A long time ago in Bethlehem…
Actually it was 1999, which is technically a long time ago when you consider that Israel has only been in existence since 1948. That was the year I first set foot in the Holy Land.
For those not familiar with Israel/Palestinian history and considering a Bible tour to Israel, you’re going to be in for a shocker. You might want to sit down for this:
Bethlehem looks NOTHING like the Christmas card photos.
Remember that big wall Trump was going to build? Israel did it 20 years ago. Think of a mashup of The Ten Commandments movie with Escape from New York and you get the picture. A giant 27 foot wall surrounds the city and “deters” Palestinians from leaving the West Bank or going anywhere else without special permission. The 440 mile wall was justified as a means to stop Palestinian terrorism, but has since been criticized by many to be a form of segregation or apartheid. It’s considered to be illegal and has been condemned as a humanitarian violation by the UN. Yet, the wall still stands; and there’s border checkpoints with soldiers to keep the Palestinians from leaving. Many residents born since the wall was constructed have never ventured past it.
Tourists, on the other hand, can enter Bethlehem to visit the holy sites and are unlikely to experience even the slightest hiccup. As long as you have the right license plate on your tour bus, you might not even notice what’s really going on in this holy city.
I’m not here to talk about politics at all. Israel/Palestine is a complicated mess that I’m not qualified to write about, nor would I even have begun this story at all if it wasn’t for the art I photographed on that giant wall; And Banksy.
Banksy, in case you don’t know, is an unknown graffiti artist who creates powerful images that address world problems, environmental issues and war in the form of humorous street art. His work can be found all over the world. I’ve become a bit of a Banksy fanboy, I must admit, so when I heard that one of his works was in Bethlehem, I got my guide to take me directly there (after visiting the place where Jesus was born, of course).
Banksy’s painting is next to a Palestine sign and depicts a dove as a symbol of peace; on closer inspection, the bird is wearing a bulletproof vest with a rifle scope target on its chest. As I took my Banksy selfie, I noticed the giant wall for the first time. Looming above everything else, it was plastered with street art. I soon discovered that there were additional Banksy works on the wall, along with lots of other artists, using their art as a means of showing their frustration and sadness over the current state of their territory. It’s one of the most powerful exhibitions I’ve ever seen.
I followed the wall on foot from where the images first appeared, photographing and videoing these amazing works until I noticed the monkey behind me. Actually, it was really a very tall chimpanzee, dressed as a bellhop at the entrance of the Walled Off Hotel, a sarcastic nod to The Waldorf it seems. The hotel is touted as having the worst view in the world. I loved everything about this place the minute I laid eyes on it. As I walked in, I saw several Banksy paintings on the wall. His trademark rats were running inside the clocks. The work was undeniably Banksey. How was that even possible?
I asked the front desk where they had gotten the Banksy art and that’s when I learned that the famous artist actually OWNED the hotel. Why I had never heard of this place was a mystery. I had so many questions. “Was it a real hotel?” Yes. “Was Banksy there?” No. The hotel has private rooms that range from $300-1000/ night or guests can score a repurposed military bunk bed in a dorm for $70. If I hadn’t been booked elsewhere for the night, I would have checked-in immediately. It was that cool.
The lobby is full of ironic and sarcastic images. Renaissance art pieces have been adapted to fit the theme. A bust of David is surrounded by the smoke of a tear gas can and Raphael’s angels have oxygen masks. Instead of mounted animal heads on the wall, the trophies are security cameras. Two goldfish in separate bowls next to each other, stare angrily through their aquarium glass at their enemy. Subtle, but such powerful statements.
The famous Banksy work of a man throwing a bouquet of flowers has been reworked into a 3-piece framed set. A portrait of Jesus has 3 planes flying over the framed painting and a red laser dot appears on his forehead. Nothing is as it seems. Even the bookshelf is a secret door that requires that the opener knows the method to getting it open. Every corner of the place is brilliant and thought-provoking.
There’s a swanky bar adjoining the lobby that’s full of Palestinian art as well as an additional gallery upstairs. A multi-media museum wraps around the other rooms and gives guests a nice introduction to what all the fuss about borders, freedom and utility control is about. One can’t help but feel that the Palestinians have gotten a raw deal after visiting. Banksy obviously feels the same to have invested in a piece of real estate that’s controversial at best.
This part of town isn’t on the main tourist bus grid and maybe it should never be. Swarms of tourists descending on this place might do more harm than good. On the other hand, maybe the attention might result in a similar fate as the Berlin Wall.
My recommendation is skip the tour bus, get away from the tourist hordes and see if you can’t score a night at the Walled-Off. That’s what I’ll be doing on the next trip.
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