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if you went into downtown Bethlehem

Time:2020-04-07 13:43Shoes websites Click:

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The Singer Café is like a lot of hipster haunts you might find in the nearby cosmopolitan corners of Israel: a family sharing a shakshuka brunch; a European traveller writing a screenplay on his laptop; and a dating couple getting to know each other over a sumptuous mezze platter. There’s striking local art on the walls, and the cafe’s whimsical, upbeat vibe is epitomised by a sign that reads “more espresso, less depresso”.

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But Israelis are by and large forbidden by their government from visiting this particular oasis of cosy calm. That’s because Singer is in the suburb of Beit Sahour on the walking-distance outskirts of Bethlehem – itself on the outskirts of Jerusalem – in the occupied West Bank, which has been controlled by the Israeli military since the Six Day War of 1967. Singer serves arguably the best espresso con panna in any conflict zone on the planet. 

View image of Bethlehem is best known for being the hometown of King David and the birthplace of Jesus Christ (Credit: Credit: Efesenko/Getty Images)

Known for being the hometown of King David and the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the biblical-but-still-bustling little town of Bethlehem has a new miracle afoot: a renaissance of Palestinian culture and coolness. Like the iconic red soles of Christian Louboutin shoes, Bethlehem has developed a pocket of fashionable finesse even under Israeli occupation – so much so that the 22-nation Arab League, under a Unesco programme, declared Bethlehem to be 2020’s capital of Arab culture.

“The first thing the Israeli occupation would want is the end of our art and culture,” said Baha’ AbuShanab, a mop-haired manager at Singer. “That is how you sterilise a society.”

We are communicating with the world through creativity

While the occupation accounts for land more than a quarter of the size of Israel – and in recent months, the Israeli government has embraced annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank — life under Israeli control is particularly evident in Bethlehem, where an 8m-tall concrete separation barrier was built by Israel in 2002 with the declared aim of stopping suicide bombings and attacks (Israel says it has been an effective deterrent). Yet, the culture that has since flourished resembles the madcap making-do styles of Havana, Valparaiso or the former East Berlin: a flower that blooms in rubble.

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The impish British artist known as Banksy first put up political artwork in Bethlehem in 2005: nine graffiti drawings that debuted on the separation barrier. In 2017, Banksy’s presence – and politics – was heightened by opening The Walled Off Hotel, a nine-room boutique that boasts “the worst view in the world” due to its outlook onto the barrier. The project began as a pop-up but has become a fixture of the town, prompting a rush of tourism that rivals Bethlehem’s historic Church of the Nativity – if not in sheer numbers, then certainly in social media resonance. The Walled Off also hosts a gallery of local artists, runs a museum dedicated to the history of the wall and conducts twice-daily tours of the nearby Aida Palestinian refugee camp. Its profits go to local projects.

View image of Banksy’s The Walled Off hotel boasts that it has “the worst view in the world” (Credit: Credit: Thomas Coex/Getty Images)

“We are communicating with the world through creativity,” said Wisam Salsaa, the hotel’s manager. “We are giving a lesson in the world of how to live. We can live out of nothing, make out of nothing.”

Recent years have been especially game-changing, he added.

“Five years ago, if you went into downtown Bethlehem, it looked like Afghanistan. Now it looks like Havana. There are women in skirts or jeans and men in earrings,” he said. “You could protest in Gaza, fight, get shot, get arrested… and still with all that you will not achieve as much as a painting or a poem. That is the power of art – not just beauty, but also strength. It cuts to your humanity, to our shared humanity.”

But Banksy hasn’t created Bethlehem’s cultural renaissance as much as catalysed what was already stirring.

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