by U.S. Army Captain James R. Sosnicky
For twenty-seven months (May 2003 to August 2005), Captain James R. Sosnicky worked and traveled throughout the Middle East with the U.S. Army Reserve's 354th Civil Affairs Brigade. A graduate of both West Point and Oxford University, Sosnicky first deployed to Iraq as an economic development officer to help reopen the banks and find reconstruction work for local contractors. During his more than two years in the region, Sosnicky wrote a series of short stories about the individuals he encountered and the placed he traveled to. One of is most memorable visits was to Bethlehem, where he spent a cold and rainy evening on December 24, 2004. -- Andrew Carroll
His business card read "King Solomon Bazaar--Olive Wood, Mother of Pearl, Diamonds, Gold, Silver & Brass." I scanned the name twice to make sure I had it right before looking up and saying, "Thank you, Adnan. It WAS getting a little wet out there."
"Sit down, sir, sit down. You are under no obligation to buy anything in the store. Sit down and make yourself at home. What can I get you to drink? Coffee? Tea? Wine? We have a very good wine made by the Salesian monks right here in Bethlehem."
I told Adnan that a glass of wine would be just great. My bones were still cold from being outside in the darkness and rain. "Here you are, sir," he said as he handed me my drink. "Now you just sit there and relax. You are under no obligation to buy anything, but if you do, I will give you a good price. Where are you from, sir?"
"I'm from America," I replied, "but I live in Amman." (With a touch of pride, I said that whole sentence in Arabic.) Adnan smiled and brought his hands together in a sweeping dramatic clap. "You live in Amman!" he replied in Arabic. "Ahlen was ahlen!"--which meant, "Welcome!"
I glanced around the store and saw about every Christian religious icon one could imagine made out of hand-carved olive wood. There were Crucifixes and Jerusalem Crosses, Nativity scenes, and Christmas tree ornaments, praying hands and statuettes of Jesus carrying a little lamb.
"Hold on just one moment," Adnan said.
He disappeared into the back and returned with a glass of light brown liquid. "I don't drink wine, just 'Palestinian tea'," he said. From behind one of the counters another man smiled and said, "That's our way of saying whiskey." Adnan chuckled, raised his glass and said, "Okay then, Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas!" I replied, raising my glass.
We clinked glasses and downed our charges. "Are you a Christian?" I asked. From his name, I thought not.
"No, I am a Muslim," Adnan said, "but we are all brothers in Bethlehem--this night, and every night. By the way, do you have a ticket for the Midnight Mass?" I didn't know one needed a ticket.
"How much are they?" I asked.
"They are free, but there are only a limited number of them given out."
I told Adnan that in that case I would content myself with hanging out in Manger Square for the duration of the ceremony. "No need for that, sir. I have an extra pass you can have. I hope you enjoy the service."
The door swung open and two more groups of pale faces came in out of the darkness and rain. There was a family of four--husband, wife, two teenaged boys--and a party of three teenaged girls. "Welcome!" Adnan said with a smile. "Come in, come in. Sit down and make yourself at home. You're under no obligation to buy anything. Please let me get you something to drink. Coffee? Tea? Wine? We have very good local wine made by Salesian monks right here in Bethlehem. They serve the white wine, not the red, on Christmas Eve."
As the new people took off their coats, hats, and gloves, I asked them from where they hailed.
"Houston," the family said almost in unison.
"Winnipeg," said one of the girls. "In Canada," added the other two. (I've found that our neighbors to the north always feel the need to tell you that their city is in Canada, as if Winnipeg by itself would not stand. Texans, by contrast, suffer from no such insecurity.)
We all sat and made small talk, comforted by the familiar sounds of English. When the group found out what I did for work, they all asked me questions about what it was really like in Iraq. I told them only what I had seen with my own eyes and stressed that every soldier they talked to would give them a different answer as to what it was really like.
"The war is different for everyone, depending on what you do and where you are," I said. "It's very strange for me to think that two weeks ago I was in Baghdad," I told them. "I'm very lucky to be out of there and here with you all--especially on this night. My mother is certainly happy I'm out of Iraq for the time being."
There was a pause while people glanced at each other. "Do you think she's any happier knowing you are in the West Bank?" the mother from Texas asked me. Everybody chuckled. "Good point," I replied.
There were still a couple of hours to go before the Christmas Eve service began up the street at the Church of the Nativity. No one was anxious to go back out in the cold, dark, and rain, so we stayed in the King Solomon Bazaar, feeling completely relaxed, but--as Adnan reassured us several times--not feeling under any obligation to buy anything.
Adnan kept our glasses full and led us in several toasts. "Let us all hope, God willing, that we will have real peace in this land, in Iraq, and in all places in 2005." We all concurred with a hearty Amen.
The door opened again, and this time a middle-aged man and woman came in. "Salaam o lakoom, Adnan," was how they greeted the shop owner. Turns out they were both American Presbyterian missionaries who'd lived in the Holy Land for some nine years. "We're not married, though," they were both quick, for some reason, to point out to me.
"Have some wine," Adnan said with a smile, "and we might be able to fix that."
The missionaries told me that they could count on two hands the number of Americans who lived in Bethlehem. There used to be a lot more before the second Palestinian Intifada ("uprising") and the subsequent construction by the Israelis of a 25-foot high concrete security wall around Bethlehem.
"The wall is killing this town," the male missionary said.
"Let's not talk about that tonight," Adnan interrupted. "Tonight is a night of peace and friendship. Have some more wine."
As Adnan topped me off, the door to his shop opened again. More tourists came in.
"Welcome, my friends! Merry Christmas. Please, come in. Sit down. You are under no obligation to buy anything. Would you like a drink? Coffee? Tea? Perhaps some good local wine to warm you up?" Then he turned back to those of us already sitting down. "Who knows some Christmas carols?"
As luck would have it, the three girls from Winnipeg (that's in Canada) were singers in their church choir back home. After some gentle prodding, they sang a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace. Then we all launched into the certainly mandatory, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." It was a beautiful moment, made even more beautiful by the warm buzz I was feeling from the wine.
I wanted to remember this very special Christmas Eve forever. And though I was under no obligation to buy anything, but somewhat under the influence of both the wine and the Spirit, I bought for myself a hand-carved crèche made of olive wood, and also several little souvenirs for many of my friends and family members. All told the bill came to over two hundred dollars. "Please sir, you do not have to buy anything," Adnan reminded me at the counter as I [laid] down my credit card, "But if you insist, we prefer cash."
Afterwards we all headed up the street to Manger Square. The rain had let up, but it was still very cold outside. Along the way, I gave out small bags of candy to little olive-skinned boys with dark hair and dark eyes who gaggled around me and hustled with their tiny legs to keep up with my brisk pace. (Earlier that evening, as I'd neared the checkpoint that led into Bethlehem, I'd encountered a slightly hunched, white-haired old man wearing a yarmulke who'd handed me the candy with cards attached that read in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, "A GIFT FROM A FRIEND ON THE OTHER SIDE." As I stuffed the candy into my pockets, he instructed me, "Please give these to any Palestinian children you see tonight.") As I honored the old man's request, the little boys beamed and said in smiling English, "Thank you mister! Merry Christmas!"
"Read the card!" I called out as they skipped away excitedly, but I don't know if they heard me over their shouts of joy or if they would have understood me even if they had.
From Manger Square, we ducked under the very low entryway into the Church of the Nativity. There I viewed the fourteen-point silver star that marked the spot where Jesus came into this world. There was a Latin inscription, which, when translated, read, "Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born."
We then moved through the interior courtyard to the Franciscan Church of Saint Catherine, where Midnight Mass was to be held. The room was packed with people of every color, from every continent, and from all stages of life. I pressed my way as far forward as I could, and ended up in the middle of the congregation, with a Mexican guy wearing a Baja pullover shirt to my right and an incredibly beautiful twenty-something French nun wearing a blue habit to my left. She wasn't just pretty, she was gorgeous. I wondered how exactly I would explain myself to Saint Peter someday for checking out a nun on Christmas Eve in the place where Jesus was born. Whether out of religious devotion or trembling superstition, I averted my eyes by staring at the very lifelike image of a crucified Christ hanging from a pillar in front of me.
It was standing room only and it quickly became hot and muggy. A couple of people fainted. Near my position, a young Slavic woman holding a baby got comfort from a stranger; an old Spanish woman who fanned both mother and child.
From the pulpit prayers were read out in several languages. I was able to identify Spanish, French, German, Russian, Tagalog, Arabic, Japanese, Hindi, and Italian. There were several more languages from Africa and East Asia that I could not identify with certainty. As each prayer was read, different people in the packed congregation became animated, closing their eyes, and clasping their hands tightly together. When the prayer was read in Italian, the Italians paid close attention. When it was read in French, the French people perked up (including the stunning sister to my left). "Just keep staring at Jesus," I thought to myself.
Shortly before the mass officially started, Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), who had become chairman of the PLO after Yassar Arafat, walked up the center aisle and took a VIP seat in the front pew.
That was an exciting moment, but not the most exciting one. That moment--that one electric moment that I'd been hoping for--came when the choir burst into "Gloria in Excelsis Deo," a song that I and most everyone in the church knew by heart. Moments before we were fragmented by our lack of understanding of Chinese or Portuguese or Swahili. We were all disconnected clusters of strangers worshiping in different tongues. And then suddenly we were singing in the same language, in one voice, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo!" Everyone had a smile of discovery on his or her face. We all looked around to see if the rest of the congregation was savoring this unexpected, magical moment of unity and understanding. Boundaries of country and color dissolved. A thousand hearts ascended as one from the eternally mundane to the temporarily divine; a glimpse, perhaps, of a day to come.