“Oh Little Town of Bethlehem”

Blog post, December 27 2012

Modern Bethlehem

Modern Bethlehem, with the separation wall protruding right into the city.
Photo: Palden Jenkins.

Modern Bethlehem, with the separation wall protruding right into the city. Photo: Palden Jenkins. Christmas has come, with all the traditional tinsel, turkeys and trimmings, including of course Christmas carols and nativity plays. For a short period of time a large part of the world is focused on what happened in the small, quiet, peaceful town of Bethlehem, with its donkeys, cattle, sheep and shepherds, and its prophetic stars twinkling in the sky.

The Palestinian city of Beit Lahem, a bus-ride south of Jerusalem and not very far from the (pre-1967) Israeli border, does not exactly fit the idyllic Christmas-time image. It is, after all, under military occupation, butted up against the separation wall with watchtowers looming over its suburbs.
My friend Palden has made several extended visits to Beit Lahem, and in 2009 he kept up a regular blog that has now been used as the basis for a book – Pictures of Palestine. As it happened, I received a copy just in time to read it in the run-up to Christmas; and so I noticed the stark contrast between the Bethlehem of the Christmas story and the reality of today.

As Palden says, millions of people have heard of the place but very few have actually been there. The reality, if all you know about Palestine is what comes over on the BBC news, is quite shocking.

It is probably also true that 2,000 years ago, life for people from a family of provincial artisans under Roman rule was itself in stark contrast to the nativity scene as depicted on present-day Christmas cards. What we would like to believe may have very little to do with the actual truth, whether ancient or modern.

I don’t intend to go into the details here, nor to try making any political points about a situation that I have no first-hand experience of; but I would recommend Palden’s book. It is by no means a horror story, in fact it contains a great deal of hope for the future, as well as an illuminating account of past history. But it is a close-up look at what life is actually like on the front-line between the ‘first world’, the West, and the ‘under-developed world’, the rest. And the picture that this presents – perhaps because it is somewhat understated – can be very disturbing.

Pictures of Palestine

Palden is a British sixties veteran, community leader, counsellor, wordsmith, historian and humanitarian. He was living in Glastonbury for twenty-five years before moving to Cornwall in 2008, and he has been visiting Palestine since 2005.

‘Pictures of Palestine’ is a glimpse into the real life of Palestinians in the West Bank – a people with a land and no nation, a special people tired of fighting, who seek a brighter future and have surprising lessons to teach the world.

It’s a story of children, shopkeepers and taxi drivers, rabbis, Bedouin and peacemakers, soldiers, politicians and scraggy cats. In the midst of all this, Hope Flowers, a remarkable school and community education centre dedicated to healing the wounds of conflict and rebuilding society.

This bundle of impressions and photographs from the author’s blog reveals his own personal journey in the Middle East, and moving insights into Palestine’s current situation and complex history.

The book suggests some perceptive solutions to the ongoing struggle and political stalemate, hinting of a time when Arabs and Israelis will sit together wondering why this nightmare ever happened.

PICTURES OF PALESTINE, A humanitarian blogging from Bethlehem. Coherent Visions 2012. Paperback, 428 pages illustrated, £9.95