Friar Louis and His Rapper's Delight

A Dutch member of the Franciscan order finds his mission in managing a hip hop youngster in Bethlehem

"By the time I was twelve I knew I wanted to become a Franciscan", Louis Bohte recalls. But the friar, now 64, would never have thought he would one day be the manager of an 18-year-old Palestinian rapper in Bethlehem.

Looking after the career of hip hop artist Hajj MC has become an important part of his life. "For me it is a surprise to be on this road if you think about my age and my status," says the monk who was born in Amsterdam. He grew up in a family of ten children that was strongly influenced by the father's Catholic faith. "Although I was always critical I never rebelled."

Friar Bohte
Thore Schroeder

After finishing the priest seminary in coastal village of Katwijk, he started to work with drug addicts and prostitutes. While living in a monastery on the Dutch-German border he also became active in the peace movement, a venture that eventually took him to the West Bank. "It was not the Holy Land that attracted me but the chance to actively do something for the peace," he explains.

As part of a group called United Civilians for Peace, a pro-Palestinian Dutch NGO, Bohte arrived in Bethlehem in October of 2001 in the midst of the Second Intifada. Back in Europe he had taken part in vigils in front of arms fairs. "Here I could actually get to know the background of this conflict", the friar says. Bohte, who draws a connection between European anti-Semitism and the eventual plight of the Palestinians, argues that the Europeans must solve the conflict but prefers not to expand.

After his three-month stay the friar decided to come back to live in the West Bank permanently. "I wanted to show the people living here that someone from the outside was sharing their fate," Bohte explains. Dressed in the traditional brown frock with shoulder cape and knotted belt his bushy white beard makes him stand out even more from the predominately Muslim population of Bethlehem. When he walks in the alleys of the old town shop owners and passersby greet him warmly, calling out "Louis", "Abuna", "Baba Noel" or "Santa Claus." Bohte seems to be especially popular with the youngsters, illustrated by his Facebook profile photo showing him posing with grimacing teenagers.

Working in a tough neighborhood

Returning in 2002, Bohte soon set up a youth center in the refugee camp of al-Aza. It was a difficult project from the beginning, according to the friar, who says the co-founder tried to rob him of his money. Three years ago an initiative of his to bring together Palestinian women was answered by a bomb set off in front of the building. "It did not do a lot of damage but it was enough to scare people off," he says.

By this time Friar Bohte had already met Hajj MC: Mohammad Ghanayem, a now 18-year-old Palestinian from Bethlehem who had practiced his first rap rhymes in Bohte's center. With his kaffiyeh, silver rings and golden bracelet the young hip hop artist looks like an unlikely associate of the quiet 64-year-old friar sitting next to him. "It was my daddy who asked Father Louis to look after me," Mohammed says as he pulls on his L&M cigarette.

While composing rap music is not considered a proper job in Palestinian society the support of the friar is probably Hajj's best and only option to succeed. For Bohte organizing recordings and concerts is another way of supporting the young generation which he believes is key to raising hope for a better future.

Last year the friar helped Hajj MC to issue his first CD which is called "Arab Generation of Peace." Mohammed raps in Arabic, but the beats sound very international. The cover of his debut album shows the young man in front of a Palestinian flag. "Not all my tracks are political," Mohammed says. Alongside anti-occupation titles like "Get out" and "Gaza and the West Bank," there is one song called "I love you." It is about Hajj MC and his girlfriend Hoda, an Arab Israeli. She lives in Haifa and they have met only once in two years, something even Bohte can not change.

"I learned that you can really express yourself through hip hop and that it does not necessarily have to be trivial", the Franciscan friar acknowledges. Still his favorite song remains from another genre. It is "Question of Balance" by The Moody Blues.