Preparing for Christmas in Baghdad

(published in the San Antonio Current, Jan. 1, 2004)

Christmas is coming in Baghdad, and like in other cities around the world, people contemplate the spirit and the nature of God as they prepare for the Season of Peace.

But there are other preparations as well.

On the streets of Baghdad, stores and hotels display artificial trees festooned with lights. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" continuously blares its tinny, electronic greeting to shoppers. Diesel generators on the sidewalk keep the stores bright in the spirit of the season as pedestrians hurry by, and taxis and the occasional American humvee patrol clatter down the street.

In the numerous internet cafes, patrons type out their own greetings--instant messages and e-mail to friends throughout the cyberworld. Foreigners and Iraqis sit side-by-side as they search the web for the latest news and information, from around the corner and around the globe. Students from the University of Baghdad use the Internet for research, since the libraries are no more; they were looted and burned during the aftermath of the invasion in March. Bankers and business owners are there, too, communicating with their remote offices, customers, and suppliers. After the Coalition bombed the telephone exchanges, phone service has been limited to the few who can afford satellite phones.

Thousands of soldiers, mostly from the U.S. but also representing Poland, Italy, Great Britain, and other Coalition members, ready for Christmas as well. Within military encampments, from Tikrit to Babylon, tinsel and stockings surround the flag, and warriors cheer one another while preparing for--in many cases--their first Christmas away from home. Their thoughts turn to the families as they open care packages and try to envision their loved ones opening presents from Santa.

soldiers in Tikrit sing carols as they decorate for Christmas

At the Baghdad 21st. Combat Support Hospital, Col. Douglas flips a switch to illuminate a tree, coinciding with the lighting ceremony in Ft. Hood, Texas, before returning to his patients.

And back in the U.S., both regular and reserve soldiers plan poignant holidays in advance of being shipped out to Iraq. There'll be extra hugs for their children, parents, and spouses--hugs that may have to last a while, because they can't predict when the occupation of Iraq will end, or when they will return.

The leaders of the churches of Baghdad--Catholic, Assyrian, Coptic, Chaldean, and Protestant-- prepare for an influx of worshippers for Christmas eve mass and candlelight services, despite newly announced security threats. Wreaths hang on the plain whitewashed walls of the Presbyterian Church.

American visitors might be surprised to learn that Christmas is honored in the Muslim quarters of the city as well. Imams remind their flocks of the close ties between Christianity and Islam, and of the reverence held for Jesus and Mary. They also prompt visitors to understand that Islam is derived from the Arabic word salaam (and the Hebrew word shalom), meaning peace. As one Sheik puts it, through submission to the divine will and guidance of Allah (God), people find peace with their creator, with each other, and all of Allah's creation.

Seeham Abas, a mother of four boys, places a tree next to the television set in the living room each year to celebrate Christmas, even though they are Muslim. Christmas has long been an official holiday in Baghdad and the family enjoys both the resemblance to the Muslim holiday of Eid and the gift-giving. Since electricity has been sporadic, they eat dinner and visit with neighbors by the light of a hurricane lamp.

Dahfer Abas (left) with his cousin and aunt in background (by Xmas tree)

On Abu Nawas Street, devoid of traffic since one end was blocked off by concrete barriers, the tableau of Christmases past is being replayed. There in the darkened and looted shell of an electronics store, lives Habib Abid, unemployed since the war, who has taken refuge here with his wife Nahida and their children. They sleep on the marble floor, but they cannot keep out the damp cold--it seeps through the cardboard and rags stuffed in the gate in a futile barrier against the wind. There is no room at the inn for these poorest of the poor. Their only comforts are the gifts of blankets and the attentions that a small group of American peace activists furnishes during regular visits.

These peace activists, members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), have been working with families throughout Iraq to provide a nonviolent alternative to war. They are living proof that small groups of ordinary individuals--armed with the gifts of observation, intervention, peacemaking, and most importantly, love--can make a vital difference in the world. In ways both simple and grand, everyone in Baghdad is preparing for Christmas.

And, in the promise of the ages, peace will come.

Peace, Charlie

Jackson, founder of Texans for Peace, took a two-week trip to Iraq, undertaken through the Christian Peacemaker Teams organization of Chicago. He is the owner of Acceleros, a high-tech firm in San Antonio.


Join our email list!