Family and Friends,
as I am privileged to receive Christmas greetings
from Muslim and Jewish and other-category friends,
I am sending this letter to people of all backgrounds.
outside of Tripoli in northern Lebanon is Nahr al-Barid
Refugee Camp. This was the first refugee camp established
for Palestinians in Lebanon, and is still home to
these people of great patience and hope, living in
exile for fifty-five years. It was a cherished fulfillment
for me to return to Nahr al-Barid recently, a place
I had visited briefly during this season two years
brought with me photographs I had taken then; one
was of Mr. Salim Abu-Ghunaym, who had told us of his
familys flight from Safuriya in 1948 when he
was a boy. I met his niece first and when she took
the photo to her uncle, his wife knew immediately
who had taken it: It was the one who spoke Egyptian
dialect! I remembered how he had excused himself
at one point when his remembrances overtook him with
emotion. But he returned to us, fresh and smiling
and saying, Praise God/Alhamdulillah.
He did not waste time on complaints or blame. I also
remembered learning something new and disturbing.
His village, Safuriya, was the first place that the
Jewish commandos bombed from airplanes. [This was
before the state of Israel was declared, hence they
were not yet Israelis.] Safuriya is also the hometown
of the mother of the Virgin Mary, and has an ancient
monastery/dayr dedicated to her, Dayr Hannah.
So they aerially attacked the remembrance of Jesus
this visit, I learned new village facts which rang
bells from Bible reading. Salim, or Abu Bahaa
as he is called, was excited to remember old scenes,
and became insistent on naming places accurately.
When he could not recall a name, he had his niece
run next door to ask her mother. While he was painting
the orchards in our imaginations, we were pitched
into darkness as happens many times each day in the
electricity-starved camps. He illuminated a spot in
the dark with a tiny red light from a key-chain lantern/fannous.
Then within seconds, the battery-powered spare lights
kicked in. I was charmed by the little lantern, so
he gave it to me with typical Arab generosity.
in Beirut, a young friend was fascinated by the little
lantern/fannous. With his three-year-old curiosity,
Georgio figured out how to twist the switch on. He
couldnt get enough of that tiny bright red light.
He even found it inside the zippered pocket of my
tote bag. Clearly he had earned the light!
here in Nahr al-Barid, Abu Bahaa continued to
piece together a picture including the Christian Armenian
community who had settled there after the War, and
then fled as did everyone else when they heard the
Jews were coming. He winced at the memory of the sheeps
unforgettable shrieks as they were being fired on.
Surely this terror was not the legacy of the Good
Shepherd who had trod these regions. But the thing
that surprised me was hearing of the two different
Bethlehems. He remembered the olive orchards of Bethlehem
Ephrata in this northern region near Nazareth.
thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little
among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall
he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel;
whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.}
Bethlehem of his childhood, Abu Bahaa explained,
was different from the Bethlehem near Jerusalem where
Joseph the Carpenter and the Virgin Mary went for
the birth of Jesus.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city
of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David,
which is called Bethlehem;} Luke 2:4.
thousand years later, all who take Jesus as the Messiah,
or Christ, both Christians and Muslims, were driven
from the village of Jesus mothers mother.
They thought it would be for a few weeks, until the
attacks stopped. Five decades later left them still
exiled from their beloved homeland. They had departed
in haste, some barefoot, and fled all the way to Nahr
al-Barid on foot, a journey which takes about three
hours by automobile on modern roads. Consider the
Virgin Mary, running barefoot in Safuriya, where a
footprint reputed to be hers, is preserved in stone.
of my purpose in the refugee camps is to preserve,
though not in stone, the voices of local poets. One
young poet, a university student, paid special attention
when I mentioned Balata Refugee Camp near Nablus,
a city famed for preservation of its ancient habitations,
most of which have been decimated by the Israeli army
in the past few years. A pocket of original Jews still
reside in peace and safety in Nablus, as they have
throughout the waves of conversions to Christianity
and Islam. Nablus, the city known for its ancient
architecture and todays pastries and olive oil
soap: the young poet wondered if I had had heard of
anyone there with his family name. His father and
aunt fled Palestine in 1948 and despite continued
attempts at communication over five decades, they
have never been able to find a trace of the family
they left behind.
who take Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, including
Muslims and Christians, are not allowed to return
to their homeland, which is Jesus homeland.
The Messiah, or Christ, is universal. So is the love
of homeland. So is treating humans like humans.
hope is that my fellow-religionists and especially
my fellow-citizens will learn that Muslims also honor
Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, the son of the Virgin
Mary, and that they revere the record of his healing
the sick and feeding the multitude as attested in
the Bible and in the Quran; and my twin hope is that
my fellow-religionists will remember that Jews express
the spirit of compassion and justice that Jesus taught
righteousness shall he [the Lord] judge the world,
and the people with equity.} Psalm 98:9
Cana [Qana] of Galilee, Jesus turned the water into
wine millennia ago.
In Cana [Qana] of Galilee, airborne Israeli bombs
snuffed the lives from refugees sheltering in a UN
compound in 1996. Robert Fisk mentions an extraordinary
remark a survivor made to a visiting American, whom
the survivor did not realize was Jewish:
must not blame all Jews. Some Jews are good and
they have told the truth about what happened to
us. There are Jews in America who try to help us
and do not support what the Israelis do to us.
[R. Fisk, Pity the Nation, 2002, page 685.]
remark is inspirational, but not extraordinary. I
hear this natural embrace of humanity every day from
Arabs, the majority of whom are Muslims. I hear this
positive acceptance of Jews repeatedly and sincerely
from Palestinians living in exile.
Muslims can say this of Jews, cannot we, and I speak
especially to my dear fellow Christians of Western
extraction, likewise open our hearts to a realistic
and humane view of our fellow human beings? Cannot
we make the effort to question the fear-generating
propaganda being repeated like the big lie that it
is, and welcome the opportunity to find space in our
hearts, minds and conversations for a true picture
of our neighbors?
is my neighbor?
answered this in a parable featuring the now-famous
Good Samaritan. Mankind is our neighbor. Please remember
this, and pass it on.
wealthy King Herod was fearful that an infant would
take his crown. His fears led him to butcher babes.
But his suspicions were irrelevant: the king
he felt was a rival had a spiritual mission, not a
political one. My hope is that my fellow-citizens
will put aside fears of Muslims and Jews and dehumanized
humans, and stop supporting policies that slay the
blameless. Fears become policies that slaughter innocents
just as in Herods time. We must evolve beyond
Herod. We must let in a little light, and stop believing
lies about entire sectors of the worlds population.
young Georgio with the lantern, let us seek out that
light and love it, even if it is just a little bit
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