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Bethlehem: the little town with tunes

Yacoub Shaheen is greeted by crowds in his hometown of Bethlehem after winning Arab Idol in 2017 - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

There is more to Bethelem than just carols, as SOPHIA DEBOICK explains.

“For 2,000 years people have sung songs for my hometown,” says Leila Sansour in a trailer for her film Open Bethlehem (2014), a personal odyssey through Bethlehem’s past, present and future. Indeed, no other place has been a byword, so frequently invoked in song, for the human longing for salvation, freedom and hope that the birth of Jesus represents for so many.

Whether it is “the hopes and fears of all the years” resolved in “peace to men on earth” of O Little Town of Bethlehem, written in 1868 but better known in Vaughan Williams’ later setting, or even the awkwardly-phrased “Let everyone know, there is hope for all to find peace” interpolated in Boney M.’s 1978 cover of Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child (1956), songs about Bethlehem express some of the most essential sentiments ever set to music.

But as Sansour’s film explores, peace has alluded Bethlehem for decades, the 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity vividly bringing its foundational legend and contemporary travails together, and for over half a century after the 1948 creation of the State of Israel the city’s musicians have sung of separation, loss and longing for the homeland.

The eight metre-tall, 700-kilometre-long concrete ‘separation wall’ erected between Israel and the West Bank following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 which snakes across Bethlehem is the most recent – and most monolithic – symbol of the Palestinian experience, but in the years since it first appeared, Bethlehem’s musicians have responded to their situation in two distinct modes: with songs of fury and protest, or defiantly making music that is a celebration of life.

Ramzi Aburedwan has lived this history. Born in Bethlehem in 1979 and raised in the Am’ari refugee camp outside Ramallah, as an eight-year-old Aburedwan was captured on camera determinedly lobbing a stone towards Israeli tanks during the First Intifada that erupted in 1987. It became an iconic image of that conflict. Nine years later, an American chamber music ensemble visited the camp and put a viola in Aburedwan’s hands and his life changed overnight.

Aburedwan’s innate talent was recognised and training at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Ramallah and a music scholarship in France followed. As a viola player, Aburedwan has played all over the world, including as a member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Edward Said and Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, as well as playing the five-stringed buzuq with his ensemble Dal’Ouna. Their 2012 album Reflections of Palestine was an exploration of Palestinian folk music and tarab, the traditional forms of Arabic music which hinge on their emotional effect.

But despite having been on the literal front line of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Aburedwan is clear that for him music is not for making a political statement but for creating an oasis of normality in deeply abnormal circumstances. His Al Kamandjâti project aims to provide this normality by giving children in the occupied territories the opportunity to play music. Founded in the year of the 2005 Sharm El Sheikh Summit which marked the end of the Second Intifada and the beginning of a long journey to greater autonomy for Palestine, Aburedwan’s project was an early sign of a cultural renaissance in Bethlehem.

Since 2005, despite ongoing inter-border violence, internal in-fighting and the enduring and constraining presence of the separation wall, events such as the founding of the Bet Lahem Live festival and the Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts & Culture and the reopening of the Bethlehem branch of Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in a new building have signalled a new era for Bethlehem’s musical culture.

While the city’s music scene may be second to that of Ramallah, just 16 miles away, it is small but perfectly formed and includes bands that fall on both sides of Aburedwan’s dichotomy of the music of protest and the music of ‘the normal’.

Mafar have made their music a manifesto. Formed in Bethlehem in 2014, the band melds prog (some have dubbed them the Palestinian Pink Floyd), the guitar sound of north African desert blues and Arabic Maqam singing. Mafar means ‘Escape’, and the band’s still slender back catalogue, all made with their own funds, is deeply concerned with themes of exile.

Mafar’s concept album of last year, Visa, was accompanied by a series of high production value narrative films set in the West Bank and the LP’s artwork featured the deeply symbolic image of a paper boat. Closing track, La Wein, used prominently in Sameer Qumsiyeh’s filmic exploration of borders real and imagined, Walled Citizen (2019), asked “Where to Escape? For the world is behind a wall”. Their single Post-Apocalypse, released in the midst of the pandemic, explored the ambivalence of wishing to get away from the “shipwreck” of conflict while fearing mourning “what you relinquish”.

Meanwhile, a group of Mafar’s contemporaries who practice in a Bethlehem garage take a very different approach. Five-piece Apo and the Apostles’ folky and trumpet-spiked ‘party rock’ sung in Armenian, English and Arabic is wholly exuberant. Songs like Fil Zaman, the opener of debut album Back to Sababa (2015) – sababa means ‘everything is great’ – give a sense of the group’s fantastic energy as a live band, and their bitter sweet Baji Wenek from 2014 EP Got No Eden is a beguiling earworm that has racked up approaching two and a half million views on YouTube. Two further albums, the English language Saving a Dead Sea (2018) and this September’s Rawquha, have followed the band’s signing with Universal Music Middle East & North Africa in 2017.

That was in fact a crucial year for Bethlehem, as the city made a splash across the pop cultural board. There was no bigger or more glitzy stage than Arab Idol, which routinely pulled 100 million or so viewers in its four-season run, and when Yacoub Shaheen, a Syriac Christian and the son of a Bethlehem carpenter, won the competition that year, Bethlehemites celebrated the 23-year old’s victory in Manger Square with relish.

That same year, Banksy’s non-profit project The Walled Off Hotel opened directly next to the separation wall, just off Manger Street. Banksy’s association with the city began when he first graffitied the wall in 2005, and the hotel offers not only 30 rooms decorated with such typically unsubtle images as an Israeli soldier having a pillow fight with a Palestinian insurgent, but a museum of the wall, and an art supplies shop for those wishing to add their own mark to it.

The hotel also fosters musical creativity, as local musicians play jazz in the piano bar and specially commissioned arrangements by global artists like Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales and Jarvis Cocker feature on the self-playing baby grand. A musicians’ residency at the hotel hosted by creators of immersive art and music experiences Block9 in 2018 resulted in an album featuring Brian Eno, Roisin Murphy, Lebanese rock band Mashrou Leila and Samir Joubran of Nazareth’s Trio Joubran.

Banksy has changed the meaning of the wall – when Apo and the Apostles used it as a backdrop to the video for Fil Zaman, it was not to make a political point but because its colourful graffiti looks cool – and he has made something which has constrained tourism by restricting movement between Jerusalem and Bethlehem into a tourist attraction in its own right. Tourism is an industry that is vital to the economy of the West Bank, and while most come to Bethlehem for the Church of the Nativity, this cultural flowering offers another reason to visit. As the marching bands play during the traditional Christmas Eve celebrations in Manger Square this year and the city’s unfortunately-timed 12 months as Arab Capital of Culture come to an end, Bethlehem is showing every sign of pushing beyond its identification only with the Christmas Story and the violence of the last 70 years to a cultural life that exists on its own terms.


Bethlehem has not only inspired countless songs but has also given its name to two very different bands. First there was the short-lived Eagles-sound-alike American Christian rock band who released a self-titled album in 1978. In 1991 a doom metal band from Grevenbroich, western Germany, took the name, which was deliberately incongruous with their nihilistic lyrics. Nearly 20 years on, they are low-key legends of extreme metal.

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