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Origins of Ta’amreh, semi-Bedouins east of Bethlehem

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 14.07.2006:

A Shepherd from Bethlehem

By Delia Khano

Stories From Palestine

I have attended many weddings in Bethlehem including my own but I treasure the memory of one ten years ago when we went to the reception for the youngest son of Elias Subeh. Elias, now dead, was a guide who for several decades worked with our tourist agency, and he was a member of the Taamreh. The Taamreh are a Bedouin tribe who live near Bethlehem; they like to consider themselves Bethlehem people and use the town as a shopping and marketing centre. Their territory stretches over the Judean Hills to the southeast of the town past Herods great fortress Herodion, past Tekoa, birthplace of Amos, and down to the bitter waters of the Dead Sea. Some members of the tribe went to work in Kuwait in the 1950s and with the money that they sent back their relatives began to settle, some in a newly built village near Herodion, some in Bethlehem or Tekoa. The finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls by two of their number in 1947 also injected money into the tribe; but some of them are still nomadic and live the age-old way of life of the Bedouin.

There is a quite plausible theory that the Taamreh are descended from Tamar, the widowed daughter-in-law of Judah who tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her and bore him twin sons.

Afterwards Tamar was used as a place name and it is mentioned in the Bible as being on the eastern sea, that is the Dead Sea. There are no remains of a town and it seems to have referred to the territory of a tribe which was a division of the tribe of Judah. As the Ta’amreh mostly marry within the tribe, they would actually, if they were from the woman Tamars line, be of purer stock than Judahs descendants by his wife Bath-shua, who was a Canaanite. It was from a branch of Tamars line, not Bath-shuas that David was born after several generations, and after many more generations, Jesus.

It is very possible that the Ta’amreh became Christian at the beginning of the era, and this would explain why they were not banished with the Jews by Hadrian. They are the best candidates we have for the Shepherds of the Nativity story, and they themselves support the idea that they were once Christian, as evidence pointing to the remains of the Byzantine church in Tekoa. (This church and the town of Tekoa were ruined in 614 by the Persians.) If they were the Shepherds, they would have remained the Infant Messiahs champions for many centuries until they accepted Islam with the advent of the Moslem Arabs. Only then did they become Arabic-speaking; before this Aramaic was the lingua franca of the whole Fertile Crescent.

Another possibility is that the Taamreh were Christian until the time of the Crusades, when Saladins treatment of the indigenous people compared very favourably to the Crusaders. Only from the time of the Crusades did the Moslem population stop frequenting the Church of the Nativity for worship.

Elias was one of the Ta’amreh who settled in Bethlehem, and he lived contentedly among the Christian majority. He had been a shepherd as a boy; then the Sheikh of the tribe, becoming rich form the Dead Sea Scrolls, gave him a Mercedes to use as a taxi and he learned to drive. While driving tourists he listened to the guide, and he was soon able to qualify as a guide himself. I doubt if he ever read a book but he acquired much knowledge aurally, and he added his own insights and folklore. In 1958 he guided Billy Graham and afterwards until his death he was the guide for Billy Grahams preachers and followers and for many of other allegiances. When the Duke of Edinburgh visited Jordan, he was chosen to be his guide. His guiding at its best was quite lyrical, capturing the pristine atmosphere of the Holy Land, illuminating the Bible with local knowledge, bringing a wealth of interest and colour to his expositions. He used to take his tourists to drink coffee in a black goat-hair tent (with friends, no tourist trap); gave them bread fresh-baked from a friendly villager’s oven; invited them to pick mulberries from his own trees; showed them a cave-stable under a Bethlehem house: the birth of Jesus would have been in such a place; notice the stone manger; stopped to watch a man winnowing in the Shepherds Fields: even the chaff is used in certain circumstances, he said.

The wedding party I mentioned, when Elias youngest son was married, took place in the cool of a September evening a few years ago in the open space next to his house. There are twelve in his family, and the youngest of all is a daughter who had married the previous week, but her wedding was, as always, the responsibility of the bridegrooms family. All but one of Elias children had succeeded in being there for both weddings, although many of them were working in foreign countries. Sadly, the eldest was missing, Ali, whom the Israeli authorities did not allow to enter his native country. All the children were now married and there were no black sheep, no dropouts; all had good jobs.

There was a huge throng of people, and when Elias, clad in a long, light-coloured, loose galabiyeh, had greeted us, we were passed down a sort of chain of relations and neighbours we knew. Lanterns lit walls and trees in patches, and here and there braziers shone on warm, animated faces. Conversation was difficult because of a band whose young players gave us Arabic music and western pop alternately, both equally loud; a few couples were dancing first in the Arabic manner, then the western way; Turkish coffee and sweet cakes were handed round.

We were quite near Manger Square, which was the focal point of Bethlehem and faced the Church of the Nativity, and below the party area was the house that Elias had built earlier in his married life: the house on our level was an old one he had just bought for such members of his family as might wish to live or stay there. He was furnishing it in Arab style, with brilliant wall hangings, oriental rugs on the stone floors, brass trays and braziers, and palliasses strewn with colourful quilts and cushions. The rounded windows, walls three feet thick and high vaulted ceilings seemed to please Elias more than the rectangles of his modern house, and the general effect had both charm and local colour.

Elias’ wife was a Christian woman from the Lebanese mountains; an incredible manager and cook; to look at her you would never credit that she had produced enough human beings to make up a football team. Both parents were transparently proud and happy on this occasion: with the difficulties of communication and travel between the Arab world and Israel, it was a triumph for them to have all but one of their family with them. I knew the absence of Ali caused an invisible knot of grief within them, but nonetheless the feeling of joy was almost tangible; it reached to the black velvet sky that was pricked according to a calculable and comforting system, and over and above that system was another, incommunicable starlight.

The Billy Graham Association had for about twenty years had a Christmas tour and Elias always guided it. The leader, Roy Gustafson, preferred to take the groups to the Shepherds Fields southeast of Bethlehem Taamreh country rather than face the hectic melee that Christmas Eve in Bethlehem was at that time with buses nose to tail emitting nauseous fumes, cynical kibbutzniks, and starry-eyed Christians from East and West chivvied, checked and searched repeatedly by Israeli soldiers. The Shepherds Fields are near the Christian village of Beit Sahour (adjoining Bethlehem), which means the house (or place) of the watchers sahour meaning actually watchers before the dawn. We like to take people, whatever their denomination, to the Catholic Shepherds Fields (although there are also Protestant and Greek Orthodox sites), because it has a big cave, blackened by the smoke of shepherds fires, where services can be held. There is also a beautiful little church nearby, Barluzzis work, and a convivial Irish Franciscan took care of it. And within the compound ruins of a Byzantine monastery have been found, to remind us of the time when the church was one and undivided.

The Franciscans had wired the cave for light, and after the service, leaving the glow and comparative warmth inside, we stepped into the crisp evening air and made our way down the drive. The inky sky, the brilliant stars, the wind whispering in the pine trees were probably the same as two millennia ago. Elias was in front, like the Palestinian shepherd that he was, and we heard his “Grrr! Grrr! as he called his flock. The flock, the members of the group, followed in a daze. We boarded the coach at the gate (a beautiful wrought-iron one with a shepherd/sheep theme) and we were driven through Beit Sahour, its little churches lit up by coloured lights, to the outskirts of Bethlehem.

There we stopped and let Elias off. Goodnight! Goodnight! Merry Christmas! Elias replied, Merry Christmas! Ma’asalami! Peace be with you! As we drove away, he was gathering up the skirts of his galabiyeh to walk up the hill that led him by a back way to his house. A sudden perverse trick of memory brought to my mind a picture of a former vice-chancellor of Oxford near the Radcliffe Camera, hurrying home for tea in College, gathering up the skirts of his gown as rain threatened one windy autumn day.

Zoom! Zoom! Two jeep loads of Israeli soldiers, bristling with arms and antennae, zoomed past us, and I wondered anxiously if our shepherd, putative son of Judah, would reach home in safety.

The writer is a long-time resident in Jerusalem, co-founder of the Guiding Star and authoress of By Eastern Windows.

Source: This Week in Palestine

December 2003

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