The Only Way is Amman
Who said blog posts had to be on time. It snowed. I was cold and accidentally flooded my flat. I even ran out of coffee at one point. More on that another time.
It was Christmas Eve and the three of us were sat atop a dirty beast heading for Bethlehem. I wish there was something I could compare it to. Ok, the dirty beast was a bus, but I did see a donkey in a distant field (I think, possibly), and also had some of my wisest thoughts of the year whilst staring out the window.
Qalandia checkpoint, just outside Jerusalem is famous for being a pain. But surprisingly we passed through in 5-10 minutes (changing buses on the way). At the actual point of checking a plain-clothed Israeli soldier sauntered on board, adorned with ray bans and a sculpted beard. He swung his rifle absent-mindedly, occasionally poking a passing shoulder or face. As he wandered lazily up and down the aisle, iPhone in one hand and gesturing with the other for Palestinians to present their passes. It was a delight to behold.
In Israel you can’t move for teenagers on their national service. They tend to congregate at bus stations. It becomes natural to see a bushy-blond with pink finger nails strutting down a Tel-Aviv street in green military clothes and a larger-than-life rifle slung over her shoulder. This is only to balance the even-more-larger-than-life handbag hanging off her other shoulder.
To anyone who has experienced life in a school Combined Cadet Force (CCF), that’s you. Now go off to war.
We arrived in Bethlehem to an ambush of bustling taxi drivers. After painstakingly playing them all of against each other we agreed a rate and headed off to nearby Beit Sahour (where the Angel is supposed to have appeared to the Shepherds).
A Palestinian family of Jehovahs Witnesses would be our host for the next few days. And so we collectively patted ourselves on the back for having found a christian family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas.
As the sun was setting we went a wandering down through the valley. Eventually coming across a small bunch of houses from which we were beckoned by a gaggle of children.
It turned out to be the dwelling of a family of shepherds and we had arrived just in time for the evening milking. Tea was offered and subsequently proffered. The girls were engulfed by a circle of their fans, wide-eyed in deep admiration. Whilst Duncan and I were herded into the barn to engage in serious man conversation on topics varying from ‘those bloody Israelis’ to ‘ha! What are sheep like! Who’d have ‘em’.
At one point a lump of pungent cheese arrived on a plate. We proceeded to politely scratch and nibble at it.
There we were standing in a hilltop stable talking to shepherds about the goddam injustice of it all on Christmas Eve. It was almost too biblical, I had to take several deep breaths and go for a sit down outside. Although that could have been more to do with the awful smell of the sheep and cheese.
Not wanting to miss the celebrations amongst hundreds of pilgrims in Bethlehem, we parted company from this optimistic yet oppressed family on top of their idyllic valley, and set out for the Church of the Nativity. (dropping the plate of cheese back at the our house first, they wouldn’t let us leave it, they just wouldn’t).
The night was eerily quiet, save for the odd screaming convey of police as we trudged our way up the aptly named ‘Star Street’ all the way up to Manger Square, Bethlehem.
Watching Christmas Eve midnight mass on a big screen outside the Church of the Nativity, beside an enormously fake tree and amongst crowds of Santa Claus hat-wearing Palestinians and foreigners, was, well, different. In retrospect I wish I had brushed up on my biblical latin and sense of religious sentimentality.
The square was full of reminders of the Palestinian struggle. With slogans like ‘all I want for Christmas is Justice’ and a tree packed full of grenades, dangling like apples. I certainly wished I was back sitting with the shepherds drinking tea, and picking at cheese, despite the smell.
At one point, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turned up, was hurried inside to a front seat and promptly fell asleep. He then left towards the end in another flurry of shiny cars, muscly suits, dark glasses and secret ear pieces.
It was on passing by ‘Starbucks Bethelhem’ that it hit me: I don’t feel very festive and this ceremony is all a bit odd. It was a stark realisation of what Christmas actually means to me: barbecued turkey and bad jokes. Sorry Jesus and your Nazarene.
The previous few days had been freezing and so it was a pleasant surprise to wake up on Christmas day to bright sunshine and blue skies. Accompanied with a freshly made Palestinian-style breakfast. Consisting of fire-baked bread, salads, cheese, olive oil and zartar.
For want of Chicken Runs, Great Escapes, Queens speeches, crackers and board games, we spent a relaxing fake-summers day basking in the sun alternating between reading, stroking cats and skyping our families all over the globe.
All the while remaining blissfully unaware of the lack of mulled wine and mince pies or decoratively flammable cakes.
We had our Christmas meal of course. You guessed it! Pasta and tomato sauce with the festering sheep cheese for desert.
And wound up the day wrapped in swaddling cloth-…blankets playing cards and listening to Christmas songs as the night faded away.