Christmas in the Holy Land (TIME Magazine)

I was very pleased to be asked by TIME Magazine to write a piece on Christmas in the Holy Land (Palestine and Israel), based on interviews with prominent citizens there. My priority was to talk to people representing the three Abrahamic faiths, each of whom in some capacity work at bringing the different religions and communities together.

After much research and avid networking I managed to find five such individuals, from Nazareth (in Israel) and Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Ramallah (in  Palestine) including the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the first female mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, who were kind enough to give me some of their precious time despite being hugely busy with national and international commitments. I really hope you enjoy reading their thoughts.

And here’s the PDF version, which has better photos.

Sunset in Bethlehem 3

Sunset in Bethlehem, from the roof of the convent of Brigettine Sisters
© Gail Simmons

Bethlehem Bells

When I was in Bethlehem earlier this month I stood in Manger Square and listened as the bells as they rang out from the ancient (4th Century) Church of the Nativity. I could hear the birds chirping in the background, and as the clanging faded mournfully away the mundane sounds of modern life – traffic, people – came to the fore once again …

Sunset in Bethlehem © Gail Simmons

More Excess Baggage (BBC Radio 4)

I was pleased to be invited back onto BBC Radio 4’s flagship travel programme, Excess Baggage, which goes out live every Saturday morning to an audience of around 10 million. Last time, in July 2010, I was talking with the witty Sandi Toksvig about my experience on a desert retreat in Sinai, alongside the writer Anthony Sattin (see the ‘TV & Radio’ page of this website for the podcast).

This time the programme’s theme was Palestine, hosted by the charming John McCarthy and with two other guests: the writer of a new guidebook to Palestine and a young circus performer whose troupe of clowns had recently been out to the region to perform to children. I was asked about my experience of walking there: meeting ordinary Palestinians, sharing meals cooked by local women and sleeping in Bedouin tents and village homes. I wanted to give an alternative view to the negative headlines and the stereotypes so often portrayed in Western media, and tell people about the beauty of the countryside and the warmth of the people I met there.

One of my most memorable experiences when in Palestine was hearing a shepherd play the flute to his flocks, which I filmed. Another was hearing the memories of an old Bedouin sheikh, which I wrote about in the Guardian (and added on a previous post) and the life story of the marvellous lady, well into her 70s and the daughter of an Orthodox priest, who runs the Arab Women’s Guest House in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, which I stayed in and whose profits go towards women’s projects in the area.

And if anyone would like to visit Palestine, and share some of the same experiences, I recommend this not-for-profit organisation: the Siraj Centre for Holy Land Studies, who will arrange a tailor-made trip for you. Other great organisations that offer walking/cultural trips in Palestine are Walk Palestine (or for cycling, Bike Palestine), and Hijazi Travel, run by a professional hiking guide.