Banksy's Art hotel in Bethlehem
The Walled Off Hotel
A hotel next to the wall dividing Israel and Palestine? With views of watchtowers? Which is also a museum? Is this a joke? Absolutely not, my friends. The Walled Off Hotel is a genuine art hotel with fully functioning ensuite facilities, designed by Banksy as a place to stay on our trip through the Holy Land, as well as an invitation to reflect, and an artistic delight.
“Tears are streaming down my cheeks”, says my Argentinian friend and travel buddy when we get close to the base of the wall. We are in the city of Bethlehem, Palestine, and after having watched it from afar for several days, we have decided to approach it up to its base. Its size is impressive. But what brings out the emotion in my friend –and me as well—aren’t its dimension, but what it stands for. We walk along the wall and watch its numerous graffiti’s, a symphonic chaos of messages, the tone ranging from humoristic (“Make Hummus, not walls”) to the crudest complaint about the conflict, which the Israelis and Palestinians have suffered for hundreds of years. We turn the corner and find ourselves at a singular building. At the entrance, a primate dressed as a bellman is carrying some suitcases and makes the gesture of ringing the bell to open the door for us… What the hell is this? The neon lights on the façade answer our question: The Walled Off Hotel.
What do we look for in a hotel when we travel? This list depends on the priorities of each individual traveler, but we all agree that the list should contain its position, its comforts, facilities and services, its views… What’s certain is that, normally, we don’t look for a hotel at the foot of a gigantic wall.
The wall is a military structure 700 kilometers in length, constructed by the Israelian government to separate the Palestinian territory from the Israelian. Depending on who you ask, they will tell you it’s a vital security element or an apartheid instrument. Be that as it may, it is undisputed that this is a controversial construction with a dramatic impact in the lives of many people.
So why did Banksy decide to build a hotel here, of all places? Well, we would like to ask him, but, as you probably know, Banksy is not the most approachable of artists. So here’s our theory.
Since the beginning of time, we have used all kinds of mediums to plastically or artistically express our concerns: from the walls of caves to the screens of our tablets we have gone through clay, wood, fabric, stone, metal, paper.. and walls. Lots of walls. And it’s those walls that have been the medium for the artistic expression of artists like Banksy: graffiti artists. Graffiti is a way of freestyle painting, normally performed in urban spaces, that is known for its illegality and its satirical, humoristic or critical character. A tone that Banksy mixes like no other in different pieces around the world; and some of the most celebrated pieces have been in Palestine.
“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing”, says Banksy in his book Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, “and even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.”
The expression of the most anonymous thinkers. Art as a form of denunciation. Do the hotel and its location make sense, or not?
“And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss”
One of Banksy’s most famous pieces decorates the headboard of the bed in one of the hotel’s rooms, on which an Israelian and a Palestinian soldier with a kufiyah are having a pillow fight. Sleeping in one of the rooms of this hotel is like sleeping in a tiny museum. You will literally be sleeping in residential works of arts made by Sami Musa, Dominique Petrin or Banksy himself.
Practically all rooms have views of the omnipresent wall riddled with graffiti, and the true exhibitionists can expose themselves to the views of the watchtowers. And yes, all of them have a fridge, Wi-Fi, radio, a personal safe, and air conditioning.
Those travelling on a tight budget can find a room from 60$ per night in the dorms with bunk beds, equipped and decorated with the remains of a military Israeli barrack. Without luxury, but with a locker and shared bathroom (and earplugs are available too).
On the other side, the presidential suite is designed for up to four revelers, and is equipped with a library, a home cinema, a rooftop garden and of course original artwork. The big bath is filled from a bullet-riddled water tank and offers the occupants a complete set of Dead Sea bath minerals. In short, like the hotel itself says: “This palatial suite is equipped with everything a corrupt head of state would need.”
In 1917, Great Britain left Palestine, and the piano bar is themed as a colonial outpost from those days: languid ceiling fans, leather bound couches and “an air of undeserved authority” characterize the hotel. It’s the perfect place to have a cup of tea and some pasta while admiring some of the most interesting pieces of art the hotel has to offer.
And of course, everyone can agree that a piano which plays itself deserves an honerable mention.. right? “Our remote-controlled mechanical baby grand has been programmed with a bespoke score of contemporary arrangements”. And not only that. Every day, starting from 7 p.m., the piano plays back a concert recorded exclusively for the hotel by artists such as Jarvis Cocker, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Flea or Hans Zimmer. It doesn’t surprise us at all that Brian Eno recently chose this hotel for a musical retreat. Can you imagine staying at the hotel and meeting such a distinguished artist at the piano?
MORE THAN A HOTEL
The Walled Off Hotel is a totally independent business financed by Banksy and run entirely by Palestinians. The objective is to break even because the profits are meant for funding local projects.
A good example of that is the art gallery; a space run completely independent from the hotel which serves as the largest platform of art in Palestine dedicated to local artists. Many of the most notable artists, such as Suliman Mansour and Nail Anani, have artworks on display, but there is also a space dedicated for upcoming artists.
As for the museum, it’s exclusively about the wall’s biography. The pieces in the collection have been compiled in collaboration with Dr Gavin Grindon of the University of Essex, and emphasize the variety in register and testimonies.
And since the hotel has no televisions, you cannot miss the bookshop. Residents can borrow selected items for a small deposit.
Both the museum and the art gallery are open to the public daily from 11 am – 7.30 pm. The piano bar is open every day from 11 am – 10 pm.
And of course, everyone can agree that a piano that plays itself deserves an honerable mention.. right?
What do we look for when we travel? It goes the same way it goes with hotels: Every one of us has a list of our own preferences and priorities. But surely, the trips with the capacity to change our lives or the way we see and experience the world, in whatever way and form, are the trips every one of us remembers. In this sense, this hotel is indispensable. As the management points out: “This place is the center of the universe – every time God comes to earth, it seems 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.”
Now you know. When you pack your suitcase for your next trip to Palestine, don’t forget to pack your spray paint in your favorite color to leave your mark on the wall after the experience. Just try to make sure your message isn’t trivial… and remember Picasso’s wise words: “Art is the lie that enables us to understand the truth”.