Worst view in the world
10 April 2023
by Jasmina Trifoni
Thanks to the basilica built on the spot that Christian tradition identifies as the grotto of the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem has the primacy of the only tourist destination (mass, in a certain sense) of the occupied territories of Palestine. But – crowded into the buses arriving from Jerusalem, just six kilometers away – the vast majority of Christian pilgrims do not realize that to get here they crossed (moreover, and only for them, in an absolutely painless way) the odious wall which, 810 kilometers long, since 2003 it has marked the border between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. Costing 1.3 billion dollars, it represents the largest infrastructural project of the Jewish state, erected in open violation of international laws and human rights sanctioned by the United Nations. Surprisingly, even for the otherwise rather precise Google Maps app, that high reinforced concrete barrier punctuated by watchtowers and checkpoints simply does not exist. Seeing is believing.
It does exist, however, for the people here and, for a few days, for me too. The high concrete wall, just five meters away, is the view that crushes me from my room. And also from all the others because, with just 25 minutes of direct light a day, the Walled Off Hotel has the distinction of the hotel with the worst view in the world. With a name – and a logo – that are a bitterly ironic interpretation of his New York “colleague”, the Waldorf Astoria, and secretly created in 2017 from a former ceramics workshop, it is the most concrete political gesture of the British artist Banksy, who is also the owner. He defines it as effectively as laconically as follows: “It is an antidote (arranged over three floors) to fanaticism, with limited parking possibilities”. The Walled Off Hotel has nine rooms – including an over-the-top Presidential Suite – and a dormitory with bunk beds stolen from an abandoned Israeli barracks in a night raid. The furnishings and artwork, from classical busts to which gas masks have been added to the “trophy wall” with cameras aimed at the Palestinian people instead of stuffed animals, all original works by Banksy, are in a dystopian colonial style. And they point out that the whole Palestinian question began on November 2, 1917, with the Balfour Declaration, in which the British government promised the Zionist movement a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Although it has an attentive service and its barman is capable of preparing excellent and imaginative cocktails, the Walled Off is not just a hotel: it contains a museum where the history of these places is explained accurately and effectively and an art gallery in which Palestinian artists from the West Bank and Gaza show their work, thus reaching an international audience to which they otherwise would not have access. Banksy – who, as is well known, has made anonymity his hallmark – is not there, and when he comes he does so in disguise, while the staff who work there come mostly from the Aida refugee camp, which is a five-minute walk from here, reached via a path along the wall. The hotel also organizes visits to the camp which, born seventy years ago, has a population density that dwarfs that of Indian slums, running water and intermittent light. And it has the horrific distinction of being the most tear-gassed place on the planet.
If, for the most part, the Walled Off Hotel as well as the many street art works – by Banksy, but also by his other more or less famous colleagues, from all over the world, including the Italian Jorit, who for having portrayed here the face of Ahed Tamimi, the 16-year-old girl arrested for slapping an Israeli soldier, has a lifelong expulsion order from Israel and the territories – they are considered acts of creative activism, much more acceptable than armed struggle, some Palestinians complain that may
make tourism on their tragedy. Banksy himself had told of an elderly Palestinian who had approached him while he was drawing his now famous scene of the Israeli soldier asking a donkey for documents at the checkpoint. “It’s beautiful,” the old man had said. Banksy had thanked him, and he had replied: «I don’t want the wall to become beautiful. Go away”.
Points of view. It is true that there are those who, many kilometers from Bethlehem, exploit the Palestinian question and the popularity of Banksy for purely commercial purposes. Like all Banksy art exhibitions, and related merchandising, which proliferate all over the world, and are all not authorized by the artist, the Walled Off Hotel also has a fake, identical to the original even on the website. This is the Walled Off Hotel in Paris, which welcomes often unsuspecting guests on Rue Fauburg Montmartre. An astute entrepreneur obtained it from an old garage a stone’s throw from the Espace Lafayette-Drouot and since 2019 it has permanently housed the Banksy Museum. Even the unauthorized one, of course.