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Reflecting Palestinian National Identity

Art as a Pillar of Palestinian Public Diplomacy

By H.E. Issa Jamil Kassissieh

Much of contemporary Palestinian art, be it paintings that portray scenes from Palestinian history and heritage, folklore, dance, poetry, recitals, or drama, aims to highlight the Palestinian identity. One has only to recall Sliman Mansour’s famous painting Jamal Al Mahamel: The Camel of Hardship, which symbolizes the overburdened life of the Palestinian people. Or the fine art exhibition that was inaugurated in May 2022 at the Arab World Institute in Paris to showcase paintings by international artists who expressed their solidarity with the Palestinian people and their cause. Ambassador Elias Sanbar collected the paintings to be transferred to Jerusalem, where they were displayed in a contemporary art gallery. Likewise, fine arts colleges at Palestinian universities, such as Birzeit University and Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, play a significant role in preserving Palestinian heritage and identity. Who has not heard of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose name is closely linked to Palestinian identity, love, and revolution? Or the poetess Fadwa Tuqan, the novelist Emil Habibi, the poet Samih al-Qasem, and others? In visual arts, one must mention the historical documentary visual artworks of eminent Palestinian artists who were born from the womb of the 1948 Nakba, such as Fathi Ghibn, Ibrahim Ghannam, Ismail Shammout, Issam Badr, Jack Persekian, Kamal Boullata, Kamel Al Moghani, Manal Deeb, Nabil Anani, Nahil Bishara, Samia Halaby, Samia Zarou, Tamam Al-Akhal, Taisir Masrieh, Vera Tamari, and other contemporary artists who have portrayed the different phases of the Palestinian historical narrative.

Jamal al-Mahamel (Camel of Hardship), 1973 by Sliman Mansour.

The fine arts, in their different forms of expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, and others, are emblems of Palestinian national identity and proof of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and a better future.

At the opening ceremony of the exhibition at the United Nations headquarters, Vienna, May 2023.

Art, whether historical or contemporary, is indeed a pillar of public diplomacy. Thus, beyond contemporary expressions of Palestinian identity, the restoration of the 1,500-year-old Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has not only preserved but also increased the appeal of the vast archaeological, architectural, and religious assets that Palestine has to offer. The renovated space invites visitors on a spiritual and aesthetic journey into the past and present. The church’s magnificent ancient mosaics and columns have been restored to their original glory, and its spiritual ambiance and atmosphere continue to convey to the world the good news of the birth of Christ and his message of love, peace, and hope. For the Palestinian people, the Church of the Nativity is a national treasure and one of their most visited tourist sites. Indeed, the restoration is a significant cultural and spiritual accomplishment and experience that has generated a sense of pride. Beyond its local value, moreover, the Church of the Nativity also carries global significance and is visited every year by thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world.

At the opening ceremony of the exhibition at the Eucumenical Centre of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, September 2023.

Increasing the church’s message and impact on the international stage, the multi-media art exhibition Bethlehem Reborn: The Wonders of the Nativity shows the historical stages of the construction and renovation processes as well as the findings of new archaeological excavations. As part of Palestinian national diplomacy and itself an aesthetic, spiritual, and cultural gem, the exhibition has since moved from one capital to another, telling the Christmas story and foregrounding Palestine’s role in preserving universal human, historical, and religious heritage. It furthermore serves as an invitation to the entire world to celebrate the new life given to the church’s structures, mosaics, columns, and magnificent floors.

Bethlehem Reborn was launched in December 2019 at the Vatican Museums in the presence of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State. With colorful murals and mosaics on display and musical interludes highlighting the refined and exquisite taste of the works, the exhibition showcases some of Palestine’s rare treasures and has introduced Palestinian national and cultural identity to the world. During the height of the pandemic, it was on display in Rimini, Aquila, Florence, and other Italian cities. It conveyed the message that even though pilgrimage to the Holy Land was interrupted by the pandemic, believers could enjoy and contemplate the beauty of the church’s mosaics and artwork and pray for peace and hope and that life may overcome death.

Geneva, September 2023

In October 2022, Bethlehem Reborn was on display at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, where it was inaugurated by Secretary-General Audrey Azoulay and visited by people of many nationalities, cultures, and religions. At the UN Office in Vienna, the exhibition was inaugurated in May 2023. Ghada Wali, the office’s director-general/executive director, extended gratitude to Palestine for holding the exhibition and showcasing the heritage and restoration work carried out at the Church of the Nativity. Geneva hosted the exhibition at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in September 2023. The exhibition’s launching was led by WCC Secretary-General Reverend Professor Jerry Pillay; Greek Orthodox Patriarch, HB Patriarch Theophilos III; and Dr. Ramzi Khouri, head of the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches Affairs, and attended by diplomats, representatives of church and international organizations, members of the local and regional Palestinian community, and the general public. Visitors were given detailed explanations by Taisir Masrieh Hasbun, the exhibition’s creator and curator, and enjoyed listening to a performance of Palestinian music. As the multimedia exhibition Bethlehem Reborn: The Wonders of the Nativity continues to travel the world, it invites everyone to visit the Holy Land of Palestine and learn more about its history, culture, and identity.

The new section of the University of Pavia in
the exhibition, Geneva, September 2023.

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