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Banksy’s West Bank dove – and the Palestinian shopkeeper who met the elusive artist

Between Hebron Street and Manger Street in Bethlehem, it’s impossible not to notice the painting of a peace dove wearing a flak jacket covering a large piece of wall.

The piece, called Armored doveis a commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is widely attributed to the elusive British artist Banksy.

While it may or may not be a real Banksy (more on that later), it also doubles as a handy signpost for arguably one of Bethlehem’s most intriguing shops: the Palestine Heritage Center.

Managed by Maha Saca, this jewel-like space, opened in 1991, is part museum, part shop and filled with historical objects documenting a now largely lost Palestinian culture.

And it is this modern graffiti that, in many cases, pushes people towards it.

Maha Saca, the owner of the Palestine Heritage Center, at the center of women wearing regional clothing from all over Palestine.  Photo: Palestinian Heritage Center

Saca claims to have met Banksy when he created the work. He went into the shop to ask her permission to cover the wall, she says. But Saca was not happy with the first project he proposed.

“He was an Israeli soldier,” he says. “I said, ‘I’ve had enough already’ and asked for something softer. So he suggested the dove.”

People aren’t sure if this is all true because the Armored dove it does not appear on Banksy’s official website, making it difficult to verify the provenance, but Saca is convinced that the work of art is real.

She gives a charming description of a man she thought was homeless and says she was so worried about him that she fed him for a week. Only later did she learn that the man could have been the elusive artist himself.

“I had no idea who he was, but I have a photograph of him,” he says. “But I swore never to show it to anyone.”

Even his son-in-law, visiting from America when Saca tells this story, is firmly convinced that he has never seen the image.

Was it Banksy? Who knows. Saca may or may not have a priceless piece of art on the wall outside her shop, but whatever is inside is indisputably priceless.

Baskets, furniture, clothing and jewelry have been collected over 30 years and Saca is now both a proud guardian of his nation’s legacy and a walking encyclopedia of Palestinian embroidery.

Traditional Palestinian embroidery, also known as tatreez, was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in December 2021, and to help prevent its disappearance, Saca sells modern pillow cases and bags covered in its unique markings.

One pillowcase has a vaguely floral pattern of predominantly green hues that is typical of the region around Bethlehem, while another is densely patterned, as traditionally found in the West Bank’s largest city, Hebron.

This modern labor market not only helps keep the techniques alive, but also provides much-needed income for Palestinian women in the refugee camps of Azza, Aida and Dehesha.

Saca also offers a variety of dresses. The distinctive cross stitch that decorates the traditional Palestinian dress is more than a beautiful design, but rather a visual guide to the wearer; his marital status and where he came from.

The shop covers the whole of Palestine, with intertwined thobes from Jerusalem and Jaffa, and tall wedding headdresses decorated with dowry coins from Bethlehem.

From Ramallah, she has a white dress covered with delicate red dots, while another is covered with floral motifs associated with Ramla.

There is a Safed thobe with distinctive diamond-shaped patchwork and colorful dot-smothered robes, recognizable from the Naqab desert region.

Although some of the best pieces are not for sale, but are kept as an archive, Saca is happy to share his wealth of knowledge about each item, easily trotting information on where and from who bought it.

Saca is the keeper of a collection that demonstrates how rich and nuanced Palestinian culture once was, making her one of the many women around the world struggling to preserve this unique heritage.

Which, regardless of the way you look at it, is priceless. Banksy would no doubt agree, whether she was there or not.

Updated: August 06, 2022, 8:56 am

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