So it seems that what happened yesterday is, Israel dropped fliers in Rafah, saying that if the tunnels weren’t closed in 48 hours, they would destroy them. I’m back in Gaza today to sort out various things, but on call to return to Rafah if this threat is followed through with, sometime tonight or tomorrow. Today Israel let some things through the borders they control; I guessed this was setting up a scenario to say “we let supplies through the borders, Gaza doesn’t need the tunnels”, but my friend M saw it as a sign they weren’t going to attack after all. Who knows?
I was sent back to Gaza this morning with fresh-baked bread for me and V and E, having watched F’s mother and sisters make it in a traditional earth stove in the corner of their garden, as Palestinian women have since time immemorial. “We are in paradise,” said F, “we still have flour and gas.” Back in the city however, V was cooking pasta when his electricity came on – but his happiness only lasted a moment – because immediately afterwards, his gas ran out.
F’s family have a house in a quiet area of Rafah – well, I say quiet – yesterday someone was killed by rockets nearby. It is surrounded by olive trees, vegetables, and loofahs growing on a vine. (I always thought they came from under the sea…) But it took them a long time to make their way to this comfortable home after their borderland house was demolished by Israeli bulldozers, and F remembers when the whole family slept in a makeshift structure of a few square feet.
Anyway, let me tell you about our Christmas Eve. About 700 Christians from Gaza applied to go to Bethlehem, which is really just round the corner and everyone used to go for Christmas. 150 of them were given permission. So some of them would have been with us in the Catholic Church in the old town of Gaza city. We weren’t paying the date much attention, but then we heard of the service, and as soon as we walked through the church gate, there it was – Christmas.
Father Emmanuel Musalam wore some rather fancy shiny silver robes, and someone’s baby had a sequinned santa hat to match. The three solemn little altar girls in ankles socks kept jingling their bells accidentally at the wrong times, and then having to be nudged at the right times. But then, we ourselves were hard put to figure out when we were met to be standing up and when sitting down.
The church was painted with Bible scenes in bright spring colours, labelled in ornate arabic script. Glittering chandaliers hung from the sky blue ceiling, contrasting surprisingly with the flourescent strip lights on the matching walls. I spent some of the service being intrigued by what I though was a big mural of the young Jesus with God, pleased to find out that God was so friendly-looking, but then I realised that it was Joseph, and Mary was on the other side hidden by a pillar.
Father Emmanuel played keyboard, but also sang plainchant in the most beautifully pitched, rich bass voice I’ve heard in a long time. Some of Mother Teresa’s nuns were present, and her picture hung beside the Christmas tree. Below it, brown paper mountains hosted a variety of animals, what appeared to be trays of wheatgrass ready for juicing, and another small Mary and Joseph on their travels, with Joseph in a blue polyprop head-dress, proving once again the versatility of polyprop.
M scribbled a simultaneous translation of the sermon for us…from E’s notes:
“He reminded them of their legitimate right to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem, to dignity, life, celebration. And to any who had given up: “the Christian who doesn’t shout ‘no’ to death and ‘yes’ to life is not Christian. We must reject the injustice, the crimes oppressing us. This isn’t about politics, this is about life.”
After church, we hurried to M’s house, to find that his little girls had set us up a Christmas tree. Despite the siege, due to the talents of R, her 5 daughters, and their aunt, a sumptuous dinner followed, including delectable mint lemonade, and we discovered it would be M’s birthday the following day, so we sang him Happy Birthday in English and Arabic. (We’ve learnt this thoroughly because they play it at the Al Deira hotel almost every night for whoever is having that night’s celebration.) I would like to put a pic of the girls here but I want to ask permission first…
I spent Christmas in 2005 in Beit Jalah and Bethlehem, where the population is actually half Christian, but I thought that Muslim folks here in Gaza might not pay much attention to Christmas. In fact, everyone is wishing us Merry Christmas and many are taking the opportunity to be festive. I guess folks gravitate towards any bright spark in these difficult days.
Finally, E just sent the following to the ISM website:
Dec 26 UPDATE: According to Dr. Khaled from Shifa hospital, Safi al Samana has improved and has been moved from the ICU. He is conscious and oriented. Sari still lies in critical condition, on a life-support ventilator. Since publication of the 20 December shelling incident which seriously injured the two young boys, there have been conflicting reports on the source of the rocket. The source of the rocket as stated in the original report was given by 2 different doctors, as well one family member.