North Africa, West Asia

The battle to preserve Bethlehem's cultural heritage

Open Bethlehem is a campaign to revive Bethlehem's legacy as a diverse, culturally rich, and entrepreneurial city, after decades of being suffocated by occupation.

Charlie Hoyle
22 September 2014

Image credit/Charlie Hoyle. All rights reserved.

When Palestinian filmmaker Leila Sansour left Bethlehem in the 1980s there were no military checkpoints intimidating the city, no separation wall jutting into residential gardens, and no Israeli settlements dominating the horizon.

"I grew up in a very idyllic town, but I didn’t think of it like that as a child. There were forests of olive trees, fig trees, apricot trees and huge fields filled with grape vines," she says. "All of this is lost in Bethlehem. Now what we have is a concrete forest of buildings."

Sansour’s new documentary, Open Bethlehem, is the culmination of a ten-year journey of emotional reconnection with a city she left as a teenager to experience the wider world. It is also a tribute to the legacy of her father, who founded Bethlehem University.

"My father was very involved and very committed to the Palestinian cause and believed an educated people could fight better for themselves," she says.

After his early death, Sansour says she was haunted by his legacy and the intimate moments spent discussing Palestine's future, and was drawn to return during the Second Intifada.

The filmmaker lived through military curfews, the siege of the Nativity Church, and the building of the separation wall, and spent five years filming the changing fortunes of her hometown.

"Bethlehem for me is a city of contrasts. It is parochial, but very international. It is pastoral, yet sits on the edge of a desert. There are layers of contrast in how famous and celebrated it is yet how brutalised it is by the occupation."

The fabric of everyday life in Bethlehem has fundamentally changed since Sansour left in 1983. The ancient city that gave birth to Christianity is now guarded by Israeli military watchtowers, which jut into main thoroughfares, and an eight-metre high concrete wall, which abuts residential properties. The wall cuts off the population from Jerusalem, historically Bethlehem's twin city.

Israeli soldiers raid the city almost daily to arrest Palestinians, and the rolling hills surrounding the city have been replaced by concrete Israeli settlements.

Only thirteen percent of the Bethlehem governorate is accessible to Palestinians due to Israeli restrictions. Sansour says the Israeli military occupation is threatening the very survival of a way of life that had thrived for generations.

"I think Bethlehem is a microcosm for Palestine, and a very good one. There is almost no aspect of the nature of the Israeli occupation that does not hit you face on. We need to fight tooth and nail for Bethlehem if we want it to survive as the city we know; otherwise it will just disappear."

Changing fortunes of a wealthy city

During the making of the film, Sansour acquired what is now one of the largest visual archives of Bethlehem, including over 700 hours of video footage, newsreels, old magazines and photographs.

The archive will be made public over time and it is Sansour's hope that Palestinians will share in the story of Bethlehem, and Palestine, by helping to identify those featured in the footage.

While researching the film, Sansour also discovered that this small, diverse Middle Eastern city had thrived at the turn of the twentieth century, as residents built a complex trade network for Holy Land products stretching across the Middle East, Europe and as far as the Philippines. Such a successful enterprise brought huge profits to Bethlehem, which were funnelled into Ottoman mansions still seen across the city.

"Bethlehemites had this worldly outlook, like adventurers. They liked the good life, luxuries, and a high standard of education. It was very easy going, a very outward looking community: diverse, capable, and entrepreneurial. That is the spirit of the city that I’m scared is disappearing."

Although some of the spirit of confidence and entrepreneurship was passed down to Sansour's generation, it had been slowly eroded by successive waves of emigration during WW1 and the subsequent Nakba, or catastrophe of 1948, and Israel's 1967 occupation.

"The sad thing for Bethlehem is that they left. When people have a choice in a situation where there is economic pressure, political pressure and no sense of stability, they start a life elsewhere."

As the traditionally urban, and mainly Christian, population of Bethlehem emigrated, Israel's strangulation of the surrounding countryside forced a largely rural population, with few prospects left, to migrate to a city undergoing economic suffocation.

The pressure on Bethlehem from Israeli settlements and the separation wall drastically changed the spatial layout of the city, with traditional, spacious stone houses replaced by densely populated high-rise apartments.

"You destroy a society that had been building itself for centuries. It is the ghettoisation of a city that was actually a beacon, and prosperous," Sansour says.

'Israel succeeded in censoring our cities'

The Open Bethlehem film is part of a larger campaign of the same name to raise awareness about the crisis facing the Palestinian city.

One of the initiatives is to issue a symbolic Bethlehem passport to create a network of global ambassadors who work to mobilise decision makers, raise awareness, and promote a form of tourism in the city that benefits its residents.

"Everyone should have a stake in Bethlehem's survival because it's part of human heritage. We invite people to join our movement to open Bethlehem, to bring down the wall, and make it a prosperous city open to the world."

A large part of promoting Bethlehem as a doorway to Palestine lies in the varied international misconceptions about the city's status. In the early stages of the documentary, surveys were commissioned in the United States to gauge global perceptions of the city.

In the results, only fifteen percent of Americans knew it was a Palestinian city and even fewer guessed it was located in the West Bank or that it had a mix of Christians and Muslims.

Sansour says it is frustrating to hear that people are so misinformed, but "more frustrating is the realisation about how Israel has succeeded in censoring our cities."

"It is like an effort has been put in place so people don't know. They have been misinformed very proactively, so that's the frustrating thing, to challenge that, to undo that. To put your cities, your heritage, and your history on the map. That is very important."

Sansour's mission with Open Bethlehem is to reclaim the cultural heritage of the city as a pluralist, tolerant, entrepreneurial urban space, which can serve as a model for the Middle East.

"We need to work collectively and seriously to first, help preserve everything we can in this city while the occupation lasts, but more importantly, work hard for the end of occupation and bringing about genuine peace."

Referencing a line from a Mahmoud Darwish poem – ‘Where should the birds fly after the last sky?' – Sansour says Palestinians need to keep going through adversity and the challenges of Israeli military occupation.

"We don't have a choice but to strengthen our wings and to fly where we are not supposed to fly, to take this city to a place where it needs to go, to help people here connect to their history, and to allow them opportunities to start building again."

Open Bethlehem will launch in the United Kingdom in December 2014 and in the United States in 2015. You can watch the trailer of the film here.

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