The ‘worst view in the world’: Banksy’s answer to the Waldorf, The Walled Off Hotel overlooking Bethlehem wall had hoped to bring tourism and dialogue to the West Bank.
Its 10 rooms got just 25 minutes of direct sunlight a day, but nestled against the controversial barrier wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories, The Walled Off Hotel attempted to offer travellers something more elusive than a luxury destination. A hotel, museum, protest and gallery all in one, its playful yet political appeal was expected to provide a welcome boost in jobs and visitor numbers, as the town’s pilgrim and sightseeing-based economy was ravaged by ever-tighter controls between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Allaying concerns that the venture was an anti-semitic means of profiting from misery, the website explains that it was an entirely independent leisure facility set up and financed by Banksy, and was not designed to be aligned to any political movement or pressure group. Hoping to encourage discourse and breakdown stereotypes, the Palestinian management and staff intended to offer an especially warm welcome to all who came with an open heart. Financially – the aim was to break even, putting any profits back into local projects and supporting local artists.
Israelis are banned from visiting Bethlehem and its famous sites. And although Banksy had chosen a site officially under Israeli military control – meaning it was legal for Israelis to stay there – all the roads to reach it involved an illegal journey through Palestinian-controlled territory. The hotel, a former pottery workshop, had a dystopian colonial theme, a nod to Britain’s role in the region’s history, and the reception and tea-room were a disconcerting take on a gentlemen’s club, where a self-playing piano provided an uncanny soundtrack.
“It’s exactly 100 years since Britain took control of Palestine and started rearranging the furniture – with chaotic results… I don’t know why, but it felt like a good time to reflect on what happens when the United Kingdom makes a huge political decision without fully comprehending the consequences.” – Banksy
The devil was in the details. The fire flickering in the grate glowed under a pile of concrete rubble, a classical bust was wreathed in clouds of gas snaking out of tear gas canisters and, in traditional seascapes, the beaches were littered with life-jackets discarded by refugees. Original Banksy artworks decorated several of the rooms; In one, an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian protester thumped each other with pillows, and the feathers fluttered down towards the real pillows of the bed below. The bookshelves were packed with carefully considered titles – A Room With a View made its home on one, Cage Me a Peacock took residence on another.
A small museum explained the wall, the controls on movement and the troubled history of the region, curated together with Essex University professor Gavin Grindon; “If you are not completely baffled, then you don’t understand,” the presenter of an exhibition video history signed off. At its opening, Banksy had dismissed worries that security concerns would keep people away, pointing out that he had packed out a “bemusement park” in an unglamorous English seaside town for weeks. If they would come to Weston-super-Mare, they would come to the West Bank.
“This place is the centre of the universe – every time God comes to earth it seems to happen near here. The architecture and landscape are stunning, the food delicious and the current situation remarkable and touching. This is a place of immense spiritual and political significance – and very good falafel. We guarantee you won’t be disappointed” the website read, beneath the promise of a Jerusalem syndrome souvenir. Guests were encouraged to exercise common sense during their stay, which meant no access to “the rooftop without prior permission from the Israeli military, aggressive drunkenness or loud public nudity is not encouraged; and under no circumstances should anyone shine laser pens at the army watchtowers.”
“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. Painting the wall is not ‘not’ legal. The wall itself remains illegal under international law. Some people don’t agree with the ethics of painting the wall and argue anything that trivialises or normalises its existence is a mistake. Then again, others welcome any attention brought to it and the ongoing situation. So in essence – you can paint it, but avoid anything normal or trivial.” – The Walled Off Hotel
The reaction to the hotel as a work of art and social intervention had always been mixed. Critics have argued that such a building profits off tragedy, and is a case of war tourism. Palestinian artist and activist Rana Bishara had criticised the initiative for commodifying the Israeli separation wall, while the real wall remained a source of oppression for Palestinians. Bishara also expressed concern over the potential dehumanisation of socially disadvantaged areas like the West Bank due to “dark tourism” or “tourism of suffering.”
Nonetheless, there was also some evidence to suggest that the hotel had brought more awareness to these areas, in turn giving a platform to those directly affected by the conflict. Tours could be arranged with local guides and offered a chance for their stories to be heard: “tell our stories to all your friends back home, the world needs to know.” The surreal commercial absurdity of its nature further emphasised the realities of its context.
Banksy’s murals on the separation barrier included a series of works depicting a Banksy angel embracing an Israeli soldier, a mural of a girl clutching a group of balloons floating over the wall, Dorothy of Wizard of Oz being searched by an Israeli soldier, a peace dove wearing a bulletproof vest, two cherubs using crowbars to pry apart the wall and the famous “Flower Thrower”. The community responded and soon replica Banksy merchandise and further tours had started popping up. A symbol as well as an enforcer of segregation, the wall was in some small way given new dimensions, if only for a brief moment in time.