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Christmas carols melt away the differences

Kathryn Etcheverria

Many years ago, before 9-11, before al Qaida, before the war with Iraq or Afghanistan, I worked as a librarian for a government research institute in Kuwait. In those days, we lived peacefully and in relative assurance that the primary war being waged was between Iraq and Iran, and Kuwait remained neutral.

Nevertheless, while most people carried on industrial and somewhat Westernized lives there, at night we heard the distant rumble of bombs exploding across the water at the north end of the gulf, and I was sometimes quite afraid.

I spent two Christmases in Kuwait. They were good Christmases, simple and filled with meaning for me, although I was alone and far from my family. Most Westerners found each other and enjoyed a Christmas meal together. We were spared the mad frenzy of Christmas stateside, and what we may have missed in traditional time with family and Western traditions was more than made up by peace, quiet and time to think about what Christmas really means. I learned that Arab Muslims love Christmas, too, complete with plastic reindeer and fake trees. I enjoyed rare experiences there, and here is one I’ll always remember.

One Christmas Eve, I was invited to visit the family of an Arab gentleman with whom I worked. They were devout Muslims. I did not really feel kindly towards this man, as we often clashed at work, but an invitation is sometimes hard to avoid in the hospitality-conscious Middle East. I found myself ringing the doorbell, albeit reluctantly, outside Talat’s house on Christmas Eve.

We sat a bit stiffly and chatted. In Arab homes, the visit, even just a casual drop-in, seems to necessitate a longer stay than the average American finds comfortable. Talat’s family had lived in America and loved all things American, so conversation hovered around what constituted a traditional Christmas in America.

I mentioned that I played piano, and Talat’s wife and children told me how they loved the sound of Christmas carols this time of year. They had an electric keyboard. Would I play? Well, of course, but I had no music. They had a book of Christmas carols.

And so reluctantly at first, I sat at a keyboard surrounded by a young Muslim family. Quite rusty at first, but soon warming, I played all the favorites: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Christmas Tree,” and “Silent Night.” In the midst of these songs, something subtle and magic happened. This family lost all inhibitions and sang these Christian songs with heartfelt gusto.

And the pianist, at first not willing or particularly able, left reluctance behind and found herself having so much fun that hours melted by. When I finally departed Talat’s house, it was with warm hugs and fond good nights and a promise to return soon.

In this day of hatred between East and West, between Muslim and Christian, I think of that Christmas Eve so many years ago and find myself warmed by the memory.

Kathryrn Etcheverria is a Carson City resident.