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Tis the Season

Refugees in Their Own Land

by RAOUF J. HALABY

In Early November a colleague requested that I compose a few thoughts for our church’s Advent 2012 booklet. I selected the Luke 2: 1-7 text for reasons personal, professional, and textual. What follows (with additional poignant comments) was printed for the December 20, 2012, Advent reading.

My family resided in a West Jerusalem suburb (just off the centuries-old Jerusalem-  Bethlehem Road) and some 11 miles from the historic city of Bethlehem, the place natal of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. This road is believed to be the path that Joseph and Mary negotiated on their way to Bethlehem.  And, of all the Bible nativity narratives, Luke’s narrative is my favorite. This was the same road on which I traversed, on foot, to attend school, church, visit friends, and go to the YMCA, an internationally renowned West Jerusalem landmark.

Born in Antakia (Antioch), not too far from Aleppo (Halab, the city from where my ancestors migrated in the 15th century and a city decimated by civil war), Lukas, whose Anglicized name is Luke, is believed to have been of Greek origin.  Imbued with the Hellenistic spirit, he was a well-travelled and erudite man. While he was sometimes referred to as a physician, scholars have observed that, because of his ability to write in a lucid and informative manner, he was a historian who proclaimed the Good News in an objective, straight forward, and intellectual manner.  Some scholars have even declared him a historian in the manner of the Thucydides.

In late December of 1957 a group of American pilgrims/tourists with broadcasting connections visited Jerusalem to transmit to the United States a live Christmas radio program from Jerusalem. When they heard that a few Christian Palestinian families resided in West Jerusalem (yes, prior to their being ethnically cleansed by the Israelis in 1948, tens of thousands of Palestinian Christians lived in Jerusalem and Palestine), they decided to interview a Palestinian family so as to give the program a measure of National Geographic local flavor. My twin brother and I were selected to read Bible passages, and to this day I remember that textual materials from Chapters 1 & 2 of the Gospel of Lukas were selected; today’s advent passage is that same passage that I read   55 years ago this December.  And it is the same passage that my paternal grandmother (the daughter of Greek immigrants to Palestine) read to her grandchildren from her Greek Bible.

As an Art Historian, I have become very fond of Luke because he inspired Byzantine, Eastern and Russian Orthodox, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque artists both stylistically and thematically.  Since the fourth century artists have depicted Luke not only as one of the four evangelists whose canonical gospels are foundational textual materials for the New Testament,  but also as an artist positioned in front of  and in the act of painting Mary and the infant Jesus. This portrait within a portrait of Mary became an iconic theme in Eastern and Western Europe, including the Near East.  Some scholars have opined that the depiction of Mary as Theotokos (God Bearer) was a theme first articulated by Luke.  I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to view such portraits at St. Katherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, several churches in occupied Jerusalem, The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and St. Marco in Venice, Italy.  Dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries, this depiction of Mary became the prototype for a large body of mosaics and paintings culminating in the Russian Vladmir Virgin icon.  Replicas of this portrait grace churches across Asia Minor and the Near East and are displayed in homes. Christian Taxi drivers in the Arab World, Greece and Eastern Europe have been known to hang an icon of this art work from their rear view mirrors. And in 1982 Lebanese Phalange Christian forces glued similar images on the butts of the machine guns they used to murder defenseless Palestinians, including scores of innocent children.

While the Eastern Rites made Mary and Jesus the focal point of their paintings, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch artists included Luke as an active participant in their depictions of Mary and Jesus.   Guercino, El Greco, Vasari, and Bouts, to name but a few of the Western European artists, portrayed Luke in the act of painting Mary and using a variety of mediums, including encaustic (wax and pigments), egg tempera, silverpoint,  and oil compositions either on wood panels or canvases.  Because of its iconic symbolism and visually powerful associations, the artists’ guilds designated Luke as their patron saint.

After reading the Gospel of Luke, one is struck by Luke’s lucid prose and by his ability to utilize historical events in a most skillful narrative style,  and it becomes obvious that he loved the poor, that he was very inclusive and strongly believed that the Kingdom of God was for everyone, regardless  of creed, class, or background, that he respected women, that he saw hope in God’s Mercy, and that he preached forgiveness  — themes that should resonate even to this day in what I fear to be a world  plagued with wars, violence, corporate greed, corrupt politicians, and a lack of respect for and stewardship of the environment. Cha- Ching, Cha-Ching  clamors the NRA and its dealers throughout this nation, and please don’t mess with my 2ndAmendment. And, since that infamous Friday, December 14, 2012 massacre of the innocents, the sale of assault rifles has never been any better.  Cha- Ching goes the arms industry; Cha Ching  go the politicians who sell the weapons to dictators and thugs around the world.

The three Wise Men from the East saw a star and followed it.  Instead of a guiding star, today’s skies in the East (from Gaza to Afghanistan and Pakistan) are crowded with a constellation of drones, the modern day aerial assault rifles that rain hell-fires to incinerate innocent civilians and children. Do you suppose that the holiday shoppers in America and the Western world have ever thought of the slaughter of innocents (with American made weapons) in Gaza, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan? Yes, today’s skies in the aforementioned light up with effervescent phosphorous bombs.

Refugees in their own land with no accommodations and about to have a child, Joseph and Mary are not unlike the poor, down and out disenfranchised people in our own midst, including the refugees of Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria.  In verse 7 Luke sums it up thusly:  “She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”  While the Prince of Peace encountered a NO VACANCY sign at the moment of his birth, his life, ministry, and his message of Peace on Earth is a much needed clarion in our own times, whether at home or around the world. Are there any leaders willing to step up? Or, are they too busy peddling and gift wrapping tanks, guided missiles, jet fighters, and drones as Cha-Ching gifts from a country that clamors American exceptionalism yet does not practice it?

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private Liberal Arts university in Arkansas. halabyr@obu.edu