6 - 12 January 2000
Issue No. 463
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Ringing in the youngBy Graham Usher
The Messiah didn't arrive nor did the world end, but the third millennium came with a bang in the Holy Land -- at least if you were a Palestinian in Bethlehem.
It wasn't quite the bang the hordes of mainly American journalists were expecting (or perhaps hoping for), as they combed Jerusalem's Old City in search of an odd cultist who would "do something crazy" as the dawn of the new age approached. Instead they were met with the spectacle of the three faiths that populate the city observing their religious rituals in their separate ways.
Thus for orthodox and traditional Jews Friday, 31 December was simply another Sabbath, marked as per usual with prayers, meditation and the family meal. For Muslims it had the greater religious import of being the last Friday of Ramadan, a coincidence that drew over 300,000 worshippers for noon prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Haram Al-Sharif. And for Christians -- for whom the next millennium has both religious and temporal significance -- their various denominations commemorated the moment with processions and prayers at Garden's Tomb and the Garden of Gethsemane or by assembling gracefully on the Mount of Olives as the midnight hour passed.
Cultists, mercifully, were few and far between. The only real case was that of Bobby Engel (a.k.a. Bobby Bible), an evangelical preacher from Los Angeles, who wanted the key to the roof of the Church of the Ascension the better to throw himself off it. He was summarily arrested by Israel's Border Police and then deported, much to the chagrin of one Palestinian hotel owner on the Mount of Olives. "He was my guest!" he lamented. "If the Israelis start to deport every Christian fundamentalist that stays at my hotel, I'll go out of business!".
Yet if Jerusalem was the place for religious contemplation, Bethlehem's Manger Square was where Palestinians celebrated themselves as a nation and as a young people. Unlike the Christmas Eve ceremonies -- where the Palestinian Authority skillfully interwove Christian iconography with symbols of Palestinian sovereignty -- the New Year festivities were a patriotic rave.
The evening started quietly enough with a torch-lit procession by the Palestinian Shabiba (Youth) Movement, marking the 35th anniversary of the founding of Yasser Arafat's Fatah. The sobriety was maintained through the screening of five short Palestinian videos, with the one on children from Beirut's Shatilla refugee camp keeping the crowds especially enthralled. The atmosphere started to thaw a little just before midnight after a rousing rendition by Bethlehem's Bible College Church Choir of Biladi (My Land), the Palestinians' national anthem.
But the real surge came on the stroke of 12. Beneath an exploding canopy of fireworks and neon, two thousand doves were freed into the ether amid a tumult of floodlights, billowing dry ice, hand-held candles and the sonorous strains of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The smoke cleared to reveal the Algerian singer Rachid Taha, fronting one of the most popular Rai bands in the West Bank and Gaza. They plugged in their amplifiers and launched into number after number to rock in the new century.
Bethlehem's Manger Square was where Palestinians celebrated themselves as a nation and as a young people. Beneath an exploding canopy of fireworks and neon, two thousand doves were freed into the ether amid a tumult of floodlights, billowing dry ice, hand-held candles and the sonorous strains of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
And the crowd went berserk. Daughters swayed on the shoulders of their fathers, young guys swung their kiffiyah head-scarves in a gesture of abandonment as much as resistance and, in an especially touching image, boys and girls danced beneath the ancient and imposing wall of Bethlehem's Basilica of the Nativity. "We have never celebrated like this," said Mazen, a Palestinian down from the West Bank town of Nablus. "We were always told that it is too early to celebrate."
And it was perhaps this sense of belated release that made the whole spectacle so moving. The vast majority of the thousands of Palestinians packed into Manger Square on 31 December were young men between the ages of 15 and 25. Their entire lives had consisted of the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian intifada and now the increasingly authoritarian and patriarchal rule of the Palestinian Authority. They were a generation that had witnessed daughters and sons bury fathers and mothers, and had been schooled in a culture where expressions of spontaneous joy were often chided in the name of the family, the nation and, of course, the struggle.
Yet -- at the dawn of the new millennium -- they were allowed briefly to come of age. They were allowed to be young.