Since I’ve left the U.S. I never had a moment where I experienced what is commonly known as “culture shock.” From the moment I landed at JFK airport the other day I’ve been feeling it in the reverse. I’m finding it really difficult to be here in the U.S., and what’s worse I’m finding it difficult to speak about it because it’s not something that is easily understood. I suppose the Christmas season is not the best time to come the U.S. because it’s at its worst: consumption and myopia galore. All of these Christians everywhere are busy running around buying presents for people and trying to get in the “Christmas spirit,” and yet how many of them know anything about what is happening in Bethlehem right now where their beloved Jesus was born? How many of these people think about the fact that the holy places of Jesus’ birth and death are completely shut off from the other so that Christian pilgrims have to go through an international border control with Nazi-inspired security in a prison-like structure with seven different containment compartments for each person to walk through?
There have been a couple of good articles in the newspapers in the U.S. this week about this subject, but not nearly enough and nothing that I’ve seen on the TV news yet. In the Christian Science Monitor, an article, Christmas Behind Israel’s Wall, explains some of the issues relating to Bethlehem. Also, in the San Diego Union Tribune, Separated by a Wall at Christmas gets the point across not only about what this Wall means to the Palestinians caged inside, but also what it means for Christians who claim the Church of the Nativity as one of their Holy sites.
I think a Christmas message sent to President Bush by Ambassador Afif Safieh of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Mission in Washington, DC. is especially instructive:
December 23, 2005
Dear Mr. President,
Christ and the Christian message were born in my country, Palestine the Holy Land. As the Head of the PLO Mission in Washington, I wish, on behalf of the Palestinian people, Moslems and Christians alike, to extend to you, Mr. President, to your family and to all Americans belonging to the Christian faith, our best wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy New Year 2006.
Mr. President, for decades, our people have been yearning for the outside world to hear our cry for freedom out of captivity and bondage. At a moment when the city of Bethlehem will be repeatedly mentioned in Churches and in houses in the four corners of the earth, how many are aware that the birth place of Jesus Christ has been totally caged in by the Apartheid Wall that strangulates the economy and suffocates the society?
Mr. President, the international community including successive American Administrations have not recognized the illegal unilateral annexation of occupied East Jerusalem. The world considers that in Jerusalem there are two national aspirations and three religious rights to be respected. Today, on the eve of our Palestinian legislative elections, the Israeli government threatens to prohibit the exercise of the democratic rights of the inhabitants of East Jerusalem. An unequivocal signal from you, Mr. President, will deter the Israeli government from undertaking this internationally unacceptable stance.
Please accept, Mr. President, the expression of my highest consideration.
Your brother in the Christian faith,
Afif Emile Safieh
Of course all of these thoughts are made more complicated by the fact that I’m here in the U.S. with Sanabel who is from the Bethlehem area. We were talking about some of these issues and explaining them to Divy and Murli on the subway yesterday when a lovely man heard our conversation and asked if Sanabel was from Amman. She said, no she’s from Deheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem. He told us he’s an Armenian Palestinian from Al Quds (Jerusalem). He grew up in the old city in the Armenian quarter and moved to the U.S. thirty years ago. He stayed with us, speaking with Sanabel for quite some time (some traces of his Arabic remained). This was how we spent our first real day out and about: we spent the day wandering around Hollywood, watching breakdancers on the street and riding the subway, and people watching. Photos from our day are posted on the website.