Art Imitating Life: tourism starts acting up in Palestine

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I’ve had a few conversations with friends about how great it would be if more tourists found their way to Palestine: an old land full of ancient places with familiar names; rotund olive trees grown wonderfully gnarled with time; and fabulously warm hospitality. Sadly, though, Palestine isn’t normally associated with these things, and the culture is seen almost exclusively through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the last few decades. Yet one more terrible consequence of the occupation by Israel of the West Bank is that Palestine is not only squeezed of space but also of the possibility of developing a tourist industry. More visitors would bring not only much needed money into the economy but also help to dispel myths about what Palestine is and what it isn’t, who Palestinians are and who they are not, what people from there want and what they don’t want.

News from here about over there

A recent piece in the Guardian by Emma Graham-Harrison began with this headline: “Don’t believe only bad things happen in Palestine…”. The article described a double celebration in Bethlehem at the end of last week: Yacoub Shaheen was returning to his home town, having won Arab Idol; and a new hotel had opened, owned by British street artist Banksy and called the Walled Off,

“The lodging in Bethlehem is a hotel, museum, protest and gallery all in one, packed with the artworks and angry brilliance of its owner”.

In a short video about the hotel the manager describes it as having “the worst view of any hotel in the world”. It is slap bang next to the wall which separates Israel from Palestine, a wall which in Israel is typically seen as a security barrier against terrorism and in Palestine is experienced as segregation and apartheid. It demarcates a line that many Palestinians can’t cross and that many Israelis don’t want to cross.

Paul Nash, surrealism and seeing for real

On Saturday I went to see an exhibition of Paul Nash’s work, a war artist for both World War 1 and World War 2 and a surrealist painter. This was the day after after I’d seen the news about the Walled Off hotel opening in Bethlehem. It struck me that Nash’s work distorts the world, to reveal more depth and dimension to things we think we know or, equally, that we think we could never know or understand however much we looked. Banksy seems to be using the hotel to show us the world as it is: nothing needs to be changed for us to understand it, but we have to choose to look at it, to commit to seeing it, even when it’s just down the road. Or to be offered a way to notice it, even when it’s staring us in the face.

Good intention, wrong outcome? 

One of Banksy’s aims is that, as well as more foreigners visiting Palestine, the initiative will result in Palestinians and Israelis spending meaningful time together as the latter, lured by the hotel and its artwork, glimpses a whole different viewpoint. Not everyone in Bethlehem is keen on this idea, however, as Darren Loucaides outlines in his recent article in the Independent. Amongst other valid points, he also quotes local artists’ concerns that the conflict is being trivialised by the Walled Off Hotel and by Banksy’s graffiti on the wall – or separation barrier – and that people will come to Bethlehem for the wrong reasons, seeking a Disneyland-style experience.

Paying attention and the power of creativity 

But returning to Graham-Harrison’s point, surely any news that isn’t directly about the brutal details of the conflict is good news; surely, making international headlines through a venture that is artistic and not just political, must be positive?

Yesterday I was talking to a friend who suggested that maybe a revolution, fuelled by art, is being kickstarted right now and that maybe Bethlehem will become a vibrant, creative hub in the same way that Kabul was in the 1960s. This sounds fine to me. Anything that makes the world pay attention to Palestine and invest care, thought, money and good intention – which appears to be what Banksy has done with the Walled Off hotel- seems very good indeed. And it’s time.

Time to create

2017 marks a year of tragic anniversaries for Palestinians: 10 years of blockade and closure in Gaza, 50 years of occupation, and 100 years since the signing of the Balfour Declaration. With this very much in mind, in the UK Chai For All, a band with roots in traditional klezmer, is currently crowdfunding for a venture called Longing Belonging and Balfour which will be a musical theatre production telling the story of the 1917 Balfour Declaration. They state very clearly that the aim is to ‘tell all narratives and to build empathy for ‘the other side’, as well as to engender understanding of what the situation there has to do with Britain here’.

These words on the crowdfunding page state simply and clearly the place of creativity in speaking to and highlighting suffering, fear, insecurity and oppression:

“The Israel Palestine conflict has raged for a 100 years. Political solutions alone have not worked but creative approaches may help tackle hardened hearts and polarized views at least here in the UK”.

Bring on the creative revolution, whatever the possible fallout of any related tourism in Palestine. We need to see the wall – see through it, see what it hides and see what it reveals – for real.


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