Two excited crowds gathered in Bethlehem yesterday afternoon, one outside Banksy’s new hotel by the barrier wall, hoping for a glimpse of the internationally famous artist’s latest venture. The much larger, louder group was waiting beside the Church of the Nativity, to welcome a returning local hero, winner of the regional talent competition Arab Idol.
Hundreds of mostly young men and women roared when 23-year-old Yaqoub Shaheen was carried on to the stage in Manger Square. “He’s a Palestinian who shows we have talent regardless of the pressure on us,” said Yasmin el-Ramahi, a classmate of Shaheen’s, from primary school to graduation, and thrilled at seeing him again. Banksy? “Never heard of him.”
Few knew of the British street artist, although several recognised snapshots of his protest art, including a dove in a flak jacket and a girl frisking a soldier. Banksy’s work is more famous than his name, said souvenir shop owner Nabil Giacoman, who does a brisk trade in magnets, postcards and carvings of the artist’s work. Palestinians are grateful for the international attention he has brought their fight for a state and against Israel’s barrier wall. “I like that he shows you how we are suffering, the truth about our situation.”
News of Banksy’s Walled Off hotel, which grabbed international headlines on Friday, had yet to make it a few miles down the road inside the West Bank. That may have been partly because the town was seized with excitement about Shaheen’s return, a free concert and a rare opportunity for untempered celebration.
While Palestinians do not want their fight forgotten, nor do they want to be known only for their troubles. Shaheen, a Christian carpenter’s son who celebrated his win by singing a patriotic song with the Palestinian flag draped around his shoulders, brought them joy and solidarity, they said.
He was carried to victory on a wave of millions of popular votes, many of them from Muslim Palestinians who made up a large part of the crowd waiting to welcome him. “Anyone who represents Palestine in a bright way is a good thing. At the end of the day, we are all one people,” said Mujahid Yahya, a Muslim fan who had travelled for over two hours from Jenin to see Shaheen. “We need someone of this calibre to represent us.”
“The feeling of being Palestine and Bethlehem is worth the whole world,” Shaheen said. “I will travel but I will return home.”
It is a question of both national pride and the economy. Many of the tourists who visit the area to see historic Christian sites arrive on tourist buses from Jerusalem, where they stay and spend most of their money. Some are frightened that the area is too dangerous to stay in or that conditions will be uncomfortable, locals say. They hope that both Banksy and Shaheen might persuade more people to come see for themselves.
Emma Graham-Harrison currently covers International affairs for the Guardian and Observer. She moved to Afghanistan in late 2010 while working for Reuters after nearly six years of reporting from China, initially covering energy issues. She has also worked in Spain and Britain.