In the little town of Bethlehem, they grieve

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 21, 2024

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View of Bethlehem, Christmas Day 1898. A scene, possibly staged, reminiscent of the biblical story. Public Domain

Welcome to This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s big news story.

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The Big Story:

Christmas will mark nearly three months since Israel began to pound the Palestinian territory of Gaza in retaliation for the October 7 Hamas massacre, and in empathy, sympathy and grief, there will be no Christmas in Bethlehem.

  • Bethlehem, which is synonymous with the birth of Jesus, is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank part of the Palestinian Territories.
  • In November, Palestinian leaders of various Christian denominations in Bethlehem decided that the devastation, bloodshed and suffering in Gaza, less than 50 miles away, left no place for Christmas cheer in their town. So, no giant tree and sparkling lights in Manger Square, a focal point for Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. And no Christmas parade.
  • Cancelling Christmas celebrations means there are few visitors to the fourth century Church of the Nativity, famous for the grotto that’s said to mark the exact spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
  • And in the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, a short distance away from the Church of the Nativity, there is a disturbing ‘rubble nativity’ scene in an unusual manger. The pastor has placed a baby Jesus in debris – broken paving stones and concrete – to symbolise, he says, Gaza’s suffering children “being pulled from under the rubble on a daily basis…Jesus is in solidarity with those who suffered”.

The Backstory:

  • Calls for Israel to stop its bombardment of Gaza grew louder as the toll of dead Palestinians approached 20,000.
  • Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani criticised Israeli forces for allegedly shooting and killing people in a Christian compound in the Gaza Strip, according to Reuters.
  • As I found on a Christmas visit to Bethlehem a few years ago, the tourism and business opportunities at that time of year are crucial to a town with one of the highest rates of unemployment in the West Bank.

This Week, Those Books:

  • A travelogue that covers Bethlehem by one of America’s greatest writers.
  • An unusual offering on Bethlehem by the world’s most famous mystery writer.

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  • The Innocents Abroad (Chapter 55)By Mark Twain

    Publisher: American Publishing Company

    Year: 1869


I recommend one chapter of this classic bestseller by Mark Twain because it’s so seasonally appropriate. In Chapter 55, Twain is in the Holy Land, and he drily describes his shock and awe at the commerce and profiteering from stones and masonry that are somehow supposed to be infused with “a stirring and important” religious history.

“We are surfeited with sights,” Twain writes. “The sights are too many…It is a very relief to steal a walk of a hundred yards without a guide along to talk unceasingly about every stone you step upon and drag you back ages and ages to the day when it achieved celebrity.” For all his scepticism, however, Twain acknowledges the pervading sense of belief at sites regarded as holy: “With all its clap-trap side-shows and unseemly impostures of every kind, it is still grand, revered, venerable…”

Choice quote:

“In the huge Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, built fifteen hundred years ago by the inveterate St. Helena, they took us below ground, and into a grotto cut in the living rock. This was the ‘manger’ where Christ was born. A silver star set in the floor bears a Latin inscription to that effect. It is polished with the kisses of many generations of worshiping pilgrims…. As in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, envy and uncharitableness were apparent here. The priests and the members of the Greek and Latin churches cannot come by the same corridor to kneel in the sacred birthplace of the Redeemer, but are compelled to approach and retire by different avenues, lest they quarrel and fight on this holiest ground on earth.”

  • Star over BethlehemBy Agatha Christie Mallowan

    Publisher: Collins

    Year: 1965

    The queen of crime used a different name – incorporating that of her second husband Max Mallowan – to distinguish this illustrated collection of short stories and poems from her spectacularly successful murder mysteries. She was right to do so. This book has an obviously religious theme – it has a couple of Christmas stories set in Bethlehem and one about seeing Christ in an Arab man in London. While well written, it is not quite what you’d expect from Agatha Christie and has unsurprisingly remained relatively unknown.

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