Christmas in Bethlehem. It has to be done if you’re staying in the West Bank, right?
I was surprised by: the large number of armed police, the small number of crowds, the number of blanks I just drew in attempt to formulate a descriptive introductory list in the traditional tricolon crescendo. Wait no, I have it! The number of boy scouts on parade. It was no busier than Cambridge Circus on a weekday afternoon, but there were more guns than I have ever seen in the Phoenix Garden. Or indeed in any civilian outfit, outside of JFK (and yes I am talking about the airport).
I was really glad for the unexpected calm, because I had been anticipating the press of London NYE or Oxford Street Christmas crowds. Instead, we could wander the cheery streets at ease. Behind the Church of the Nativity, an olive-wood souvenir shop provided a panorama viewing platform on the flat rooftop, empty aside from us. Above, I found Max’s ‘wonky Eiffel tower’ constellation. The stars looked wonderful. The twinkling lights looked wonderful. It is a nice feeling to be in a busy place yet surrounded only by friends, isn’t it?
The olive wood carvings in the shop below were also pretty good and we filled our boots. A customer gave me my first ‘where are you from?’ ‘England’ ‘No, but where are you originally from?’
And then we wended our way to Manger Square for midnight mass, projected onto a screen outside. It was administered in Latin and Arabic and English. Some of the other Nabulsi foreigners went inside the Church of the Nativity for the service, which was an excellent networking opportunity for the boy from Milan who met not his maker but his mayor therein. We watched the president, just back from his trip to KSA, arrive for the service, which took roughly a dozen aggressively large and tinted black SUVs. The police chattered and drank coffee. Oh that was another nice thing compared to London crowds – there was no mass drunkenness. There was definitely tipsiness about, but of the merry not the vomiting variety.
Skip the next two paragraphs if you want only to read of the cheery loving side of our experiences, police-guns aside. It did get a bit London New Year’s Eve-y after all. Who knows when the young men in the crowd near us decided that the midnight mass was their time to harass us. Was it a promise that had been germinating for years, or a spontaneous realisation that surprised them as much as it did us?
Us women pressed closer and closer to the barriers and each other as the plausible deniability of their words and touches shrank and shrank. After sharp words and evil looks and pointy elbows and adjusted bags from us had caused no effect, I leant forward and did my best foreigner Arabic at some of the armed police just across the fence, speaking loudly and vaguely to give the offenders time to leg it, as I didn’t feel Christmas was the time to get involved in arrests. The law enforcement responded brilliantly, as did the crowd. One mortified Palestinian was so horrified to learn this had been happening right next to him he began to do his best to be attentive from then on, providing us with agonising friendly small talk and offers of tea and insistence on a distribution of hot corn. Thank you for your best intentions, but please do chill the well-meant attentions, the British are terrible at small talk! Nobody was harmed though, and I don’t think anybody felt it was enough to stop our Christmas being wonderful. I was surrounded by brilliant people!
Christmas day dawned and I excitedly enforced my own distribution of fleecy Christmas socks on the other girls staying in the hostel and unwrapped my Christmas present from my aunt (the stentorian one). This turned out to be some flowy gap year trousers (pictured in this very post) – which since decided to flow in the wind expositorily as I walked in front of a row of men gettting into sujood for Friday prayers. We then spent Christmas morning applying enormous amounts of make up and singing the traditional English ditty ‘one pound fish’, and innocent and unaware, a little bit of George Michael too.
I overheard someone say there wasn’t much to get the table looking nice and I came over a lil bit Nicola Adams.
“Tell me I can’t and that’s why I will”
— Nicola Adams MBE (@NicolaAdamsMBE) November 11, 2016
A splendid (and fairly British, tbqh) lunch of chickens and stuffing and roast potatoes and gravy was cooked up and heartily enjoyed by the group. Really it was so lovely! And delicious! (And usually I hesitate to use my blog to drive my agendas but my Christmas roast was cooked gluten-free by wheat-eating Muslims and quite frankly let’s drop the ‘Islam is incompatible with the West’ and ‘coeliacs are impossible to cater for’ narratives, pooh-pooh to them, I say).
Christmas Day was also my first ever filter escapade, the bit you’ve all been waiting for, no? We got jolly with the snaps.