Al-Ahram Weekly – 20 December 2001
The town in the Galilee, in which Christ grew up, has not escaped the commercialisation of Christmas. Shining from shop awnings along Nazareth’s main street are hundreds of inflatable Father Christmases and glossy Rudolph the Red- Nose Reindeers gently swaying in the cool breeze of winter. Silver trees and artificial snow are in almost every window.
Competing for attention as dusk fell last week on Paul VI Street were the constant explosions of firecrackers thrown by children celebrating the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, which this year coincided with the build-up to Christmas. Parents marked the occasion in more subdued fashion by snaking long strings of green lights — the colour associated with Islam — along their balconies and windows.
But in this city of divided faiths — one-third Christian and two-thirds Muslim — there has been little sign this Christmas of the overt rivalry that once scarred relations between the two Arab communities. Not even the well-publicised and long-festering wound at the heart of Nazareth, the proposed Shihabeddin mosque, is raising a stir. The mosque’s Muslim architects hope it will one day dwarf the neighbouring site of Christian pilgrimage, the Basilica of the Annunciation, the Catholic church that marks the spot where the Archangel Gabriel supposedly announced to Mary her miraculous conception.
For the past two years the car park next to the Basilica has been commandeered by the Islamic Movement, which has staked out the boundaries with flags bearing Qur’anic verses and has erected a makeshift tent where the faithful can congregate five times a day to pray on well-worn mats. In the middle is a pulpit made of palm leaves. The area, which includes a small white tomb to Shihabeddin, nephew of the Crusaders’ nemesis Salaheddin, is supposedly a holy Islamic site.
In recent weeks, however, the planned mosque has stopped being a metaphorical wound and become a physical one, approximately 10 metres deep. Partially hidden from view by a metal fence, volunteers have dug a large hole and are laying the foundations of their place of worship. They have yet to receive the necessary permits from the Israeli government for the work, but they have been emboldened by a planning authority decision agreeing to a change of land use.
Surprisingly, given the many heated rows in the past between Muslims and Christians over the site, there has been hardly a squeak about the illegal work. On several occasions in the past, the two sides have come to blows, but the streets of Nazareth, and even the Israeli media, have remained calm. Almost alone, church leaders in Jerusalem raised their voices late last month in protest at the government’s planning decision.
The silence has nothing to do with the season of goodwill. Most Nazarenes have rather more pressing matters on their mind than an extravagant battle of symbols. Israel, buffeted economically by the conflict with its Palestinian neighbour, is racing headlong into an economic slump that is making everyone feel the pinch — and rapidly throttling Nazareth.
The city, once filled with Christian pilgrims from around the globe, has barely seen a visitor since the start of the Al- Aqsa Intifada 15 months ago. Shop owners still open their doors each morning in an act of faith (or the expectation of a miracle) that once more there will be a demand for Virgin Mary statuettes and paintings of the crucifixion. The city’s restaurants and hotels, many built in time for the “Nazareth 2000” visit of the pope, are struggling, too. The luxurious 250-room Renaissance, finished only months before the outbreak of the Intifada, goes for weeks without seeing a single paying guest. Its main business now is hosting bargain wedding receptions for locals. The only recent customer at its rival, the Marriott, was a convention of Yogic Flying teachers who needed a cheap venue in which to practise.
But it is not just tourists the city has lost. Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s Arab population, traditionally served as a haven for secular Jews wanting to shop or eat falafel on the Sabbath. During the Intifada, however, they have been boycotting Arab areas inside Israel, either out of fear or as a punishment. In the current charged atmosphere, many believe that the one million Arabs are really a fifth column inside the Jewish state, complicit in Palestinian attacks both in the occupied territories and inside the Green Line.
Nazareth has become a no-go area for Israeli Jews, just like Gaza and the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin. In this corner of the Galilee, it seems, a little piece of Palestine has already been born.