“YOU’RE MAKING THE WALL LOOK BEAUTIFUL,” he said. “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home.”
According to British street artist, Banksy, this is what a local Palestinian man in Bethlehem said to him in August 2005. Banksy had just tagged a segment of the separation wall that divides Bethlehem in the West Bank from Jerusalem in Israel.
Banksy is famous for his provocatively political images, and the nine tags he made during his trip to the Palestinian Territory illustrate his distress over the effect the wall is having on Palestinian communities. The first continuous segments of the wall were erected by Israel in June 2002.
Supporters of the barrier point out the decreased number of suicide bombings that have claimed Israeli lives since its construction. Opponents list the myriad ways that the wall has affected innocent West Bank families, who in many cases are separated from their land, reliable hospitals, and other family members by a system of increasingly strict and humiliating checkpoints.
The images which Banksy stenciled onto the wall are now considered some of his most iconic work, and include a little girl being lifted from the ground by a bundle of balloons, a little boy sitting under a rope ladder that scales the height of the wall, and a number of “holes” that lend glimpses beyond the wall to a tropical paradise.
As an artist, it seems Banksy’s work was the most organic contribution he could make to the issue of the separation wall and Palestinian rights—a way to express his sorrow and anger without having to engage in aggression or protests. It’s impossible to know whether he foresaw the consequences of his visit, or the effect it would have on the West Bank.
His artwork has dramatically increased the visibility of the issues among a younger generation of Western travelers. But this isn’t necessarily a good thing. The amount of attention it has garnered has made it too easy for tourists to feel as though they’re politically engaged. It’s providing an opportunity for passive, rather than active engagement, making a community of Palestinians beholden to a Westerner’s interest in a Westerner’s mural on a wall that’s destroying their lives.
I didn’t know anything about Banksy before my visit to Israel, and first heard his name mentioned by a group of British girls sitting around a guidebook in Abraham Hostel. They were flabbergasted at my ignorance, and convinced me that glimpsing Banksy’s work on the Palestinian side of the separation wall in Bethlehem was an essential element of any alternative backpacking trip to the Holy Land. I was headed to Bethlehem later in the week, and filed this information away.
I visited Bethlehem alone on one of those days of vulnerability that occasionally plague over-traveled backpackers. I didn’t steel myself for the stresses of the day, and my teeth were on edge after a morning of sightseeing in jostling mobs of Christian pilgrims. And after getting lost in Bethlehem’s back alleys on my way to the taxi station, it was also the day that I grudgingly admitted to myself, for the first time, that traveling alone as a woman wasn’t always as “liberating” as I tried to tell myself it was.
I was feeling emotional and disgruntled as I hailed a cab, and asked the driver to take me to the wall. “Ahh, Banksy?” he asked me. He had plastic roses hanging from his rearview mirror, and a photograph of two young girls, his daughters.
“I will take you there.” He chattered on about how many Western tourists come to Bethlehem in search of Banksy these days. “It’s good for my business,” he said, his smiling eyes meeting mine above the plastic roses. He dropped me in a deserted area along the wall, and gave me directions to follow around a couple of corners to find Banksy.
I wandered aimlessly over gravel and piles of broken concrete, the wall to my left. It was plastered with graffiti. “A country is not only what it does, but what it tolerates,” one artist proclaimed. “We are all God’s children,” scrawled another tagger. One of them quoted Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
I never found Banksy, and I’ve never felt more inappropriate for being somewhere in my life. I still cringe thinking back on that afternoon. I was ashamed of myself for not fully covering my arms, for stumbling over gravel and looking for paintings when refugee camps that take volunteers lay a few kilometers away. I felt guilty for being scared of my isolation, for avoiding the eyes of men who watched me from their rundown workshops.
My stomach flopped as a middle aged man grabbed my shoulder and offered to drive me to the Banksy sections of the wall in his personal car. For a small fee. He knew exactly what I was doing there without having to ask. No one else was around. He held his hands out, palms up, waiting for a response, taking a few steps forward. I was ashamed for being scared, for feeling the adrenaline rush of my flight instinct making my feet and hands feel numb.
I thanked him for the offer and marched back to the main road, immediately hailing a cab that whisked me away to the Jerusalem buses. “You see Banksy?” the driver asked with a grin.
“No, I didn’t find him,” I responded. He pulled over. We argued for a few minutes. He wanted to take me back, to show me himself. For a small fee. I told him I just wanted to go back to the bus stop, and sank down into his cracked, vinyl seat. I paid him for the ride as he drove.
A line of cab drivers sat at the bus station, watching as people paid their fare for the trip back to Jerusalem. They saw my blonde hair before I saw them and erupted in a long string of Banksy offers.
“I already saw it,” I lied, climbing the stairs of the bus.
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Emily Hanssen Arent
Emily Hanssen Arent is a writer and traveler who has found a home in Boulder, Copenhagen, and Jerusalem. She is currently a graduate student of Middle Eastern Studies in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she writes, studies, and struggles daily with Hebrew and Arabic. You can follow her @emilyharent.
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