The Palestinian city of Beit Lahem, a bus-ride south of Jerusalem and not very far from the (pre-1967) Israeli border, does not exactly fit the idyllic Christmas-time image. It is, after all, under military occupation, butted up against the separation wall with watchtowers looming over its suburbs.
My friend Palden has made several extended visits to Beit Lahem, and in 2009 he kept up a regular blog that has now been used as the basis for a book – Pictures of Palestine. As it happened, I received a copy just in time to read it in the run-up to Christmas; and so I noticed the stark contrast between the Bethlehem of the Christmas story and the reality of today.
As Palden says, millions of people have heard of the place but very few have actually been there. The reality, if all you know about Palestine is what comes over on the BBC news, is quite shocking.
It is probably also true that 2,000 years ago, life for people from a family of provincial artisans under Roman rule was itself in stark contrast to the nativity scene as depicted on present-day Christmas cards. What we would like to believe may have very little to do with the actual truth, whether ancient or modern.
I don’t intend to go into the details here, nor to try making any political points about a situation that I have no first-hand experience of; but I would recommend Palden’s book. It is by no means a horror story, in fact it contains a great deal of hope for the future, as well as an illuminating account of past history. But it is a close-up look at what life is actually like on the front-line between the ‘first world’, the West, and the ‘under-developed world’, the rest. And the picture that this presents – perhaps because it is somewhat understated – can be very disturbing.