Stirring a giant vat in a village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinian Christian Maryam Salem prepares a special festive dish - not for Christmas, but the St Barbara's Day festival. It is celebrated every Dec 17 in Aboud, which residents believe is the last resting place of Saint Barbara, a third century woman killed for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. The special dessert, named after Barbara and given to hundreds of people, looks a little like rice pudding but includes wheat, anise, fennel, cinnamon, almonds, raisins and sugar.

Salem says it takes several days to prepare, starting with soaking the wheat for 24 hours. "We cook it and gradually add the rest of the ingredients and keep stirring until the ingredients are well mixed," said Salem, who has been preparing the dish for the festivities for 12 years. The exact details of Barbara's story are disputed but the legend of the story is well-known.

The beautiful daughter of a pagan born in the third century, she secretly converted to Christianity. Once her father found out she fled but was eventually caught. Her furious father murdered her but was struck by lightning and died shortly after. The pastor of Aboud's Greek Orthodox Church, Father Emmanuel Awwad, said some accounts suggest the final scenes took place in the village, while others placed them in the city of Baalbek in modern day Lebanon.

Greek Orthodox Christians prepare “Barbara” dishes, a sweet rice pudding made of whole grain wheat and fruit, as they commemorate Saint Barbara’s Day in the village of Aboud in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Dec 16, 2019. — AFP photos


Celebrations began before sunset on Monday, with a special prayer held in the church in the village center. Afterwards the clergy and local residents, both Christian and Muslim, marched through the village down streets flanked by olive trees and cactuses, while a group of scouts played bagpipes and drums. The march culminated at the saint's tomb, located on a rocky hill where on a clear day you can see through Israeli territory to the Mediterranean Sea.
There families and visitors lit candles in the darkened room in honor of the saint. "We ascend to the tomb with a march befitting the saint's standing and greatness as a martyr," Awwad said. He said the march was "affirming their affiliation to the land," referencing Israeli attempts to take control of the area.

More than 400,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, considered illegal under international law, alongside 2.7 million Palestinians. Hanna Khoury, head of the village council, recalled how in 2002 during the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, Israeli forces blew up the site under the pretext it was being "used to prepare for commando operations". The army later apologized, saying it had not realized the religious significance of the site.

Muslims also eat the Barbara dish after a six-day fast and on other occasions, noted Hamzah Al-Aqrabawi, a researcher in Palestinian heritage. "Barbara is a popular ritual that Palestinian peasants have had for 2,000 years," he said. Eight-year-old Riad Zaarour was wrapped in a traditional Palestinian kuffiyeh, or scarf, as he waited for the dish. "The best thing in the festival is Barbara. We eat it and celebrate. I feel happy." - AFP