Everyone warned me that I should lie, and so I did. Upon arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, I carefully rehearse the untruths I had devised on the plane. I repeat them slowly and quietly before reaching the stern-faced border control officer where they fall smoothly from my lips, landing on the counter between us. They keep on falling until she is sufficiently convinced that the purpose of my trip is to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem, and that I am a devout Christian. She then grants me passage into Israel. As I walk through to baggage reclaim, passing by the walls plastered with advertisements in Hebrew, I reflect on exactly how it is that I find myself here.
I lived in Bristol – Banksy’s hometown – from 1998 until 2014. Within this sixteen-year stay, Banksy went from being a local hero to an international celebrity. I remember the days when the Bristol City Council would remove his work overnight, instead of protecting it as they do now, or allowing him to take over the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, as they did in 2009. So, when I read that he had set up and financed a hotel in Bethlehem just a few metres from the separation wall – named The Walled Off Hotel and boasting ‘the worst view in the world’ – I was ready to book the flights.
Our family is a politically active one. My maternal grandfather was a Communist who spoke Russian fluently, and dispatched my Mum and her two sisters off to Young Communist meetings in the same way that other parents send their daughters to Girl Guides. My sister and I, in turn, lived on a council estate and went to a school where the amount of pupils who stayed on after 16 was so tiny that we had to study some of our A-Levels in a neighboring school. We grew up well-aware of our working-class status, and the attendant politics. And yet, despite this political awareness, it was not politics that motivated me to visit Palestine; it was this link with Banksy, his fame perhaps serving to smooth down the edges of things – of the conflict, of the struggle – and make them more digestible. If that were really the case, however, then why was it necessary for me to lie at border control in Israel?
Muhammed, a youth worker at Aida refugee camp – one of three in Bethlehem – explained it elegantly, and succinctly: “Palestine made Banksy famous.” Banksy first went to Bethlehem in 2005, and graffitied the buildings he found in the city. He returned in 2007 and began his ongoing relationship with painting the wall. In 2015, he extended his work into Gaza. Arguably, his most famous works have all been inspired by, and executed in, Palestine, and all have brought international attention to the occupation. Therefore, any mention of him, The Walled Off, or travel into the West Bank – although in no way illegal – equals detention and delay at the hands of the Israelis, who are legendary for their strict security measures.
The Palestinian struggle has a too-long history. The roots of the occupation are nested in a 1917 agreement made by the British Lord Balfour. It partitioned Palestine and shared it between the Palestinians and the state of Israel, a newly designated Jewish homeland. During this century of struggle, there have been international protests, solidarity campaigns and political wrangling in support of occupied Palestine. Politicians, journalists, social commentators, and academics have all spoken and written about the issue at length, so how is it that the simple B-word holds so much sway?
It could be that art has a rawness, a power to move people, to wake them up, and to evoke an entire spectrum of emotions that political rhetoric simply cannot do as savagely. There is a beauty in this relationship between art and protest that makes it hard to look away. In an essay written to accompany the exhibition Citizens and States at the Tate Modern in 2016, Nina Power takes this even further, stating that the act of protest itself is an art: ‘Protesting itself might be counted as a kind of performance, a choreographed relation between opponents of a regime and the forces of reaction.’1
The idea of art and protest as a collaborative cross-genre project is easy to assimilate whilst sitting on the terrace of The Walled Off Hotel, sipping a fresh mint tea and viewing the wall. Resistance to it has transformed the wall into the world’s largest, most creative protest banner. Anyone can draw or write on it – in fact, it is encouraged and made accessible through the hotel’s on-site paint shop: Wall Mart. You don’t need to be an artist to take part (clearly, as I screw up my nose reading various stencils that declare: ‘I have mixed drinks about feelings’ and ‘Wenger out’). This means that those who usually frame the discussion, who control the parameters, are shouted down. As Banksy himself puts it in the hotel’s in-house museum: ‘The wall is alive with voices – some angry, some silly, some hopeful, some despairing. To me, this is the wailing wall.’
However, many people – as it’s pointed out on the hotel’s website – do not agree with painting the wall, and argue that anything that trivialises or normalises its existence is a mistake. Here, the question of complicity is raised. Art that decorates that which should be condemned leads to the tricky moral question: how should artists respond to violence without falling into the trap of beautifying horror? Maamuri, who was born and grew up in Aida refugee camp, is one of those who does not agree with drawing on the wall. He says that the messages are all on the wrong side, that the Palestinians know their own struggle only too well – the words and images should be on the other side of the wall, where they would be an everyday reminder to the Israelis. The fact that it has been decorated, that it is even joyful to some degree, is painful for Maamuri.
That is to forget, perhaps, that through the hotel the wall is speaking to people far beyond Israel and Palestine, playing an important role in raising awareness of the occupation. One tourist, who had travelled through Syria to reach The Walled Off Hotel, said – maybe a little boldly –: “I think it will bring peace.” And every night, down in the hotel bar, people mingle with one another amongst bottles of locally brewed Palestinian beer and snacks of hummus and flatbread. They create a scene quite unlike what you might usually find in a hotel bar – of people desperately trying to ignore one another – and instead they talk about art, or politics, or art and politics. Isn’t art just that, in the end: something that stimulates communication? Existing to ‘comfort the disturbed – and disturb the comfortable.’ Banksy uses this quote, by Eleanor Roosevelt, as the epigraph for the hotel’s welcome letter, and as a kind of the mission statement for the entire project. Upon arriving at The Walled Off Hotel, every guest finds this letter adorning their freshly fluffed pillow, together with a mint.
My own relationship with art has always been two-fold. I expect it to explain the world around me, but also the world inside of me. It is to art that I look for an aspirant version of myself, as well as an escape into something more elevated than what the actual world can offer. Indeed, the idea that art can help console those living through cruel and difficult times was an opinion widely accepted amongst the people I met in the West Bank. Where the issue gets thorny is in considering how this might be executed, and the consequences of such. Everyone loves Banksy – the man, the artist – but his celebrity has brought doubts about his authenticity as an activist.
Saif is 24; although he looks older, despite the braces he wears on his bottom teeth. I met him the first night I arrived in Bethlehem when he came running up to me in the street bearing a tray of Kanafeh and telling me I was welcome in his city. He was born in Bethlehem, and leads tours around Area A, a profession he is little suited for, given that his mood swings (understandably) between hopefulness (especially once he learns I am unmarried), anger (when talking about the history of the occupation), and resigned sadness. When we are pulled aside at a checkpoint, he is told to empty his pockets, show his ID, and prove he isn’t carrying a weapon by removing parts of his clothing, all whilst having two guns pointed at him. Once he is allowed to pass, it’s the resigned sadness that hangs silently in the air. Eventually he begins to talk, explaining that he is now used to these quotidian humiliations; they are part of his life, and he is no longer capable of feeling shocked. He used to work at The Walled Off Hotel as a guide, but was let go after a misunderstanding with a tourist, which he doesn’t wish to discuss. He feels, he says, whilst repeatedly hitting the bonnet of his car to scare out the cats that like to keep warm near the engine, that Banksy, as an artist, has done immeasurable good for the struggle. He adds, however, that the hotel’s mission – encouraging people to protest by painting the wall – verges on insulting when the wall is polluted with trivia.
This ‘struggle tourism’ is certainly a distasteful idea. There are hotel guests openly stocking up on memorabilia to sell for a profit back home, and still others who comment on how unexpectedly cold the weather is in Israel. For me, the most poignant comment on the relative success of The Walled Off Hotel as a work of protest art, was left anonymously in the hotel museum’s visitor book: ‘This is not a hotel to sleep in peacefully … Use it wisely; we have had enough of being used!!!’
On the final night of my stay, a local musician, Shadi Zaqtan, plays in the hotel bar. Above his head are falling angels wearing oxygen masks, and a collection of CCTV cameras mounted on wood like animal heads. To his left and right are priceless Banksy originals. The hotel is the fullest I’ve seen it yet, a mixture of guests and locals. Shadi sings a song he has named, ‘Frisk’. At checkpoints now, he explains, the Israeli military use a device that scans the dust on clothing, letting them know where the wearer has travelled recently, be it New York, Armenia, or Madrid. As they scan for your past, the song wonders whether they will soon be able to scan your future, via your dreams. If so, he says, we would all be in gaol; the dreams we hold would make prisoners of us all.
Once back home in Europe, I’m feeling some sort of survivor guilt. After a long sleep, I take a shower and wash my hair of the dirt and dust, the stickiness that most likely contains remnants of tear gas and skunk water, leftovers from the protests that take place every Friday night across Palestine. The mightiness of the situation hits me, keeps hitting me. I think about how everyone there wants you to take photos, to write things down, to document their experience and share it with the wider world. I’ve never felt more like a writer than I did in Palestine; I’ve never felt more responsibility as a writer than I did in Palestine.
And yet I’ve never felt more like a fraud either. The immensity of what art is tasked with achieving in such a sad and serious situation suddenly seemed immeasurable, a feat as unscalable as the wall itself. Could it be that art is ‘sheer wondrous uselessness’2 after all? Yet it seemed wrong to think that all that colour, energy, and hope that I had seen embodied in the hotel and on the wall might come to nothing. Perhaps the answer lies not in asking what art can do, but in reawakening the question of the purpose of art itself. For me, in the end, that means being unafraid to look to art to help alleviate my confusions and sorrows, and provide a way of navigating my way through the many layers and bifurcations that make up the dimensions of existence.
1 Power, Nina. ‘The art of protest.’ The Tate Modern, Tate Etc., 22 Feb. 2016, www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/art-protest.
2 ‘Art for Art’s Sake.’ www.thebookoflife.org/art-for-arts-sake/.