You wouldn’t expect to find the celebration of Christmas in the Middle East. The Pagan/Christian holiday doesn’t really fit into the whole Islamic cultural narrative except as maybe a subject of protest. But there I stood, on a Kurdish sidewalk in Sulaymaniyah staring into a local shop window. In the window, a snowy landscape adorned with Christmas trees, presents and a jolly waving Santa stared back at me. Sure it was Christmas time but I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept when I saw it, the Kurdish people celebrated Christmas too? The following Christmas I would be in Basra, Iraq and observe similar festivities.
Now of course the Kurdish community is incredibly accepting of the majority of different cultures and religions. Their culture is one of inclusiveness and a large variation of religions and ethnicities reside in the autonomous region. With this diversity comes a melting pot 0f humanity and traditions, much like the United States. So none of the festivities I observed while overseas were terribly shocking, but at the same time I was surprised that they really bothered, given the Sunni Muslim majority. Many Kurdish people actually wished me a Merry Christmas that first holiday.
The following year, in Basra, I witnessed the same Christmas lights, trees and Santa decorations going up around the city. Basra is a predominantly Shiite Arab city with only small pockets of Sunni populations and maybe six Kurdish dudes. So when I went to a local mall and as I was riding the escalator, I looked over to see a crowd of niqab-wearing women, snapping away photos of their children standing with animatronic Santa Clause mannequins. I was perplexed. Our security company’s owner, a practicing Muslim Iraqi, even gave us a Christmas tree for our Ops room.
I guess if I really stop to think about it, Americans are not so different. Many of us celebrate our own variation of Christmas; in fact I would guess that the majority of people who celebrate the holiday are not doing so in a religious manner. In this way, from what I’ve seen, the Muslim communities in the countries I’ve been to have adapted the holiday to fit their lifestyles as well. Merry Christmas Everyone!