Arriving at the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, Palestine, you’re immediately presented with the by now almost iconic bell boy monkey piece which sits outside the main entrance and might, in any other situation, serve as the main indicator that everything here was not what one might expect from a normal hotel. In this situation, though, with the towering imposition of metres of solid concrete wall immediately adjacent there are clues beyond just this initial simian hint.
The Walled Off Hotel (and I’m embarrassed at how long it took me to get the Waldorf punnery involved in the title) is legendary street artist Banksy’s latest commentary on the Israeli occupation of Palestine – an issue he has been engaging with for over a decade since his work first appeared on the wall this hotel now stands beside. A wall that the Israeli government has claimed is necessary for security but which has divided Palestinians from their land, each other, and often their jobs. In this context the normal playful insights of Banksy’s work have either taken on a new depth or been inappropriately insensitive to the conflict they interact with, depending on who you speak to.
Evidence of divided opinion exists in relation to the this latest engagement, too, with critics accusing Banksy of attempting to commodify the very real and ongoing military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and others praising his willingness to use his international profile to highlight the situation. Having strong connections to Palestine myself, through the years I spent working in Nablus and the relationships I maintain there, I was somewhat torn between these two interpretations myself but eager to experience it with an open mind.
The lobby is designed to impact on you as soon as you walk in and it does that job brilliantly. At first glance it’s a quaint, elegant hotel lobby in quite a traditional style. It’s only as you stand there a few moments you notice the quirks and identifiably Banksy oddities. The CCTV cameras protruding from the wall in place of hunting trophies, the cherubic angels reaching for oxygen supplies hanging over the self-playing piano and the framed image of children on a swing carousel actually shows an Israeli military watchtower as the central pillar. Comfortable seats face full length windows that open directly towards the wall that gives the hotel its name. From here the owners claim you can enjoy “the worst view in the world”.
The rooms at the Walled Off hotel are scarce. Each individual room requires a sizeable deposit in order to stay there, so as to protect against theft or vandalism of the much coveted Banksy originals with which they’re decorates. Unfortunately my meagre salary couldn’t stretch to such an extravagant expense and so I spent the night in the dorm room, for which the deposit is waved. The dorms are designed very deliberately to look like Israeli military barracks, a particularly innovative and creative wink to the militarism bedded deep within much of Israeli society by the mandatory military service of its young citizens.
Attached to the hotel is a museum and this, to my mind, is the highlight of the entire place. It’s here, using a mixture of media and design, that the story of the wall next door and the occupation it represents, is told. With historical context and memorable imagery, this small museum strikes the perfect balance between informative, engaging and emotive. It is cynical and biting as a voiceover informs you that following a UN Security Council resolution of course all illegal settlement building stopped immediately. At the next moment it is touchingly poignant with Banksy’s tooth for a tooth display bringing home in very real terms the asymmetrical nature of this decades old “conflict”.
This museum, along with the gallery upstairs showcasing Palestinian artists in revolving exhibitions show that the idea behind this place really was to create something more meaningful than a novelty night at a street artist’s latest one liner. There’s a sense that this place wants those walking through it to enjoy the innovation and artistic endeavour but to also dig deeper. To critically engage with the occupation around them and not just mine it for likes through filtered Instagram moments.
Which is why it’s so disappointing when it doesn’t get it quite right. One wonders if the knock on consequences were fully considered in putting this hotel here. The day trippers for whom the Banksy hotel might become just another stop on their way to a selfie in front of the church of the nativity and a return home without consideration of what the checkpoint they passed through on their way back to Jerusalem really means. While walking along the road to Beit Sahour with the good friend who accompanied me to the hotel later that night we spotted an interesting spraypainted piece on a wall that caught our attention. “It’s not a Banksy, if that’s what you’re thinking” quipped a Palestinian friend and Bethlehem native, already clearly cynical of the street art tourism.
The shop next door to the hotel, and associated with it, perhaps goes a step too far as well, advertising spraypaint, stencil design and ladder hire for those to leave their own mark on the wall. Is this one step too far in selling dissent as a product or is Banksy lampooning even that trend? If we assume the latter, how many people get it? Certainly it will be close enough to the bone to irk those of us who’ve witnessed the never ending stream of international solidarity tourists who come to Palestine for a month, get tear gassed at Bil’in or Nabi Saleh and go off waxing lyrical about their heroic resistance to occupation while leaving Palestinian people behind to deal with the consequences of their pseudo-political adrenaline chasing.
The ridiculousness of this place is part of why it works, though, and it’s hard to criticise parts of it while finding amusement in others. My favourite anecdote from my short stay emerged as I sat in the lobby before checking out and another guest pointed to the clocks behind the reception counter. In the standard “times of the world” hotel format they display a clock with the time in Jerusalem, London and New York but with a few rats painted on as if to use them like hamster wheels. “The time in London has changed,” pointed out the departing guest, “your clocks are wrong”.
“I know,” came the reply of the friendly receptionist “But none of us want to touch it because it’s a Banksy and we’re afraid to break it”.
I came into the experience with an open mind as to whether this was an exploitative fetishisation of human rights abuses or a stroke of twenty first century awareness raising using all the tools of media and advertising to hold a mirror up to oppression. In the end I’m convinced the intentions lie closer to the latter, even if they don’t always hit the mark. I’m not an artist, nor am I educated in the means through which Banksy delivers his often perfectly measured messages (though I can, and have appreciated them for years). From this perspective it would be ignorant for me to attempt any type of assessment of the artistic value of the Walled Off Hotel, I’ll leave that for others better qualified. But I do know Palestine and the occupation a little better and though its newest hotel flirts a little too closely with the shallow activism-by-numbers that lends no real support to the Palestinian cause, it ultimately shows itself to be firmly on the side of justice and asks its visitors to place themselves similarly. For that reason, I’m glad it’s here.