Syriac Orthodox scouts add unique legacy to Christmas

159468_345×2301.jpgSyriac Orthodox scouts play bagpipes on Bethlehem’s Star Street.
By Mark Calder
Christmas festivities in Bethlehem are embodied by a few striking images: candle-lit masses, cheery street celebrations, and overflowing dishes of mansaf shared with family.

And, believe it or not, by bagpipes.

Having spent most of my adult life in Scotland, Bethlehem’s attachment to what I thought of as ‘our’ national instrument is quite a revelation. One of the less controversial legacies of British colonial rule, the highland pipes are a feature of almost every public celebration in Bethlehem. Tellingly, one of Bethlehem’s two musical instrument stores, Scottish for Music, is full to bursting with pipes and practice chanters.

It is the Scouts movement, this year celebrating its centenary in Palestine, which sustains the use of bagpipes here. Several times a year the sound of scouts playing the pipes echoes around the town marking national or religious events, including on western Christmas Eve, 24 December.

Many Bethlehemites say that for the best playing one should listen out for the Syriac Orthodox Scouts’ pipers.

Bethlehem’s Syriac Orthodox community is proud to trace its roots to the ancient Aramean peoples, and prouder still of the fact that, as many have told me, “we speak the language of Jesus,” Aramaic. But they are also quick to mention the success of their scouts, with good reason.

Established in 1958, the scout group became internationally successful in sports in the Sixties and Seventies. After the Oslo Accords, their pipers were chosen to be President Yasser Arafat’s military band for official occasions.

One deacon and elder in the community who used to play with the scouts recalled, “We were in Gaza playing the bagpipes for Arafat when the news of Rabin’s assassination was announced. They thought it was a Palestinian who had killed him so they would not let us leave Gaza.”

This year, when the anniversary of scouting and the Palestinian UN statehood bid were celebrated on the same day, it was the Syriac Orthodox scout band that took center stage in Manger Square.

Until today the scouts group is an important arena for the transmission of Syriac-Aramaic identity, and for linking it to the wider Palestinian population.

Hearing the pipes in Bethlehem unsurprisingly reminds me of home, and a few Syriac Orthodox young men have attended piping conventions in Glasgow.

When I return to Scotland I imagine the ubiquitous sound of pipes will remind me of this fascinating, troubling, and real Bethlehem, scarcely reflected in our carols and Christmas cards.

Mark Calder is a PhD Candidate at the University of Aberdeen