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Politics Amp Society
Palestinian pipers promote harmony
From the Financial Times of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 17:02:35 GMT
Palestinian Scouts march through the streets of Beit Jallah during the commemoration of Saint Nicholas, December 19. 2014. Photo by Quique Kierszenbaum

In the Christian quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, the merchants have strung up rows of brightly coloured lights and set out their Christmas decorations: inflatable Santas and plastic globes that blow up little pellets that resemble falling snow.

Down the stone steps of St Francis Street, a sound drifts through the air that brings a touch of the Scottish Highlands to this corner of the Middle East: the skirl of the bagpipes wafts from a building where a group of Roman Catholic boy scouts are practising for a Christmas Eve performance.

John Abdallah strikes a few beats on his snare drum to get the music going before being joined by a second drummer; two pipers chime in, weaving in a wailing riff with a distinctly Arabic rhythm and tone.

The Holy Land’s bagpipe-playing Christian scouts are on the march again this Christmas — a quirky cultural legacy of the British Mandate, and a timely reminder of the multicultural and multifaith make-up of the region. Just a few blocks from St Francis Street, in Jewish west Jerusalem, blue lights have been strung up to celebrate Hanukkah.

Although the residents of this part of the world have their differences, they are happy to lift elements of one another’s music, words, cuisine, even religion — or at least watch the festivities keenly from the roadside. Among the visitors to the Christmas market in largely Arab and Christian Nazareth, a two-hour drive from Jerusalem, are Jewish Israelis and Muslim Arabs keen to soak up a bit of their own Christmas kitsch.

Palestine’s British rulers brought scouting to Jerusalem, as they did to other parts of the then-Empire following the first world war. It is said a Scottish regiment stationed here brought the bagpipes.

The British are long gone, but the bagpipes have stayed, even if they are played in a way that produces a strange form of fusion music. In the hands of the scouts, this means Arabised takes on Scottish airs, hymns and Christmas carols, and Palestinian traditional and patriotic songs.

Few can read music, so they learn by ear from one another on songs downloaded from the internet. The bagpipes arrive by mail order from Scotland, costing about €1,300 a set, not including customs duties.

Among other things, the festivity is a forceful show of numbers for a minority community. The Christian population in Jerusalem has fallen in recent years because of emigration. Christians make up between 1 per cent and 2.5 per cent of the population of the Palestinian territories.

“We have to prove we are here, we are Christian, we are Palestinian — not just Muslims,” George Saadeh, the scouts’ leader, says. “This is our country and we will never go out.”

Another Catholic scout leader, who gives his name only as Jack, also cites identity politics, which resonate after a year in which conflict between Israel and the Palestinians resurfaced. “We are here so we can show that this isn’t just a Muslim country or a Jewish country — we are here too,” he says.

You only have a problem if you raise the Palestinian flag. If you don’t, they can’t complain

- Mary Mina, Orthodox scout

There are scouting troops for most of the churches in the Holy Land, including Orthodox, Syriac Christians, Armenians, Copts and Melkites. The groups march, throw batons, and play on Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter. There are Muslim, and mixed or secular scouting groups too, and a friendly rivalry exists among them; it is said that the Catholic scouts are the best in Jerusalem, but the Orthodox are Bethlehem’s finest.

There is nothing overtly political about the scouting movement. As elsewhere, scouts voice support for wholesome values such as duty to others and love of the nation: their slogan “Be Prepared” is translated as “kun musta’idan” in Arabic.

At the Catholic scouts’ Jerusalem lodge, a picture of Christ on the cross is displayed alongside one of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scouting movement and resplendent in Edwardian moustache and dimpled green scout’s hat.

But as always in the Holy Land, conflict hovers in the near background. The scouts’ marches in Jerusalem are the biggest officially sanctioned public demonstrations in which young Palestinians can take part. Palestinians in East Jerusalem are barred by the Israeli authorities from staging overtly political demonstrations or meetings.

“You only have a problem if you raise the Palestinian flag,” says Mary Mina, who is involved with Jerusalem’s Orthodox scouts. “If you don’t, they can’t complain.”

On St Francis Street, Mr Abdallah is tuning his drum so it produces, he says, “a good clean sound”. After the Christmas Eve performance at New Gate in the Old City, he and the other scouts will board a bus for Bethlehem in the West Bank, across the Israeli security wall.

At the end of a year marred by conflict in the Holy Land, he says his aim this Christmas is simple: “Make people happy in the streets — make them completely happy.”

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