moving to Australia because he is worried about his daughters. Walking home from school, the teenage girls are taunted by members of an Islamic militant group, just because they wear crosses. "I don't want my children to grow up in a bigoted society," he says.
Wearing a cross at Israeli checkpoints doesn't help. To security personnel, we're all Palestinians and all dangerous. Even with the permit, Bethlehem residents need to make the short drive to Jerusalem. Sometimes it can take an hour to clear the checkpoint. As a Christian university student said the other day, "Jesus Christ wouldn't be able to leave Bethlehem today unless he showed a magnetic ID card, a permit and his thumbprint."
At least the Israeli security wall is attracting a new kind of tourist, the graffiti guerrilla. The phantom British artist Banksy recently led a posse of foreign artists to the wall. He spray-painted a picture of a peace dove in a flak jacket that was captured in a sniper's crosshairs. And on the side of a house, he drew a little girl in a pink dress frisking an Israeli soldier. At times, the graffiti lifts my spirit. Other times, when I'm angry after being delayed at the checkpoint, I think that art alone can't bring down that wall around my Bethlehem. But what makes me laugh--with some bitterness, I admit--is the sign the Israeli military put up over the checkpoint at the entrance to Bethlehem. It reads: PEACE BE WITH YOU.
Oddly, that's not a vain hope. My son has put up a tree in his Muslim home; I've been told to find a Santa suit, and my grandkids are learning carols. This is the peace I find in Bethlehem at Christmas.