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Friday, March 23

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My first and only holiday season spent away from Chicago was in 1994, when I was living and teaching in the West Bank. With a freshly minted M.A. in linguistics, I had accepted a one-year position as a lecturer at Birzeit University, a Palestinian institution about twenty-five kilometers north of Jerusalem. In addition to having a full teaching load, I was struggling with the daily disruptions of life -- roadblocks, curfews, strikes -- in a society that was just beginning to emerge from its intifada, the Arabic word describing the uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Though cheerful and busy by day, Ramallah, the city where I lived, became a ghost town at nightfall, and through the long winter evenings I was confined to my damp, lonely hovel of an apartment, with no phone or television to distract me from the chores of lesson planning and paper grading.

In early December, I began to brood over the depressing prospect of spending Christmas alone. If my complaint-filled letters home painted a picture of an unenviable life abroad, I was determined at least to make my upcoming holiday break the topic of animated Christmas dinner patter back in Chicago. Remaining in my dreary Ramallah apartment over the Yuletide was out of the question, so I decided to stay at a hotel in Jerusalem for a few days over Christmas. After all, what could be more Christmassy than celebrating the birth of Jesus in the city most associated with his life?

On the morning of Christmas Eve, I packed a small bag and set out for Jerusalem. I walked to Ramallah's main square, the Manara, a bustling, raucous place filled with street vendors, shoppers and cars. The air smelled of spices, and you could barely think with all the blaring horns and shouting. I followed the cries of "Al Quds! Al Quds! Al Quds!" to a shared service taxi bound for Jerusalem. On days without political turmoil it was usually a short trip, about twenty-five minutes, and on this morning we sailed right through the Israeli military checkpoint without a problem.

For my lodgings I chose the Jerusalem Hotel, a lovely old stone building in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem, not far from the Damascus Gate entry into the walled Old City. The hotel's peaceful vine-covered outdoor garden was a popular meeting spot for Palestinian academics and professionals, as well as expatriate westerners living in the West Bank. After checking in, I wandered to my usual haunts in the Old City's Muslim Quarter; there was no point in walking to predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem, as it was the Sabbath and the shops would be closed and the streets deserted.

As I strolled around the city, I noticed that there were virtually no signs of Christmas anywhere. It was Christmas Eve, but there were no Santas, no nativity scenes, no decorated store windows, no trees festooned with multicolored lights, and no shoppers loaded down with last-minute gifts. I had been hoping that the cachet of spending Christmas in Jerusalem would make up for the fact that I'd be alone on the holiday for the first time in my life, but in a city with a majority Jewish and Muslim population, December 25th is pretty much a day like any other. Despite Jerusalem's prominence in Christian tradition, Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land treat Christmas the way Christians in America generally regard holidays like Yom Kippur and Eid al Fitr -- with indifference.

To find Christmas, I needed to head south to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Every year, a Midnight Mass is celebrated at St. Catherine's Church, which adjoins the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem's Manger Square, the location marking the spot of Jesus' birth. While there was no chance of getting into the Mass, Bethlehem's hottest ticket that night, I'd heard that the festivities in Manger Square made the trip worthwhile; Christians from all over the world came to make the pilgrimage.

The distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is about, say, the distance from State and Madison streets to Hyde Park. Again, the Israeli military checkpoint between the two cities -- Bethlehem is in the West Bank -- could make getting there difficult, so I started to get ready early. Plus, I was looking forward to dressing up in my Christmas outfit: white shirt, green sweater, red tie, and dark wool blazer.


Fig1. The author's well-worn map of the Old City.

When I left the hotel, the Arab shopkeepers outside the Old City were all closing their businesses for the evening and the last southbound taxis were departing for Hebron and Bethlehem. I had only been to Bethlehem once and wasn't sure of my way, so when the taxi driver made his final stop on the darkened outskirts of the town center and everyone climbed out, I decided to follow the crowds, hoping that they were headed toward Manger Square.

The appearance of an Israeli checkpoint in the warren of streets leading to the square assured me I was headed in the right direction. In the West Bank, inexplicable barricades and roadblocks manned by soldiers with automatic rifles were as predictable as the sunrise. In this particular exercise in control and humiliation, Palestinians walking toward the square were stopped behind a metal barricade. As usual, the soldiers stood around looking bored and annoyed and refused to answer questions about the delay.

While we waited to be allowed to continue, the crowd behind the barrier grew substantially, and I felt myself being squeezed against the people around me. The pressure increased slowly as everyone pushed forward, until I began to find it difficult to breathe. The crush became so intense I was lifted off my feet. I was terrified. Although I was only fifteen feet away from the other side of the barrier, I couldn't move. People began to groan and cry out, and I was afraid that a sudden firecracker or gunshot would create a stampede. I'd never quite understood the dynamics of having the life squeezed out of you in a mob, but suddenly it made perfect sense.

The din of shouts and screaming finally moved the soldiers to open the barricade, and we rushed forward like water bursting from a dam, blindly grabbing onto one another as our legs struggled to make contact with the ground again. Sick to my stomach, I continued on my way.

The scene in Manger Square was small consolation for the trouble. The perimeter was thinly bedecked with strands of colored bulbs, and tinny Christmas carols squawked out of loudspeakers. The shops ringing the square, stocked with nativity scenes and religious bric-a-brac carved from olive wood, were all open but empty, thanks to a low turnout of pilgrims. The hulking Basilica of the Nativity and St. Catherine were off limits to everyone but Midnight Mass ticket holders, who were cordoned off to the side like VIPs, right next to the threatening, heavily fortified Israeli police station. Groups of overexcited Palestinian boys ran around the square in anticipation of the promised fireworks.

I was still catching my breath from the near trampling when a radio correspondent from the BBC World Service approached me with a microphone. Happy to find a foreigner among the shebab, one from Chicago no less, she asked, "How are you enjoying Christmas Eve in Bethlehem?" Seizing the opportunity to snitch on the Israeli Defense Forces to a worldwide audience, I answered, "Actually, I'm feeling sick at the moment because I was almost crushed in a mob just a few blocks from here, thanks to the heavy handed crowd control of the Israeli military." This wasn't what the reporter wanted to hear, so she followed up with, "But now that you're in Manger Square, are you getting into the Christmas spirit?" "Hopefully I will be, once I calm down a little. I'm still shaken." She looked at me like I was a spoilsport and walked off.

After about 20 minutes of hanging around the square, I was wondering why I'd come. The brief fireworks display sputtered and poofed in the light misty rain that had begun to fall. The canned Christmas carols were beginning to get to me, and there was nothing much to do but stare back at the Palestinian boys who had nothing to do but stare at me. I decided to return to Jerusalem.

Just outside of the square, I was stopped by a man who convinced me to get on his empty, parked bus with the promise that it would be leaving for Jerusalem shortly. A half-hour later, I was still the only passenger on the darkened bus, and it was clear we wouldn't be going anywhere until it was full. By that point I was so antsy to get the hell out of town that I was ready to walk if necessary. The driver was reluctant to let go of a paid fare, but I persisted in my grating rudimentary Arabic until he returned my five shekels and opened the bus doors.

Because none of the buses and taxis returning to Jerusalem would be leaving until church services ended, I wound up walking halfway back to town in the cold drizzle. The low point of my journey was getting pelted with hard candy by a group of Palestinian revelers outside their hotel along the road. I grinned dumbly as they called out Merry Christmas! in English and bounced wrapped candies off my head. Was this a customary holiday greeting for strangers, or was I being mocked? I trudged on toward the lights of Jerusalem in the distance.

Eventually, a passing bus pulled over to the side of the rode and stopped. When the doors opened and I stepped into the warmth, the driver smirked at me triumphantly. It was the same man whom I'd argued with in Bethlehem over the refund of my money. Conceding defeat, I smiled and held out five shekels, but he only took three, and I walked to the back of the cozily crowded bus.


Fig2. Baby Jesus in the nativity scene at St. Savior's Church in the Old City in Jerusalem.

Although the Bethlehem misadventure seemed to last an eternity, I was back in Jerusalem with time to spare to scout out an alternative Midnight Mass. Consulting my guide to Christmas services in Jerusalem, I found a late liturgy taking place at the Ecce Homo Basilica in the Old City. The church's name comes from the Latin phrase "Behold the Man!" and its arch over the Via Dolorosa marks the location where Pontius Pilate uttered these words when presented with the scourged Jesus.

Enclosed by 16th century walls, the narrow streets of the Old City were hauntingly beautiful so late in the evening. Besides a few scraggly cats hunting for scraps among the shuttered markets on El Wad Road, there wasn't a soul about. The only sounds were my footsteps. Despite the lofty sounding designation of basilica, Ecce Homo was a small stone church, modestly decorated for the holiday. The majority of congregants at the mass were French pilgrims staying at the adjoining hostel. Friendly but not familiar, they seemed thrilled to be spending Christmas in the Holy City. The service was conducted in French, leaving me to daydream about home and loved ones and Christmases past, just the sort of peaceful, nostalgic reverie I had been hoping for all evening.

With the mass ended and my duty to God and tradition taken care of, I was now ready to concentrate on more temporal pursuits, like a tall glass of beer. So I left the Old City and walked west, watching the street names and lettering on the shop windows change from Arabic to Hebrew as I strolled into West Jerusalem. I was headed to Jerusalem's only gay bar, a small out-of-the-way club called Zman Amiti ("Real Time" in Hebrew).

Unlike the more rigidly defined gay bars in the US, Zman Amiti was a mix of gay, lesbian, and straight transgressives. Its existence, however low-key, was a miracle in a place as seriously religious as Jerusalem, and an affront to the city's established Jewish, Muslim, and Christian hierarchies -- a point on which they could come to rare ecumenical agreement. Since it was so difficult and expensive to get a taxi back to Ramallah late at night, I usually visited Zman Amiti in the early evening, before the rush. I'd gotten to know one of the bartenders, Amir, after helping him load a few kegs into the cooler one evening, so I always felt comfortable showing up solo.

When I arrived, the club was in full swing, but I was lucky enough to get a seat at the bar. Amir was working, and paused just long enough to say hello and take my order before running off. The woman sitting next to me heard us speaking English and introduced herself. She was American too, from New Jersey. She eyed my red tie and green sweater. "You're dressed for Christmas," she said, looking puzzled. "Um, well... I'm a Christian," I answered sheepishly. In the US, to announce that you're a Christian is usually an ideological declaration; since most people share your faith culturally, if not in practice, there's no need to announce it. But here in Jerusalem, in a wildly secular Jewish gay bar on a post-Sabbath Saturday night, I was dressed in the quaint holiday costume of a religious minority. Amir walked up and put a half-liter of Carlsberg in front of me and pushed my money away. "Merry Christmas!"

The bar's only acknowledgement of the holiday was a driving Mariah Carey song that had been released the month before, "All I Want for Christmas is You." The DJ played it several times, but patrons were far more entertained by his repeated spins of a campy 1960s Israeli pop song that everyone seemed to know. Each time it came on, a man in a wig, bra and panties leapt onto the bar and lip-synched along to the vocalist, who sounded like Debbie Reynolds singing in her perkiest Hebrew. The club became so crowded that young men started hanging out behind the bar with their drinks and cigarettes, an invasion of the bartender's sacred space that shocked me. But Amir carried on busily with barely a notice. I drank and smoked until I was certain that I couldn't possibly have been any more contented at home in Chicago than I was at that moment in Zman Amiti.

Eventually though, I stepped out into the sobering brisk night air and began the walk back to my hotel in East Jerusalem. Standing at the top of the high road outside of the New Gate, I was awestruck by the beauty of the Old City before me, its floodlit domes and steeples rising from behind the thick stone walls and dark ancient streets. I looked for a long time, enjoying the silence and the expansive view, knowing that while I would probably have many more Christmases at home with family and friends, I would certainly never have a moment like this again.


About the Author(s)

John Gerard McLaughlin is a freelance writer. His first book, Irish Chicago, was published by Arcadia in March.

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