Peace on Earth: Christmas in Cyprus

Peace on Earth: Christmas in Cyprus December 13, 2021

Christmas in Cyprus taught me a lot about peace on earth. “Cyprus Poppies,” Artwork by Susan E. Brooks

At our Christmas gathering in Cyprus, Belal the “Philistine” brought poems dedicated to each of us.

A Turbulent History

I promise I’m not name-calling. That’s how our Palestinian friend introduced himself. My husband and I had moved to the tropical island of Cyprus to develop a cross-cultural training program to promote Muslim-Christian relations. Cyprus was a divided island with UN peacekeepers guarding a border that separated the Muslim Turks in the north section of the island from the Greeks living in the south. A history of violence between the Greeks and the Turks had led to the need for the UN to step in. My family moved to the Muslim side aligned with Turkey.

Shattering Biases

Shortly after moving to Cyprus, I was offered a job teaching English at Near East University where my husband studied international relations. He studied with a couple of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, and they became close friends.

When Belal introduced himself as a Philistine, my mind flashed back to childhood stories of David fighting Goliath the Philistine with a slingshot and five rocks. I would soon learn that “Philistine” is what the word “Palestinian” sounds like in Arabic, but our new friends were nothing like the giant in the stories from my childhood.

Art Brings Unity

Our friend Belal was a poet and a singer at heart. He sang ditties like “Thank you, Martin, for this beautiful picnic and for the hamburgers…” It was hilarious because he was inventing the tune which didn’t necessarily match the music being played by his friend Ramsey. He often composed funny songs like that on the fly as his friend Ramsey played the oud. An oud is a beautiful stringed instrument which looks like a guitar with a pregnant belly on the back. Belal did have a pleasant voice, and he obviously enjoyed himself when he sang.

Ramsey the Philistine, in addition to playing the oud, loved to make us falafel, which, by the way, the Philistines said the Jews stole from them. His was the best falafel in town.

A Christmas Peace on Earth

When Christmastime came near, we invited several friends, including Ramsey and Belal, to join us for our celebration. Probably the best gift of the day was hearing Belal and Ramsey read the poems they had composed for us. The poems were gold, much better than any store bought gift. Some were amusing, and some were touching. Belal and Ramsey were some of the sweetest, funniest men I have ever met. I was raised to think of Philistines as the enemy, but I couldn’t imagine thinking of them in that way. Belal was a little tall like Goliath but not the least bit scary or mean.

Ramsey’s profound poem for the Christmas gathering included sections for all of us to repeat together. These refrains asked God to bring peace to the world.

I don’t know who had the falafel first, or why there has to be fighting about everything, even falafel! But I do know this: Christmas with our Philistine friends changed my perspective forever, so I’m not going to throw rocks—metaphorical or otherwise—at anyone. I’m just going to pray for peace in the Middle East. Perhaps the true meaning of Christmas is more about opening our hearts to those we consider “other,” than about expensive store-bought gifts. And maybe “peace on earth,” can begin with welcoming the stranger, even if he’s a Philistine.

 

 

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