Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 11.02.2017:
Ya’acoub Shaheen is a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem who takes part in Arab Idols, a music competition staged in Lebanon and viewed allover the Arab world and beyond. He is popular, certainly here in Bethlehem, and one of the few remaining candidates, along with the Palestinian Amir who lives in the US.
One of the jury members is Ahlaam, a Saudi singer. At one point her comments turned critical towards Ya’acoub, even harsh, much to the chagrin of the audience. Next day, Facebook was full of mocking remarks and photoshopped portraits of the poor lady. She is actually quite rich – visibly so in her glittering jewelry. During one staged encounter in the dressing room of the show, Ya’acoub gave her a Quran, decorated with mother-of-pearl from Bethlehem.
At present telecommunications companies here facilitate people to vote for the Palestinian candidates by SMS, as the public vote is decisive in the contest. More so, several buses have been heading from Bethlehem to Amman, then the plane to Beirut. Bethlehemites want to see Ya’coub live and cheer him into the finals while enjoying a few days holiday and perhaps visiting the sanctuary of Mar Sharbel, a well-known saint from the Lebanese mountains with healing powers.
During a celebration at the Freres School of Tamer this week, Ya’acoub was mentioned at the end and applauded as former student of the school. The same happened to Mary Atrash, also from the school, who lately participated in the Rio Olympics on behalf of Palestine.
Actually, people are in need to hear and share some stories of success or achievement, especially in an atmosphere in which it is normal to say that the situation was never so bad.
Yet bad as the situation is, life is not without its pearls. At AEI we just issued two books, in Arabic and in English, about what is called ‘Moslem-Christian living together’. They contain some 70 stories collected by students from schools in the Ramallah and Bethlehem areas about how Palestinians of different religions make kind gestures towards each other. The books are part of a long-time project joined by 30 schools, private and governmental, in which Moslem and Christian students learn about each other’s religions.
Daughter Jara made the drawings. The stories are about values of generosity, warmth, neighborship, and hospitality, or a ‘welcoming attitude’ as a supervisor interpreted the last concept. The stories refer to the countless stories which make daily life worth living – no ‘great ideas’ or ‘great successes’, about which we hear so much – and so little – lately, but small stories of humanity.
Examples: Support between Christian and Moslem students at school and in the community, neighborly help, greetings at each other’s feasts, cases of political solidarity, also those that last for a life. I especially liked the story of the priest replacing a sick imam to announce the end of the fasting day during Ramadan.
It is sometimes said: Why such emphasis upon Islam and Christianity? Why not simply speaking about human solidarity or ‘civics’ rather than interreligious living together? With all the ongoing associations amplified by the media, Islam and Christianity are framed in the public mind in terms of polarities. Speaking about ‘Islamic’ and ‘Christian’ Palestinians divides Palestinians further, it is said, while at least on that score you don’t have strong divisions like elsewhere in the Middle East.
Yet one can also say that it is important to keep talking about ‘daily’ Islam and ‘daily’ Christianity which are after all part of the diversity of normal life. Besides sometimes creating tensions and distance, inter-religious living together is a source of richness – naïve as that may sound today.
It is true, in essence such gestures are indeed not about religious customs but about human beings who may have a different religion but also have their own work, worries, living space, and are socially not required to be friendly or hospitable towards others beyond their immediate circle.
Human gestures are the spice of life, and you keep remembering them. I personally cherish those moments that people, also relative strangers, are willing to give you in a fraction of a second immediate and full attention. Not abnormal here, is my experience. The altruist and political activist Simone Weil once said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”.
Perhaps the strangest ‘gesture’ happened to me when a tourist police near Nativity Square saw Jara, then just at school, receiving from me some shekels for a drink. The police thought Jara, looking Palestinian, was begging me, apparently a tourist. With a resolute gesture he gave me back the shekels and instead offered Jara himself some shekels so that she would learn the lesson – not to beg – in a friendly way. It took Jara and me time afterwards to understand what happened.
Of course you can argue that behind each gesture there is some kind of interest.
But is that a problem? Gestures are part of the contract which keeps daily life flowing. It’s about the small things that are part of crafting the household of humanity. It is essential not to exclude people from that household. Without the pearls larger projects and ideas have little meaning or chance to succeed.
Toine van Teeffelen