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Banksy's hotel offers dark humor as Bethlehem becomes ghost town

Bethlehem's Walled Off Hotel painted its facade black in protest of US President Donald Trump's peace plan, but the situation is even darker with the coronavirus alert in the city.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — One of the facades of Bethlehem’s The Walled Off Hotel was painted black in February to protest US President Donald Trump’s so-called deal of the century, a peace plan for the region launched last year. Yet as this West Bank city turns into a ghost town after Israel and the Palestinian Authority imposed a full lockdown due to the novel coronavirus, the black wall seems a forecast of the grim days to come. In a humorous tribute to the coronavirus fears, the hotel has placed a surgical mask on the face of the monkey bellhop statue at its entrance.

The original decision to paint the facade black was made Feb. 3 to protest the US plan, explained Wissam Salsaa, who manages and co-owns The Walled Off Hotel along with mysterious British mural artist Banksy, who has been a frequent visitor to Bethlehem since 2007. “The black paint on the hotel’s facade sends the world the message that the US plan is unfair and unjust to the Palestinian people,” said Salsaa.

The hotel, whose name is an eyewink to the luxurious Waldorf hotels, neighbors the separation barrier in the city of Bethlehem, south of the West Bank. Salsaa often points out in his interviews that the hotel boasts the “worst view ever” as it overlooks the separation barrier curved around Bethlehem, with the Israeli camps and settlements in the rear. “The idea behind the hotel is to have the Palestinians’ voices heard and sufferings highlighted,” he told Al-Monitor. 

Political messages are the forte of the hotel jointly owned by Salsaa and Banksy. Among Banksy's 80 works displayed in the hotel, one of the most political — and the best known — is the Scar of Bethlehem, a miniature manger in front of Israel's separation barrier. Unveiled in December 2019 around Christmas, the Scar of Bethlehem is placed on a medium-sized table in the reception area. It depicts Virgin Mary and Joseph, the carpenter, with baby Jesus on the manger in the middle, and a monkey and a cow to their side. The nativity scene is placed below a miniature replication of the separation barrier, the upper part of which is pierced by a star-shaped bullet hole, with Peace and Love drawn in graffiti letters in French and English. Three large, wrapped gifts are placed under the mini-manger.

Longtime friends Salsaa and Banksy began to explore the idea of doing something durable and permanent in Bethlehem for Palestine, Salsaa said. Opening a hotel and turning it into a piece of art had been Banksy’s idea, but it was Salsaa who found the building only 4 meters (13 feet) away from the Israeli apartheid wall. Located in close proximity to the daily clashes, the building was abandoned by its owners during the second intifada in 2000. 

Salsaa rented and restored the building with help from his wife, Rasha, who is an architect. Banksy fed them ideas and filled the hotel with his works of art. 

Inspired by the English gentlemen’s club, the three-story hotel consists of five sections. The lobby and restaurant area is designed in the classic English style with Banksy’s paintings and statues thrown in. The statues of three cherub monkeys wearing teargas masks — a reference to the teargas used by the Israelis when Palestinians protested the construction of the barrier — are on prominent display.

An ancient door in the lobby area leads to the nine bedrooms on the second and third floors. The hallways leading to the guestrooms are all decorated with Banksy’s artworks, as well as the rooms.

Next to the lobby area on the ground floor, there is a museum split into five divisions, each providing key moments of Palestinian history starting with the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The construction of the separation barrier and settlements, the wars on the Gaza Strip and the suppression of the popular resistance in the West Bank are also shown. The diorama of UK Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, who promised the land of Palestine to the Jews, is placed at the entrance to the museum. Many items are on display, including audiovisual representations and the e-gates that resemble the ones installed at the military checkpoints.

There is also the large art gallery where masterpieces by Palestinian artists are exhibited, and a small atelier where visitors are given tools to draw and write on the separation barrier.

When the hotel opened with a big splash in March 2017, the international attention and fame were largely due to Banksy and his secret identity. “The hotel’s success and value are mainly associated with Banksy’s reputation,” Salsaa said. But the initial curiosity developed into a solid customer base. “The hotel [has] hosted more than 300,000 visitors since its opening,” he added.

The Walled Off Hotel seeks to deliver to the world the Palestinian people’s message, because “many of the people in the world are not aware of the Palestinian reality,” said Salsaa. “It is the international media which shapes the image about Palestinians, and this image is mostly disfigured and erroneous. That is why the hotel is trying through arts to make the voice of the Palestinian people heard," Salsaa said, adding that the staff makes a point of informing the visitors about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian history and cause.

“We are focusing on the power of arts to communicate the Palestinian narrative. We managed to achieve such a goal through the multiple activities conducted at the international level,” Salsaa explained, referring to a street play organized by Banksy for the Balfour Declaration centennial in 2017, where children from the refugee camps saw a character playing Queen Elizabeth II apologize by unveiling graffiti that read “SORRY.” 

"That was to stress the need that the UK apologizes for what it has done to the Palestinian people, more precisely for the Balfour Declaration,” he said.

On Jan. 18, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas toured The Walled Off and expressed his pride in this art hotel that expresses the sufferings of the Palestinians in a creative manner.

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