Crossed paths and hijacked memories

Crossed paths and hijacked memories
As a Muslim child in a Palestinian refugee camp, Jesus and Mary were treasured figures to Nasri Hajjaj, until the Lebanese Civil War tore apart religious cohesion.
4 min read
27 Dec, 2014
Christmas is celebrated in Ramallah, West Bank [Getty]

When I was younger, I would celebrate Christmas with the other inhabitants of the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. On 25 March, we would mark the Feast of the Annunciation, the festival having particular semblance for our refugee camp in south Lebanon as overlooking us was the village of Maghdouche. According to tradition, this is where the Virgin Mary received a visit from the Angel Gabriel and was told that she would be the mother of God.

As children of the refugee camps, these Christian festivals replaced the happiness that was missing from our homes during our first years in the camp, and made up for the colour and joviality that was largely absent from our Muslim celebrations.

Eid al-Fitr for example was always a happy occasion as it marked the end of Ramadan, a time of fasting and endurance, and Eid al-Adha was the a festival of sacrifice and meant the presence of meat on the table, which was seldom found in people’s houses during the rest of the year.

But our celebrations were not as joyous or as festive as the holidays of our Christian neighbours.

Perhaps the most exciting religious occassion I remember as a child was the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, when the people of Sidon would carry their Nasserite member of parliament, Marouf Saad, on a float and parade him around the city. He would be accompanied by scouts beating drums and performances from men with swords and shields, who would show off their skills to the crowd while chanting religious slogans and prayers for their leader's long life.

I grew up having a special affinity to Jesus, not because he was born in Palestine, as that fact didn't register with me as a child, but because I liked the idea that Jesus was the son of Mary. I felt that a prophet who was attributed to his own mother is truly the prophet of suffering, particularly in a society where paternal descent is only recognised. The idea that Jesus is the son of God used to scare me because I could not imagine that a child whose father is god would live a free and quiet life.

At our homes in the camp we would put lights on small cypress trees and listen to Fairuz sing Byzantine hymns. We would think that like us, Jesus is a refugee in body and spirit, a prophet that had suffered like no other prophet before or after him. It was not just the physical suffering Jesus endured when he carried his cross on his back, or wore a crown of thorns, and was crucified. His soul also agonised by being attributed to both god and to Mary, the virgin mother.

     The cross that was a source of joy for children in Lebanon became a symbol of fear for a quarter of a century.

The questions of childhood and youth came from a pure place and Jesus and his bloodied cross did not stir any fear or suspicions in our minds until 1975 when the Lebanese civil war began. Then the image of Jesus that was in our hearts was stolen and abused by the people who claimed to be his representatives, just as some Muslim groups do today with god. The cross that was a source of joy for children in Lebanon became a symbol of fear for a quarter of a century.

In the summer of 1999, I was walking on Rukab Street in Ramallah contemplating the details of this small city in my homeland, which I hardly know. I became engrossed in the questions about my own complicated identity and recalled my long journey that led me to this place.

Whilst in this state I heard a feminine voice behind me that was soft and warm in its rhythm, but loud in its thick rural accent. I had not heard this accent among the Palestinians in Lebanon, who are mostly from the Galilee and northern Palestine. I curiously looked back to see who was talking and saw a young woman with a beautiful face, slender body, who was well dressed and had a striking presence.

She had a unique charm, and I was amazed at how all of these attributes could be matched to this rural accent that was so foreign to me. What struck me the most was the woman wore a golden cross around her neck, which lit up the whole street as it danced in the sun light.

That was the moment that I made peace with the cross after fundamentalist Christians, who do not differ from fundamentalist Muslims, had nearly driven a wedge between us. I regained my love for the eternal sufferer and became an eternal traveler along this path of hymns.       

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.