My Birthday in Bethlehem

Sorry I didn’t post this blog last night, I was a bit too tired! I’m not sleeping as well as I usually do, maybe it’s the time difference, maybe just being in a new place, and in the middle of the night I’m finding it hard to stop thinking about the soldiers who come so close to Wiam. They came again yesterday at about 3pm, the first thing we know is a gunshot outside, this time really close. So we go upstairs to look out of the windows and it’s Israeli soldiers in the street just below. But I can’t see what they are ‘defending’, this time the young people are nowhere to be seen, they must be at least half a mile down the street so they pose no threat whatsoever. And why do the soldiers need to be on the Palestinian side to do this ‘defense’? If you are shooting in someone else’s country, with no threat to your life, you are attacking. At the very least you are providing a target to foment discontent.

I ask people here, ‘why are they doing this?’ and the answers I get include: because they are trying to incite disturbance to get the young people to throw stones and then justify making more incursions and setting up more barriers; so they can move the barrier further into Palestine; because they are saying ‘we are in charge’ and showing their power; because they are bored with nothing better to do than torment us. I also discovered that on Monday someone in Aida refugee camp was injured; Osama’s friend was shot in the head and I gather he was inside a building? I’m not clear on why he was hit, but the plastic bullet caused enough damage to require some stitches. Not good.

But anyway, enough of that, onto what made yesterday really special and wonderful. I was happy to be able to help out here by doing some sweeping up of the leaves in the patio area, and then three of us chose a place to dig a hole to make a new composting place. It was fairly easy to dig because we chose a dip where there was an ants’ nest, so the ants had loosened the ground. We also picked up a few bagloads of litter. The neighbouring properties lob their rubbish over the fence, I don’t know why, but the same happens to us in Mansfield.  Wiam has created a wonderful garden and playground here from what was a rubbish dump. There is actual grass – the first lawn I’ve seen – although it is quite dried out because there has been less rain than usual this winter. There is a back field they have not developed yet, full of stones and rubbish, but we are encroaching on it with trees! This afternoon Zoughbi will take me to buy a tree to add to the garden.

After the gardening we drove to a supermarket to choose some fish, and bought about 7 small bass that had been caught at Jaffa. Then Adnan took them to a friend’s restaurant to cook with fresh coriander. There was much debating over which ones were the best ones, and bartering and phone calls for what was a reasonable price, all in Arabic of course. Meanwhile Zoughbi and I returned to the office to work on an official Wiam response to a speech by Candian PM Stephen Harper to the Israeli Knesset that has upset many Canadians. I really enjoyed helping with that.

Later Adnan hurried in with a large foil-wrapped tray, and the wonderful smell of the baked fish wafted around the office. We all went through for a shared feast in the meeting room. I asked Arisha, the office assistant who was sat next to me (her name means Aroma), whether the team often eat together, and she said no, this was the first time for a long while, so I felt really honoured. I was invited to say grace, then we each had half a fish with some flat breads. The coriander and tomatoes had been put inside the fish, then baked with a foil covering.

Later we gathered again because Zoughbi had ordered a wonderful coffee cream cake for me, with ‘Happy birthday Sophie’ written in toffee icing onto a Marzipan covering. It was really delicious. I took a video of my birthday song then blew out the candles! Afterwards I was asked to choose a gift from the little Wiam shop, so I chose two star tealight holders because the Wiam symbol includes a star for Bethlehem.

We leave the office at 4pm to avoid trouble as the soldiers start their shooting in the afternoon, and Adnan drives us away from the office and barrier into the Old City. The Zoughbi compound is quite near to Manger square, so I get out early and visit the Church of the Nativity. It’s a quiet evening, I walk past the huge Christmas tree in the square that is being dismantled with a crane, and say, ‘La Shukran’ to various tour guides who hope to get a job. Inside I meet Issa, another tour guide, who I decide to plump for. He is old, short, and slightly over-enthusiastic, and tells me he is a chorister in the Greek Orthodox church. I decide he is a bit like Simeon, always hanging around the Holy place that he loves.

Three different Christian denominations share this place: Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic, which each have their own chapels with ornate altars. The Greek Orthodox is the central altar in the upstairs area and the most ornate, with amazing silver decorations and lanterns hanging in strings above the altar area. The Catholic chapel is where the Christmas service is broadcast from.

Issa leads me downstairs to the cave where Jesus is said to have been born. The rock is burnt black from all the candles, there are tapestries and lovely silks hanging from the walls, more lanterns hanging in strings, and it is so warm and cosy! I really love it down here, we join a Korean group singing ‘Silent Night’ in harmony. The idea is that you bend down and kiss the birthplace where there is a metal star and hole, and then visit the manger area. The star is under an altar and it’s like a mini cosy cave, with more lanterns around the inside of it, and tiny icons. It really is nice, and I can take my time as there are not many other tourists. I’ll post my picture on here when I find a computer with bluetooth.

I leave in the twilight and find my way back to the Zoughbi compound, asking a friendly stall holder for directions. At home with wi-fi I discover Keith has had a prang in the car earlier on and has some whiplash, but am much reassured when we get through on Skype and he is ok. My girls are excited and sing happy birthday to me, it is so great to see them. Later we eat lentil soup and bread, and watch Lebanese comedy that Zoughbi has to explain to me, but it’s still kind of funny to me. We are particularly amused by one sketch about a birthday party with a cake, just like today. Someone turns up who is offended he has not been invited, and so to stop the argument they pretend it is not a birthday but a ‘new day’ party to celebrate being happy to be alive! I go back to my apartment on the ground floor of the compound, happy to have a birthday and happy to be alive, surrounded by friends and the love of family and friends back home.


About sophiehebden

Science writer and editor, I mostly write about space and fundamental questions in physics.
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3 Responses to My Birthday in Bethlehem

  1. Ruth Harris says:

    Great blog Sophie. Can’t believe Stephen Harper. He upsets a lot of Canadians with a lot of things he says and does.
    Take care.

  2. Ruth Harris says:

    Great blog Sophie. Can’t believe Stephen Harper. He does nothing but upset my friends in Canada all the time with everything he does!
    Take care.

  3. Happy Belated Birthday Sophie! Some how missed this post…wonderful blogx

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