t is Christmastime and I am in the Middle East, in Bethlehem — land of sand and camels, land of war and the birthplace of the Prince of Peace.
Crowds of tourists come each day to the famous Church of the Nativity to marvel at mosaics, icons and marble left by the sweep of history, and then leave without meeting Bethlehem's most prized treasure, its people.
It is my fourth visit to Palestine, and I have come to know these "living stones," descendants of rulers and the ruled who work today on land trod by centuries of invaders.
Traveling alone, I take a shared van from the airport in Tel Aviv for the hourlong drive to East Jerusalem's Old City and bus service to the Bethlehem border. A three-story wall and checkpoint separate these two holy cities. I show my U.S. passport and the guard waves me on. I am disturbed by the looks of envy and resentment I see on the faces of Palestinians waiting with silent hope that they too will be able to pass without delay.
On the Bethlehem side, I take a taxi to my guesthouse apartment in the suburb Beit Sahour. "Welcome," the driver says. He is eager to talk and points to the hilltop Jewish settlement of Har Homa. "We don't know them, they don't know us and between us is a wall of fear," he says.
A sad story
Samia, owner of the apartment where I stay, greets me. With legendary Arab hospitality, she offers tea. Though tired, I accept, knowing refusal might bring hurt feelings. The offer affords a chance to relax; it relieves hostility and should not be rushed. Her warm welcome stifles grief over the sudden death of her husband. An Orthodox Christian, she must follow a mourning ritual — 40 days at home to receive visitors coming to share bereavement over tea and coffee.
One day Samia surprises me with a visit, asking if I need anything. She looks worn and needs to talk. I serve tea and listen as she shares details of her husband's unexpected death with blame and questions.
Complaining of chest pain, he was taken to the local clinic. There was no time to get the required permit to travel to a cardiac hospital in Jerusalem — 5 miles away — or for Ramallah, less than half an hour away. Palestinians must take a circuitous mountain road around Jerusalem that takes more than an hour. Clinic staffers did what they could, she says. "I know it's not Christian to hate, but occupation makes it hard," she says, angrily adding, "They wouldn't even let his brother to come for the funeral."
I feel suddenly embarrassed by the freedom I have in passing in and out of occupied Bethlehem at will. Samia is the face of occupation, of the "living stones" most tourists do not meet.
Getting around on my own
My neighborhood is safe, crime free and convenient to stores and transportation. Nearby are a Muslim academy and small shops — clothing, furniture and electronics. Half a block away is a small grocery store and across the street is Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies, home of the Rapprochement Center Between People, an organization that works to establish friendly relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
"We welcome everyone who desires peace and has a willingness to learn about Palestine," says George N. Rishmawi, director of the International Middle East Media Center, Rapprochement's news division. As a volunteer for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, I help young journalists with their English, edit reports, and write about people and events inside the occupied territories.
Saher works with me at the Rapprochement Center. He started the Palestinian Justice Network, an organization designed to build a global network of supporters of nonviolent resistance. In addition, at Christmastime, he comes in early to organize holiday activities in Beit Sahour.
The energetic young man hands me a candle and has me promise to join the annual Christmas Night candlelight procession. "Thousands will come," he says optimistically. "I want the world to know that here Jews, Muslims and Christians walk together in peace. You think we hate and fight, well, come and see …" Anger and resentment toward Israel's occupation are strong, yet I never hear hatred expressed toward Jews. "We lived together before; we can again" is commonly repeated.
Saher came in late one afternoon. He was arrested during the night. In the United States, I know only a few people who have been arrested. Here, I know only a few who have not. He describes anxious moments with lightness, telling how he was roused from sleep, stripped to his waist and made to stand in the cold before being taken to the station. Left unsupervised for hours, he walked out and soldiers came and took him again. "It's harassment," he says, demonstrating how, acting unconcerned, he threw coins in a cup, babbled, joked and got soldiers laughing. He was let go. I felt I was watching a play. "You can't show fear," he says. "They are bullies and will back down."
Parade and politics
I receive a call from Johnny with an invitation to show me around and to see the Christmas parade in Beit Sahour. I had met Johnny in Florida a few months earlier at a church in Seminole. He was on a U.S. tour to display and sell olive-wood handicrafts. I learned that he lives in Beit Sahour, near where I stay. He urged me to visit when I come.
Avoiding holiday traffic, Johnny winds through back streets barely wide enough to accompany a donkey with side packs and stops at the remains of a house. "This is where I grew up," he says, looking on wistfully, "destroyed in 2002 during the intifada (Palestinian uprising). Luckily, no one was hurt, but I miss it."
Gaza comes to mind, a reminder of the bombings and demolished homes. Denied permits, Palestinian build illegally. Their homes then are bulldozed by Israeli Defense Force soldiers at the offenders' cost. With the help of neighbors, Palestinians build again and again, some of them dozens of times.
We park, then walk to the crowded main street and climb stairs to a balcony. Regiments of Arab scouts march by below. Dressed in colorful Scottish uniforms, they seem out of place among the commonly seen robes and head scarves and jeans. After World War I, the British ruled, and some military units were Scots. Colorful smart uniforms, drums and bagpipes caught on. "It makes a festive display and inspires national pride," Johnny says.
As bass drums boom, snares rat-a-tat, trumpets blare and bagpipes charge the chilly night air, bystanders sing Jingle Bells in accented English and familiar carols in Arabic. The unusually large crowd includes people granted permits to come from other parts of the West Bank and from Gaza, the separate Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean, to unite with families.
Manger Square is the hub of Bethlehem, site of Nativity Church and focus of Christmas celebrations. Giant balloons sway above the crowd, bagpipes shriek Joy to the World, and venders sell hot corn, hot chocolate and mint tea. Children dressed in Santa outfits stare at a giant decorated tree. Everyone celebrates.
Bethlehem's Peace Center stands between Nativity Church and the Mosque of Omar. Inside I watch Muslim students view a creche in the lobby, pleased to hear one explain to a visitor that Islam regards Jesus as a prophet and holds Mary in high esteem. Muslims join the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace. Christmas holidays and Ramadan are shared by both faiths.
Eclipsed by the festivities and kept away from reporters, a group of nonviolent resistance activists stand out. Increasingly, Jews and international visitors join nonviolent movements. Demonstrations against land confiscation and walls that divide are growing. The promotion of Palestinian-led tours to meet the "living stones," and education programs are proving to be greater forces than negotiations and more powerful than weapons.
Opposite Manger Square, the Mosque of Omar invites visitors and posts hours. Behind it is the Arab market I frequently visit. The scent of spices mingles with the aroma of fresh baked bread. Kiosks sell kitchenware, meat, candies and olive-wood souvenirs — crosses, creches and menorahs. Canopies of embroidered dresses and checkered keffiyehs hang like party decorations above narrow stone corridors where a casual glance and "welcome" lead to tea and talk.
On Christmas morning, I receive an invitation from community leader Mazin Qumsiyeh.
"I like to spend Christmas at Aida Refugee Camp," he says. "Would you like to come?"
Away from my own family, a day with children seems a perfect way to spend Christmas. A huge graffiti-painted wall encloses Aida on three sides. The distinguished playwright Abdelfattah Abusrour directs Al-Rowwad, the theater and cultural center at the camp. Watching children perform the traditional debka dance, my thoughts stray to scenes of rock-throwing boys and suicide bombings seen in news pictures at home. Last April, Abusrour spoke in Tampa about Beautiful Resistance, the program he initiated to replace the ugliness of violence with the beauty of creativity.
(Since my visit, Abusrour was detained and interrogated after a visit to the United Kingdom. After a harsh interrogation, he was released. In an email, he says he is glad his family, which includes five children, was not there. They live in Jerusalem, where he cannot go without a permit.)
Peace amid problems
Delayed by rain and traffic, I arrive late at Shepherd's Field to find only a few rain-soaked stragglers with snuffed-out candles.
"We need rain badly," Saher says with characteristic optimism. "Inshallah," meaning God's will, he adds, "lets us know he looks after our needs." I think about the trickle of shower water and days when there is none. The water shortage is worsened by settlement demands and tight government control.
Christian tradition remains strong in Bethlehem, where Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and other Protestant Christians live in peace among a Muslim majority. On Sundays, bells from dozens of churches blend with the Muslim call to prayer, their message of peace and goodwill resounding in the troubled place where Christmas began.
Pilgrims visit chapels built over caves and ruins, and today's shepherds still tend flocks in fields close by. I wonder if their ancestors might be among shepherds guided by the star more than 2,000 years ago. Scholars agree it was somewhere in Beit Sahour but dispute the exact location. Three shepherds' fields are within walking distance of my home, each with a different focus.
The Roman Catholic or Franciscan Shepherd's Field has a tree- and flower-lined path that winds through landscaped grounds to a circular church built over a cave that once provided protection from storms and predators. A domed ceiling dedicated to the shepherds was designed to bring to mind the starry sky witnessed on that first Christmas night.
A Protestant Shepherd's Field is in a pine tree meadow on the grounds of the YMCA/YWCA Rehabilitation Center, where caves with pottery remains were found.
For its history, my favorite is the Greek Orthodox Shepherd's Field with its monastery tomb of the shepherds and ruins of three Byzantine-era basilicas. A subterranean church houses relics of shepherds and Byzantine monks killed during the Persian invasion of Palestine in 616 AD. A larger 20th century church serves congregants today. The grounds are home to gnarled olive trees, mere saplings before Jesus was born. Witness to centuries of invaders, they alone remain victors.
Hope for the future
Evenings, I pass fields where shepherds still tend their flocks, look up at bright stars in a forever sky and feel hope, connection with a legacy of peace on earth. In this birthplace of Jesus, nonviolent action is a natural path toward peace with dignity and justice. Restrictions and harsh military controls test the limits of patience. Seeing injustice and suffering, my impulse is to strike out in anger.
But "living stones" teach me that success comes not in military victory but through determination in pursuit of human rights. There are milestone successes. Most recent is the Nov. 29 historic U.N. General Assembly vote to elevate the status of Palestine from "observer" to "nonmember observer," which boosts hope and the commitment to seek nonviolent solutions.
And among others, the addition of the Church of Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route to the UNESCO World Heritage List in June was hailed as a significant political and diplomatic achievement as well as a cultural one.
The recent tenuous cease-fire between Israeli militia and Gaza militant factions is attributed to the realization that bombs and killing don't work; only nonviolent means end bloodshed.
Wherever I go in Palestine, I see determination to enjoy life, to plan for a future in spite of uncertainty. Yet beneath the measured acceptance, resentment smolders, and I wonder how long Palestinians will wait.
The arc of history is long but always bends toward justice. Just stay human, community leader Mazin Qumsiyeh tells me.
Doris Norrito is a freelance writer based in Seminole. Since 2008 she has made four visits to Bethlehem, where she works as a volunteer for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.