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193, May 2014 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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The Wall Museum in Bethlehem
By Rania Murra and Toine van Teeffelen
Oral histories help to bring out and document people’s stories of the past in all their human detail. However, except for special efforts to raise publicity to the field like the present issue of This Week in Palestine, oral history interviews are usually accessible only to a limited audience of scholars and students. To fight this trend, the Wall Museum in Bethlehem was conceived of as a way of presenting oral histories to a non-academic audience.

The human stories presented in the Wall Museum are not kept in a library, but put on display on the separation or apartheid Wall in Bethlehem. Each of the 110 stories, which are shown on large posters made of thin metal, is not as detailed as a traditional oral history account. However, their impact comes from presenting the stories in a format passers-by can read. In fact, this particular form of oral history represents a form of community resistance. Together the stories bring out a shared story of humanity in sharp protest of the inhumanity of the Wall. In other words, the “museum” represents a form of action research and action documentation.

To understand the Wall Museum, it is helpful to put it against the background of what has happened to various Palestinian communities in the northern part of Bethlehem near Rachel’s Tomb (or Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque). This area used to be the entry point to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, with a lively atmosphere and quality restaurants, shops, and garages bordering Hebron Road, the busiest road in Bethlehem. Rachel’s Tomb, a significant holy place for Christians and Muslims, as well as to Jews, became a flashpoint of fighting during the second Intifada and onwards, as it is the site of the main Israeli military stronghold in Bethlehem city. After the tomb area was illegally annexed to Israel in September 2002, the Wall was built around it. As a result, the neighbourhoods in the northern parts of Bethlehem were totally fragmented, and visitors to Bethlehem have to take a narrow bypass road to enter the centre of town.

When the Wall construction was announced by Israel during the second Intifada, the local community developed forms of popular resistance. For instance, Jihad Al-Bandak in Aida Camp used his camera to document the building of the Wall from his balcony. He quickly changed his film when soldiers became suspicious and came to check his camera. “My way of resistance is documenting crimes,” he said. Likewise the Anastas family, who lived opposite the tomb, held sit-ins in front of their house. However, after the Wall was built, the resistance collapsed. Parts of the Wall were erected in one day. Despair sank in. “We are living in a tomb, like Rachel,” the children from the Anastas family said.

Slowly new voices developed. Activists began writing or painting graffiti on the Wall. This was initially done by foreigners, as they had less chance of being caught and imprisoned than Palestinians from the area. Community resistance later on emerged centre-stage, such as throwing stones at the Israeli military. Soldiers consistently responded with gunfire, resulting in many injuries and deaths, especially in Aida refugee camp to the west of Rachel’s Tomb. There were also various kinds of open-air advocacy meetings, workshops, and theatrical and musical performances to protest the Wall in this area, several of them organised through the Arab Educational Institute (Sumud Story House) and partners. They included a piano concert below a military watchtower, musical dialogues across walls from roofs and balconies, a musical called “The Birth of Jesus between the Walls,” interreligious meetings and prayer sessions, public meetings for the World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel, and meetings for the International Day of Prayer for Peace in September.

Backstage, “hidden” protests happened when, for instance, people did not cooperate with the army’s many regulations, such as the regulation that “any screw” placed in the Wall required a military permit, or when an atmosphere of defiance developed among inhabitants in the area.

A young resident of the area, Dima Musallem, said, “The Wall was killing us. My father used to say, ‘Our life has ended. Our future has ended.’ The word ‘end’ is difficult to say. But then it dawned on me that this word ‘end’ could also be seen as pointing to a new beginning of sumud (steadfastness or resilience [1]) and resistance for myself. Through the pain and suffering of the past, you reach hope for the future. By transforming the meaning of this word ‘end,’ it gave me the space to resist and be sumud. The weapon of the occupied is to stay on the land and to resist by staying alive and make living and resistance sustainable.”

Claire Anastas, whose house is surrounded by the Wall on three sides said, “In these circumstances, being surrounded by the Wall, we are potential refugees. In a way, we are refugees, the new refugees. We are expelled from our home, not literally as we are still in the same place, but because our whole environment is not a home anymore. This Wall is a new kind of nakbah (disaster). But still we keep our sumud.” Like others in the area, she emphasised that faith in God is a strong weapon to resist the present state of affairs.

The Wall Museum is part of those newly emerging, defiant voices. The stories appear as individual voices set adjacent to each other, but in fact they build a community voice of sumud. While most of the stories are from people in the towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour, they also bring out experiences from the countryside and refugee camps. The stories represent Palestinians, whether they are Muslim or Christian, young or old, female or male. Most of the stories challenge the Wall by showing stories of sumud in the face of war, expulsion, occupation, and oppression from 1948 onwards. Many show Palestinian women’s viewpoints, as they have been written down or collected in the nearby Sumud Story House in which five women’s groups convene. Some stories show Muslims and Christians living together in the Bethlehem area and in the larger Palestinian society, challenging stereotypes about Muslim-Christian relationships that are part of the mental luggage carried by many visitors to Bethlehem. Not all the stories are political, even though the context is inescapably political.

At present the Wall Museum in Bethlehem features 110 large story posters attached to the Wall around Rachel’s Tomb. They show brief Palestinian stories of the recent past. While lending Palestinians a voice, the museum also gives foreign visitors a chance to become familiar with the human history of the local and broader Palestinian community. Moreover, the museum expresses a form of community resistance against the separation and desolation that the Wall has brought.

There is a special series of stories documenting the dreams of the youth, speaking about their hopes and desires-the future’s history. Near the lone Anastas house are posters with historical photos of Rachel’s Tomb from the Ottoman times on. This series of visuals, too, is an activist application of photography, as the photos bring to life memories of the past. The photos remind Bethlehemites of the shape of Rachel’s Tomb, which is now almost completely hidden from view. Near the car entrance to the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, following the road along the Wall leading to the Benedictine church, is a new series of women’s stories that narrate the accumulation of daily problems Palestinians have experienced over the last decades when trying to get a permit and travel to Jerusalem.

Community activists initially had no idea what to do with the Wall, which was visually a more imposing fait accompli than checkpoints and settlements. After all, it is difficult to fight a wall through physical means. And nobody wants to “beautify” or “normalise” this Wall. But bringing out the connected stories of human strength and will to live creates a powerful contrast and, in fact, a formidable challenge to this inhuman Wall of separation. The Wall itself and all the destruction it has brought cannot be changed, at least not for the moment. But the human flame of hope and freedom, including the freedom of telling one’s story, is kept alive.

And, who knows, this collective voice will perhaps have a broader impact. Visitors are presently purchasing books with the compiled stories, and taking photos of the wall posters and spreading them through social media. After visiting the Wall Museum, they also sponsor new wall posters, further extending the chain of stories. By advocating against this deadening Wall, they support the strategic aim of the “museum,” which is to destroy itself physically so that its living stories will be valued and documented later on in real museums and libraries.

[1]: For the concept of sumud, see This Week in Palestine, issue 130, February 2009.

Rania Murra is the director of the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem. She is a member of the international board of Pax Christi and finishing her MA studies at Birzeit University in gender and development. Toine van Teeffelen has a PhD in discourse analysis from the University of Amsterdam. He is head of education at the Arab Educational Institute and a tour guide. He lives in Bethlehem with his Palestinian wife and children. For those who are interested in sponsoring a wall poster, please contact
Article photos courtesy of the authors.

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