Banksy’s controversial new hotel and museum in Bethlehem is more than just an interactive art gallery: it also, in the British street artist’s inimitable style, lays out the history of Palestine.
By Dalal Erakat
“Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.” These are the words of Saul Bellow, the late Canadian-American writer. They resonate today in Palestine, in the midst of chaos and between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, at Banksy’s new hotel and museum.
As you walk down Caritas Street, your eyes will see a dead end: the huge separation wall stands tall, and runs so far along Palestinian land that you won’t be able to see where it ends. This scene will only bring fear, pain and a feeling of deadlock. As you look to your left, you will be surprised to see a “chimpanzee” carrying a suitcase and holding a bell in his right hand. You will then spot the doorman, dressed in an appealing British style. On the walls of the old building, you will start to take in the drawings and flowers covering the façade of The Walled Off Hotel.
As the door opens and you pass through the velvet curtain, you will find yourself in a lobby with beautiful chairs. You will imagine yourself in a haunted house with a black piano playing music by itself.
As you look up, you will notice baby angels flying around wearing gas masks, protecting themselves from suffocating teargas. This image transports us back to the streets, to our attempts to flee Israeli teargas. And you will stop at the dove of peace arrested in a white cage near the door, suffering all kinds of intimidation; this is the image of Palestinian freedom behind bars.
As you approach the museum, you will blink at the joy of kids swinging on a huge carousel attached to the top of the surveillance tower installed along the illegal separation wall, smiling in their search for freedom. You will then pass millions of dollars’ worth of portraits until you arrive at the museum’s starting point, which will take you back to 1917 — where Lord Balfour himself sits behind his nice wooden desk, signing the declaration which marks its centenary this year.
Dear readers, here Banksy starts telling the story of Palestine, from Balfour’s office to a rich introduction to Israeli martial law, accompanied by an audio-visual presentation witnessing a hundred years of facts. Surrounded by all sizes and colors of banners welcoming you to Palestine, you will find yourself in the era of the separation wall; in order for the visitor to comprehend the situation, a screening of the movie “Five Broken Cameras” explains the scenes of land, olives, bulldozers and then the creation of what are known as settlements, or colonial installations. Call them whatever you want, the fact is that they robbed the land.
One meter away, you answer the phone attached to the wall: “This is the Israeli officer giving you 5 minutes to evacuate your house, the Israeli forces will bomb your home.” Now you are in Gaza, and you will pass the remaining rubble, the injured children, the devastation and the stolen human lives. That moment will throw you back to summer 2014, and you will remember two years of destruction and deep pain.
The visit does not end here. As you walk out of the museum, you will pass by bookshelves loaded with books; suddenly, the shelves move, a hidden door opens, and you will think you are in the haunted house again, or perhaps in Buckingham Palace in London.
Going upstairs and entering the bedroom, your emotions will be confused as you take in the beauty of the colors and finely-designed leather curtains, while your head thinks back to the Israeli jail and to the unfairness of the reality we live in.
In another bedroom, you will see a “broken” television screen with CNN broadcasting breaking news from our part of the brutal world. On the walls, more paintings reflect oppression and hope at the same time.
One floor up in the hidden hotel behind the bookshelves, you will enter the hotel’s suite bedroom; in the middle is a beautiful jacuzzi. As you step nearer, you will see holes in the container from snipers’ shots, and the water will start to leak through them.
In a guestbook, I expressed my pride in this museum — this is the Palestine that we need to promote, using culture, art and facts. Thanks to artist Wissam Salsaa, the Palestinian who partnered with Banksy, the scenes linger on in your mind long after the visit — and one visit is not enough, for the hotel is packed with details.
This is an open invitation to go and experience The Walled Off Hotel, telling the story of Palestine. You will not be disappointed.
Dalal Erakat, is an assistant professor of Diplomacy & Conflict Resolution at the Arab American University and Birzeit University in Palestine. She writes a weekly column with Al-Quds Daily Newspaper, and has a PhD in Public Administration from Paris I Sorbonne, an MA in Diplomatic Studies from Westminster University in London, and a Bachelor of Political Science from the University of Jordan.