Bethlehem is just a few miles down the road from us. There’s not a ton to see there after you tour the church where Mary is said to have delivered Jesus and after you stock up on all the nativity scenes you’d care to display in your home. But during this past weekend’s visit to the Ye Ol’ Town of Bethlehem, we saw a whole other side.
First a little primer, because everything is so confusing here: Despite being just a few miles south from our home in Jerusalem, Bethlehem is part of the West Bank. Geographically, the West Bank refers to land that is on the West Bank of the Jordan River. Politically, the West Bank is land that belonged to Jordan before the war in 1967, when Israel took control. Religiously, the West Bank is a holy land that people fight over, and while the West Bank (which also contains the towns of Jericho, Ramallah, Hebron, as well as many smaller ones) is home to a few million Palestinians, it’s also home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers who live in neighborhoods that are considered illegal by much of the world. After the second intifada in 2000, Israel constructed a huge cement wall sectioning off the West Bank from Israel, calling the looming barrier necessary protection against Palestinian terrorists. When the wall is completed, it will cover about 400 miles.
To enter and to leave Bethlehem, we have to go through a checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers. Much of the separation wall on the Bethlehem side is marked by colorful and often political graffiti, like the “Make Hummus Not Walls” slogan and two murals attributed to the infamously anonymous street artist Banksy, who supposedly painted them in the dark of night.
Banksy strikes again. He’s the mastermind (or at least a collaborator) behind the new Walled Off Hotel, a nine-room guest house located just a few dozen feet from the wall. The hotel boasts the “worst views in the world,” and I’d have agree: The squat concrete building butts up against the barrier wall, a guard tower, and piles of rubble and rubbish from a torn-up road. The views aren’t pretty, but the hotel is fabulous-looking. It’s creepy and elegant, like a slightly haunted Victorian brothel. The top-hatted and vested doormen stand near a scary monkey statue perched atop a pile of old luggage. I peered in the windows (we weren’t allowed to go inside) and saw a London-eqse bar with rat-adorned clocks on the wall. There’s an outdoor space with a European-style cafe tables and chairs. The talk during drinks inevitably turns political no matter where you are imbibing in this part of the world, but I’d have to imagine its unavoidable when sipping a beer just a few feet from the wall.
Perhaps the best (or at least the most buzzy) part: Banksy has painted murals in the rooms, including one of a Palestinian and an Israeli fighting. With pillows. (Check out the New York Times article and photos).
I tried to pry some information out of the doorman, to no avail. The whole project is hush-hush but reporters and onlookers like myself were milling around this past Saturday. I even heard talk that Elton John was in the vicinity. The Walled Off Hotel supposedly opens for business on March 11. I’m somewhat doubtful it’ll be a real functioning hotel based on what I know of the immense difficulty of building new structures or even renovating in the West Bank, especially so close to the wall. But I’d have to imagine having murals from a famous artist puts the Walled Off Hotel in a position unique to West Bank businesses.
Aside from the cool/creepy vibe of the Walled Off Hotel (and that killer name, seriously, whomever is branding this place is clever AF) there is something unsettling about the place, and that is that it falls into the uncomfortable category of what essayist Leslie James has dubbed “pain tourism.” Pain tourism is when travelers pay to have an experience that is, in essence, built around the suffering of others (visiting a silver mine in Boliva or taking a bus tour of gang sites in South Central L.A., for instance). Am I supposed to check into a trendy boutique hotel, snap a photo of me on a comfy bed beneath a Banksy, and gaze out my window at what is, for many, a symbol of segregation and oppression?
But then again, the other side is so compelling. Turning something ugly into something kind of awesome, maybe creating a venue that invites tourists to stay a while in a town that is usually just a stop-over, and drawing attention to something many would rather not discuss.
I cannot wait to see what happens. And to see the inside of the Walled Off Hotel.
(I updated this post on Sept. 24, 2017 to include the below interior shots of the hotel. Some months ago, a group of friends and I were hanging out in The Walled Off, when the owner invited us to tour all the rooms, and he gave us some inside scoop, but would not reveal the identity of Banksy, with whom he worked closely to start his incredible hotel/art project/social statement).
Other highlights of our weekend jaunt to Bethlehem: We ate in a beautifully-decorated restaurant called Al-Karmeh (located inside the Bethlehem Museum) and took in the excited crowds of locals gathered to celebrate Yacoub Shaheen, a Bethlehem native who just won Arab Idol.
Em in Jerusalem