Salaam Bethlehem - looking beyond the wall

By associate writer
24 Nov 2007

Salaam Bethlehem (http://www.ridinglights.org/sb/index.html) is now on tour in the UK throughout the season of Advent with performances until 22 December 2007.

Back in May 2006 Riding Lights Theatre Company, a professional touring company noted for their eclectic range of productions, visited the dwindling Palestinian Christian community in Israel. Their visit was supported by Lightline Pilgrimages with the aim of the visit being not to find new routes to the Middle East peace process but simply to hear the remarkable stories of some very remarkable people whose message was simple ‘Pray for us, visit us, tell our story.’

Jonathan Brown, Riding Lights General Manager said about the reason for the visit “To help Riding Lights bring this message to the UK in a creative way, we wanted to find out at first hand more about the Palestinian Christians and ways of supporting them.”

During their visit they met the renowned Rev Mitri Raheb, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem and director of the International Centre of Bethlehem. In1995, in an attempt to create and promote change and awareness in the Palestinian civil society, Mitri founded the International Centre of Bethlehem (known in Arabic as Dar Annadwa Adduwalia). Through it, Mitri emphasizes the need for Palestinians to be “actors and not mere spectators” in the creation of lasting civil society institutions.

The ICB complex is situated in the old city of Bethlehem and includes a state-of-the-art cultural and conference center including a 350-seat theatre and media centre. Before its renovation, Mitri recalls the building was deserted and in a poor state of repair. Today, its beautiful terraces and meeting spaces serve as a gleaming source of hope for the people of Bethlehem. Indeed, the new centre, with both its architecture and function, reflects the “integration of aesthetics and theology.

“The visit gave opportunity for sharing experiences from both sides when we spent time at the Al-Harah Theatre” said Paul Burbridge, Riding Lights Artistic Director. “Al-Harah Theatre is working towards creating the first theatre college in Palestine and by promoting theatre arts in Palestine it helps towards building a civil society that emphasizes human rights, democracy and pluralism.”

Riding Lights’ experience of serving local communities was re-launched in 1992 when they formed their Roughshod community company specifically to take punchy, highly mobile performances to places where theatre is rare. “This work has given us a lot of common understanding with what Al Harah are trying to achieve”.

To gain insight into how some of the many organizations in the region are working to support the Palestinians the group also spent time with Zoughbi Zoughbi, head of the human rights group Wi’am (which in Arabic means cordial relationships) based in Bethlehem and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. The ICAHD is a non-violent, direct-action group originally established to oppose and resist Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses in the Occupied Territories.

From this visit Riding Lights’ latest play Salaam Bethlehem was born. Writer Bridget Foreman is an Artistic Associate of Riding Lights. Her recent writing credits for the Company include Calvary for York Minster, an adaptation of the classic comic novel of Augustus Carp Esq, and the award-winning musical Dick Turpin. Bridget has spent 18 months writing Salaam Bethlehem, returning to the area again to continue her research. She describes her new play as follows.

"It’s 2006 in Bethlehem and life is getting harder for the Mansour family. While dwindling numbers of tourists still make it through the checkpoints, the grip of the separation wall gets tighter, wages are frozen and travel permits refused. Even Ibrahim's special vitamin deliveries from the States are hardly good news of great joy. Despite increasing restrictions, the warmth and vitality of daily life in the West Bank continues, until long-buried secrets and the consequences of forty years of frustration threaten to tear the family apart. Salaam Bethlehem invites you to experience the hopes and fears of Bethlehem's Christian community and to look with them beyond the wall to a time when…”

Salaam Bethlehem is a fascinating, lively and moving encounter with people whose witness in the land of Jesus’s birth is something for which the worldwide church should be profoundly grateful. They have a crucial voice within the cacophony of tragedy and recrimination in the Middle East.

Salaam Bethlehem opened on 31 October at Riding Lights’ own Friargate Theatre in York. The Rev Roger Simpson was in the audience on the opening night and commented “I went to Salaam Bethlehem with many sympathies for the Jewish people and half-expecting to be beaten over the head for that. What I saw and heard was an incredibly powerful and multi-faceted treatment of the huge problems in Israel and Palestine. Sensitive and sympathetic but also provocative, it opened up all sorts of issues and questions for me. I thoroughly recommend that people see it.”

Salaam Bethlehem will tour in the UK throughout the season of Advent with performances until 22 December. Venue details can be found on the play’s website www.salaambethlehem and tickets can be booked through a central box office on 01904 613000.

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