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In Bethlehem, a Street Festival With a Touch of Faith, Justice, Culture

Ian Knowles, an iconographer from the United Kingdom, works on a painting in a studio on Star Street at the Bethlehem Live festival on 20 June. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill) 

24 Jun 2014 – By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — Sitting outside their childhood home on Star Street, three sisters and their cousin chatted as they watched a small parade of children dance past, following a variety of clowns and jugglers and two giant dancing puppets.

An actor dressed as a caveman, hunched over and stomped through the crowd while clutching a walking staff in one hand and a stone in another; he brought smiles to some faces and sent even some of the older boys scurrying with fright.

Along the side of the stone road, vendors sold traditional olive wood crafts, homemade Palestinian delicacies, thin traditional shrak bread, protest posters, clothes, designer jewelry and the prerequisite popcorn, hot dogs and ice cream.

“When we were young, this street was always full and lively. Children were in the streets. There were shops and offices here,” recalled Marlene, 60, one of the three Catholic women who asked that their last name not be used. Antoinette, 77, the oldest and unmarried sister, still lives in the house where they grew up. “But since the intifada, everything closed. Now usually the street is always empty. Seeing all these people here reminds us of the good days.”

Though on the face the Bethlehem Live Festival is a cheerful street festival — originally intended to bring attention to the neglected street and raise awareness about its needs — it also focuses on faith, justice and culture, said Elias D’eis, project manager for the festival.

Workshops and panels such as nonviolence and nonlinear leadership were part of the festival schedule. An art gallery exhibited works by local artists, and an open-mic cafe allowed young local artists and performers to be seen and heard. Eight international bands were to perform on nights of the festival.

D’eis said Bethlehem Live aims to empower local small nongovernmental organizations, artists, youth and community committees to take action in defining their future and addressing some topics that affect them daily but also relate to the global community. The project was initiated in 2013 by the Holy Land Trust, a nonprofit peacebuilding organization in Bethlehem.

“There are more than 128 closed shops on Star Street because tourists are not coming here,” D’eis said. “Our responsibility as a community organization is to work for the future, to help the community remember this is their city and to show them their social responsibility.”

Last year, some 6,000 people took part in the festival, mostly local Palestinians. This year organizers hoped the 19-24 June festival would attract double that number, with at least 30 percent coming from abroad.

At the entrance to Star Street closer to Manger Square, some of the residents seemed oblivious to the festival. But Khaled Julani, 31, his 4-year-old son grasping an ice cream and his wife wearing a hijab, said the parade was good for the residents.

“Now I am happy; on other days I just walk right through the street on my way to and from work,” he said.

Selling poster replicas of some of his street art, Hamoud Abdullah, 24, said the festival was a smart idea.

“They are trying to bring more life here, more happiness in a situation that is so messed up,” he said.

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Tags: Palestine Bethlehem Art Icons