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Re-entry

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

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. http://www.victoriarue.com

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.

BREAKING NEWS!

WE ARE THRILLED TO ANNOUNCE MARC LAMONT HILL AS THE KEYNOTE SPEAKER FOR OUR 15TH ANNIVERSARY GALA CELEBRATION IN CHICAGO, SEPTEMBER 29!

 

VIEW THIS ANNOUNCEMENT FROM REV. DR. MITRI RAHEB HERE-

VISIT OUR EVENT PAGE HERE.

African American pastor witnesses shared struggle- and hope- in Palestine

I recently returned from a Bright Stars trip to Palestine. Allow me to share my take-aways with you-

Although I previously visited Israel, this trip was different.

During the past trip, we mainly focused on historic and Biblical sites in Israel.

During this trip, however, we spent much of our time in and around Bethlehem, Palestine. In this walled-off city, we had the opportunity to interact with many families in the region and to listen to the everyday struggles of Palestinian people. We also witnessed, first hand, the hope that resides in the dreams and talent of the youth.  We visited local schools and colleges, attended cultural performances, and enjoyed laughter-filled moments with these young people.

We saw worlds that were supposed to be separate, come together.

One Friday when I was in Bethlehem, I wandered the streets looking for a barber to trim my beard.  As I stopped at a local shop, the barber asked me if I would be okay waiting for 30 minutes, until their prayer time ended.  I watched as young and old men gathered in the square, kneeling and praying. I had never witnessed a Muslim call to prayer. Across that same square, amidst the Muslim call to prayer, pilgrims and worshippers gathered to visit the Church of the Nativity, the believed site of Jesus’ birth.

After the prayers ended, I sat down in the barber’s chair. In the midst of this mundane task of getting my beard trimmed, I contemplated the rich intersections of those who live in Bethlehem. Intersections of religions, intersections of hope and pain, intersections of oppression and determination.

As an African American pastor, I don’t presume to know the depth or breadth of the Palestinian experience, but I walked away sensing a deep connection to the struggle of Black America. A shared struggle of oppression and liberation, hope and determination. Even as I recall watching Palestinians wait in line at a crowded checkpoint, a refrain from a familiar gospel song comes to mind, “Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday.” This is the shared cry of a people longing to be free.

By Rev. Everett Mitchell

Everett Mitchell is the Senior Pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Madison, WI. He was formerly Assistant District Attorney of Dane County, Wisconsin.


Rev. Mitchell and Rev. Raheb spoke together in Madison, WI last May on this shared struggle of African Americans and Palestinians. View the video here-