Palestinian National Orchestra - David Bachar
Members of the Palestinian National Orchestra. Photo by David Bachar
Text size
David Bachar
A Christmas concert at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. Photo by David Bachar
David Bachar
Singer Sana Moussa, a graduate of the Al-Urmawi conservatory in East Jerusalem. Photo by David Bachar

"Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism" says the sign that currently greets visitors to Bethlehem. It is a bit ironic, given its location next to checkpoints manned by armed soldiers wearing bulletproof vests.

How does one deal with such a siege? With a sense of humor: A cartoon now circulating on the Internet features a confused Santa Claus standing before the huge wall that bars the way to Bethlehem and mumbling "This thing isn't on my maps." Another cartoon shows the family of Baby Jesus, riding a donkey, being stopped by soldiers who want to search their possessions.

This was the feeling during the Christian festival of light, the holiday of renewal and optimism: a sense of siege in a city that is cut off from its surroundings by walls and checkpoints, with no one entering or leaving. A simple question to passersby about how to get to the Church of the Nativity prompted some bitterness from one: "You prohibit us from leaving the city, I can't even travel to Jerusalem, and you Israelis roam around here freely and want to visit the churches!" She was raising her voice a bit, and we could only agree that her anger was justified.

Bethlehem's isolation, which has led to economic hardship, a water shortage and real poverty, also has another side: Its society is homogeneous, so it doesn't suffer from the kind of violence that erupts, for instance, in East Jerusalem, where a large army and police presence and Jewish enclaves in the heart of Arab neighborhoods inflame the situation, and where a quiet population transfer is constantly taking place through various means.

The holiday season has brought Bethlehem an upsurge in tourism. The tourists usually come by bus for a quick daytime visit, rather than staying there and developing some relationship with the city's life; they take a quick peek at the holy sites, buy some souvenirs and leave. Still, this traffic injects some life into Bethlehem and helps its residents earn a living.

Two days before the big event that is broadcast around the world and attracts thousands of pilgrims - Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity, located at the site of Jesus' birthplace - the church hosts a festive annual concert, the "Concert for Life and Peace." This year was the 11th such concert in the Holy Land, but this time, it was different, in part because of changing perceptions about music's role promoting peace.

Until now, the Association for Life and Peace, an Italian philanthropic organization, had held the concert on both sides of the Green Line: in Jerusalem, usually at Binyanei Ha'uma, and in Bethlehem. Both concerts were broadcast to Italy on the Italian national channel, RAI, which also broadcast this year's event.

But this year, the symmetry was canceled, at the Palestinians' request: They objected to the misleading message sent to the rest of the world by broadcasting both concerts as a single unit - as if there were equality between free Jerusalem and occupied Bethlehem, as if people from both cities could come and listen to both concerts without restriction, as if the music were bridging the gap between two equal parties who just happen to be engaged in a conflict. The association deferred to the Palestinians' wishes and canceled the concert in Jerusalem.

Passing the baton

The second major difference about this year's event was the orchestra that tuned its instruments ahead of last week's concert in the beautiful church: Unlike the Italian orchestras that performed in previous years, this time, the orchestra was comprised of Palestinian musicians - a sign of the dramatic musical process Palestinian society has made over the last two decades.

Throughout the Western world, the cradle of classical musical culture, and perhaps even more so in Israel, distress calls have been sounding about the decline of music education and the dwindling resources invested in music. But in the West Bank, the opposite is true: There is a deep passion for music and music education, and institutions that teach music are flourishing.

The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music is the oldest of them. Established in 1993, it now has four branches in West Bank cities and is planning to set up a fifth branch in Gaza. It has around 700 students and 45 teachers, and runs several orchestras whose members performed at this event: two orchestras comprised of Palestinian musicians living overseas; the Palestinian National Orchestra, which was set up last year and consists of professional adult musicians; the Palestinian Youth Orchestra, established in 2004, with 80 members aged 13 to 26; and the Conservatory Orchestra, whose members are students and teachers there.

In Bethlehem last Tuesday evening, neither the walk along the narrow streets to Manger Square nor the expansive square itself showed any signs of bustling daytime activity. Nor is this a city with nightlife, even around Christmas. A few star-shaped lights flickered, a large, lit-up tree stood in the square, and the last of the corn on the cob and coffee vendors were selling their delicacies.

Near the square stands the historic ancient church. At its entrance was a reenactment of the event that took place here some 2,000 years ago and changed the world: life-size dolls depicting the birth of Jesus in a stable, which according to tradition was located where the church's cellar is now. The hall itself is a breathtaking mix of Catholicism and the Mediterranean spirit. The Franciscan missionaries who run the site are everywhere. Dressed in burlap and rope belts to symbolize humility, they are nevertheless impressive in their simple grandeur.

The church fills slowly with an audience that is mostly Palestinian, but also includes a diverse international component. Then the orchestra takes its place.

The sounds of George Bizet's "L'Arlesienne," which started off the Palestinian National Orchestra's concert, made one thing clear immediately: Seven years after the youth orchestra was founded and one year after the professional adult orchestra was launched, a musical entity of a high international standard has emerged here and plays a sophisticated repertoire.

The first movements of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, Mozart's 40th symphony and Mozart's Concert Symphony for Violin, Viola and Orchestra were performed later; it was a pleasure to listen to the young musicians conducted by their musical director, Juan David Molano of Colombia. Gabriel Faure's "Pavane," Beethoven's Romance for Violin and Orchestra, and Christmas carols with soloists - including the virtuoso pianist Fadi Deeb of Nazareth, who has a master's degree from the Jerusalem Academy of Music, and singer Sana Moussa from the Galilee town of Dir al-Assad, a graduate of the Al-Urmawi conservatory in East Jerusalem, who has a warm voice and a winning presence - also displayed music at its best.

A cold December eve greeted those who left the concert, and a wrong turn led us to the main checkpoint on the way out of Bethlehem instead of one of the side roads through which one can sneak into Jerusalem and avoid inspection. The line was long, even though it was almost midnight, and the tension and fear, felt even by someone with the army's permission to be here, increased the closer you got to the soldiers. And it managed to wipe out the hope that had soared from the music of Mozart and Beethoven, Faure and Tchaikovsky just a few minutes earlier.