I woke up looking forward to my venture into Bethlehem. I had been in Jerusalem for 3 days now and after several walking tours and meetings with state officials, I was looking forward to experiencing something more.
Before visiting Jerusalem, I was very much like the average American traveler and their first time in Israel. I knew about its significance religiously and I knew a lot of the struggles politically. I also knew whatever was already shared online; that it was beautiful and exciting and a wonderful place to visit.
What I didn’t know much about was what laid on the other side, in the West Bank. In fact, what I did know was shaped by American discourse and that narrative told me that this was a place of danger. Terrorism stemmed heavily from these parts, as did the terrorists themselves. In talking to anyone at home about my visit to the West Bank their first question was, “Is it safe?”
Needless to say I felt ignorant, and as wonderful and hospitable as everyone in Jerusalem was, I wasn’t going to get the answers I wanted there. I needed to go for myself. Thus, deciding to get on the public bus into Bethlehem was an easy choice. Many travelers have crossed over endless times to explore areas such as the Church of Nativity – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Grotto of the Nativity, the Dead Sea, and Jordan, just to name a few. There are endless tour groups available for these trips. But Banksy’s opening of Walled Off Hotel, located right along the controversial West Bank wall has brought travelers closer to some of the harsher realities of the area. In fact, while I was there, buses loaded with tourists would stop just across the dirt road next to the hotel and stay long enough for spectators to snap shots and pose next to the bell boy monkey installation right at the entrance of the hotel, before quickly loading up again and driving off to other major sites.
I wasn’t on an organized tour. I love tours, but I wanted to visit without the filtering of anyone else’s narrative.
I boarded the bus (you can take bus 21 from the Damascus Gate bus terminal in Old Jerusalem to Bab ez-Zqaq, near the Church of Nativity, or bus 231 to the Bethlehem Check Point) and I got off sooner than I was supposed to but I was easily able to get a taxi to take me to the hotel.
Our bus passed by a few large red signs along the road, too quickly for me to read them. I would later find out that they were warnings to Israelis about the dangers of entering Palestine. Getting off too soon forced my friends and I to walk a few blocks before we found a taxi. I could see people staring at us. While this made one of my friends especially nervous, I simply smiled and would give a small nod of the head or a slight wave of hello, both of which were reciprocated. The area didn’t feel like a place I hadn’t either been in before or visited before, and I didn’t feel I was at all in danger – though the feeling of being lost is never pleasant.
The taxi didn’t leave me right at the hotel because the dirt road was difficult to navigate in a small car. There was a lot of construction happening in the West Bank. News outlets report that Israel is expanding its presence in the area with the construction of new roads, despite UN opposition to increased settlements there.
Coming up to the wall made my heart heavy. It had an immediate effect on me.
I haven’t seen many walls like these in my lifetime. I was only 18 years old and not yet traveling to far away places when the Berlin wall came down. I saw it happening live on television, like most of the world. It felt emotional, but far away. I have seen the wall in the United States that separates us from Mexico. It feels oppressive and isolating. And I have seen the more chaotic barrier that stands between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which I know has been the scene of incredible violence and loss of lives. Standing in front of the West Bank wall, I found myself just staring at it for extended moments trying to grasp the emotion of what it must be like to be forced to one side of it.
I arrived to the Walled Off Hotel earlier in the morning, the tour buses had not yet arrived. An early morning trip is what I recommend for anyone wanting to visit, as to do so while the tour buses are around feels like walking in to the middle of a circus side-show.
I was greeted by Mohammed, the door man, as he stood tall in his elegant long coat at the wait to open entry for me. I asked him if I could take a photo with him in it, and he smiled, “So few people ever ask, but of course!” I felt a bit embarrassed by this and grateful. “What do you think of the hotel?” I asked him. “It is wonderful,” he replied, “and so important.” He opened the door. “Enjoy,” he said, as I walked into what I refer to as an experience.
When it comes to Banksy, I like his work just fine. My husband, the artist in our family, was the one to really open my eyes to him. I am clearly not as hip and cool as he is. Everything I know about the artist, which honestly is not very much, I know because of my husband and in great part my visiting this particular spot was because I thought it would be nice to bring a piece of this experience back home to him. That aside, I entered the space with an eagerness to learn something new, hear the other side of history, see something I wasn’t seeing before – which artists like Banksy are incredibly good at showing.
The lounge, or parlor, replicates the style reminiscent of the British colonialism that once overshadowed these lands. In fact this year (2017) commemorates the 100 years since the British took over control of Palestine, and in effect kick-started much of the chaos in the region today. The tranquility of the gentlemen’s club-style parlor is interrupted by the symbols of conflict displayed throughout.
A walk through the museum, also on the first floor, left me in tears and angry at my lack of understanding of what has happened to so many Palestinians for so long. The museum is small, but impactful. Its collection of home videos, abandoned belongings of those forced out of their homes with only minutes notice, photographs, and personal stories left my emotions heavy, my mind full of questions, and my heart racing. I was left shocked by the segregation happening in the illegal settlements, by the way entire families were uprooted from their homes and land that have been in their family for generations, by the continued energy to protest and fight, by the risks taken by so many ordinary people. The human tragedy of it all so familiar to moments in history before. The repetition of it. The reality of it. The fact that it is still happening. And that we, as an American nation, are so heavily involved and so responsible in many ways.
If you had 30 minutes before your home was demolished, what would you save?
At this point some may be wondering if the whole thing is just one big, ugly, anti-semitic insult. I assure you it is not. What it is, is perspective. It isn’t one that more conservative groups would support or agree to, but it wasn’t at all anything that promoted hate or violence towards any one group or people.
There was narrative and visuals that outline historic timelines and facts. There is literature available in the library. There’s a gallery displaying the beautiful work of Palestinian artists. There is even a gift shop. Not far from the hotel itself is the Aida Refugee Camp, established in 1950, home to about 5,500 Palestinian refugees whose families were displaced from their homes (you can even take a private tour there, or just walk from the hotel).
I needed to process it all. I had so many questions. I sat with my friends and ordered tea. The hotel offers a beautiful, high-end afternoon tea service – again, very English.
I sat at the soft white linen draped table. The soft-spoken, Palestinian server gently placed the delicate china and sweet cakes in front of me. And for a moment, I forgot where I was. But as I sipped my tea and my eyes lifted, my privilege was stripped raw once more. The graffiti wall with calls for freedom, cataloging human struggles and sacrifice dominated the outside space, the images of protest, surveillance, and invasion mingled in with the tunes of Hans Zimmer, Massive Attack, Flea, Trent Reznor and Atticus Rosswere playing from the grand piano.
“Banksy is a genius,” I thought to myself as I sat in the mess that awareness tends to leave us with, the bliss of my ignorance gone.
I left the hotel a bit dazed. If I could have stayed there, I would have but all the hotel rooms are sold out well into the summer. As I tried to figure out the way to the check point back into Jerusalem I was helped by street vendors who through a mix of hand gestures and words I didn’t understand, led me on the right path. The screening process was quick with no one really looking at the details of my passport once it was clear it was American. The bus arrived just as I exited the long, depressing tunnel crossing the border, and I knew I will never be the same.
Before I left Jerusalem, I didn’t feel I would be able to really talk about my experience visiting the hotel and walking around the West Bank. I truly believed any discussion would be deemed too controversial. But since coming home, I have taken the risk of opening up, and have had conversations with strangers and friends. Conversations I would have never had the courage to bring up with my Jewish friends till now. I have met more Jewish and Palestinian people wanting peace and unity and discussion than not, some with very vocal opposition to how their government is behaving, some with very real fears of being accused of being anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, or even worse, of being shunned by their own community.
I have been more aware of protests both here in the states and abroad, not just from Palestinians but from Jewish communities as well speaking up against the settlements and expansion and control of Palestinian territory and human rights abuses. I have had the incredibly enriching opportunity to hear personal, human stories that further inspire me to stay informed and to seek out more than what I hear in the news waves. People have generously sent me books, films, links to articles, and information on various organizations that open my mind to what is really going on and how communities here and in the Middle East are working together for positive change. I was reminded to question everything, that “terrorist” is a label and who the terrorist is depends on what side of the wall you stand on. Most of all, I was again gifted with the riches that travel offers, especially when choosing a path unknown (or at least one that you are unsure about), of opening your mind and your heart and of asking the difficult questions but then also really listening to the sometimes also difficult answers.
It’s a complicated and fragile thing, navigating a space and a topic that is so personal and so emotional to many, and so foreign to me. It’s political and personal, infuriating and heartbreaking. Unbelievable and real. It’s easier to dismiss it as something that doesn’t concern me, or any one who isn’t affected in some way. However, we as a people have a voice in demanding better from our leaders, a voice we shouldn’t allow others into intimidating us to keep silent, while also understanding that knowledge is the only thing that gives us power to do that. Until we realize this, the voice we lift isn’t our own. The image put forth is not who we, or they, are.
This was my experience during my time in one very small part of a much larger country and one that I lingered in because I needed to. Most Palestinians I met, both in the West Bank and in Jerusalem were curious about me as well, and friendly and engaging. I even had moments of deep conversation, from politics to religion in two different occasions. I am even more inspired to revisit Palestine than ever before. In my opinion, a trip to Israel is incomplete without also experiencing a bit of Palestine in the process.
I also wrote about my time in Jerusalem, but I want to leave you with this wonderful video from Nas Daily, a Muslim vlogger, who has done a beautiful job in sharing his culture and his voice, as well as bringing that of others, including those from the Jewish community, through his travel videos. Make sure to check them out!