A new side to the holy city of Bethlehem

Known for being the birthplace of Jesus Christ, this biblical-but-still-bustling little town has a new miracle afoot: a renaissance of Palestinian culture and coolness.


The Singer Café is like a lot of hipster haunts you might find in the nearby cosmopolitan corners of Israel: a family sharing a shakshuka brunch; a European traveller writing a screenplay on his laptop; and a dating couple getting to know each other over a sumptuous mezze platter. There’s striking local art on the walls, and the cafe’s whimsical, upbeat vibe is epitomised by a sign that reads “more espresso, less depresso”.

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But Israelis are by and large forbidden by their government from visiting this particular oasis of cosy calm. That’s because Singer is in the suburb of Beit Sahour on the walking-distance outskirts of Bethlehem – itself on the outskirts of Jerusalem – in the occupied West Bank, which has been controlled by the Israeli military since the Six Day War of 1967. Singer serves arguably the best espresso con panna in any conflict zone on the planet. 

Bethlehem is best known for being the hometown of King David and the birthplace of Jesus Christ (Credit: Credit: Efesenko/Getty Images)

Bethlehem is best known for being the hometown of King David and the birthplace of Jesus Christ (Credit: Efesenko/Getty Images)

Known for being the hometown of King David and the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the biblical-but-still-bustling little town of Bethlehem has a new miracle afoot: a renaissance of Palestinian culture and coolness. Like the iconic red soles of Christian Louboutin shoes, Bethlehem has developed a pocket of fashionable finesse even under Israeli occupation – so much so that the 22-nation Arab League, under a Unesco programme, declared Bethlehem to be 2020’s capital of Arab culture.

“The first thing the Israeli occupation would want is the end of our art and culture,” said Baha’ AbuShanab, a mop-haired manager at Singer. “That is how you sterilise a society.”

We are communicating with the world through creativity

While the occupation accounts for land more than a quarter of the size of Israel – and in recent months, the Israeli government has embraced annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank — life under Israeli control is particularly evident in Bethlehem, where an 8m-tall concrete separation barrier was built by Israel in 2002 with the declared aim of stopping suicide bombings and attacks (Israel says it has been an effective deterrent). Yet, the culture that has since flourished resembles the madcap making-do styles of Havana, Valparaiso or the former East Berlin: a flower that blooms in rubble.

The impish British artist known as Banksy first put up political artwork in Bethlehem in 2005: nine graffiti drawings that debuted on the separation barrier. In 2017, Banksy’s presence – and politics – was heightened by opening The Walled Off Hotel, a nine-room boutique that boasts “the worst view in the world” due to its outlook onto the barrier. The project began as a pop-up but has become a fixture of the town, prompting a rush of tourism that rivals Bethlehem’s historic Church of the Nativity – if not in sheer numbers, then certainly in social media resonance. The Walled Off also hosts a gallery of local artists, runs a museum dedicated to the history of the wall and conducts twice-daily tours of the nearby Aida Palestinian refugee camp. Its profits go to local projects.

Banksy’s The Walled Off hotel boasts that it has “the worst view in the world” (Credit: Credit: Thomas Coex/Getty Images)

Banksy’s The Walled Off hotel boasts that it has “the worst view in the world” (Credit: Thomas Coex/Getty Images)

“We are communicating with the world through creativity,” said Wisam Salsaa, the hotel’s manager. “We are giving a lesson in the world of how to live. We can live out of nothing, make out of nothing.”

Recent years have been especially game-changing, he added.

“Five years ago, if you went into downtown Bethlehem, it looked like Afghanistan. Now it looks like Havana. There are women in skirts or jeans and men in earrings,” he said. “You could protest in Gaza, fight, get shot, get arrested… and still with all that you will not achieve as much as a painting or a poem. That is the power of art – not just beauty, but also strength. It cuts to your humanity, to our shared humanity.”

But Banksy hasn’t created Bethlehem’s cultural renaissance as much as catalysed what was already stirring.

At Rewined, a hookah bar near the Al Aza refugee camp, customers are greeted by a blaring neon yellow sign: طز, the Arabic word “tuz”, which means – in its politest translation – “whatever”. At Singer, a similar sign in English reads “Mainstream? No thanks!”. And at the Hosh Al-Syrian Guest House, a romantic 18th-Century hotel tucked along a dusty alleyway in the centre of town, its upscale, reservation-only restaurant is called Fawda, the Arabic word for “chaos”.

In all these cases, Bethlehemites have rewritten their narrative by reappropriating and reclaiming their uncertain, uneasy lives.“Tuz” is far from apathetic resignation; rather a daring declaration of persistence along with the canny awareness both that art is the most seductive form of violence and that living well is the best revenge.

Surveillance cameras mounted like hunting trophies line the lobby of The Walled Off hotel (Credit: Richard Morgan)

Surveillance cameras mounted like hunting trophies line the lobby of The Walled Off hotel (Richard Morgan)

The driving principle of this renaissance is sumud, a Palestinian concept of solidarity by way of proud, persevering existence. Sumud is the recent dramatic facelift given to Star Street, the pilgrimage path of Mary and Joseph as they searched for room at an inn, which has given the centuries-old street new life and relevance, including a spate of new festivals. It’s the 2017 opening of Bab idDeir Art Gallery and its recent photo exhibition of local community heroes. And it’s women wearing contraband maps of Palestine as dress prints, daring Israeli soldiers to rip them off in confiscation. Nadya Hazbunova, a Bethlehemite fashion designer, has a line of olive wood earrings sporting sumud-heavy Arabic calligraphy, including “I am free” and “I will dream”.

Historically, one of sumud’s most colourful manifestations was when Bethlehemites embraced watermelons during the years between 1980 and 1993, when black, green, red and white paints — the colours of the Palestinian flag – were banned by Israel in the use of any art “of political significance” (in addition to the flag itself being banned since 1967). In the annals of non-violent protest, Gandhi famously urged people to be the change they wanted to see in the world. Sumud, by contrast, is about changing the world just by being seen.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Dalia Dabdoub, owner of Rewined. “I plan on expanding to Abu Dhabi – in 10 years,” she added with a smirk.

This kind of counterintuitive renaissance is surprisingly commonplace where people feel their human rights are under intense restrictions. At Melinka, a former Chilean prison camp, prisoners ran a weekly circus. At Heart Mountain, a US Japanese internment camp, captives sumowrestled and performed Bon Odori folk dances. Even amid the infamous Nazi horror of Auschwitz, prisoners passed around poetry and composed music, risking torture if they were caught. As Salsaa put it: “As soon as there is a space to live, people will fill it with life.”

Political artwork decks the walls at The Singer Cafe, a crossroads of artists, activists and tourists (Credit: Richard Morgan)

Political artwork decks the walls at The Singer Cafe, a crossroads of artists, activists and tourists (Richard Morgan)

Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, agrees. “Liberty of mind becomes important when liberty of movement is gone. It’s like a rejection of detention. It’s not surprising that this accelerated in Bethlehem after the wall went up. If my life is limited, it’ll be the fullest life possible within those limits,” she said. “The restrictions are used to break the will, so it feels almost like a foundational assertion of humanity to still be people capable of adding to the world.”

We can do things differently – better – and totally Palestinian

There is indeed a circus at the Aida camp, but Bethlehem also has a formal arts college, Dar al-Kalima University, which debuted in 2006 as a community college and was inaugurated as a university in 2013. And a 2012 relocation of the Bethlehem branch of the prestigious Edward Said National Conservatory of Music triggered a local revival in both classical music and angsty jazz through numerous gigs. Spotify debuted in the Arab world in 2018, dramatically expanding the audience of Palestine Street, a hip-hop group formed by teenage boys in Bethlehem’s Dheisheh refugee camp; as well as Shoruq (“sunrise” in Arabic), the all-girl hip-hop group they mentored in the camp. Globally recognised musicians – Elton John, Flea, Trent Reznor – even offer Bethlehem concerts, in a way, by remotely programming a self-playing grand piano in the Walled Off Hotel’s lobby.

Not that all of this revival is so lyrical.

“I don’t have a menu. We create in chaos,” said Fawda’s chef, Fadi Kattan, who trained in London and Paris and improvises each day’s menu based on that morning’s visit to local sellers. He’s still able to create dishes as complex as freekeh risotto, pea cream with laban jameed (a salt-dried goats’ cheese) or a chocolate moelleux with roasted pear and black tahini cream. “It can be good. It can be graceful. And it can be in Bethlehem,” he said. “On Christmas night I had Jews and Muslims in here eating pork. We can do things differently – better – and totally Palestinian.”

The separation barrier is covered in graffiti and messages from street artists and advocacy groups from around the world (Credit: Richard Morgan)

The separation barrier is covered in graffiti and messages from street artists and advocacy groups from around the world (Richard Morgan)

The height of Palestinian terroir, as Kattan put it, is akoub, a beloved local herb. “It must be foraged and plucked of its thorns, and of course it has a short season,” said Kattan. “Its taste is subtle, between artichoke and asparagus. But I dipped it in chocolate and served it with an incredible akoub mousse. That’s what I mean by totally Palestinian.”

A stone’s throw from the busloads of Americans, Brazilians, Britons, Chileans, Filipinos, Italians, Koreans, Mexicans, Nigerians and Russians flooding Manger Square, Kattan elaborated on the benefits of tourism. “There has been a foreign influence in Bethlehem since the time of Jesus. Pilgrimage and the diaspora work both ways,” he said. “But we have to be more than for pilgrims.”

The revival, then, is about enticing secular pilgrims, drawing upon Bethlehem’s humanity more than its sanctity.

Open Bethlehem, a 2014 documentary by Leila Sansour (who handed out cheeky Bethlehemite passports at viewings – the first to Pope Benedict XVI), has shown at film festivals globally. Its chronicle of seven years of change in Bethlehem captures the early awakening of the renaissance now in full flourish.

“We fought on such political terms for so long that it’s almost like we regressed as souls, lost who we are,” said Sansour. “Art has given us back our substance, made our lives substantial again.” This summer, she and Jacob Norris, a British historian with an expertise in Bethlehem, are launching Planet Bethlehem, a digital cultural archive that feeds the new revival by providing a history and context for for the global diaspora of Bethlehemites.

“It’s a parochial town that’s been plugged into globalisation for 150 years,” said Norris. “Bethlehem was always unique in the Ottoman Empire, from its 16th-Century stronghold of Roman Catholicism to its 19th-Century globalisation to now, when its uniqueness is that the wall cuts right through the city centre.”

Star Street, the pilgrimage path of Mary and Joseph, has been renovated with new storefronts and fresh paint (Credit: Richard Morgan)

Star Street, the pilgrimage path of Mary and Joseph, has been renovated with new storefronts and fresh paint (Richard Morgan)

Of course, centuries-old history – even of the 20th Century – means something different to Bishara Salameh, the 22-year-old, fifth-generation manager of Afteem, a celebrated falafel restaurant just off Manger Square. “We couldn’t go outside,” Salameh said, referring to curfews that followed the Intifada that ended in 2005. “We lived through the shadow of the Intifada and now we have stepped into the light, our own light.”

Showing off bags of za’atar (a thyme-heavy herbal blend) and socks the shop sells with a bright green-and-brown falafel print, he continued: “We are not just making art in the occupation. We are making art about the occupation. We are using art to confront it. We are not prisoners. We are not numbers. We have souls. We make art, make culture, make fun, make food, make life. Even in a world where we are denied basic stability.”

He mentioned the Nakba, which means “catastrophe” and is the Arab term for the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians during the war over the creation of Israel; noting proudly that Afteem was founded in 1948, the year Israel was formed, when his family was forced out of Jaffa.

“We have no control of our past. It is done,” Salameh said. “We have limited control of our future because of Israeli restrictions. So, all that is left is controlling our present, living in the moment and growing in the moment.”

Comeback Cities is a BBC Travel series that showcases under-the-radar capitals, champions the urban underdogs and revels in the success stories of cities that have turned their fortunes around.

Source: bbc.com








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