When I was in high school, I participated in a public speaking contest and was asked to present a humorous reading. I chose a passage from the book,–The Joyous Season_ in which a young boy describes how his father dreads the Christmas season with the attendant demands to shop and socialize. I still remember the opening line: “Daddy always said that the best place to spend Christmas is in a Moslem country.”
Now, having spent several Christmases in Iraq, I’m amazed at how easily one can step into the drama of a light shining in the darkness which the darkness shall not overcome. Several days ago, next door to our home in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood, baby Noor was born. Her dark, damp, chilly home resembles a stable. Baby Noor’s grandmother begged us for a blanket in which to wrap the newborn. Her aunt, ten year old Eman, has no socks and no coat. She smiles as she shivers. Yet Abu Noor and Umm Noor, the proud young parents, are beaming with gratitude and pride as they hold up their newborn. Leaving their home, I realize that they are slightly better off than the family across the street. At least they have a roof overhead.
Our neighbors on the other side of the street are living in a junkyard, sheltered by flimsy construction. Looking out of our second floor window, Cynthia and I wept with chagrin during this morning’s downpour as we watched two young women navigate their way through garbage and mud puddles to collect clothing that had been hung outside. We call our home “the fridge” because with only 2-3 hours of electricity during most of the past four days our electric heaters don’t work. It’s a sheer act of will to wriggle out of a sleeping bag, cast aside blankets, and face a chilly bathroom and kitchen. Imagine the hardship for those living in tents and shanties.
Whether comfortable or forlorn, military or civilian, everyone in Baghdad is afflicted by the ongoing war. A Kenyan woman, Sylvia, has been emailing me encouraging messages for the past several months. Today she expressed distress over news of mayhem and bombing in Baghdad at Christmastime. “Even in World Wars, Christmas was a time when armies called for a ceasefire,” wrote Sylvia. “I wonder if that only applied when both sides were Christian?” The sad irony here is that people in every neighborhood of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities braced themselves for the onset of Christmas and New Year holidays, expecting violence to rise.
As I write, mortar blasts and bombings have been going on for the past hour and now a wailing siren issues a warning for the Coalition Provisional Authority personnel. I can’t imagine where they or anyone else could go for shelter. As our friend Umm Heyder said, in Chicago, when we asked her thoughts about the capture of Saddam Hussein, “the whole city is captured.”
Koranic and New Testament stories celebrate the journey three kings made, bearing gifts for the newborn Prince of Peace. Better for the rulers of today’s world and every merchant of death who serves them to stay away from the children.
Yes, the Christmas traditions, ranging from the shepherd’s generosity to Herod’s persecution, come alive here in Baghdad. The stories, if embraced, could teach us a better way. Peter Maurin, who helped found the Catholic Worker movement, wrote in one of his delightful “easy essays” that “the world would be better off if people would stop trying to become better off.”
I am sure that many people worldwide share my friend Sylvia’s deep regret. I hope they are thinking of ways to stop paying for war. Most governments today do not want our bodies on the front lines of combat. They want our assent and our money. I hope millions are marking their calendars for March 20, 2004 and helping to plan demonstrations against the inconclusive war that began on March 20, 2003. And I hope all will feel the warmth and goodness of that light which shines bravely in Umm Noor’s shining eyes, as she stands barefoot on a cold, cement floor, joyfully cradling her newborn babe.