An update from two volunteers’ semester in Bethlehem

Last February, John and Barbara Fritsche traded their downtown Chicago condo for a small apartment in the bustling center of Bethlehem.
They’d wake every morning to the sounds of church bells, calls to prayer, and shop-owners hawking their goods. They found themselves immersed in an energy that even downtown Chicago can’t rival.
A lifetime of experience in arts and education (John) and legal work (Barbara) combined with a shared passion for Middle East peace led them to volunteer at Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture for the semester.
During his days on campus, you could find John with his sleeves rolled up, sporting an apron spattered with clay. A retired education and ceramics professor, John Fritsche assisted in the ceramics classes and led assessment workshops for faculty. He spent time with students both problem-solving techniques and listening to their hopes and dreams.
“These students are so hungry for opportunity,” he shared. “As students, some have already launched small businesses and are here to hone their craft. We get to support them in both ventures.”
After teaching, John often joined students for tea in their homes, glimpsing their world beyond the classroom. As he and Barbara discovered, hospitality marked their daily interactions with Palestinians.
On Barbara’s last day in Bethlehem, she shared a 5-hour meal with Nuha Khoury, the Academic Dean of Dar al-Kalima. The perfect end to a semester filled with meaningful work and even more impactful relationships. Over the last 4 months, Barbara applied her 35+ years as a general practice attorney as she worked directly with college’s administration. With Nuha, she developed policies and procedures to be used by students, staff, administrators and faculty. She also gave tours of the college to English speaking visitors.
As a runner, Barbara was immediately struck by the lack of freedom of movement in Bethlehem. She’d start each day, jogging through the winding streets of Old Bethlehem, only to be confronted by ever-present separation wall that surrounds the city on three sides.
In her first week there, she noted that not only physical barriers limited movement. She met a Bethlehemite whose family member died in Jerusalem, yet she could not get permissions to attend the funeral just 6 miles away. Throughout the weeks and months that would follow, she and John would be reminded of the ways the occupation threatens to restrict not only Palestinians’ freedom of movement but also their freedom to simply exist. Despite these hard revelations, they clung to Rev. Mitri Raheb’s definition of hope: “Hope is when you know the world may end tomorrow, but you continue to plant olive trees.”
This is the work they were privileged to join. “It was truly an amazing and incredibly rewarding experience. We are forever changed,” Barbara shared.
You can read Barbara’s account of her time in Bethlehem on her blog.

Nuha Khoury with Barbara Fritsche

Dar al-Kalima grad receives award at Cannes Film Festival!


Dar al Kalima graduate, Wisam Al Jafari receives 3rd prize at Cannes International Film Festival!

The first Dar al-Kalima University of Arts graduate to be represented at this prestigious international films festival received a Cinéfondation prize, an award for emerging filmmakers for his film, Ambience. His film takes the unique approach of representing life in a Palestinian refugee camp through its sounds. Anne Marie Jacir, perhaps Palestine’s most internationally recognized filmmakers said this about Al Jafari’s nomination:

The selection of Wisam Aljafari’s film Ambience to Festival de Cannes has put me over the moon on a personal level. Not only because of the joy knowing that the cast and crew will celebrate this moment for the rest of their lives. Not only because Wisam comes from my little town of Bethlehem Not only because he grew up in the #Deheisha Refugee Camp, a place very dear and near to me where I spent three years. And not only because exactly fifteen years ago my own short film was also selected to Cannes in the same section and it changed my whole life and launched my career.
But also because this moment is historic.

Every year Cinéfondation selects films from accredited film schools all over the world . My film was the first short film from the Arab world to be in Cannes but I also went representing Columbia University, incidentally also a first for them. But this year, for the first time ever, a Palestinian school is being represented. Dar Al Kalima College. Something which did not even exist a few years ago. Dar al Kalima has managed to mentor, offer support, and help countless new and talented Palestinian filmmakers realize their dreams. Thanks to the amazing and tireless work of people like Saed Andoni, Majdi El-Omari, Mitri Raheb, Rehab Nazzal, and so many others… PALESTINE IS IN CANNES!

Join us in congratulating Wisam, and our colleagues at Dar al-Kalima University! What tremendous news to celebrate during Bright Stars of Bethlehem’s 15th Anniversary!

View our announcement video HERE.

View the film trailer HERE.

Play presents Mary through eyes of today’s Bethlehemites

“This is a play that’s so important because it celebrates our Palestinian women. And we need to celebrate our Palestinian women,” shared a father, with his arms around his two sons.

Dr. Victoria Rue recounts this memorable response to her play, Maryam: A Woman of Bethlehem.

The play, based on interviews with 30+ Bethlehem residents asks the question, “Who is Mary/Maryam in 21st c. Bethlehem?” Is she an emblem? A guide? Significant at all?

Interviewees represented a breadth of experiences and perspectives from both Christians and Muslims, including those of an Islamic scholar, a gender studies professor, a Christian theologian, a housekeeper, non-profit workers, junior high students, and college students.

Dr. Victoria Rue, professor of religious studies at San Jose State University, received a Fulbright to teach at Dar al-Kalima University and work with students to create and perform Maryam. From the beginning, Dr. Rue hoped this would be a “bridge-building play” that emphasized connections between Muslims and Christians, men and women. Throughout the life of the play, this hope was realized. From casting to translating, performance venues to audience reception, the play created a platform for an exchange of stories, beliefs and traditions around the central figure of Mary.

First, the play was performed by two Muslim women who, in their personal lives, vary in their relationship to religious and cultural tradition. One of the actresses wears a hijab, a head-covering, while the other does not. Because the two actresses perform twenty two characters in the play, they present a range of Christians’ perspectives of Mary. So, the actresses steeped themselves in the experiences and beliefs of their Christian neighbors.

Victoria Rue, far right, with cast, musicians and translator

Dr. Rue, in turn, also dug deeply into the Quran’s account of Mary, which gives far more detail about her childhood than the Biblical account. The Qur’an, in fact, has an entire chapter/sura named “Maryam.”

Audience members who came from a diverse range of religious and cultural backgrounds also had the opportunity to share their reactions after each performance, in a Q & A session. Here are some of those responses:

“I think the play says Maryam is in everyone.” -Bethlehem University student

“The play gave many opinions that as a Muslim I didn’t know before.  This makes me accept these different points of view in my community.  These points of view exist in the community— like the atheist —and we are neglecting them, neglecting this reality.  Also, we cannot assume that all Christians or all Muslims think the same. They have many points of view. Like this play.” -Birzeit University student

“This play teaches us to stay in our homelands and don’t leave it, stay and not emigrate. Also, to face the occupation.” -A young person in Jenin refugee camp

“For me this play reflects the reality. You are not saying anything that you created. This is the real situation, but in a very subjective way.” Old man at Al Hakawati Theatre, E. Jerusalem

“Before the play Mary was something untouchable and significant, and after the play, I felt that any woman who is doing exceptional things, or doing things differently, could be Mary. -A woman at Al Kasabeh Theatre

Throughout the interview process, Dr. Rue also discovered connections that surfaced from today’s Palestinians to a far more ancient culture.

“Perhaps my biggest “aha” moment, Dr. Rue shares, “was learning that the symbolic roots of Mary are more ancient than the individual Mary/Maryam in Palestinian culture,” For example, she learned that the Milk Grotto, a pilgrimage site where legend holds that while nursing baby Jesus in a cave, Mary spilt a drop of her milk, turning the rock milky white. For centuries, Muslim and Christian women have come to this site in search of improving their fertility or lactation.

Yet, this region’s history of mystical milk predates Muslim, Christian, even Jewish tradition. Historic records of Canaan’s popular fertility goddess, Astarte, also reference milk as a symbol of fertility- and its uses in religious ritual. Throughout the Bible, we also see references to pre-Hebrew Canaan as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” an ancient reference to this female deity.

The play also bridges ancient and contemporary.

One of the actresses, Dalia observed how the play touched on issues surrounding the difficulty of being a woman in Palestine today. She remarked, “I never thought of myself as a feminist, but this play, in a very unexpected way, gets at issues of feminism using a religious figure.”

Maryam also touches on an underlying reality that affects all Palestinians, women and men: the occupation. One of the characters in the play, Layla reflects on how the occupation reintroduces and emphasizes violence and patriarchy in Palestinian society. To guard against the effects of the occupation, Layla expresses her resolve,

“What I want to help create is a society of resurrected men and women who feel that they can bring who they are to the world without having to pray to a statue, or hide or be ashamed.  To be brave enough to be who you are—that’s the slap in the face to the occupation, to society, to everything that tells you that you are sh**. And we are told we are sh**.”

“Maryam” actresses run lines with the stage manager

Perhaps this is one of the greatest gifts of the play. In listening to a multitude of Palestinians’ perspectives on the life-giving figure of Mary/Maryam, we glimpse the interior worlds of a people whose dignity is constantly threatened. We become witnesses to a tender resilience.

Since January 2019, the play has debuted at eight different venues including theaters, universities and community centers across the West Bank and in Israel- from East Jerusalem, to Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin, Jifna and of course, Bethlehem.

Dr. Rue dreams of bringing this play to the States, perhaps the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, whose director is Palestinian. Rue expresses a willingness to bring the work to a variety of venues, stating, “however this play can contribute to Americans’ knowledge that there is a beautiful culture called Palestine, and a beautiful people called Palestinian.”

About Victoria Rue, PhD

Victoria Rue is a feminist theologian and a writer, director and teacher of theatre. She received her Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in New York and wrote her dissertation on how feminist theatre enacts feminist theology. Dr. Rue has taught in the fields of Religious Studies and Theology for fifteen years. She has taught at the Pacific School of Religion, Starr King School for the Ministry, the California Institute for Integral Studies and St. Lawrence University. She is currently a lecturer in the Women Studies and Comparative Religious Studies Department of San Jose State University. Victoria’s book, Acting Religious: Theatre as Pedagogy in Religious Studies, was published in 2005 by Pilgrim Press. Dr. Rue is also an ordained Catholic priest.

Dar al-Kalima grad is headed to Cannes Film Festival!

Wisam Al-Jafari’s short film, Ambience was one of 17 films selected out of 2,000 international submissions for a Cinéfondation award, a prize given to emerging filmmakers. The jury will award three Cinéfondation prizes on May 23 at the Palais des Festivals Buñuel Theatre.
This recognition also marks the first time Dar al-Kalima is represented at this prestigious festival. Congratulations to Wisam and his faculty mentors!

We wish Wisam the best as he heads to Cannes next month for the festival! Congratulations to the faculty mentors and staff at Dar al-Kalima University that made this work possible! What a joy to support these creative leaders!

Dar al-Kalima launches international student film festival

This April, Dar al Kalima University of Arts and Culture launched the first film festival in Bethlehem showcasing student films from across the world. From April 1-6, the college screened over 74 films from 16 countries and 18 schools. For six days straight, the college drew crowds from morning until evening to watch student films and participate in discussions and workshops. Jury committees comprised of internationally renowned filmmakers including Annmarie Jacir, awarded works in three categories: fiction, documentary, and experimental.

During the opening ceremony, Rev. Dr. Raheb noted that this festival signals Bethlehem as a cultural capital of the Middle East. “This occupied city whose concrete walls have tried to trap our people is also a city that embodies the world, that creatively resists imposed limits,” he announced. “By creating this global artistic exchange in the heart of Palestine, Bethlehem becomes a window to the world and a bridge that connects people across national, religious and cultural boundaries.”

Student organizers also shared this vision. Rana, founder and director of Dar al-Kalima’s film club, shared, “We are a generation that grew up without movie theaters or local film festivals. Yet, today, here we are, producing films that compete in international festivals. We could not do this without the support of our professors and the film program here.”

The festival opened on Land Day, a holiday that celebrates the connection of Palestinians to the cherished land of their ancestors. This timing was not a coincidence, film professor and festival director Said Andoni remarked. “Our film is a tool of resistance, a vehicle by which we explore and raise awareness of culturally relevant issues.”

Dar al-Kalima students picked up two awards.

Salah Abu Neima’s “Area C” won best Palestinian short film. The movie tells the story of a Hussein, a young Palestinian boy who tries to keep his home and family safe from Israeli settler’s daily attacks in Area C, a Palestinian area in the West Bank surrounded by Israeli settlements. Shayma’ Awawdeh’s “4th Floor” received an honorable mention for its account of a young woman who moves out of her family’s home to seek independence. While transporting her belongings on an elevator, she discovers the unexpected awaits her.

Why the pope’s UAE visit matters to us

On February 5, Pope Francis held a historic mass in Abu Dhabi. This visit coincided with the pope’s signing, along with with Sheikh Al Azhar, Ahmed al Tayyeb, a document committed to building “Human Fraternity.” This gathering of the western and Arab world’s most prominent religious leaders was preceded by a 2-day “Conference on Human Fraternity” that brought together 600 religious leaders and influencers including Christians of all denominations, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. Our president, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb was one of few religious leaders from Palestine invited to this important event.

Here are his reflections-

The pope’s visit to the United Arab Emirates should not be underestimated. His signing of the ‘Human Fraternity’ Document with Sheikh al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in the Arab world, is significant. It was the first papal visit to the gulf region. The mass was the largest public gathering to take place in the country, with over 35,000 in attendance inside the stadium and over 100,000 gathered outside. Both religious leaders delivered bold and timely messages, given the current context of religious extremism and fundamentalism.

For us at Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture, the conference that preceded the signing of the document provided a key opportunity to meet many of the 600 international and influential religious leaders. Many of these leaders are our friends and partners. The event is important for our work on two ways. First, in 2014 we launched our own document “From the Nile to the Euphrates: The call for Faith and Citizenship.” This document calls on Christian and Muslim academics to engage in their communities and work towards society where all members have equal citizenship. Five years later, we are encouraged to see this “Human Fraternity” document, building on the same ideas.

Second, two years ago we launched a network of Christian seminaries and Muslim religious colleges. The first of its kind, this network challenges religious faculty to engage in interfaith dialogue. Thus, the event in the UAE is an important sign on this journey of strengthening Christian-Muslim relations and affirms our efforts in this regard. Still, we recognize that we have not reached our goal. Rather, we see this as an important milestone in a long journey.

Dar al-Kalima University is committed to “walk the talk” by creating the conditions for just, inclusive societies in the Middle East- societies based on genuine freedom and equal citizenship. In our upcoming conference this October, we will address the theme “Towards inclusive societies in the Middle East.” We expect to bring together 70 leading scholars from the region and beyond to work on the theological framework required for this vision. At this annual conference, participants will wrestle with issues related to religious plurality, gender justice, political diversity, and social cohesion. The event of last week was historic indeed.

But to change the course of history in the Middle East, we need to roll up our sleeves. For Bright Stars of Bethlehem, vision is action. This vision of inclusivity drives our work in Bethlehem, Palestine, the Middle East and beyond. For all who partner with us, thank you.

by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
Related Article: Why the Events Surrounding Pope Francis’ UAE Visit Were So Important by Dr. James Zogby.

Advent Greetings from Bethlehem

Our President and Founder of Dar al-Kalima University, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb bring us a Christmas advent greeting from Bethlehem.