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 The “Wall Museum”

 

 Background story

 

Once the area around Rachel’s Tomb, a pilgrimage place for Moslems, Christians and Jews, was one of the liveliest in Bethlehem. The Hebron Road connected Jerusalem with Bethlehem, and its northern section was in fact the busiest street in town.

 

 

It was the gate from Jerusalem into Bethlehem. After entering Bethlehem along the main road, visitors either chose the direction to Hebron or the road to the Church of Nativity.

The reality now is different. During the 1990s Rachel’s Tomb developed into an Israeli military stronghold with the Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint close by. As such it became the focus of Palestinian protests, especially during the second Intifada after September 2000. In 2004-5 Israel built Walls near the Tomb and a surrounding enclave, both of which it had already annexed to Jerusalem. The Tomb thus became forbidden territory to inhabitants of Bethlehem. In the course of time no less than 64 shops, garages, and workshops along the Hebron Road closed their gates. This was not just because of the fighting, shootings and shelling going on during the second Intifada, but also because the area became desolate as a result of the Wall. People still remember that parents warned their children not to visit the area with its imposing 8-9 meter high concrete Wall – almost twice as high as the Wall in Berlin.

Those inhabitants who did not want or could not leave the area thought what to do. How to create life in a dead and deadening environment?

Among different initiatives, the Arab Educational Institute, member of the international peace movement Pax Christi, was advised by its members in that neighborhood to start up cultural activities. In 2009 AEI opened the Sumud Story House there, in which four women groups, including one made up of women from the neighborhood, came together for weekly meetings and various social activities. Among those activities were cultural events like the formation of a large human Bethlehem star; the singing and playing from roofs and balconies along the streets; a concert from down under a military watchtower; meditative and inter-religious sessions, and the establishment of a women’s choir performing next to the Wall. In 2009 AEI launched the modest but annual Sumud Festival in the area. Other Wall-torn cities, like Berlin and Belfast, provided models of inspiration.

The “Wall Museum” is the last stage of those imaginative cultural activities. One side remark about the name: the use of inverted commas around “museum” is on purpose. The museum is not intended to become permanent. It is in fact our hope that the Wall museum stories contribute to cracks in the Wall, to its breaking down, and in fact to the collapse of all Walls around us and around the Palestinian people in particular. In other words, we hope that the “Wall Museum” by its very success will once destroy itself.

In this context human stories shown on the posters cannot have but a very special meaning. The fragile, human, personal stories stand in a stark and comprehensive contrast to the concrete Wall. The personal story humanizes, opens up, asks for human understanding, whereas the Wall kills the environment, closes up, takes away the human horizon, “warehouses” people behind the Wall. By preserving human memory, the human story is a challenge to the Wall.

The “museum” presently counts 100 stories which were attached to the Wall at Christmas 2011, September 2012 and September 2013. They are stories of Palestinian women and youth from the three neighboring towns, Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, but also from villages around Bethlehem and other places. The stories express a rejection of the Wall, but show also people’s sumud or steadfastness; and the human longing for the healing of home and the creation and preservation of life over destruction. Moreover, the stories give a sense of history and suggest the possibility of change. Again this is in opposition to the Wall which somehow suggests by its very appearance that change is impossible. Last but not least the display of the human stories points to the will to reclaim the Palestinian story. This story, as we all know, has long been denied by the many stereotypes surrounding Palestinians, in a second layer of seemingly impenetrable walls.

The stories have been partly collected from publications and interviews out of the nearby Sumud Story House. Most of them have been written down by women and youth groups. In the future, more stories will become part of the “museum”:  stories of landowners whose land near Bethlehem has been expropriated or made inaccessible; stories of refugees from nearby Aida camp and elsewhere who lost their land during the Nakba [disaster] in 1948 and afterwards. They together recall the tragic story of the Palestinian people as a whole as well as its story of resilience. The personal stories converge into community stories and into a national story.

It is the texts of the stories but also their context which make this “museum” special. The stories are presently attached to the Wall and some to military blocks. By its very setting, the story is a statement of saying no to occupation and all the restrictions on the freedom of movement in one’s own country.

                Arab Educational Institute

Bethlehem

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