Ratting out Banksy in the West Bank

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Israel / The West Bank

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Sweaty and flecked with dust on the edge of Bethlehem, I rounded a blind corner of the concrete wall dividing Israel and the West Bank,

“Lady no, don’t go there alone.”

A bearded sea lion of a man strode past the stream of boys selling fruit and Coca-Cola at the holy town’s frenetic checkpoint. I stopped scrambling among the rubble where I had been photographing the murals, the restaurant menus, the angry swear words scribbled across concrete.

“What are you looking for?” He asked, shielding his eyes from the sun.

I was looking for Banksy. Back at high school in Scotland in 2005, I first saw the 425 mile-long wall featured in a glossy Sunday spread about the street artist. Parts of the story stuck with me, such as when an armed Israeli soldier came up to Banksy as he graffitied part of the wall:

Soldier: What the f*** are you doing?

Banksy: You’ll have to wait until it’s finished.

Soldier: Safety’s off.

Being young and foolish, that dark glamour excited me. I thought Banksy must be powerful and mad and brave. I told the man.

“Ah, I know Banksy. I’m Khaled, I have a taxi. Great price with me. Come.”

The price Khaled offered was too high, but it was my last day in the West Bank and no other Palestinian I had asked had heard of the Bristolian. This wasn’t exactly a surprise. Banksy’s work bears no resemblance to Palestinian culture, his work is very much for Western eyes. Take the stencil of a boy and girl peeling back the separation wall — it shows a very Thomas Cook ideal of paradise, a palm-fringed tropical beach with the children painted in the style of a British seaside postcard from the 1930s.

We hopped into Khaled’s taxi and drove away from the bustling checkpoint, past miles of graffiti which scars the wall red, black and green — the colours of the Palestinian flag. More candyfloss offerings came from international artists like Blu who don’t live behind a wall, but get to travel the world. The concrete was covered in colour, the work of hundreds of people. Had everyone with a spray can been held up at gunpoint, like Banksy said happened to him?

First stop — Banksy’s Dove of Peace and his picture of a little girl frisking a soldier. But this was not the separation wall. This was the side of a souvenir store facing one of the town’s main hotels.

Banksy said he painted the wall to encourage tourists to Palestine. In Bethlehem, there are coach loads of moneyed tourists holding on to one another in shuffling tour groups. They’re shuttled in from Jerusalem each day to view the birthplace of Jesus, then swiftly taken back to their Israeli hotels and air-conditioned restaurants. Not that I can judge, being driven past the locals’ crammed minibuses in a private taxi, because paying a driver 10 quid an hour meant nothing to me.

Point is, tourist dollars are rarely spent within the West Bank — everything is included in the tour price at the Israeli travel agents’. And the idea of anyone visiting the West Bank with the main purpose of viewing Banksy’s work is a joke, especially when he may have exaggerated the dangers of being in West Bank by saying that he was held up at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers. If there were fewer scaremonger stories like Banksy’s, visitors would be more likely to visit the West Bank independently, giving more money to the struggling economy.

We got back in the taxi and drove along hot sandstone streets to the outskirts of town. Khaled stopped the car and we looked out to the Negev desert and the modern condos of Har Gilo, a Jewish settlement just over the wall. The wall here was bare of paint, and all the more ugly for it. Here it wasn’t disguised as “the world’s longest gallery of free speech and bad art” (Banksy). It showed the wall for what it really is — an apartheid among the olive groves, scooping up Palestinian land and aqueducts, dividing communities, businesses, schools, crops and families into 16 isolated enclaves.

We continued driving for a while, talking about Khaled’s son who was a medical student at Manchester University, before stopping abruptly at a quiet petrol station. Confused, I followed Khaled’s instructions and we went round the side of the building.

On the side of the wall was one of Banksy’s most famous paintings, a man violently throwing a bunch of flowers. The picture that helped sell about a quarter of a million copies of Banksy’s coffee table book, Wall and Peace, RRP £20, is a mural on the side of a dusty petrol station. Some wall.

Khaled said, “I can’t understand why you want to see this. Why does this man like Israel?”

“He doesn’t.” I spluttered, “He likes Palestine.”

“Then why does he draw us as rats?” He said, referring to Banksy’s stencil of rats catapulting stones. “We are proud people.”

To the locals who know of him, based on his artwork it can seem like Banksy is insinuating Palestinians are rodents. Not cool, especially when children in the West Bank have reportedly been killed by soldiers for throwing stones. It’s understandable that Banksy’s rat stencil was long ago erased by Palestinians. Due to his work being painted over, today it looks like there are only three Banksy pictures remaining in the West Bank. That’s not much of a tour if Banksy’s intention really was to encourage visitors to the West Bank. That’s not much to look at if you want to see more than a painting on the side of a petrol station, the side of a souvenir store.

The Banksy artwork which angered locals the most was of a donkey (representing Palestine) showing its papers to an Israeli soldier. Calling someone a donkey can be highly offensive in Arab countries.

“We are not small people,” continued Khaled, “Why is Palestine the stupid donkey?”

Stupid donkey. Couldn’t cultural sensitivity have been part of Banksy’s work, while still appealing to his Western audience?

Travel is scary.

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Travel is scary because it forces you to look at yourself. Travel means you can no longer say, “If only I had the time to write that book, to become the photographer I want to be.” Now you have all the time in the world, and if the words and pictures still don’t come, you’re going to start feeling pretty uncomfortable.

Pico Iyer, on living in Japan (or anywhere foreign).

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“A large part of being here comes, I think, from the enforced simplicities that accompany a very foreign life. Living far from anywhere, without a bicycle or private car, I conduct my days, nearly always, within the boundaries of my feet; living without newspapers or magazines–and a television most of whose words are modern Greek to me–I can be free, a little, of the moment and get such news as I need from the falling leaves, or the Emerson essays on my shelf. Living in a small room, moreover, prompts me to be sparing, and to live only with the books and tapes that speak to me in ways I can respect. And not knowing much of the local tongue frees me from gossip and chatter and eavesdropping, leaving me in a more exacting silence…being in so alien an environment is the first step towards living more slowly, and trying to clear some space, away from the world ever more revved up.”

Pico Iyer, The Global Soul

Alternative Amsterdam

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Holland

Amsterdam‘s winding canals and leafy streets weave you aimlessly round a city that varies from fun and seedy to quirky and cool with each turn. What does not change is the buzz created by the Dutch who cycle, eat and flirt on these cobbles. This city is lively, and it’s catching.

Alternative Amsterdam

DAMRAK

As you exit the cavernous Centraal Station onto Amsterdam’s main avenue, Damrak, you may wonder if you fell asleep on the train and woke up in Buenos Aires. Steak houses abound, and if you have visions of Amsterdam being all elegant tall-houses leaning into one another then this first impression of the city is bound to disappoint. The only things swaying into one another are the drunken stag parties, but if you see Damrak as a bit of fun then it will be. Buy a silly clog or a ticket to the sex museum. Amsterdam does not take itself to seriously, and invites you to loosen up along with it.

THE  JORDAAN

Just off Damrak, the Jordaan district makes me want to do a little happy dance. Quaint but cool, this is a lovely area where you never need to know the time. The Notting Hill of Amsterdam, it has it all. The myriad of canals meander around handsome houses, drawing you past windows displaying Mexican kitsch (kitsch kitchen, Rozengracht 8-12) and Dutch designers (SPRKMT, Rozengracht 191-93); via antique shops where impossibly smooth owners languor in the doorway over Gauloises. There are also flowers everywhere: on rooftop gardens, in hidden courtyards, on cafe trestle tables, and on designer houseboats.

Street Sign

The houseboats that sprinkle these waterways are a voyeur’s dream. Many should be in Wallpaper* magazine, all floor to ceiling windows and Droog furniture. Some should be in a scrap yard, and you’ll see mannequins giving you the finger from the deck as you meander past. Every boat, however, is both fascinating and envy-inducing.

If you get peckish during the day, snack on golden chips flaked with salt and dipped in thick creamy mayonnaise, bought from a sunny outdoor stand. For the evening, let Bistro Bij Ons (287 Prinsengracht) envelop you into her bosom for a few hours. This place is not trendy, but it is kooky in a way that I love. Chintzy chandeliers sway over pictures of Elvis and ceramic pigs, while the hosts, Esther and Carla, sing along without irony to traditional Dutch music. Nestled in at a tiny table in this candle-lit cavern, you’ll feel impossibly lucky, because as you’re snuggled up in a dark corner, you’ll notice people are constantly turned away from the busy bistro.

THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT

Play a game with the Red Light District and visit it during the day for your first time. You’re about to jump out of your skin, as mannequins start winking and pouting for you from the tiny windows. These women are living dolls.

Street Sign

The area is made up of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam, where everything is in minature: the bricks, cobbles, bridges, alleys – everything. The juxtaposition between the beautiful Oude Kerk, and the smutty peep shows surrounding it is especially startlingly and somewhat sad.

If the Red Light District gets too surreal, slow your mind down with a spliff at Bulldogs coffeeshop. The weed is potent but its traveller friendly and unlike the claustrophobic quarters of other coffeeshops, Bulldogs is spacious. The locals’ coffeeshops such as Tweede Kamer (Heisteeg 6) make you crave fresh air so much so that you run out of the bar bang into a kebab shop window. Not that I would know or anything.

WATERLOOPLEIN

Some say this is a dull old district but there are three great reasons for making the half hour walk from Centraal Station to Waterlooplein: big cheese, big tulips and a little windmill. Yeh sure, your glee over stumbling across this picture of classic Holland is ironic. Sure. Who cares? All travellers are secretly thrilled when they come across de Gooyer windmill (Funenkade 5).

For the big cheese, head to the daily flea-market on Waterlooplein, a huge street filled with market tat. Later, as you stroll back towards the centre of Amsterdam, climb aboard the top of NEMO (Oosterdok 2), the ship-shaped science museum, for free views across the city.

AMSTERDAM NORTH

Take a free ferry from the back of Centraal Station to Amsterdam North, which is a couple of minutes across the water. We went in search of NDSM (TT Neveritaweg 15), a former shipyard that facilitates hip young things with workshops so that they can create great art. To reach this bohemian utopia, take the ferry that goes to your left.

We took the ferry that went straight ahead by accident, ending up in an area that fell somewhere between a sleepy Dutch town and 1957. It was brilliant. We stumbled into some Halal food shops, where we got delicious rolled ‘pizza’ filled with spiced potato, and a rotisserie chicken for a pittance, before heading toward the park, where the tiny ducklings nearly killed me with their cuteness.

Sir Walter Raleigh once said,

‘Romance is a love affair in other than domestic surroundings.’

But at the beginning of a romance all you can dream of is that maybe, one day, you’ll get to make this person’s coffee every morning and curl up on the sofa with them every evening. I think a city is truly romantic if it helps you along in imagining that domestic ideal. Everyone who visits Amsterdam is sure to find a houseboat that’ll make them sigh,

‘When I’m older I want to live here.’

Amsterdam is the perfect romantic city. At least it was for me. For the first time in my life I actually said those three little words…

I love Amsterdam.

*Originally featured on st-christophers.co.uk