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The Angel’s Song: a story for Christmas

December 14, 2013

 

It was Christmas Eve. Up the road in Bethlehem Manger Square was filling with tourists, and strains of hymns floated from the Church of the Nativity across the darkening sky. In his kitchen Sami was grinding chick peas to make falafel. Sami al Ibrahimi’s falafel were legendary throughout the West Bank, unsurpassed for quality and price. His son Abed was standing on a stool chopping parsley at the table.

“Dad, you know when Jesus was born, the angels sang, right? What did it sound like?”
Sami tossed the falafel into sizzling oil.
What did it sound like? Well think about it. Peace on earth, the good news of a saviour….. it must have been the sound of joy, Abed! The sound of pure joy.”
“What’s that like then, Dad, the sound of joy?”
Sami chased the falafel round the pan with a spoon and said: “You know when it’s the end of term, and you and your mates all tear out into the playground, shouting and singing and laughing at the top of your voices….maybe it’s something like that.”
“Dad?”
“Yes, Abed?”
“Can I go to work with you tomorrow?”
“Can you get up very early?”
“Course I can!”
When Sami came to wake Abed up at 3.30 a.m. he found the boy already bright eyed and wakeful. “Jesus’s birthday” he whispered. Father and son carried sacks of pitta bread to where the van was parked, and Sami lifted Abed up into the passenger seat. The diesel engine coughed into life, and they made their way across the valley, where the separation barrier was a massive concrete serpent, snaking through the darkness. Abed took his harmonica out of his pocket and started to play. “What’s that tune, Abed?” Sami asked.
“It’s the angels’ song, but I’m not sure I’ve got it quite right yet.”
Sami laughed, but his laughter faded as he saw a solider flagging them down. He stopped the van and wound down the window.

 

“Have you got a license for that vehicle?”
“God bless you, young man, you know I have because I showed it to you yesterday and the day before that.”
“Don’t get clever,” said the soldier, and waved his gun at Sami. “License!”
He glanced at the license Sami handed him, scowled and waved them on.
“Why are Israeli soldiers always grumpy, Dad?”
“Well……. I suppose they haven’t heard the angel’s song. Maybe you need to teach it to them.”
“I’ve nearly got it now,” said Abed, and picked up his harmonica again.
He was still harmonising when they arrived at the checkpoint .
“Look at the stars, Dad! ” said Abed, as Sami parked up. “Which one is the Christmas Star?”
“You need to look for the very brightest and biggest,” said Sami as he opened the serving hatch.
At the checkpoint Palestinian workers were already queuing up to begin their working day in Israel. It could take up to three hours for everyone to get through, and business for Sami was brisk. As his Dad served up hot food to the hungry queue, Abed sat improvising on his harmonica and looking up at the stars.
“Fine musician, your lad!” The customer smiled.
“He’s playing for Jesus’s birthday. The angels’ song of peace. Mint sauce with your falafel? And yoghourt? Christmas blessings to your family!”
The queue was moving slowly and people at the back were showing signs of impatience. Abed watched as a young man pushing his way toward the front, with a young woman, visibly pregnant, following behind. The man was shouting.
“It’s my girlfriend! She’s about to go into labour! This is urgent, let us through for God’s sake. Let us through!”
There was some grumbling, but the queue let the young couple pass to the soldiers at the checkpoint.
“Papers,” said the soldier, without looking up.
“Papers? I didn’t have time to bring them” the young man was shouting. “We need to get to hospital right now. Can’t you see? ”
“Can’t let you pass without your papers. Not under any circumstances. How do I know you’re not a terrorist?”
“Just let us through, for God’s sake. Can’t you see it’s her time?”
Abed watched as the young woman started sobbing. Without quite knowing what he was doing, Abed grabbed his harmonica and ran up to the checkpoint. The soldier looked up in surprise at the appearance of a small boy with a mouth organ, and watched in bemusement as he started to play.
Abed closed his eye, and saw angels. From his harmonica there came music that flew up the scale and fluttered back down again, swirling spirals of sound like heavenly laughter that swelled and exploded into arpeggios of delight.
The people queuing at the checkpoint stopped grumbling and listened. The soldier listened. Even the young woman stopped crying and listened.
When he had finished Abed gave a shy bow. “It’s the angels’ song” he explained. “Peace on earth. It’s Jesus’s birthday.”
The soldier turned his eyes from Abed to the young couple and back again. Then with a sideways nod of his head he gestured them through the checkpoint.
“OK then, forget the paperwork. Just don’t tell anyone I said so, right?”
But just then the young woman gasped and said, “It’s coming, the baby’s coming.”
Sami ran over, his arms outstretched, beckoning the couple toward the falafel van.
“In here, come in here. My van is ready for you. It’s clean and quite private. Come along now, we’ll be fine.”
Abed wasn’t sure what to do, so he sat in the driver’s seat and played “Away in the Manger” while Sami helped deliver the baby. At the end of the third verse Abed heard a new sound, a piercing cry.
Afterwards the young woman said, “You know, I didn’t really notice the pain, I was just listening to your lovely music.”
Afterwards they were all hungry, so Sami got some pitta breads toasting. Then there was a knocking on the window of the van. It was the soldier from the checkpoint. He passed something over to Sami. It was a can of Coke and a bar of chocolate.
“They’re…… they’re for the baby.”
“Well, God bless you, and thank you very much,” said Sami.
The soldier hesitated as though he wanted to say something, and then turned and left.
As the young woman ate her falafel Abed held the baby, wrapped in a tea towels. The baby’s eyes were big and brown and very wide open. Abed had never held such a new baby before. As Abed looked into the baby’s eyes, he felt that love was looking back at him, a love as deep as the ocean and as high as the stars. “It’s Jesus’s birthday,” Abed told the baby. “And yours too.”
They dropped the family off at the clinic, said their goodbyes and turned for home. The dawn was breaking and the sky filled with rose coloured light. Sami felt a prayer rising in his heart. “Happy Christmas, Abed” said Sami quietly, but his son was already asleep, still clutching the harmonica.

Frances Eccleston.