Sabt El Nour: The Miracle of Light
VIVIEN SANSOUR, IMEU, April 22, 2014
Palestinians who trace their ancestry to the first Christians in the holy land consider Easter one of the most important holidays of all because of its symbolism of new life and the perseverance of their community through time and occupation. Holy Saturday or Sabt El Nour in Arabic, Saturday of Light, sometimes known in English as Holy Fire Saturday, is one of the most beautiful traditions in Jerusalem and cities and towns around it such as Bethlehem.
For many years, tradition has held that the light comes from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and is brought to Bethlehem and its surrounding parishes in a parade of drumming scouts, holy chants, and flower-decorated crosses that celebrate yet another year of new life and “the miracle.” “The miracle” refers to the belief that every year, the Orthodox priest sits in the cave of the tomb of Jesus and waits three days until fire comes out on its own from holes in the wall of the church.
Nour, pictured here, is a thirty-year-old woman who is keeping these traditions. She accompanies the people gathered in the streets with candles she carefully picks out from the local Beit Jala candle factory. With a joyous smile, she assures me that “life is a miracle and this is what we celebrate every year. Being alive and being grateful for another day.” Perhaps with her strong belief it is no coincidence that her name is Nour, Arabic for “light.”
“I like Sabt El Nour, Saturday of Light,” she says. “Everyone greets me and wishes me a happy year because my name is Nour.” When asked why she was named Nour, she replies, “not because of this holiday but because my mother loved the actor Nour El Sherif!”
Spending time with this vibrant woman, one might think that perhaps her mother called her Nour as a premonition that she would bring light wherever she goes. Walking through crowds she stops and greets dozens of people. “Another reason I love this Christian tradition in my town is because it is a social gathering. We keep Christianity alive here despite all hardship, by being loving and committed to our community,” she tells me.
Yet even in the midst of this joyous occasion, Palestinians are reminded of their lack of freedom. Widad, a woman from Beit Jala, tells me, “We used to go to Jerusalem and join the crowds welcoming the patriarch carrying the light but this year, for example, my daughter didn’t get a permit and I did. Why would I go celebrate without my daughter? Besides, the humiliation at the checkpoints, even when you have a permit, kills the thrill of Easter. The Israeli government claims that they give some Christians permits because they respect the right of religious practice but this is not true. If they respected our rights to pray in our churches, they would not confiscate our lands and deprive us from being together for the holidays.”
Defying circumstances, Widad insists that miracles are real and that she believes not only in the miracle of the holy fire but also in the dream that perhaps like Jesus, who suffered and then rose from the dead, that one Easter, justice for Palestinians will prevail and that there will be peace among all people. When looking at the faces of children like eight-year-old Sharbel, with their excitement and eager hearts, it’s difficult to disagree.
PHOTOS: Vivien Sansour/IMEU