An Interview with Wisam Salsaa the Manager of the Walled Off Hotel

It was back in 2005 when Wisam Salsaa, first met Banksy. “I didn’t know who Banksy was. I had actually never heard of Banksy” he tells me when asked about that first time. “After about three or four months after he left. I was watching Al Jazeera and suddenly I saw the graffiti that he had done with me…. I was like ‘oh my god’. I then went to google him, it was a big suprise!”

One of the pieces Banksy first created on the separation barrier in 2005

He had wanted to learn about the area and to paint on the giant separation barrier. Completed only a few years earlier it had cut off the West Bank from the rest of Israel and the feelings about it were still raw. Painting near the checkpoint the atmosphere was tense with clashes occurring with some frequency at the border points.

Wisam was the guide. “An unemployed guide” he clarifies! In 2005 there wasn’t much call for his line of work. “Palestine was like a war zone, it was not safe at all” he tells me. “The wall was something new and because of that the internationals were not coming. Tourists were not coming at all. You could go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and you don’t even find five visitors there.”

Video Interview with Wisam Salsaa

The Walled Off Hotel

It’s a sign of the times that as we sit talking in 2019 the town of Bethlehem seems fairly safe. Certainly in Manger Square, the birthplace of Jesus, there are many people. The Walled Off Hotel too is full. Packed with art from Banksy himself, it has become a huge draw for the area. The unlikely culmination of that meeting in 2005 when Banksy first visited. The tour guide and the street artist staying in touch over the years until the idea for the hotel eventually formed.

Wisam now manages the hotel and the two are in regular contact. It employs 45 people, contains a museum and an art gallery as well as a little gift shop. The whole set up is designed to raise awareness of the Palestinian cause and to highlight the injustice of the wall. The gift shop even sells merchandise designed by Banksy though produced by local Palestinian artists.

The Separation Barrier

The wall itself looms large. Sitting in the lobby, our view outside is completely dominated by it. Graffiti covered. It attracts artists from near and far who come to leave their mark. Back in 2005 though it was a different story. “Graffiti was completely illegal” he tells me. “For doing graffiti on the wall the Israeli occupation used to put people in prison for months or years just for putting graffiti on the wall.”

The wall has also left a deep scar on the local population. Some arguing that that no attention at all should be given to it and that you should not “make the wall look beautiful.” “Locals don’t look at the wall the way internationals might see it” he tells me. “This means a lot to us because this wall has converted our towns and cities into an open air prison. It’s prevented our towns from expanding. It’s limiting our movement. It’s been catastrophic for us as Palestinians.”

Graffiti in Palestine

Banksy was one of the first people to paint on the wall itself. Certainly his work was the first to get noticed. “The media talked about the wall when it was built. The international media then were never interested in doing any more reports about it because it became an old story. So Banksy was one of the first artists to come to Palestine. To do something on the wall and to force the media to report the wall again and again. Now today with the Walled Off Hotel there are daily reports about the wall and about life under occupation.”

It was the ‘Santa’s Ghetto‘ event in 2007 which would be the next time Banksy would visit. A temporary charitable art exhibition housed over three floors in a building on Manger Square. It also resulted in additional pieces popping up not only on the separation wall but in the town itself. A number of artists including the likes of Blu and Ron English had been invited to take part. Not only contributing work to the show but also taking the opportunity to paint outside. Banksy himself created a number of now famous images including the mural of a girl in a pink dress frisking a soldier.

Banksy in Palestine

The event had an impact and, according to Wisam, the art in the town started to attract a lot more cultural tourists. “In early 2008 we noticed that there were many more Banksy tourists coming to Bethlehem than Jesus tourists coming to see the Church of the Nativity.” Five years on from the completion of the wall and suddenly the barrier was starting to receive an altogether different type of attention.

“His interest is to highlight the situation (in Palestine) and the injustice and the occupation” Wisam tells me. Adding that his interest wasn’t just in Bethlehem and the West Bank. “Banksy went to Gaza in 2014 and his journey was a crazy journey… I mean no-one would sneak through tunnels just to get to a war zone just to do art… But when you risk your life. That means you believe in what you are doing.” That journey resulted in a number of pieces created on the rubble of the bombed city. Again with a view to using art in order to raise awareness of a part of the world often hidden from the gaze of international media.

Tourism and the Wall in Palestine

The hotel itself has proved a huge success and Wisam tells me that since opening in 2017 they’ve already had 120,000 visitors. “Most of the people who come and stay in our rooms are Banksy fans. Like many people they come to Bethlehem because of the Walled Off Hotel. Some people would have never thought to have even come to the Middle East if we were not here.”

“People come here, they shop. they stay in other hotels. They do tours and a lot of other activities. So I think we contribute a lot. We’ve created a new type of tourism in Palestine” says Wisam. It’s a bold claim but it’s true. Palestine isn’t exactly on the tourist trail, the wall has really put paid to that. Yet the hotel and it’s street art have focused attention on the situation and given reason for people from outside to take notice.

“Banksy wants to make sure that everyone who comes here should be disturbed.” Wisam tells me. “Which means that everyone who comes here should be able to encounter the reality and see things with their own eyes.”

Wisam Salsaa interviewed at the Walled Off Hotel in 2019

Wisam Salsaa was interviewed on 2 January 2019 at the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem. You can read other Inspiring City posts on the Walled Off Hotel and the Graffiti of the Separation Barrier by clicking on the links. You can also explore more of our Banksy related articles by checking out our Banksy Archives.

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