The first thing you notice is the wall! Long, grey and snaking over the hills. This is the sight which confronts any visitor driving from Jerusalem in Israel to Bethlehem in the Palestinian authority controlled West Bank. As imposing structures go, it’s an arresting site and this is where we are heading. To see Banksy’s ‘Walled Off Hotel’.
The Bristolian artist is well known in the area. He’s been coming to the West Bank since 2005. His visits often end up being well documented. The art he leaves behind soon starts to travel around social media and into the wider consciousness. It’s been a long time passion of his. Raising awareness of the separation wall which encloses the West Bank and cuts towns like Bethlehem off from the rest of Israel.
Painting on the Separation Barrier
Visiting for the first time in 2005 painting on the the wall was risky. The border guards observing from the watch towers would become twitchy and suspicious of anyone going near. Only completed in 2003 after years of debate and controversy. It soon become a much derided part of everyday life. One which would alter the relationship between people on both sides dramatically. Painting on it wasn’t easy. But then back in Palestine no-one was expecting Banksy to turn up. Those early murals went viral! The separation barrier started to become a parody.
Banksy’s murals in the area have become a draw in themselves. Since the first ones appeared, people began to make trips to see them. The local community responded and soon replica Banksy merchandise and tours started popping up. Although the wall is still a barrier, a symbol as well as an enforcer of segregation. It has, in some way been given a new reality. An unintended consequence of it’s building is that it has spawned a small but nonetheless important sub economy for the area.
The Ultimate Holiday Destination for Graffiti Writers
It has, according to Banksy become “the ultimate activity holiday destination for graffiti writers.” A huge outdoor gallery filled with political art. Next to the hotel there’s even a ‘Wall Mart’ where you can buy spray paint and have stenciling lessons. People arrive at all times of the day just to walk around. As more people visit more learn about the separation barrier itself.
His work is still there too. I can make out at least two original Banksy pieces still on the wall and then in the surrounding area there are a number of others. The wall has since played host to many an artist. His ‘Santa’s Ghetto‘ event in 2007 saw street artists from around the world in Bethlehem to paint on the wall and contribute work to an art exhibition on Manger Square. It really kick started the breaking in of the wall properly.
Worst View in the World
Back to the hotel though. Opened in 2017 it boasts the “worst view in the world” with windows looking out onto the hard concrete of the separation barrier. The Walled Off Hotel, a play on words mocking the famous Waldorf in London. It’s been created as a boutique space. Only eight rooms. Inside it’s designed to be reminiscent of the time of the British Mandate in Palestine. Inside a mechanical model of Arthur Balfour ‘re-creates’ the signing of the 1917 Balfour declaration. That’s the document that first signaled official government support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
A colonial area feel is given to the place but satire is everywhere. Banksy’s work fills the inside space and it brims with political meaning. Even from the outside, the statue of an ape dressed in a bellhops uniform greets you as you enter. Look closely and you will see that it is manacled to the wall. Cute and amusing at first, this statue represents slavery. From the very beginning, before even entering the building. This statue reminds the visitor that people are not free to come and go on either the Israeli or the Palestinian side.
The lobby combines with the dining area. At one side the check in desk and the other a giant, self playing, grand piano. On the walls, work from the man himself. His famous flower thrower image, first created in Bethlehem, sits in frames; cherubs dance above the piano wearing gas masks; an image of Jesus looks up at drones flying overhead, a red laser on his forehead.
Banksy’s art is everywhere and it’s clear that here is a project where he has had a lot to say. The wall is all important though. I learn about the windows in the ‘Banksy Suite’ one of the rooms where I am staying. One of the biggest challenges in converting the building into the hotel involved knocking out the old smaller windows and putting in huge floor to ceiling ones. Whoever stays it’s about the wall being omni-present. Never out of sight or mind.
Inside the Walled Off Hotel
A museum also tells the story of the barrier as well as the history of the region. Free to hotel guests it covers some of the geo-political dynamics that led to the region being divided. It also examines the realities of what is happening at the moment. It explores the challenges that the wall has brought not only in the West Bank but in Gaza too. This is about education as much as anything else. Visitors are meant to return from whence they came furnished with knowledge about just what it is that’s been going on.
There’s a gallery and a gift shop too. The gallery features art from Palestinian artists. Giving a space for their work to be exhibited to a largely international audience. It also gives a means for their work to be sold. Difficult as it is for artists from the region to get their work out there. The gift shop meanwhile features works designed by Banksy himself but actually created by local artists. Another example of where the hotel is supportive of local creatives.
The Walled Off Hotel was only meant to last a year or so but it’s kept going. A boutique experience in itself. The impact of the place is clear and the hotel is doing the job it was meant to do. This is about bringing people to the area after all. To go beyond the checkpoint and to experience life on the other side of the wall.
The Walled Off Hotel was visited on 2nd and 3rd January 2019. The hotel overlooks the separation wall cutting off the town of Bethlehem from Israel. The address is 182 Caritas Street, Bethlehem, Palestine. For more posts about the art of Banksy have a look here.