Scaling a wall: Santa in Palestine

Christmas is a period awash with metaphor and symbolism: a call to embrace the humanity that exists within all cultures.

The realities of life growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp do little to instill hope for a rising generation [EPA]

Another Christmas, and another long journey begins for Papa Noel. For the legendary festive gift-maker and giver, a journey of spreading joy in the hearts of the planet’s children awaits.

In preparation for Santa’s stop-over in the Holy Land, Rudolph is jabbering in broken Yiddish and Arabic, practising the words tzedaka and sadaqa – words that share the same meaning, that of voluntary gift-giving.

But no amount of practice prepares the plump and jolly Santa for the journey ahead. What gifts should be given to the innocent children let down and traumatised by the war games, divisive politics, and cultures of enmity of their elders?

From Finland to the Holy Land

Whether hailing from the North Pole or Lapland Province, Saint Nicholas’s arrival in the Holy Land echoes with the liturgical substance and moment surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. The power of that moment and its symbolism continue to be echoed across boundaries of time, space, culture, and language.

In the Holy Land, when the bells of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity ring, it’s symbolism is given rendition in prayer, hymns and meditation of peace and spirituality not alien to the adherents of other faiths who have millennially co-existed with Christianity. 

Even for the non-theistic, in the miracle of Jesus’s birth there is a reminder not to immodestly discard the possibility of the existence of something bigger than us mortals. Christmas humbles mortals by calling for acts of benevolence and gift-sharing.

Above else, Jesus remains a universally powerful symbol of mercy and protest against unjust and inhumane power to the point of self-sacrifice. His way as a fearless, steadfast and undaunted rebel against arrogant power was through self-purification.

So in the Holy Land, where it all began, after territories were carved up, given flags and anthems, officiated with exclusionary ethno-nationalisms, and shielded with praetorian guards, Christmastide provides a renewed opportunity for self-purification. 

For all those who spread death, hatred, racism, arrogance, and separation. Be they Christian, Jew, Muslim or non-believer, what they sow as adults is harvested as blood, tears and even self-hate by the Holy Land’s children. 

‘Santa Claus is coming to town’

This is precisely what complicates Santa’s visit to the Holy Land. Too many borders. Too many guards. Too many guns. Too many divides.

In non-stereotypical attire suited to the clime but still powered by the magic of elves and flying reindeer, Santa allows no hurdles to disrupt his cosmic journey for the sake of the Holy Land’s children. He overflies the West Bank’s check-points; eases through the tunnels of Gaza; glides unseen by Israeli radars and drones; evades Egyptian guards’ detection; and escapes the vigilant eyes of armed Palestinian fighters. 

What kind of dreams are sprinkled by St. Nick? Dreams of happy encounters with departed loved ones. Dreams of seeing freed prisoners and returning deportees. Dreams of existence without Palestinian rockets or Israeli-phantom jet-fighters. Dreams of open borders. Dreams of lives being reunited with surviving relatives, memories, and olive trees in the Occupied Territories. Dreams of peace between warring Semite cousins. Dreams of normal homes with normal lives.

The Alsaafin family – dreams can come true

Dreams of reunion with living relatives torn apart by arbitrary red tape are commonplace amongst Palestinians. The Alsaafin family’s fragmented existence and scattered lives are all absurdly in the hands of colonial administrators.

In her blog, the daughter, Linah Alsaafin captures the essence of the internal diaspora shared by many Palestinians, as well as the power of dreaming of obtaining documentation that will facilitate movement across borders and a reunion of her parents.

In anticipation of unison with her husband after 15 months of separation, Mrs. Alsaafin finally felt human enough to deserve a hair-do and rejuvenating make-over. The magic of the situation was captured in a phone conversation between Linah and her parents:

“Yesterday, I received a call from my parents. Hearing both of their voices, talking excitedly at the same time, in the same room was music to my ears. My sister and I wanted to know the full details-did you both cry? I bet you did! What was it like, seeing other? What did you first think of? Are you holding hands now? Does Mama look any different to you? What did she say about your bald spot?”  

That was in November 2010. On Christmas day, today, their much loved son, Mohammed Alsaafin got married. The joy of his day of Holy Matrimony was shared with his parents; a dream he had kept alive for months, steadfast in faith. That dream was Santa’s gift. For the Alsaafin family like many of their Palestinian compatriots, the pursuit of home calls for endurance.

Santa: A metaphor of goodness

Santa’s cosmic journey is a powerfully evocative and shared symbol of goodness, spirituality and holiness. On his Christmas Eve journey, Santa sprinkles his beneficence widely to all of the Holy Land’s sons and daughters.

This journey echos with the powerful embrace of co-existence. One may see synagogues, churches and mosques stand side by side in Jerusalem – even in Gaza’s Old City the Katib Al-wilaya mosque and the Roman Orthodox Church stand back-to-back – but this visual betrays the overreaching reality of separation, distrust, alienation and violence that defines the region. 

Santa’s indiscriminate kindness beckons the warring people inhabiting the Holy Land to embrace each other through substantive justice to the Palestinians, and lasting peace for Arabs, Christians and Jews.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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