Follow that star to Bethlehem

Ramallah, March 10th, 2013

In the Christmas concert of my sophomore year, the choir sang an a capella tune called “Follow that Star,” which told the story of how the three wise men followed the guiding star of Bethlehem to come see the newborn Jesus. The song started with the tenors singing “Follow that star to Bethlehem…” on repeat for four times, the later with higher notes and more urging tune than the previous. It was a lovely song; and even though I could not remember how the rest of it went, “Follow that star to Bethlehem” stuck in my mind. I wondered when I would be able to follow a star to Bethlehem and see the history for myself.

I finally am able to “follow that star” all the way from Jerusalem to Ceasarea to Nazareth to Bethlehem during the past days of my Senior Project. We spent the past two nights with local host families in Beit Sahour, a small town close to Bethlehem, and spent the day visiting different people who wanted to share their perspectives on the conflict with us, as well as seeing religious sites.

Staying with the Bannouras, a Palestinian Christian family in Beit Sahour, for two nights left me craving more stories and warmth from people here. My host parents are ordinary Palestinians whose families are deeply rooted in the area – their grand grandparents were in Beit Sahour, and all of their extended families are still living in the town now. “It’s hard to even hold on to your homeland,” my host mom said. Jobs in the area are scarce, so many people have to compete for the same positions. The unemployment rate flunctuates from 40 to 45%, leaving a lot of people with college degrees unemployed. Thus, it was difficult for my host dad to find job around the area as an engineer. My host mom stays home and makes traditional Palestinian embroidery for a living. Their three children are only one year apart from each other, with the oldest daughter being seventeen, and the youngest boy fifteen. They all went to a private school in the area, because the public schools were usually not good. Aseel, the oldest one, hoped to go to Germany next year for university.

I and a friend were received with great warmth. My host mother urged us to eat more at every meal even though we were almost in a food coma because of her delicious beef sandwiches, cucumber salad, or rice. The younger boys gave up their shared room for us – one of them slept on the couch in the living room, the other crammed into his sister’s room. Seeing how I was coughing all night because of a slight cold, my host mom made hot tea (Lipton tea bag with an herb called maramiya that gives the tea a special aroma and a slightly sweet taste) and stuffed some Advil pills into my hand in the morning. How they went out of their ways to offer us comfort even though we barely knew them before made me feel both welcomed and guilty. They lived with so much difficulty, yet were not hesistant to offer what they had to us. What could I do in return for this warmth? How could I help make their lives easier?

The next day, we spent more than two hours at Efrat, a settlement near Bethlehem, to talk with Ardie Geldman, a Jewish Israeli who is originally from Chicago, but moved to Israel in the 1980s. Ardie is somebody that Palestinians would call “ideology settler,” meaning a person who lives in a settlement because he/she believes that this land (the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria in their terminology) was promised to them in the Hebrew Bible. There are also the economic settlers, who live in settlements because of the lower cost of living. Ardie stirred up the conversation among us in a way that few speakers were able to – he spoke for fifteen minutes about his family in the settlement (six children, one daughter about to get married next week), why he decided to move to Israel (he always felt strong connection to the land), and his belief in the realization of the promise in the Bible (not fully realized until every Jew in the world lived in Israel, but it’s getting there). We started firing questions after the short speech. Having spent a night with my host family and heard their stories about their daily struggles with the presence of settlements around them, I could not conciliate what I have heard from the Bannouras to what Ardie said. Thus, questions about how he thought about the Separation Wall, what he belived the settlements’ effects on Palestinian lives were, and his vision for peace kept coming from different directions, with one question stirring up long chains of follow-ups.

Ardie told us that he believed the presence of the settlements was beneficial to the Palestinians, because along with the settlements came better water system, good healthcare, and new universities. He also mentioned many initiatives that brought Israelis and Palestinians together to farm on the same pieces of land. Even though deeply conflicted about what he said, I found two points particularly thought-provoking. Ardie told us that the media chose to portray the worst part of the conflict and pretended that there was no hope, but day by day there are Palestinians and Israelis wanting to bridge the gap every day. “What we do here (trying to co-exist) is more important than what a politician tells the Times,” he said; and I completely sympathized as I realized a government’s perspectives and actions did not always represent the people’s. The media’s role in the conflict could also be seen as a double-blade sword, because it can either bring attention to problems on the ground by portraying the situation from different perspectives, or exacerbate the problems by taking sides or distorting one side’s points of view. Unfortunately, what we tend to get in the media when it comes to this conflict is reports which lean towards a side, or are extremely pessimistic. Ardie also invites us to spend some time at the settlement to fully understand their beliefs and perspectives, which would probably be helpful to us since we spend almost a week with Palestinian host fsmilies, and none with Israeli families. We talked to our trip leaders, T. Jon and T. Melissa afterwards, about adding overnights with Israeli settlements to next year’s program, and they said we could totally find a way to make it happen.

We left Efrat frustrated and confused. Ardie did make valid points in our conversation, but after the point he say d “There could not be peace if a Palestinian state existed,” I felt like I was looking into a long, dark tunnel without a way out. How do we bring about peace when the differences in the two peoples’ visions of peace were so big, they meant the non-existence of the other?

We also went to see the religious sites, the Shepherds’ Fields, where the shepherds first learnt the news that Jesus was born, and the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was born. Not religious myself, I found these sites fascinating because of their gorgeous architecture (white stones, arches, columns) and the thousand years of history that were kept in these places.

“I will not give up fighting for this land, Thinh,” my host mom said the day I left. My time in Bethlehem was running out, and soon enough, my time in Israel/Palestine will, too. I would be back to the US after a ten-hour long flight, then come back to my study as usual. I would be able to distance myself from the conflict, if I so chose. But my host family and the people I met would not. They would wake up every morning to the realization that they are living precariously under occupation, and face the idea that their children, one by one, would possibly leave this land for somewhere better and more secure. Hard as it was, fight they did to keep their roots intact in this land, and to give their children the best future possible. I hope that by bringing their stories back to my school’s community and my hometown, I would help, even though just for a little bit, to make the struggles more visible to the world…

The star that I followed to Bethlehem is probably not the same star that led the three wise men to Jesus – their stars led them to a savior, while mine got me closer to Palestinian people and their ordinary yet incredible life. I would definitely chase the star to this little town again so that I can climb up the steep hills, enjoy homecooked food, and listen to more stories of tireless resistence…

Until then,
Thinh.

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