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When Bethlehem comes to Madrid

Photo by ReutersBy Nour Odeh

It is a unique and educational experience - maybe even shocking, though admirable in its simplicity.

A replica of Bethlehem, the city, and the punishing daily reality of Israeli occupation in all its aspects: the Wall, expanding illegal settlements, shrinking space, diminishing water supplies and routine humiliation. In the background, music typical of the region plays, adding to the "feel" of the exhibit.

In one corner, Israeli soldiers surround the town's only water source with barbed wire and cut off the supply to Bethlehem. It's a dramatic statement perhaps, but certainly not detached from the Palestinians' severe water crisis, which international organizations attribute to Israel's control and illegal use of water sources in the occupied West Bank.

This Bethlehem is the brain-child of Leo Bassi, the 59-year-old renowned Italian actor and comedian. The actor and social activist greets the crowds as if they were coming into his home and invited them to study the details of mini-Bethlehem before the show begins. 

There is no set structure for the presentation but in the hour show, Bassi presents the audience with a historical and political perspective of what is happening in the occupied West Bank, through Bethlehem. And through this improvised simplicity, Bassi has kept audiences from all walks of life coming.

"This is a highly improvised act," said Leo Bassi, the organiser. It's also a personal project for him; one which he has self-financed and considers part of his political awakening, as he later told me. Every day, a new event takes place in mini-Bethlehem to reflect the reality of the city.

 "There were five olive trees yesterday but I'm sorry to tell you that today none are left. The Israeli bulldozers has uprooted them to make way for the wall and this brand new shopping center for Israeli settlers," Bassi told the audience.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.

This show takes place at a highly symbolic place in Madrid too. It's called La Tabacalera, formerly an abandoned tobacco factory. La Tabacalera has been transformed into an arts and cultural centre for those willing and wanting to push the limits of creativity and think outside the box. It is considered an important centre of free thought. The Tabacalera stands grand at the corner of the Embajadores Plaza, at the heart of Madrid.

We entered through an old large door and climbed a few stairs up into an empty hall. A few people were gathering, waiting to be escorted to the show: 'Belen' or Bethlehem. A guide took us through the old and hollow rooms of the factory; the high ceilings and ample space has provided many artists with plenty of space to paint or prepare projects. But our guide took us outdoors, to a patio where a colorful tent covers 'Belen'. And despite January's chilling night breeze, people kept coming.

Before the presentation, the crowds toured the exhibit, studying every detail of this elaborate mini-city. The props are simple: small toy soldiers, angels, Joseph and Mary, tanks, and bulldozers. The town structures are made of carton or foam, skilfully painted and carved to give the impression of life. But this replica has been prepared with a lot of attention; the sizes of the Wall, buildings, and people were done in exact proportion to those in real-life. 

"I am a supporter of the Palestinian cause," Leo Bassi told the crowd as he began the show. "But this is not why I am doing this presentation at my own expense. I am doing this because the situation in Bethlehem is only getting worse and because the rights violated there are rights we as Europeans believe in.  And since our governments are not willing to defend these principles, I believe it's our duty as citizens to mobilise," Bassi said. The audience was all ears.

Mixing his presentation of Bethlehem's harsh reality with humour, Bassi managed to keep the audience engaged.

"Here, the soldiers have detained an angel because his wings were suspicious," Bassi explained in clear sarcasm. "And here, a tourist poses with Joseph and Mary so he can later upload the pictures on Facebook. Then look, when Israeli bulldozers tear the entrance of the city and put another section of the wall in its place, he takes a picture there - for Facebook of course - then leaves quickly," Bassi said at another point in the show. 

Even mainstream international media did not escape his scathing sarcasm. In the middle of the show, he presents a supposed reporter, who offers an exaggerated Israeli explanation of the restrictions he just presented.

"The Palestinians are so upset about this mall, which is the first of its kind in this third-world area. Well, it's simple - why should they be? This is development and they reject it because they are backwards. And about the wall, which is not a wall, this is just Israel's way to help support the cracking foundations of Palestinian buildings. It's not there to block the sun like they say,” said the actress. Laughter followed. 

But there were also sombre moments. "This young man is on the floor because he was killed by Israeli guards at a checkpoint." Bassi was talking about 21-year-old Mohammad Daraghmeh, who was killed on January 2 by Israeli soldiers even though he was disarmed.

Bassi belongs to an Italian family that has been dedicated to the circus for six generations. But Bassi chose a different path in his twenties, becoming a renowned theatre actor, clown, and social activist. He told me "I hate walls; I can't stand limits to freedom. This is why I do this".

In 2010, Bassi attempted to organize a clown festival in the occupied West Bank. But his plans were derailed. In May, the Spanish clown Ivan Prado was detained and deported by Israel upon attempting to pass through Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, to organise the festival in the West Bank.

"So I thought to myself; if I can’t fulfil my dream and get to Bethlehem to organise the festival, why not bring Bethlehem and its reality to Europe?” Bassi told me.

The initiative has succeeded beyond Bassi's expectations. He estimates at least five thousand people have watched his Bethlehem in the first six days of the show. And the exhibition has also invited a lot of media attention, which covered Bassi's depiction of Bethlehem's current reality, in contrast with the cheers and festivities this town brings to millions around the world every year this holiday season. 

It's a cultural event with many political messages and ironies. The international community is present in Bassi's Bethlehem: clowns and activists buried next to the wall - Israeli tanks not hesitating to run them over as they go on changing the reality of the town.

Nour Odeh has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict extensively for ten years.

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