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Jabra Ibrahim Jabra: memories of Christmas

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 25.08.2009:

The Shoes

Adapted from: Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, The First Well, A Bethlehem Boyhood, The University of Arkansas Press 55-60.

During Christmas we received presents at the Monastery. Father Domaggi told us how happy he was with our presence at the monastery and our regular attendance at church. Father Odeh told us that Jesus was exactly like us. He was poor, and he was destitute. When he grew up, he walked in the streets of Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem barefoot like us. Father Domaggi called our names, one by one, from a list in his hand. Burning with excitement, we went up to him and received our gifts. Mine was a pair of boots.

I ran home with my present, pleased with these boots whose like I had never worn. That evening, my boots were a source of joy; their beauty and strength and awesomeness outshone every other piece at home. The joy of my father, mother, and grandmother was not less than mine. My father began examining the boots. He turned them over in his hands, smelled the leather, inspected the soles anf the sewing like an expert, and finally gave his judgement that they were well made.

I put the boots on the window sill, one neatly next to the other, unable to admire them enough and yearning for the morning to come, in order to wear them.

At night, a disturbing thought occurred to me while everyone was fast asleep. Who said the boots would be my size? I left my warm bed cautiously not to wake my father beside whom I slept. I groped my way to the darkness of the window. I took one boot and thrust my foot in it; then I took the other boot and put it on. I walked a couple of steps and felt the bite of the thick, cold leather on my toes; it was a delicious bite. The boots were exactly my size. I was reassured. I returned the boots to the window sill and stole back to my bed and slept peacefully until morning.

When I woke up, I wanted to wear the boots, but my mother said, “Why don’t you leave them for Christmas Day, so you can wear something new?”

Our Christmas was preceded by a 25-day fast. My parents observed the fast as keenly as the holy days. Fasting for us solved problems in a way that pleased both God and man, for we abstained from eating meat, fish, eggs, greasy foods, and all kinds of dairy products. All these cost money, which we did not have. At any rate, so long as there were bread, olives, and vegetables – which were always cheap – we were content and happy, however small the amounts were.

However, when Christmas came, we had to have some meat, milk, and cheese with which to break the fast after attending the midnight service at the Church of Nativity. In other words, we had to have some money to spend.

In these days my father was a construction worker. He carried building stones on his back, taking them to the mason. He was paid five or six piasters a day, and he gave what he earned to my mother. When winter came, matters were more complicated. Construction work was hard to find, and my father spent days going from one construction site to another looking for work, and he returned home exhausted and hungry. He never complained.

How could I know that my new boots would sharply emphasize the problem of our daily survival? My father was without work and despite our fasting Christmas was coming soon and the few piasters saved were hardly sufficient to buy the lentils what we ate most days of our fast, let alone buying what was more expensive and tasty. That was why, as I was told on my return from school at noon that day, my mother and father had agreed to sell the boots! She knew some well-to-do neighbors who would enthusiastically buy them for a reasonable price. The sale would provide us with money to buy some Christmas necessities.

I was not too happy with this logic. But it was difficult for me to argue with bothy my father and mother. Neither were they happy with the logic of need. We sold the boots the next day for fifteen or twenty piasters. In Jerusalem we bought some patched shoes for two piasters.

On Christmas Day, when we had left the Curch, and the hymns were behind us and the ringing of bells diminished, I found my mother and grandmother at home cooking the Christmas meal. I smelled the delicious meat my mother had bought with the money remaining from the price of my beautiful boots. Everyone was happy with the food they ate that morning after a hard fast that lasted 25 days. After eating, my father said: “I wish you hadn’t sold the boots, Maryam. We’ve deprived the boy of them, and it’s a feast day. “What was done was done,” my mother replied. “Besides, by God’s grace, you’re here, and you’ll buy him a thousand boots in the days to come.” For many years afterwards, whenever Christmas came, I remember those boots which I never wore. But I soon forget them in the overwhelming joys of the feast.

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