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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Alissandratou

Christmas in the Holy Land: I

My paycheck, my paycheck, my world for my paycheck!

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. However, being a nomad has brought its challenges: trying to create the ambience desired. Over the years, I have learned to count my blessings for my loving and lovely family. And I know that how much one gives or receives is irrelevant, as long as “we” are together. I have celebrated this wonderful holy day in a variety of places: the USA, Greece, France, Austria, Germany, Turkey, Palestine, Bahrain, and back to the USA: all memorable in their own way, some a bit melancholy, some challenging for a variety of reasons, but mostly joyful.

The Christmas I would like to share with you was challenging but ended up being joyful, for my family, at least. In this particular writing, I will reveal to you the challenge and my thoughts. The second writing to follow will recount the celebration in our little home.

The story begins on Christmas Eve Day, 1979 when I was a visiting lecturer at Bir Zeit University, where I was also doing research for my dissertation. We lived in the town of Al Bireh, immediately adjacent to Ramallah, a few miles north of Jerusalem. Actually, there is no physical divide separating the two towns: I simply walked up one block from my home to be in Ramallah.

Historically, Ramallah had been predominantly Christian and Al Bireh Moslem, and all lived peacefully. Right now, it seems that many have left both towns. My mother, daughter, and I were the only Christians living in the apartment building; the other five families were Moslem. They all took wonderful care of us – so many special memories to be shared in a later reminisce.

Back to Christmas Eve, 1979. It was the only day I could collect my paycheck, otherwise I would have to wait until after the break. Being a single, divorced mother, I lived paycheck-to-paycheck: I needed money to celebrate with my little family. As I recall, it was a grey day. Actually, from December of that year until April we had nothing but rain, often heavily torrential, day-in and day-out. However, that particular day turned out to be an exception. No rain, just cold – yes, it does get cold and even snows in that mountainous region.

Kissing my mother and daughter goodbye, I left the apartment to find a public taxi at the Ramallah town square, Al Manarah. Walking up the hill, past businesses, I sensed unease among the shopkeepers; many had lowered their shutters to half-mast, standing, looking rather furtive. Nothing unusual back then given the Occupation-caused unrest. Had there been an incident in Jerusalem? Bethlehem? I wasn’t worried. I had been living there almost a year, learning where to go and when.

But little did I expect the truth awaiting me as I approached the square, where students were mingling, huddling, and speaking about Bir Zeit. Seeing me, many rushed over to tell me that their fellow students were burning tires on the main road in the small village, home to the university. When the army arrived, students lined up on two hills throwing rocks, stones, whatever they could find, in their own attempt to block soldiers from gaining passage to the school. The soldiers retaliated with rifles. Bottom line: there was no access to the main gate. “Nobody,” I was told would risk driving me. “Please, Mrs.d’Aste-Surcouf, don’t go up. It’s too dangerous. But determined nothing could deter, me, I would make it and my child would have Christmas. Understandably, the drivers did not want to make the twenty-minute or so drive.

After several rejections, I did find a driver, who took pity on my plight, but made it very clear: he would only take me as far as the edge of the village. I would need to walk the rest of the way. That was fine with me – I knew once there I would figure out something. The drive to Bir Zeit always filled me with wonder – so beautiful to drive, even on an overcast day, through the beautiful Judean countryside, past endless centuries old olive groves, up the winding mountain road to Bir Zeit. On a clear spring day one could see as far as the sea. True to his word, the driver left me at the very edge of the village. We could hear gunshots and yelling from farther away. All the shops were locked down; no sign of residents anywhere. No sooner had I stepped out of the taxi than the driver quickly turned the car around and sped out of town.

Left alone, I had no choice but to trudge through the deserted street, the yelling and gun fire coming closer and closer, louder and louder, the stench of burning rubber reaching me. As I approached the campus, tires on fire all across the street blocked my way to the main gate. By nature I am not particularly courageous. But somehow having lived in Greece during the Cypriot/Greek altercations with the British, the French/Algerian, and later De Gaulle/anti-USA altercations, Marshall Law, the hanging of Menderes and various and sundry riots in Turkey, what were rocks and bullets?! Since in the Holy Land that overcast and threatening day, I took the biblical approach and “girded up my loins” to start up a hill to get to another gate, only to be met halfway up by students and soldiers from either side of the road yelling at me to go back down. I tried another hill – the same thing. Returning to the main street and faced once again with the burning tires, I paused, trying to find a safe area to walk through the fire, stench, and smoke. Finally, I spotted a small pathway through and decided to take it. Walking with utmost caution, I finally arrived at the main gate.

“How did you get through?”

“Are you out of your mind?”

“Do you know what you are doing?”

These were some of the reactions I received from staff. But, get my paycheck, I did! My child was going to have Christmas!

Christmas in the Holy Land! What an oxymoron “Holy Land” is! Young men fighting other young men; both sides afraid, frustrated, yet determined to win the struggle, the battle, the war. Always the same: nothing seems to change, to come to an end. The rocks continue to fly, bullets, bombs, missiles continue to destroy, to kill. Such a waste of beautiful youth, of innocence, of lives. For centuries there has been nothing but warfare in this lovely, besieged land. From the Romans, the Crusaders and their Kings and Popes, Salah ad-Din, the Ottoman Sultans, the British, the Arabs vs. the Israelis. All asserting this land to be theirs to rule, to own. Three monotheistic religions present side by side; all claiming the same rights; all unable to co-mingle in peace in the “Holy Land.”

That Christmas Eve Day and many other such days remain etched in my mind: the hatred, the suffering, the misery, the fear. As a mother, I thanked God: no child of mine was on either side of those hills. As a human being, my heart bled, my soul grieved; my heart continues to bleed, my soul continues to grieve.

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