Forewarning: I will be writing about Israel in two parts, as I know there are two sides to every story (and this one may be skewed).
Tonight I am staying in the Walled Off Hotel, Banksy’s first boutique hotel. Why did he choose Bethlehem as the first hotel location? “He heard they had a shortage of rooms here”…
It should come as no surprise that Palestine was chosen as a place for this venture. Banksy has been doing graffiti art to the area for years, bringing attention to a place we try to shield our eyes and minds from.
Graffiti : is it art? Desecration ? Illegal? Social commentary ? The verdict vacillates . But Banksy is probably the most well known unknown graffiti artist in the world.
I admit I am highly uneducated about the local history of politics and religion. Planning a trip to Israel fuelled my interest in beginning to learn the basics of this area.
Arriving in Tel Aviv was not as scary as we were forewarned and encouraged to think. My built up barriers lessened as I walked along the beachfront Mediterranean. It was reminiscent of Los Angeles: families going for a morning jog, surfers waiting for the best wave, and groups of friends lounging in the sun. Modern-esque. There was nothing to be afraid of here.
Then we arrived in Bethlehem…The Walled Off Hotel (play on Waldorf Hotel) was a candy store for any Banksy lover. Art work and conversation pieces filled the space of everything within viewing distance. There were variations of familiar works I have seen before: a statue with a cloud of smoke from tear gas, a revolutionist throwing flowers, and infamous angels with gas masks on. Every piece of the hotel was lined with detail , including the entrance to the rooms , which is behind a faux library bookcase.
It is called The Walled Off Hotel due to the proximity of the wall that separates Israel and Palestine. Below is a brief description from the hotel website that describes the wall ….
“So, what is the wall exactly?
The wall is a military structure over 700km long built by the Israeli government. It encloses occupied Palestine and annexes parts of its land. Depending on who you talk to it’s either a vital security measure or an instrument of apartheid. Its route is highly controversial and it has a dramatic impact on the daily lives of a lot of people”
Graffiti is sprayed throughout parts of this wall, a sister store of the hotel called “wall-mart” sells spray paint and stencils for you to be your own Banksy. Although I was tempted , I didn’t grab the opportunity to leave my colourful mark.
And then the tour began:
It’s hard to put into words…
My husband would describe this as one of the worst things he has ever seen in his life. He was in shock, as we outwardly expressed our experiences differently. Anthony was horrified, appetite limited, and had few words to describe it. He needed to be alone post-tour to grasp what we had just seen. I needed to process through writing .
I was also horrified, but was extremely curious and fascinated. How can people live like this ? Our tour was two hours long, and yes we were afraid. Military guards taunted our tour guide by throwing piss out of the watch tower above us.
Were they going to shoot us for exploring the area? Were they upset at our guide for tattling that the garbage on the street was just thrown from the Israeli military member who was currently on duty?
The guide continued to inform us of water bottles that have been thrown that are filled with urine and tossed into the cemetery we strolled through , where his parents and ancestors are buried. “This is inhumane and disrespectful.” These acts infuriated him and saddened him, we could sense the strength of these emotions that must arise each day he gives this tour.
He pointed out the area above our heads where they let out chemical gases that intoxicate the residents and cause numerous physical symptoms. Would it happen during our tour? My husband tried to steer clear of the watch towers not wanting to be splattered with anything unexpected.
As we walked along the wall, there was loads of garbage , but in addition pieces of remnants of tear gas. The most recent ones were tossed over from the watch towers last week.
We walked onto the rooftop of a youth center that was getting renovated. It was crazy to see all the tear gas remnants on the roof of a building serving children. The local school nearby the UN created no longer had windows, because over the years children have been injured while in class from things being shot at through the windows.
There were bullet holes in the walls that were never fixed . Living conditions were appalling. Our tour guide mentioned , “we are the only people who are refugees in our own country.”
Initially when the Palestinians were forced to leave their homes in 1948, they left exponentially quick. Many left with few belongings except their keys to their homes, as they thought after some time they could return. They never did return to these original homes in Israel , but all families still keep these keys. Throughout generations it serves as a reminder of hope, a recent massive key was installed in the Aida refugee camp as a massive symbolic representation of hope.
Initially the refugees lived in tents for 10 years. The UN offered to build concrete homes, but the Palestinian refugees did not want to have these homes , as doing so would be accepting their fate. Therefore as a compromise they agreed to the concrete homes under one condition . There will be no roofs . If they lived in a roofless house , they could still believe their living situation was temporary. Time passed , and they agreed to have roofs. Despite this, hope continues.
All the children we passed were fascinated by us foreigners and were quite friendly, speaking English with handshakes and hellos.
As we walked , we saw images of Palestinian men, many who were activists that are imprisoned. If the image is black and white, it means they were murdered in that exact spot.
I asked one of our guides if he ever traveled outside of Palestine . He said he had gone to numerous countries in Europe. I queried his favourite place in the world, he said “here.” One questions why? It’s ugly, inhumane, and filthy. But this individual has created an organisation encouraging volunteerism with his people. Aida is familiar, this is his land, all he knows is here. Why abandon his loves?
My husband asked our guide if he ever met the elusive artist Banksy. He’s a mystery, his identity is not known to anyone. He replied “no but if I ever meet Banksy. I would shake his hand. I think he’s a saint for bringing his work here and this hotel, if it wasn’t for him you may not have come here.”
At the end of our tour, our guide said we are not tourists, we are not Americans , we are humans. We are friends. His hope was we share their stories with others, and so I share this with you.
Banksy’s most recent work was completed December 2017, the day his alter-nativity play premiered next to his hotel. It was a scene with two angels, an interpretation that it will take the work of God and angels to tear the wall down and finally bring peace.
Walls are controversial even in theory, but it’s a different experience to walk the path of the locals who live this everyday. For a moment to feel that we were threatened due to simply being below the guards was frightening. I can’t imagine facing it daily. There are some Palestinian workers that have the rights to work in Jerusalem, but to do so they must fall in line on foot every morning for 4-5 hours to get to their job which is less than 100 meters away. They face humiliation and endless waiting standing to simply work for money to feed their family.
The Walled Off Hotel brags to have the world’s worst view . And it does.
Coming here I understand the depth of Banksy’s work more. I have gotten a small glimpse of the ongoing Israeli and Palestinian conflict. It has broadened my perspective and experience of humanity .
I listened to other guests in the lobby staying here from all over the world. They were sharing their love for Banksy, saying they would not stay in this area if this hotel was not here. It’s not beautiful here, it’s quite the opposite. But it is still a must see, it’s a must do.
We can’t continue to live our lives looking there other way. We must open our eyes to how people are still currently living. Of course an experience like this reminds you how to appreciate your own life.
Other than that , I am not sure what the next steps are past this . Perhaps it is simply to share knowledge with others, encourage conversations and new perspectives.
Tomorrow we head to the church of the nativity and later in the week Jerusalem. It blows my mind that this sacred and holy land for several main religions has so much discord. Generation after generation of conflict . It makes you want to cry out to God in frustration…why???
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”-Martin Luther King, Jr.
A recent piece of the refugee camp area:
A peak into the Alter-nativity documentary collaboration with Danny Boyle and Banksy is below
Check out a Rick Steves lecture on the area
Originally published at itonlytakesasmile.com