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Salesian Artistic Centre in Bethlehem

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 23.06.2007:

A unique opportunity in Bethlehem for vocational training in traditional craftsmanship

By Sara Faustinelli

No doubt, the city of Bethlehem is one of the capitals of the Palestinian handicraft tradition. And that is why it was chosen by the Italian NGO, VIS (International Volunteering for Development), Italian Cooperation, and Caritas to open a centre for vocational training in craftsmanship: the Salesian Artistic Centre. As part of the well-known Salesian Technical School, the Centre represents one of the newest facilities for vocational training. The Centre includes three workshops for the hand-working of olive wood, ceramics, and mother of pearl, in addition to a modern computer lab. Opened in spring 2004, it is now not only giving many young people the opportunity to acquire useful and creative skills that may lead to interesting employment opportunities, but it is also contributing to the preservation of the handicraft tradition. The school is open to instructors and students of various religious faiths, as an environment of tolerance and mutual respect. Moreover, it is particularly welcoming to women who wish to enhance their creativity.

The Centre offers professional, part-time, and summer courses to people who want to approach the craftsmanship sector in a professional way or who are interested in craftsmanship as an artistic hobby. Professional courses include intensive training in the selected workshop, artistic drawing, and basic computer literacy. At the end of each course, students are awarded a certificate that is issued by the Salesian Technical School.

I have been working at the Centre as a VIS volunteer for one year and a half and, through connections with many local operators, I have had the opportunity to consider some of the potentials and problems of the sector. The most crucial issue for the Palestinian handicraft sector is the relation between tradition and innovation. Is it a real trade-off?

It is certainly true that the conservation of traditional heritage, with its shapes, figures, and artistic leitmotivs that have been consistently present through the centuries, is an indefeasible value. Still, the actual culture of any people is the result of many different cultural components that have mixed throughout the ages, along with the mixture of people. Culturally speaking, there are no one-sided winners since history shows us that even if certain styles, subjects, and ideas can sometimes prevail, they can never be imposed in a purist way. They also undergo the contamination of the pre-existing cultural features. Colours cannot avoid contact with the local canvas.

In other words, the introduction of new features to handicraft making should not be seen as a threat. The subjects we choose to represent in artistic handicrafts – their style and the techniques that we apply – are inevitably the result of contaminations: all the knowledge, input, feelings, and experiences that we receive ultimately merge into a personality who creates. And a personality is never static. So we should be careful and well-balanced in the attempt to preserve a tradition, lest we run the risk of crystallizing it.

In Palestine, the “souvenir-market boom” of the ’70s and ’80s has not helped to move in the direction of innovation. In fact, it has been revealed as a double-edged reality. On one hand, as a satellite tourist activity, it has consistently contributed to the wealth of the area, especially around the holy places of Bethlehem. On the other hand, the method of work has often favoured quantity to the detriment of quality. Shoals of tourists have invaded the Holy Land without any particular preference regarding items they would like to purchase. They are ready and willing to buy any craft that actually comes from the Holy Land: a souvenir, a sacred object, a relic of a special journey … Palestinian craftsmen have answered the pressing market demand with low incentives towards the quality. And sometimes, this has impoverished the existing artistic handicrafts tradition, reducing it to the same, regular series of small statues, figures, and accessories.

Today we witness a clear gap between a few big families – whose names have long been related to the handicraft sector and who maintain a good standard of working – and the new generations who often approach this kind of work with a mechanic attitude, failing to recognise the artistic and expressive potential of such activity.

Where are the drawings? Where is the artistic conception and the creation of new models?

Innovation is a key word in the artistic sector. The static attitude that I sometimes perceive in the handicraft sector in Palestine is, in my opinion, detrimental to the preservation of the Palestinian tradition. The specificity and variety of artistic elements in different cultures is a true richness only insofar as we are open to use them, to combine them, to make them available to go further, to try, to experiment.

The Salesian Artistic Centre, together with other educational realities that have been recently established, would like to respond to the needs of the handicrafts sector with a new attitude: solidly rooted in the tradition yet open to the power of creativity.

That is why the Centre hosts special training sessions held by Italian artists and craftsmen who are keen to share their knowledge with the students and to provide the local instructors with new ideas and techniques. They provide new inputs that can enrich the local tradition. It is important that Palestinian craftsmen be allowed to use their technical skills to bring their contribution to the final work. That is a successful recipe: reciprocal enrichment!

The Palestinian handicraft sector has great economic and artistic potential for renovation, and my heartfelt wish is that lively, genuine, and mature public support will bring it into a new golden era.

Sara Faustinelli is the VIS project coordinator.

is the VIS project coordinator.

For more information about the Salesian Centre activities, visit the Centre at 316 Salesian St., Bethlehem (tel.: 02-276-6585;


or visit the website:


This Week in Palestine

May 2007

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