Saturday, December 25, 2010

Peace for One Night in Bethlehem

Bethlehem was just another Palestinian village until the day that Jesus was born. It wasn't until around 300 AD that the prophetic message that Jesus was born became a religious movement, and Bethlehem quickly became a prosperous and fortified city, as well as a popular place for religious pilgrims, with many churches and monastaries built in the area. In the Crusader times (1099-1187 and 1228-1144), kings were crowned in Bethlehem as a symbolic connection to the birthplace of Jesus, and it was promoted as the seat of many religious parishes, including Episcopal and Roman Catholic communities.

Confronted by the injustices of the British colonial system as well as the Zionist threat in the first half of the 1900s, residents of Bethlehem firmly supported the cause of Palestinian nationalism. In the 1920s and 1930s, Palestinians in Bethlehem mounted several public campaigns against the British law that repealed citizenship of Palestinians but granted citizenship to Jewish immigrants. In response, Britain cracked down hard on representatives of Bethlehem. For example, in 1938, the mayor of Bethlehem, Issa Bandak, was deported by the British occupation authorities after his outspoken criticism of the British occupation. Much as Bethlehem housed Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Jesus, Bethlehem subsequently became a sanctuary for countless Palestinian refugees expelled from their villages. According to the Alternative Tourism Group (2008), population figures rose from 9,000 to nearly 20,000, while an additional 40,000 refugees stayed temporarily in Bethlehem on their way to exile in the West Bank, Jordan, or other Arab states.

I visited Bethlehem in May 2010. Today, the Bethlehem district constitutes the towns of Beit Sahour to the east and Beit Jala to the west, as well as three refugee camps (Aida, Beit Jibrin or 'Azza, and Deheisheh) to total 76,000 people. Dominated by minarets and bell towers, the city affirms its religious diversity: it has a Muslim majority (67%) and a strong Christian minority (33%). Almost every Christian community is represented: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Lutheran and Syrian, all sharing the same Arab-Palestinian culture.

Nevertheless, there is much in-fighting between the various Christian groups over control of various religious sites in Bethlehem. For example, despite being a place sacred to all Christians, the Grotto of the Nativity (see photo at left) - marking the exact place of Jesus's birth - has been the object of bitter dispute between the Christian communities. In 1847, the star was stolen, and the Sultan in Istanbul was asked to arbitrate: he chose to freeze the controversy with a status quo, which pleased no one, neither France, as "the custodian of holy places, nor Tsarist Russia, as protector of all Orthodox subjects in the Ottoman empire. Finally, the star was replaced with a copy. However, prolonged disagreement over custody of these holy places served as pretext for hostilities between the great imperialist powers leading to the Crimean War of 1853-1856, with England, France, and Turkey opposing Russia. Even today, there is a complicated and detailed plan of ownership of particular places and hours for certain religious celebrations and feasts. If one religious community fails to honor another 's plan, for instance by walking down the wrong staircase at an inopportune time, then this is cause for shutting down a whole section of Bethlehem in order to rectify the situation.

The hopeful news is that Bethlehem is celebrating its merriest Christmas in years, according to this story from NPR. Mild weather, a booming economy, and thriving tourism (see photo at left) are all helping to bring holiday cheer to the West Bank town. Christian tourists, Palestinian Christians, and even Palestinian Muslims from Bethlehem's refugee camps prayed side-by-side on Christmas Eve. One woman from the camp said, "Because of the hard situation and the pressure we are living in, we take advantage of any joyful moment and bring our children to play."

It's promising to see peace in the little town of Bethlehem for even one night. But let us not forget the wall that continues to surround Bethlehem (as well as the rest of the West Bank and Gaza), the growing number of illegal Israeli settlements that are being built and are eating away at Palestinian land, the failure of peaceful negotiations between the leaders of the region, and the reality that after celebrating side-by-side with people of all faiths, many Palestinian families must return to refugee camps rather than to their rightful homes.

(separation barrier near Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins

The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins is an award-winning documentary by New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly about contemporary artist, Vanessa Beecroft's relentless attempt to adopt baby twins from Sudan. Beecroft is a world-famous artist, most famous for her live tableaus of nude women standing motionless in empty art galleries. The film delves into Beecroft's professional life, borrowing an a brilliant artistic appeal and well-edited style. But Beecroft's career is only the backdrop to the more disturbing main element of the film, which was her obsession with "having/getting" these two Sudanese babies.

Beecroft explains that she visited Sudan and met Madit and Mongor Akot, who were left by their impoverished father to the care of the local village. Beecroft understood this as abandonment, and after breastfeeding the children herself, decided that it was her responsibility to adopt the children. As a Sudanese official explains, Sudan does not have official adoption laws; if a child is left parentless, then the next of kin is contacted and the community takes responsibility for the care of the child. This is common practice throughout many African societies. This doesn't deter Beecroft, and she goes to great lengths to convince lawyers, officials, friends, and family that what she is doing is noble and in the best interests of the twins.

One of the main themes of the film is that Beecroft's social anthropologist husband is completely unaware of her adoption plans. When her lawyers ask her repeatedly if her husband is "on-board" with the plan, (because the adoption cannot proceed without him), Beecroft insists that he is. When she determines that her husband might be a hindrance to her plan, she considers divorce.

Beecroft explains that her desire to adopt the twins is “not just fetishization of the blacks. It will be a beginning of a relationship with that country.” But her actions throughout the movie consistently contradict those words, as Sudan, its people and its children are consistently objectified by Beecroft.

In one of the more revealing scenes, Beecroft is photographing the unclothed infant twins in a chapel for one of her many Sudanese-themed art projects. One of the Sudanese women enters the chapel rightly complaining that it is not right for foreigners to be photographing naked Sudanese children, especially in the chapel. Beecroft has a physical confrontation with the woman, trying so much to continue photographing the children. When the Sudanese women takes the twins away, Beecroft collapses against a barricaded door, mumbling, "These people."

When the father of the twins expresses doubts that consenting to adoption is the right thing, he tells Beecroft (through a translator) that his community and family are worried that these Sudanese children will be taken away and never understand who they are or where they come from. Beecroft quickly responds that she will connect with the Sudanese communities where she lives in New York and visit Sudan with the twins when they grow up. But since she has thus far not made attempts to learn the language or understand the culture, it is unlikely that this will happen.

I believe that Beecroft believes that what she is doing is in the best interests of Madit and Mongor. However, she is unable to that these children may do very well living in their communities, raised by extended family. Beecroft's vision of child well-being is warped by her own Western perspectives of childhood as well as a desire to possess these children and incorporate them into her future artwork. She is also an egoist, comparing herself to the likes of Angelina Jolie and Madonna in her attempts at adoption.

I am not against international adoption, but I am against Westerners believing that they can come in and correct a situation simply because they have the means. As one of the priests that Beecroft seeks (and ignores) advice from says, taking the children away from Africa drains the human capital. These children are needed in their countries to build up their communities/countries and make them strong.

The one redeeming scene was when Beecroft makes a final visit to the village of Madit and Mongor. Tears of joy overcome her as she is welcomed into the community. She sees the twins and then says good-bye.