Rock and Roll in Bethlehem

text by Felix Corley
photographs by Ilene Perlman

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Because of its recent, troubled history, Palestine is not perhaps where you would expect to find music flourishing. With little to celebrate, little leisure in which to create and little money with which to buy the necessary equipment, Palestinian musicians do not have an easy life. But you only have to meet the enthusiastic and articulate young men and women who form the musical group Al-Baraem to see that out of such an unpromising setting a new music has been born.

Al-Baraem, in Arabic, means “the opening of a new flower.” As the band explains, however, the image also conjures up the continuing process of the birth of new life, whether of a flower, a child, a season or a new outlook on life. As Palestinians seek statehood amid all the uncertainties, the band hopes this image is appropriate:

“This name was chosen because we feel it describes a newness and freshness we try to convey through our music,” the musicians say.

Most of the group had been in bands for many years, playing at festivals, weddings and parties, when, seeking something more out of their music, they came together to form a new group in 1985.

Al-Baraem’s goal was ambitious: to develop musical activities in the direction of establishing an independent Palestinian culture. All were committed to the highest standards in words and music, producing original material that would draw on the best of native Palestinian Musical and literary traditions.

By 1987 they had gained a name throughout the Occupied Territories but, during the intifada, public celebrations like concerts came to an end. Al-Baraem used this time of enforced silence well: they prepared and recorded their first album, “Fulfillment of the Promise,” which was released in 1991.

Although the group’s songs are not specifically religious, the members take pride in their Christian faith.

As Rana Soudah, one of the singers, recounts proudly, “The group is ecumenical, with members of the Armenian, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Latin, Protestant and Syrian Churches. We work well together, and are an example for all Christianity.”

“Our work is not directly religious, but anything that serves humanity is religious,” says Bashir Akkawi, the drummer and prime mover behind the band.

Maher Turjman, who composes, sings and plays a traditional instrument, the oud, agrees. “It is important that there is a Christian contribution to Palestinian culture. We are always part of the Palestinian community – as Christians. We have no fear, however, about showing our Christian identity.”

But Al-Baraem does not direct its music to an exclusively Christian audience.

Bashir explains: “Our music is not just for Palestinian Christians. The songs of life under occupation are not just about Christians, but about Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim.”

Maher adds: “The group will always be open to non-Christian members.”

The current musical tastes of young Palestinians include not only contemporary Western music but also Arabic pop music from neighboring states, especially Egypt.

“There is only one theme to this music,” Bashir emphasizes, “and that’s love.”

Al-Baraem has been trying to raise the level of public awareness with songs that are more challenging and original – and more relevant.

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Tags: Palestine Christianity Maher Turjman