Absent-mindedly smiling to myself whilst winding through the narrow streets, passing olive wood workshops churning out religious icons, hearing the Adhan from the mosque in the evening air and smelling sweet fried pastries and strong coffee from the street vendors I think....this was a great idea! It was the day earlier while staring at a young Israeli female soldier with a loaded IMI Negev light machine gun that it became apparent how "not in Europe we are right now" and as I left the next day through the same checkpoint in Bethlehem it is still very clear to me this is truly the case as our friends go through the rigmarole of border security ID cards and intrusive questioning on the purpose of our trip and our religious orientation.
So why come? Will you meet Banksy or find the truth out behind his cloak of mystery... obviously not! But the draw that finally made us reach for our travel bags, despite for a long time having a real interest in the problems Israel and Palestine have, is the Walled Off hotel. This is Dismaland on acid, this is the Banksy museum in Amsterdam (which we visited on the way out) gone rogue...this is a chance to get as close to entering a Banksy piece as is humanly possible right now!
The Walled Off Hotel has been open since early 2017 and like Dismaland is not thought to be a permanent fixture (although this is yet to be confirmed). It is the invention of Banksy who states "2017 marks a hundred years since the British took control of Palestine and helped kick start a century of confusion and conflict".
A fan of walls and political messages, it is easy to see why Bethlehem provided such a great opportunity for Banksy. Political oppression, confusing worldwide media output and a warm friendly people who appreciate, on the whole, someone on the worldwide stage raising awareness of their plight.
Banksy first took a trip to the wall in the mid 2000's and has been making art in Bethlehem ever since. The hotel, the museum, the gallery of local artists, the increase in money coming into the area and the increased audience for both his own work and the Palestine situation has all been cleverly wrapped up into what we are experiencing. As we wandered around from the car park looking up at the fake colonial facades, sprayed on the white walls, to be greeted by our never flinching primate doorman, and an even more attentive real life smiling Palestine one, it is clear is going to be a rich diverse experience!
It is Impossible to talk about the hotel without talking about the artwork, as the whole thing is one and the same from setting eyes on the disjointed form of the Walled Off hotel, you are immersed in the vision that Banksy has created. Faux Colonial madness with a purposeful tired feel twinned with awkward challenging pieces posing serious questions sit next to exquisite original pieces you won't see anywhere else, and an 'in your face' ever changing blank canvas on the doorstep. What's not to like? This is definitely an experience like no other.
The occupancy is mixed from Graf loving tourists specifically after the 'Banksy experience' to mildly bemused or indifferent Americans who seem to have landed there by accident or because the tick list needed...ticking!
The staff are all super friendly and helpful and the local beer and (sorry Ame72, not the best in the world but bloody good!) pizza and local breakfast of fried falafel, humous and fruit all make for a strange but great mix of local hospitality and an eye watering feast of paintings, graffiti work and mixed media installations. The hotel has a really great museum which sets out what has happened, and while it is impossible to make full sense of it all, it helps.
The rooms, all different, range from the bunk room, "Outfitted with surplus items from an Israeli military barracks" through to the presidential suite "This palatial suite is equipped with everything a corrupt head of state would need" states the website! No where else can you sleep under original work by Banksy (unless you are luckily enough to own one!) and the novelty factor is worth while for sure. It isn't too bold a claim to say there really is no other hotel like the Walled Off in the world, and that's the point! This is not a hotel but more a museum, art show, political statement, museum, gallery, installation and restaurant all in one, and to be honest I can't decide which one is it's dominant role... but I know soaking it all up for 24 hours has been a real treat and well worth the travel.
Friendly enthusiasm twinned with the knowledge that westerners have cash and are on the whole looking to drop it on some kind of tour, memorabilia, Banksy based experience does mean you get a lot of interest from the locals.
Small children making stencils, religious tourists who have no actual idea about Graf or Banksy, let alone the other big artists touring the wall (when we were there Lushsux had just left after spending a long while talking and creating all over Bethlehem) all mix together both inside and outside at the wall.
Local artists have been inspired by the interest to either improve, or in many cases start from stretch, when you live in a country that has had so much death and oppression, they, not surprisingly, have a very liberal attitude to spraying the 780km illegal and oppressive wall!
There are some confusing conundrums such as, sprayed in red paint in Arabic across pieces were 'this is not your canvas' and on the other side a large piece of Trump and Netanyahu kissing had been overpainted in pink by an American Jew a few days earlier. But tagging and street pieces is and always will be divisive, that is part of its job. Ame72 says, "sometimes I think the locals can get offended because they may miss the message, they see a 20 ft high picture of Trump and they are like 'why is this dude painted here?' and don't understand why the artist has done what they did.
We go for a late night wander away from the hotel to take in the wall. As the popularity of graffiti tourism increases, the Walled Off Hotel has definitely increased the activity. Not many big names are heading over, and they probably all should, partly because it is a canvas like no other and they can spray relatively unchallenged, but partly because if you have a message of positivity for the issues either directly on the ground at the wall face or the bigger political agenda then this is your stage. And on the whole the locals love it. Everyone we interacted with while Ame72 was re doing his piece (he didn't realise the first setting was where they screen the football so quickly got greyed out again!) was genuinely pleased to have him there sending out a message of positivity and reinstalling his piece. Yes some of the wall is starting to look messy and some of the mindless tags are annoying and irrelevant, but when you consider the setting and the opportunity people have to voice a real message here it's worth it, but hey that's freedom of speech...and it's great to see it happening here.
So, in wrapping up there are few points I need to stress:
- Do make the effort to experience this truly unique work, you never know when it will disappear and it is so so worth it
- Do take time to talk and interact with the locals, don't believe the worldwide media view point that there is only hatred towards Israel and hurt in Palestine, they love to meet you and talk about their lives apart from the wall.
- Do tag and leave your mark on the wall, but maybe don't just write a pointless website address, do something positive
- Take a trip into the town and see many of the original Banksy pieces still intact, i can recommend Al'a the taxi driver who you can organise from reception!
- Don't forget this is the Middle East, you can't just wander around with your guard down and expect it all to be ok
- Don't turn it into a shopping trip focussed solely on flipping hard to get items when you get home
- Don't ask inane and stupid questions of the staff and expect to find out who Banksy is...yes I did hear this happen several times!
- Don't forget that this is a country that has suffered massive oppression and while this isn't a piece to try convince you of who is right and wrong in the situation (because trust me however deep you dig this answer cannot be found, especially not from an outside observer) you should remember why the walled off exists, it's not a theme park, more a vehicle to spread the word and create open dialogue on a subject that I assume is very close to Banksy's heart.
This truly has been one of the most unique and one-off weekends away and I am very glad I have experienced it. If you are unsure if it's for you, then I hope that this article has given you the either impetus or the information to go or not go... but seriously you should go!