For me Bethlehem is about art and the human spirit. When we drove into town on Friday, the brightly-painted images with their heartfelt, yet light-spirited commentary reached out to us from the high wall that snakes through the heart of town. And that was only the beginning. We witnessed the role of dance, filmmaking, and other art in the lives of refugee youth, the artwork of Banksy in the Walled Off Hotel, and the memorial murals at Aida Camp. And yet another kind of artistic expression in the gardens and collections of the Palestinian Natural History Museum.
In the face of oppression, artistic expression reasserts a person’s human dignity. When Israel built the bleak gray concrete wall and watchtowers that cut off the people’s views and their movement, Bethlehem residents answered the wall with their graffiti. The mysterious artist Banksy made the wall famous with his sly commentary. Here is a well-known example:
At Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, teenagers from the camp performed a beautiful and spirited Dabka dance for us that brought tears to my eyes. The Alrowwad Center for Culture and Arts works with youth in the camp to foster their self-expression and help them become “change-makers.” Their mission is to encourage “beautiful resistance against the ugliness of occupation and violence.” One of the directors explained to us that they teach teenagers filmmaking to put them on the other side of the lens where they are not the passive subjects of the film, but the active creators. These youth are probably the 3rd or 4th generation descendents of the refugees who first entered the camp after the war of 1948.
Heartfelt murals graced the walls of Aida Camp with memories of villages left behind and loved ones lost. A brand new mural commemorated the Palestinian prisoner hunger strike that had just concluded the week before.
And not to be too narrow in our notion of art, I’d like to include the work of biology students from Bethlehem University who are volunteering at the Palestinian Natural History Museum to collect, preserve, classify, and mount species of grasshoppers and other indigenous insects of Palestine, which they proudly displayed for me. Their work encourages Palestinians to recognize and value the rich diversity of their own land.
Now I’ll try to catch up on some sleep, after two very busy days of travel and meetings. Hope to talk to you again next time the Wifi is good. Thanks for reading, friends! Josie