Nowhere in the world is Christmas more joyously celebrated than in the little Palestinian town of Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus.
It is a time of festivities for the local people and pilgrims alike and a welcome respite from daily struggles.
Once a major thriving Christian town, Bethlehem now suffers high unemployment, emigration and isolation mainly due to its annexation by the Separation Wall and the ongoing Israeli occupation. In 2002, Israel, began building a Wall separating Palestine from Israel. The wall is over 800km long. In places it’s an electrified fence and more often, as in Bethlehem, an 8-9 meters high concrete structure, almost twice the size of the Berlin wall.
Some 85 % of the wall was built on land owned by Palestinians, splitting farms, families and in some cases, houses themselves. In Bethlehem the effects were devastating, Bethlehem is almost completely surrounded, isolating people from family, friends, holy sites and a range of services. “The wall separates me from my church, my life. We are imprisoned here in Bethlehem. All my relationships with Jerusalem are dead. I am a dying woman,” says Antoinette.
The women collective in The Sumud Story House near Rachel’s Tomb have begun to use the wall itself, to express their feelings about it’s impact. The wall museum is a collection of over 100 framed stories from local women hung on the bare concrete. They aim to promote resilience and to give a voice to those ‘behind the barrier’. The word Sumud means steadfastness or resilience in Arabic and for these women the telling of their fragile, stark and personal stories in this way, has been useful in coping with the psychological impact of imprisonment and segregation.
“The Wall is like a sign to say ‘Go away from here.’ It is intimidating. If you go from the checkpoint toward Gilo you can see the land that had belonged to my grandparents, taken for its construction, and the land we can no longer access. Despite everything, we must continue to resist. To continue with our daily life is a form of resistance. ..to continue to come to Sumud Story House... to organise a concert or another cultural activity... these are the ways that we can reach the world and the world can reach us,” says Rima.
The women’s group keeps spirits up by organising unique cultural events like the formation of a large human Bethlehem star; the singing and playing from roofs and balconies; a concert under a military watchtower; meditative and inter-religious sessions, and the establishment of a women’s choir who sing next to the Wall. They say that other wall-torn cities, like Berlin and Belfast, provided models of inspiration.
As tourists and pilgrims descended on this holy place to celebrate the real story of Christmas, they would have passed the checkpoints and the high concrete wall. They may have felt compelled to stop and pray there, as Pope Francis did earlier this year. They may also read the words and voices of the local women.
“The Wall creates a feeling .. the feeling that it surrounds you: that you are not permitted to move. Every day you see the wall. When I look outside through the window to see the sunrise or the sunset the Wall is in front of me, When I go to the Wall I feel that something closes in on my heart as if the wall is on my heart... and I also feel ashamed, because it is created by human beings.” Melvina
But the women of Samud know that walls fall, eventually and they hope that the prayers of this Christmas season ring out for love, for coexistence, for forgiveness, and an end to all barriers to peace.