One of the most stunning things to me about living here is that despite the injustice, oppression, and hardship the people face, there is still so much life. Life goes on, in spite of the occupation. There is joy, and love, and laughter, and dance, and music, and celebration. And make no mistake about it: Palestinians know how to have a good time.
Last weekend, I was invited to come along with my host family to one of these celebrations: the baptism of the youngest member of the family, Zain. I have to admit, part of the reason I was so excited about this invitation was that many Greek Orthodox families still practice full immersion baptism of infants, something we Lutherans don’t do much of. My spirits were cowed only the slightest bit when I learned “just his hair” would be dipped.
I asked where this baptism would take place – in the Greek Orthodox Church in Beit Sahour, near where my host family lives? My host mom looked at me like I was a little crazy. “No,” she responded, “in the Church of the Nativity.” Her tone indicated that this was an obvious and totally unremarkable fact. In my head I thought, oh of course, just going to go baptize cousin Zain at the church that stands on the location of Jesus’ birth, no biggie.
So I put on my nicest dress and applied a full face of makeup, silently thanking my best friend for teaching me how to do a full face of makeup before coming and for impulsively packing that makeup along, since I almost never wear anything more than mascara. Still, I felt slightly underdressed as we waded through the crowds of tourists in front of the Nativity Church and pushed through a side entrance into the church. Palestinian women have remarkable tastes in fashion and makeup, and they always look completely put together and stunning. My host aunts’ exclamations of how beautiful I looked warmed my heart as they enveloped me in hugs and two-cheek kisses.The baptism started shortly, with the priest chanting in Arabic and Zain’s parents and godparents responding. At some point I stopped trying to follow the service and just enjoyed the warmth of the company around me. Everyone was dressed to the nines and peering around each other to get a better look at little Zaino. Zain himself was dressed in a tiny white suit, his hair held back by a white silk headband with a gold cross on it.
Suddenly, so fast I almost missed it, Zain was transferred into the arms of the priest and water was poured over his head “bism al-ab, al-ibn, wal-ruh al-quddus” (in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.) With shouts of mabrook! (congratulations) the ceremony concluded, and we headed out into the foyer of the church to enjoy cake balls, eclairs, and chocolates with Zain’s name on it.
The photographer for the evening began taking family photos, and I hung back, enjoying watching them try to keep eight-month-old Zain’s attention and eating my cake balls. My and her siblings gathered around their sister Hanin (Zain’s mother) and their youngest nephew to take their family photo. Hanin peered into the darkened enclave to the side I was standing in and said, “come here, Hannah!” Her tone brokered no argument, but I still tried to argue, thinking it would be strange for me, as just a transient member of the family, to be present in these pictures they would treasure for the rest of their life. This time all of the sisters joined in, commanding me to get in the picture.
Feeling some strange combination of utter happiness and lingering discomfort, I joined the family and was promptly smushed into the photo. Soon, though, the church was closing for Vespers prayer and we headed out our separate ways into the night, again pushing through crowds of tourists who had missed the cutoff to get into the church.
About an hour and a half later, it was time to really celebrate. The entire extended family gathered at Suzan’s father’s restaurant, filling the private banquet room with noise and laughter. A DJ sat at a central table, playing Arabic hits that pulsed along with the flashing colored disco lights. At each table dozens of small plates of salads – hummus, labneh, mtabbal, salata arabia, salata turkia, bagdunsia, dhura, tomma – as well as baskets of fresh baked pita bread were laid out. Argeelah pipes were set out around some of the tables, and waiters brought drinks out to those of age who wanted them. (Smoking argeelah, a flavored tobacco product, is a common cultural practice throughout the Middle East, especially at celebrations like weddings and baptisms, and alcohol is common at Christian celebrations in Palestine as part of a way to distinguish themselves from their Muslim neighbors. It is not the center of these events, but it is a part of them.) In the middle of the floor, people danced, passing little Zain around on their shoulders and shouting. Children ran around the tables shouting and dancing with each other.
Did I mention Palestinians know how to have a good time?
Again and again, as the photographer moved around taking photos of groups of people, members of the family insisted that I join them. Hanin, Zain’s mother, on more than one occasion pulled me tightly to her side to snap a photo.
In these moments, I found myself smiling wider than I had in a long while without thinking about it at all. My discomfort at being in all of these family photos dissipated as I realized that although perhaps I would only be here for a year, I was truly a part of the family. Like Suzan introducing me to her library students as her daughter, and allowing them to flounder to understand how that could be possible, the family’s insistence that I be in all of the pictures made me feel utterly at home.
We are thankful for celebration and joy in the midst of difficult situations and for the resilience of the Christian community in Palestine. Thank you that life goes on. We ask that you continue to bless families around the world with opportunities to be joyful in spite of the challenges we face. Help us to recognize your blessings in our lives each day.
Hannah J. is a Young Adults in Global Mission volunteer serving in Jerusalem and the West Bank! Hannah arrived to her placement in Jerusalem and the West Bank in August 2018, along with 6 other young adults from Young Adults in Global Mission, a program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). YAGM sends 70 young people from ages 21 – 29 to nearly a dozen country placements, including to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Volunteers with the YAGM program serve for one year and focus on living in accompaniment with the ELCA’s companion churches. You can read more from Hannah on her blog, Yalla, Hannah. CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.
We were “there” with you, in spirit. Exciting experience, and encouraging, to see the spirit and inclusiveness of the Palestinian sisters and brothers in Christ. May they/we not lose hope.