A NIGHT AT THE WALLED OFF
by John Hollister
There is a very special place in the Palestinian zone of Bethlehem. The Walled Off Hotel is the ultimate conceptual artwork by BANKSY, a renowned, anonymous, British street artist. The Walled Off is a play on words meant to imply the elegance of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. However, instead of facing Park Avenue, it claims the worst view on Earth, that of the graffiti-laden, separation-wall courtesy of the Israeli government. This hideous barrier essentially turns the Palestinians into prisoners in their own country.
Upon arrival, you’re greeted by a chimpanzee bellman grasping a valise with clothes spilling onto the sidewalk. This comical sculpture is an artwork in the same tragicomedic spirit that comprises the whole property. A real doorman in a top hat then guides you into a lobby that bears an unmistakable resemblance to a formal English gentleman’s club filled with priceless Banksy artworks. There’s a baby grand piano that plays live performances remotely from all over the world as you enjoy high tea or cocktails. The Walled Off is a place for those who wish to experience more than just a good nights sleep.
There’s a museum dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as an art gallery featuring works by Palestinian artists. A Wall-Mart is stocked with everything you’ll need to spray paint your own creation upon the wall. After being greeted by Amanda, a dark-eyed beauty in a period jacket, I was given my room key and shown to a bookcase. She then directed me to wave the wall-section fob over the breasts of a small statue, unlocking the bookcase to gain access to the upper floor. You feel as if you’re entering a latter-day speakeasy. Deluxe guest rooms are offered at around $250 per night, but there is a military-style bunkhouse that accommodates six and is extremely comfortable at $60 per bed. The rooms all feature Banksy’s artworks. Every employee is Palestinian, and it became clear that each of them was a de facto ambassador for their country. The plight of their people is beautifully expressed in the on-site museum and on a walking tour that is easily arranged at the front desk for a small fee.
My tour guide, Marwan, led me on a journey of discovery that amused, shocked, and dismayed. It began rather innocently walking the wall and enjoying the copious street art that adorns it. Some were political, some tragic, and others downright hilarious. One depicted a huge Donald Trump hugging and kissing a guard tower. Banksy’s latest work can be found high upon the only section of the wall through which you can see daylight. There he had strategically placed two angels with a crowbar trying to pry it apart at the gap.
We followed a path around the guard tower past a large, metal, sliding gate. This is where soldiers have been known to charge out to quash demonstrations. Why bother I wondered, since the wall is double the height of the Berlin Wall? These people could in no way pose any real threat. Atop the wall next to the gate was an odd fixture. It turns out that it sprays toxic chemicals or skunk water onto crowds to clear the space for an impending siege. The gate then rolls open. Then the troops exit, and deploy tear gas and rubber bullets which can be fatal if fired at close range.
As we strolled past, the ground was littered with spent cartridges and rubber bullets. Being an American, I was disturbed by the fact that the cartridges were emblazoned with “MADE IN USA.” It turns out Israel earns billions testing and selling our crowd-control products. Turning a corner, there was a graveyard, framed by that monstrosity of a wall. Marwan’s departed family members were buried here. The area was strewn with empty cans, plastic bottles, and miscellaneous trash that had been tossed down from the guard tower. A discarded, urine-filled two-liter bottle caught my eye. Marwan said this particular insult to injury was a regular practice perpetrated by the Israeli soldiers.
Leaving the cemetery we passed countless shops that were closed because the wall had choked the flow of commerce, and arrived at an archway supporting a giant metal key. Marwan explained that it was a profound symbol for the Palestinian people who had been driven from their homes by Jewish settlers. When this happened, they would take their house keys with them as a promise that they would one day return. It turns out the key atop the archway leading to the refugee camp is the world’s heaviest. After the residents applied to the Guinness Book of Records, they were rejected because it was deemed too political for the publication. These poor Palestinians can’t ever seem to catch a break! A gift shop nearby, owned by a former engineer, now finds himself making a living off of jewelry fashioned from spent tear-gas canisters.
Our last stop was the refugee camp, which is comprised of buildings with too many people living in cramped quarters featuring paper-thin walls. Muslim women being very modest can’t even comfortably have proper relations with their husbands under these conditions. The scene ironically reminded me of the days of the Warsaw Ghetto where the Jews were once sequestered and isolated by their oppressors.
Emotionally spent upon returning to the hotel, I paid Wall-Mart a visit to make my mark on the oppressive barrier. The result was simply the word “Imagine.” My experiences here will never be forgotten, and the people of the Walled Off can rest assured that their message will be carried far beyond these walls.