Chapter XV: A Very Arab Christmas

My Apartment, Student Village

I swear if you LAZY FUCKS don’t clean up in the kitchen I am going to FUCKING LOSE MY SHIT disrespectful ASSHOLES, the text message read. It was one of many like it sent by Lauren to the apartment group in the last few weeks. I now resolved that it would be the last.

Like all my roommates, I only saw Lauren in passing. However, unlike them, her presence was usually preluded by the slamming of doors and shrill curses, warnings which sent me running to my locked room like a house rodent. Until now, I and the others had been similarly avoiding these messages. I rarely used the kitchen and, when I did, I took special care to leave no trace. And although there was the occasional mess of crumbs or a dirty pan left by someone else, I never found it considerable enough to merit the caliber of these messages. Perhaps it was that my classes today had been especially hard, or perhaps it was that my time here was quickly waning, but I decided to tell Lauren off.

I can’t remember exactly what I wrote in that group message, but it was long and merciless and even had a humorous quality. It was glorious. As I hit the ‘send’ button with shaking fingers, I immediately felt a mixture of regret and pride in that I had written a masterpiece of tellings-off. Indeed, screenshots of the message would be passed around the Arabic Program for days, much to my horror.

But my present horror now lay in the fact that while I had stepped out of the apartment for some laundry and calming air, Lauren had assembled a party in our living room, which I could now hear through the front door - and I could swear they were raucously discussing my now infamous message. My stomach lurched, but I decided to face up to my words. I took a deep breath and entered with my laundry.

“Oh my God, it’s you!” exclaimed the familiar raspy voice. Everyone was looking at me through an alcohol-induced haze, and I wanted to die. Lauren crossed the room and hugged me. Her head landed right under my chin and I could smell her shampoo. It was a billion times more intimate than I ever wanted to be with someone that I had hoped to never see again. I patted her awkwardly, and when she stepped back her eyes were unfocused, but unmistakably wet. Oh God, please, no, I thought. I shrivelled internally as she sputtered out a tearful apology. The messages hadn’t been directed at me, she said. She was so sorry she had made me feel uncomfortable in my own home. She wanted to be closer to me and hang out together more often. It was quite honestly the worst reaction to my message I could have conceived. I was a vile, vindictive human being.

I consoled her as best I could, also apologizing, and politely declined invitations to join the party as I slowly backed into my room, never to be seen again by any of them.

Nazareth, Palestine

December 2015


We pulled into Nazareth, and Ahmed was standing at the front of the bus spouting historical information while wearing the red, knitted bow headwrap which he’d stolen from me earlier. It was a drizzly late afternoon, and the long drive had made me almost too drowsy to appreciate the absurdity of the situation. Our small bus pushed through the heavy Christmastime traffic, and I tried to rouse myself to take in the scenery of Jesus’ hometown as it slowly scrolled by. It was a small hilly city, and I took some joy in observing that it was scattered with pines. Who knew that Christmas trees were not such an odd tradition after all?

We pulled into a stone courtyard parking lot and filed out toward a tiny old hotel. Outside, the light was growing cool, but inside it was warm and merry. There was a very tall middle-aged man with a Santa hat waiting to greet us. He spoke very good English, but was immediately instructed by our chaperones to use Arabic. This only seemed to heighten his spirits, which were apparently high on Christmas and never once declined during our stay.

I had never given much thought to how other cultures celebrated Christmas. I knew innately that there must be different traditions within different denominations; I had seen photos of Orthodox Christians nailing themselves to crosses on Easter, so of course there had to be some people who had Christmas rituals more severe than pie-scented candles and Secret Santa. Thus, it was equally strange in its familiarity and its foreignness to witness a troupe of dancing elves performing within the genesis of Christendom. Indeed, Nazareth was aptly nicknamed ‘Christmastown’ with its string lights and Christmas trees galore - the most impressive of which was erected in front of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, complete with a skinny, cigarette-puffing Santa Claus sitting beneath it. It was this Western proficiency combined with the history of the place, and a distinct Arab-ness that made the experience disorienting, yet all the more enjoyable. The Santa, for one, wore green instead of red, and the stony-faced, bearded priests who patrolled the church with their swinging incense seemed utterly indifferent to his presence. Their church guarded a spring which also fed the well - only a short walk away - at which the arch angel Gabriel told Mary of her fate.

Earlier in the day, we toured the network of tunnels in which the first Christians hid from the Romans, and now we passed the evening drinking beer at an outdoor cafe in the church square. I felt warm and festive as I watched the crowd morph slowly from parents bringing kids to sit on Santa’s lap into lively bar crawlers. There was a glass press box set up in the middle of the square in which I could see what appeared to be the Palestinian equivalent of Kathie Lee and Hoda. They were reporting live, sporting trendy sweaters and immersed in a ridiculous amount of Christmas paraphernalia.

One of my classmates made a Christmas toast, and we sloshed our beers around the table, Ahmed joining in with his soda. He didn’t drink, but I could have sworn he was getting tipsy. There was a choir nearby singing familiar carols in Arabic. Ahmed sang along, encouraging us to do the same, but our Arabic just wasn’t good enough (especially in our current state.)

With a cry of “Not my sister!” (our Arabic was good enough for that one), a fight broke out in the square. There were two young men at the center of it, but as their companions tried to pry them apart, they ended up getting pulled in. It was now an all-out brawl, and those of us at the end of our table rose quickly with our drinks as a man narrowly missed crashing onto our table. The police soon caught wind and were able to neutralize the satellite participants with minimal force, but the core duo continued their punching and pulling until one of them bashed into the glass wall behind Kathie Lee and Hoda. The two women regained their composure with a few laughs as the camera continued to roll. I watched as the man was peeled off the glass by police and given a stern talking to. Returning to our seats, we all shared the same incredulous smile; perhaps at the thought that what we just witnessed could never happen in Jerusalem - where the stakes were too high…. It was a very Arab Christmas indeed.

***

“Well, you’re a salty bitch this morning, aren’t you?” We were meandering Nazareth’s charmingly twisted streets and eccentrically Christmas-themed bazaar before our scheduled departure in the afternoon. Tyrone and I had paired up as usual, feeding off each other’s wry humor and drifting in and out of conversations with others in the group. In the past, we had shared a few laughs about our classmates when we were alone. After all, we had only known each other a short while and our mutual acquaintances were really all we had in common. In addition, our little class was quite the motley crew: an Islamic convert with a disturbingly dirty mind, a woman in her mid-thirties who only spoke about her dachshund, a meticulously-manicured blonde who was engaged to a Bedouin. And then there was Jessica, who was a vehement Christian liberal. Her moralistic yet erratic demeanor earned her a reputation within the class as the Principle Buzz-killer, and her oft wild-eyed statements made excellent fodder for private conversation. Indeed, it was cruel and, I was equally guilty of it, but I don’t think she had any idea we mocked her. At least not until this morning, when Tyrone began to demean her for not knowing some random Arabic word, and I watched her grow red and flustered. Something sank in my gut and I fell into step with her, letting Tyrone continue ahead of us at his normal brisk pace. I could tell he knew he had crossed a line. “He does that to me all the time,” I told her, which was true. We chatted until she was back to normal.

Later on, Tyrone joined me in perusing some woven baskets and made his ‘salty-bitch’ statement that only a Brit could get away with. “That was mean,” I said, not looking at him. “Arabic’s tough and we’re not all Oxford gentlemen like you.”

“Oh, like you’ve never poked fun at Jessica,” he accused, too loudly. I shushed him, looking around to make sure she wasn’t nearby.

“Not in front of her!” I whispered forcefully. “And I feel bad for doing it at all.”

“Well, aren’t we Miss High-and-Mighty today?”

“Look. This place - Jerusalem - it attracts strange people. And it also does strange things to people.” I turned to look at him a bit pleadingly. “So maybe she’s just trying to cope as best she can, and maybe we shouldn’t make fun of her.” My last statement had an air of finality to it, and when he walked away, he never approached me again. We both knew in that moment it was the end of our brief friendship.

It made me sad. I liked Tyrone. He had kept me quick on my feet, and he had made me feel bold and self-assured throughout our many memorable experiences together. I didn’t always like the person I was when I was with him, and I realized that now. But I couldn’t help but feel that I would always owe him some debt of loyalty and gratitude. We had made a singular pair: a gay London academic and a country girl from out West. And although it was short-lived, within my prevailing memories of our adventures, he would forever be my companion.

Bethlehem, Palestine

Christmas Eve, 2015


“It’s like a rave in here!” This statement was issued by a surprising source: one of the young Catholic Priests who were already sitting in the small bus onto which we were loading. He was referring to the color-changing strip lights on the bus’s interior - which were rather rave-like - and as we sat down beside them and took up a conversation, I determined that the statement had been given in order to appear less intimidating in his long, black priest robes.

At the checkpoint, we were each greeted warmly by an officer who boarded the bus and issued each of us a piece of chocolate. Bethlehem was unexpectedly close to Jerusalem - separated only by border wall. On one side of the wall, it was just a regular night, and on this side, it was Christmas Eve. It was also decidedly more Arab. As I scanned the tightly-packed square, I realized that, besides the obvious tourists, the crowd was all young, Arab men, standing around silently in chemical-wash skinny jeans and tight t-shirts, as if they were loitering outside a liquor store. I had seen many an Arab boy stand in this way - giving off an intentional air of ‘up-to-no-good’, which was really a declaration of machismo. However, this crowd felt uneasy and defiant. It didn’t match the tone of the giant Christmas tree and merry church bells.

Mass was not until midnight, so we filed through the darkened hilly streets, a string of tourists. It wasn’t how I imagined Bethlehem to be, though I’m not even sure what that was. I suppose it’s impossible to visit someplace so fabled and not feel slightly disillusioned. When you visit the place, you find that it’s real and that, therefore, it was subject to time and the problems of real people. It took me aback to find that there were shopkeepers pushing tacky Jesus figurines that were made in China, and to see an elderly barista selling black coffee under an utterly deceptive ‘Stars and Bucks’ sign. Yet, once I overcame my disappointment, I found that the realness made the town more interesting and tangible.

On our way back to the square, we were welcomed into an antique shop kept by talkative shopkeeper, his son, and his short, elderly father. The brass cookware and other curiosities were piled high, and I spent some time searching for a dallah. When I went outside, I found all of my companions sitting around a fire that the shopkeeper had started. He had insisted we stay for tea, and so I joined them happily and accepted the steaming hot cup his son brought me.

The shopkeeper was animatedly telling a story about the last time he went into Jerusalem, when he was held at gunpoint by two soldiers after reaching for his wallet, when the old man beckoned me over from inside the shop. He was hunched over a tray of treats, which he handed over to me when I approached him. His smile had a mischievous glint. “You are very beautiful, my dear!” he winked before cradling my face in his weathered hands and placing a light kiss on my cheek. “Now bring these to your friends!” I was smiling in my surprise as I turned away with the tray, though I was even more inwardly surprised that I found the gesture endearing.

When I returned to the circle, the shopkeeper was dressing everyone up in checkered kufeyehs complete with camel rings, and insisting that we all pose for pictures. I, too, obliged as long as everyone promised not to post photos of me in Palestinian tribal garb on social media. I bought one from him as a keepsake after a good-natured round of haggling. “Hey - I have a weird question,” I professed as we completed the transaction. “Why are there mostly men in the square?”

“ISIS issued a threat for tonight,” he replied. “Women and children have been told to stay inside.”

It was almost midnight, and we were crammed into the square, watching Mass on a big screen outside of the Church of Nativity. All of the leaders of Palestine were inside the church, and the camera panned to their faces and back to the priest, whose message was repeated in several different languages. It was cold, but there was an intensity in the air that warmed me. I scanned the surrounding roofline, counting the shadowy silhouettes of snipers.

The bells rang out in a vibrating symphony, and the dignitaries spared no time in their exodus. They had been advised by security not to linger. As Abbas, President of Palestine, made his way to his car, the atmosphere crackled. I wanted to appreciate the sanctity of this place, and this moment, on this night, but I was overpowered by the distinct feeling that I was a match in a matchbox. I could scarcely breathe until we were back on the bus.

Old City, Jerusalem

Christmas Day 2015


It was the strangest thing, being alone on Christmas Day. Until now, I had spent it the exact same way - grandparents’ house and gifts from Santa - for every single one of my twenty years, and I could swear now that the human body can remember these annual traditions like a muscle memory and be thrown out of whack when they’re not observed. I felt as if I was in a dream as I floated down the ancient streets, letting my legs carry me to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I supposed I had developed a new muscle memory, and this thought made me happy. How incredible, really, how I of all people could navigate this city without a map. How incredible that I was walking the Via Dolorosa on this day in this time. The world - and time - seemed less vast than I had previously imagined. Everything was accessible to be felt, seen, tasted.

A vaguely familiar face pulled me out of my head and stilled my feet. It was a Roman Catholic priest in all his impressive black robes, walking meditatively and counting his rosary. “Hey!” I was pretty sure that wasn’t how you addressed a priest, but he’d seemed like a cool guy. “Didn’t I see you on the bus to Bethlehem last night?” He looked startled for a moment and I was terrified that I was somehow mistaken, but then his face washed with recognition.

“Oh yeah! I remember you. From California, right?” I nodded. “Yeah, I’m from Texas. Isn’t it amazing to be here? I just left the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”

“That’s where I’m headed!”

“Well, that’s great!” He cleared his throat as the conversation had reached its natural end. “Happy prayers,” he regarded me in a far priestlier manner, and returned to his walk.

I arrived at the Church and it was a zoo, as I anticipated it would be. There were throngs of stressed out pilgrims from all over the globe. Many of the groups had matching outfits in order to keep track of each other. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them and, admittedly, slightly superior as I slipped through them like a ghost and into a dark secluded corner in which I could read my Bible and watch them all come and go, endlessly rushing. This place - right here, right now - was perhaps the most singular place on the planet in which to be. I watched these thousands of people who had crossed oceans and spent savings to come here, and wished that every single one of them could sit here as I did: unnoticed by anyone, unhindered by time restrains and the crushing need to take pictures of everything. I was able to feel the glossy sheen of stone polished by ages of reverent hands and to know the exact smell of the place and the quiet chambers which few visited. I suppose you really know a place when you grow weary of it, and I intended to stay until I did. And yet, it was not a feeling of holy presence that kept me here; it was the sanctity of this place that the people had given it, layering their prayers and meaning and history upon it like the oils from their fingers.

As for God, I had yet to find him. And if he was not here, I was unsure where else he could be.