In the West Bank, Israel's security barrier has started to resemble the western side of the Berlin Wall. The Israeli side is bleak and clean, but on the Palestinian side graffiti can flourish. I knew the British painter Banksy had tagged the wall a few years ago, but I had no idea where his stencils were. At first I didn't care -- I was just here to see Bethlehem -- but my taxi passed a stencil I had seen in news reports, a dove wearing a bulletproof vest. So I snapped a picture.
My driver got excited. "You like Banksy?" he said. "You want a tour? I can show you all the pictures."
I had stumbled on one of Bethlehem's new tourist attractions: the unofficial Banksy tour. In the year since he tagged buildings around Bethlehem -- and the three years or so since he painted famous trompe l'oeil stencils of holes in the massive wall around the West Bank -- Banksy's images have become part of the landscape. They even help bring a little money into Bethlehem's tourist economy, which was crushed when Israel built the security wall in 2002. Israel argues that the wall has stopped suicide bombings, which have largely been replaced by regular missiles from Gaza. But Palestinians say their livelihood has been squeezed, and now "Banksy tours" are a moneymaking venture for some taxi drivers.
Ahmed was lean, close to 50 years old, with a crevassed face and a thin salt-and-pepper mustache. He said he'd helped drive "colors" across the border -- paints -- for Banksy when he and a few other artists mounted a project to stencil wall surfaces and buildings around Bethlehem late last year.
"The people on our side like his pictures," he said, "because they can see what he mean" -- and because the artist raised money last Christmas for Palestinian kids through a temporary gallery called "Santa's Ghetto" on Bethlehem's Manger Square.
"Except for two pictures," Ahmed went on, "-- two they washed away. Because they didn't know what it meant. One was a donkey being checked by an Israeli soldier for passport. They didn't know if that meant donkeys also should have papers. They thought this is no good for the Palestinian people, so they clean it off."
In fact, last year a story went over the news wires that locals had painted over the donkey mural because they had felt offended. Irony doesn't always translate into Arabic, and instead of a jab at the Israeli regime of border controls, Palestinians worried it was a joke against them. "We're humans here, not donkeys," restaurant owner Nasri Canavati had told a Reuters reporter. "This is insulting. I'm glad it was painted over."
The punch line is that a BBC correspondent has been riding a donkey across the Holy Land this month, following the route taken by Mary and Joseph according to the Gospel of Luke. He had to replace his animal after Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint refused to let it through. "They informed us," reported the correspondent, Aleem Maqbool, "that our donkey did not have the correct paperwork."
The unofficial Banksy tour has no set itinerary, and no set script. A total of twelve images went up around Bethlehem last year; Ahmed showed me four.
One was a painting of two donkeys bearing cities on their backs, by two artists who had worked with Banksy, Sam 3 and Erica il Cane ("Eric the Dog"). There was also the armored peace dove, which we saw first, and a now-famous image of a girl patting down an Israeli soldier. "The meaning of this picture," said Ahmed, "is that kids stop the soldiers and take their guns. So if you're strong today, not all the time you're strong."
Sometimes his explanations were trenchant; sometimes they were bizarre. Well outside the town we stopped in front of a huge stencil of the "Flower Chucker," one of Banksy's best-known images, on the side of a building that was being demolished. It showed a masked Palestinian hurling a colorful bouquet of flowers. Ahmed said locals had agitated to keep the one wall intact because this image is the best-loved Banksy stencil in Bethlehem. It reminded locals of a bronze angel on a church nearby, he said, at Shepherd's Field. In fact, they called this stencil "The Angel."
"They understand what Banksy is saying," Ahmed said, "because this picture is also in front of the church."
"What, the same picture?"
"The same, yes."
"I can show you."
We drove to a small church outside the village of Beit Sahour, in Shepherd's Field. It's one of two rival locations where a host of angels is said to have sung to shepherds on the occasion of Jesus' birth. It's therefore a destination for pilgrimages and Catholic bus tours. An angel cast in bronze over the church entrance, with its arms raised in a certain posture, seems to have reminded locals or at least local taxi drivers of the Flower Chucker.
Ahmed insisted that Banksy knew about this statue and was quoting it in the "Flower Chucker" painting, and because of this connection to local art and lore, the concrete wall had been saved.
But the statue and painting looked nothing alike.
"Do people really call that Banksy picture 'The Angel'?" I asked. "Is that really the title?"
"Yes. It's a picture of this angel."
"But it's not an angel."
I wanted him to admit that it was a picture of a Palestinian militant. I also wanted to suggest that a picture of a militant throwing a bouquet of flowers was so absurd it worked as an ironic comment on violence in the West Bank.
Ahmed shrugged. "I don't know. People just like the picture."
On our way back toward Bethlehem we passed the towering security wall. Ahmed waved dismissively at the jumble of graffiti. "Kids," he said.
So Banksy's stencils have taken up residence in the West Bank, and the people revere him as an artist but on their terms, not his. Arab culture is not ironic, and his humor can be confusing. But even rough stencils and splatters of paint are better than a plain ugly wall. On the Israeli side, the only bit of color to relieve the unrelenting concrete at the crossing was a monumental work of propaganda, a banner rich with unintended irony, since no one in the West Bank sees the security barrier as anything but a prison wall.
"Peace Be With You," it says in three languages. "Israel Ministry of Tourism."