The Palestinian artists giving new life to the streets of Beit Sahour

The Palestinian town has fallen into disrepair in recent years, but a group of artists is on a mission to rectify the mess

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At first, Beit Sahour’s old city neighborhood seems pervasively sad and neglected: largely deserted streets, shuttered shops and in its main square a creepy, cordoned-off statue of Mary and Joseph.

Garbage is strewn around the potted plants outside the Mary’s Well religious shrine. Nearby, electricity cables are twisted up as if it was Beirut during the civil war. Before 2000, this was the market area and beating heart of Beit Sahour, but now it seems comatose.

Known foremost for its Biblical associations, Beit Sahour, which neighbours Bethlehem, is where, according to Christian tradition, angels first announced the birth of Jesus to a group of shepherds.

Despite the old city’s decline in recent years, this year’s Christmas is coinciding with a flickering of revival.

An area of revitalisation 

For one thing, the immaculate new Cafe Arkuda has just opened across from Mary’s Well, offsetting the eerie environs. “If you’ll be in an area you can give it life,” says owner Hazem Al-Azaa, an artist and poet. In recent years, a trickle of artists have moved in nearby, reclaiming empty abodes.

The cosmopolitan and friendly Al-Azaa, whose poetry is influenced by the haiku, is among a handful of remarkably creative individuals who, through their art, hospitality and imaginations, are etching the contours for a renaissance of the old city. Where most people see bleakness, Al-Azaa harbours hope.

Social media and working with alternative tourism organisations are not the only ways he will get people to come, he says. “We will invite our friends, artists, people to make exhibits and have music, [and organise] theatre for children and concerts. This square is a nice place for it.”

The old city's ghost town character in a result of the municipality's having closed part of it to cars, says 75-year-old Farah Rishmawi, owner of one of the only shops still open in the area. After the municipality shut his street, St John's Street, prior to the start of the gala Bethlehem 2000 festivities, shop-owners relocated because customers could not easily access the premises, he says. Moreover, residents of the old city who could afford to move out did so in order to have land and bigger houses, says Rishmawi.

That the old city will indeed be revived is something not to be taken for granted. Its seemingly low-priority for the Palestinian Authority; the as yet hard to predict response of residents, and the volatility of the security situation amid continued Israeli military occupation all cast potential shadows. But if the city does blossom, the opening of Singer Cafe in 2013 in an abandoned building can be looked back upon as its starting point.

An affirmation of Palestinian culture

Through the efforts of its owners, Singer Cafe has become a place where local artists and foreign visitors gather in a comfortable and tranquil atmosphere. Originally from Holland, Kristel Elayyan, co-owner with her husband Tariq, contributes to stimulating the fledgling revival in Beit Sahour by leading visitors to the hidden artist studios of the Old City. Kristel calls the tour a mishwart (combining the Arabic word for tour, mishwar, with art).

In a recent mishwart that I embarked on, Kristel highlighted new artworks on the doorways of shuttered shops. As Kristel relates, young people from a local art college "had an idea to make the old city nicer. They made a deal with the municipality to paint the doors of shops." Their paintings, drawn in October, blend renewal with tradition, using stencils to form Palestinian embroidery patterns. It's an affirmation of Palestinian culture in a town that lives in the shadow of the sprawling and daunting Israeli Har Homa settlement.

The students even decorated a utility box with hearts in blue and copper, turning an eyesore into a work of art. We were led up a staircase into the spacious studio of Ayed Arafah, a modest, soft-spoken painter from Bethlehem’s Dheisheh refugee camp.

Arafah has struggled acutely with the question of how political his art should be. He grew up amid destitution in a place that is still subjected to Israeli army arrest raids. But his aspiration is not to be locked in as a victimised refugee painting for the national cause. He paints to find his identity as a human being.

A recurrent image in his work is the bull. In one painting a bull turns into a bicycle. In another, bulls are interspersed with butterflies. "In this series I tried to pose myself as a bull, which looks like a warrior that is facing other warriors, so it's expected to be a hard fighter. But I take it out of the zone of fighting and have it just doing daily stuff because the Palestinians are stereotyped to be fighters and this is dehumanising us," he says.

The next studio on the tour is Alaa Hilu, a self-trained upcycler, which means he takes that which is discarded and turns it into art or useful things. In Hilu’s workshop, the screen from a tear gas mask has become a lamp, a tyre has been transformed into a comfortable seat, and he is working on turning old cutlery into jewellery. “Everything in nature is in cycles, there is endless looping,” Hilu says. “That is what made life in the first place, the endless loop of nature.”

As Hilu talks to our group, with hard rock music playing in the background, one senses that he can turn trash into just about anything you can imagine. Hilu is striving to endow others with his skills. For years he has been empowering women from the beleaguered village of Walaje on the edge of Jerusalem by teaching them to upcycle.

A city's rebirth 

The final stop on the mishwar belongs to stringed instrument-maker Aref Sayed, who grew up in the walled, old city of Jerusalem. Born into a family of woodmakers, Sayed’s start in what would become his beloved vocation came when he tried to fix his own instrument. That launched him on a journey that took him to Italy, Germany and Turkey to study how to fashion string instruments.

Sayed is the only maker in Palestine of the qanun, an instrument that plays a role similar to the bass in western music. Crafting a qanun is an art in itself, especially when the materials to build it are unavailable locally. Sayed’s solution is to make the qanun materials by himself, with the help of two engineers. “If you don’t have good materials it will be a bad instrument,” he explains.

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He occasionally receives instruments for repair from Syria and Egypt, and he has customers as far away as England and Canada. Being around other artists helps his work, Sayed tells our group. "This morning I met Alaa and Ayed for coffee and we talked. Each has an opinion and when you drink a cup of coffee together you get ideas," he says.

Ideas also percolate in the mind of al-Azaa, the Cafe Arkuda owner. “I want the cafe to be the centre of a new old city and of the local community of art,” Al-Azaa says, adding that such a rebirth will benefit the entire area’s residents.

And the poet is sure he is in the right place. “Some places have energy like feng shui,” Al-Azaa says, referring to the ancient Chinese belief in using energy to harmonise people with their surrounding environment.

“Some people have good energy. Here I can feel it.”