Jerusalem laid bare: A night at the Walled Off hotel
A most unusual sleepover on the West Bank at an installation designed by infamous street artist Banksy
I’m walking down the streets of Jerusalem with a wheely bag. It’s a terrible decision. There are rough-hewn cobbles, the alleys are narrow and packed with tourists and locals en route from one religious wonder to another. It is beautiful, whitewashed with heat and dryness, and I’m not making the most of it because this bag is ruining my life.
I think longingly of my rented apartment in Tel Aviv. I had spent 10 days in Jaffa, the old district south of Tel Aviv that looks exactly like it is out of Disney’s Aladdin. The turquoise sea lapped languidly against the stone walls of the building I was staying in; my rooftop courtyard overlooked the port of Jaffa. Every morning in the golden sunlight I ate ripe mangoes and figs from the market and watched the sea change from cornflower to turquoise blue.I’m turning 30 tomorrow and I’m lost in Jerusalem dragging my bag around on a mission that some of my friends are calling brave and others are calling stupid. I’m trying to find the checkpoint to Bethlehem, which means crossing from Israel to the Palestinian territories, into the West Bank. The maps app on my phone won’t register Palestine, Bethlehem or the Walled Off Hotel, and there are no street signs indicating where I’m supposed to go. From this side, it is clear that tourists are not encouraged to venture down this path.I’ve booked myself into The Walled Off Hotel, an installation by the infamous street artist Banksy, a dystopian colonial-themed boutique hotel, museum and protest sight.
It is located a few hundred metres from the checkpoint but crossing it, especially at night with a wheely bag, proves harrowing. I’m detained by an Israeli defence force member who shouts at me that I’m not safe in Palestine, something I’ve been warned might happen. I disentangle myself with as little confrontation as possible.
To cross the wall one passes a series of gates and gets funneled down a concrete alley with the wall towering above you. The atmosphere is frightening, tense and hurried. Nobody lingers, makes eye contact or talks.
I emerge on the Palestinian side with a rush of relief, warranted or not. An old man hands me a perfect, huge, ripe peach and says: “Welcome” I feel wildly emotional, unsure if I’m safe or not, and ready to throw the wheely bag in a ditch. I’m a South African girl travelling alone and someone offers to walk me to my hotel. They know where I’m going without asking.I sleep like a small child in a huge bed. In the morning I run along the base of the wall to the market. The wall from this side is called “a feature of a modern apartheid”; from the Israeli side, “a necessary security measure”. All I know is that I feel equally safe and uncomfortable on both sides, although this side is noticeably poorer, and friendlier, probably due to the rarity of tourists.
At the market I eat Bethlehem bagels and ash-baked eggs with Za’atar, perched on a wall while I watch a woman deftly make flatbread on a huge cast iron skillet. The morning is still and cool and I feel profoundly peaceful as I slide quietly from one private decade to another.Back at the hotel I wander around the in-house museum which details the history of the wall, the controls on movement and the history of conflict in this small section of the region. I feel relieved when the exhibition ends with the video presenter saying: “If you are not completely baffled, then you don’t understand.”