‘Beyond the Wall’ Exhibit paints an intimate portrait of Palestinian life in Bethlehem

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When Bshara Nassar first visited Washington, D.C. in 2011, something was missing from his tourist experience. 

As he visited monuments and museums, he felt inspired by stories from all over the world, except from where he had his own personal connection.

“I could not find a place with my story as a Palestinian,” Nassar said. “I said, ‘Why not (create) a Palestinian museum in Washington, D.C.?”

Seven years later, Nassar is the founding director of the Museum of the Palestinian People, the country’s first museum dedicated to celebrating and preserving Palestinian history and culture.

In keeping up with its mission, the museum’s exhibition, “Bethlehem Beyond the Wall,” focuses on Palestinian life and culture inside the city of Bethlehem through various paintings, photographs and films from the artists’ perspectives. And it’s at Manhattan College right now through Feb. 27.

The traveling exhibition first made its way to Nazareth College in Rochester, where Nassar recalls that many non-Palestinian people only knew Bethlehem as just a place cited in the Bible. 

“‘Bethlehem Beyond the Wall’ puts Bethlehem on the map in the eyes of the people,” Nassar said, “saying that Bethlehem is a real place and has real people living there.” 

For Palestinians who visited the exhibit, Nassar remembers receiving positive feedback about the work. But the similarity in both Palestinians and non-Palestinians’ impression of “Bethlehem Beyond the Wall” was the depiction of the city’s essence.

“Showing the resilience of the Palestinians and” the obstacles they face on the ground, Nassar said, “I think that’s what really struck Palestinians and non-Palestinians.”

The exhibit itself took three years to develop but was really “10 years in the making” in terms of its relation to Manhattan College, Nassar said. 

It all began at Bethlehem University when Nassar was a student. Bethlehem University and Manhattan College are sister universities that collaborate on various projects and student exchange programs. At the time, Brother Jack Curran, the vice president of missions at Manhattan, was teaching in Bethlehem and knew Nassar. 

Over the years, the two kept in touch. When Curran learned about the exhibit, he was determined to bring it to Riverdale after its stop in Rochester.

“Not everyone can travel (to Bethlehem) or get the opportunity,” Curran said. “So this is a way of bringing (it) here to us and building bridges and getting to know one another.”

Nassar hopes the exhibit will inspire the community to learn more about Palestine than what they see and hear in the news. 

“We want people to admire the Palestinians and really move beyond headlines and what’s being (said) in the news,” Nassar said. 

Curran has similar sentiments, wanting visitors to immerse themselves in Palestinian culture through these works on display.

“One of my hopes is that people might have a more deeper understanding, or maybe an alternative understanding, of the people who are Palestinians and the people who live in Bethlehem when you see their faces,” he said.

Marisa Lerer, an assistant professor of visual and performing arts at Manhattan College, was also part of the team that helped bring “Bethlehem Beyond the Wall” to campus. For her, “Bethlehem Beyond the Wall” is a significant teaching moment for her students, and the ones who will hear from Nassar and artist Elias Halabi in the coming week.

“The more students get exposed to cultures internationally, the higher their level of understanding and tolerance are,” she said. “And … the more types of (visual culture and art) they see, the more tools it gives them to think critically through what they’re told and what actually exists.”

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