Banksy's West Bank dove - and the Palestinian shopowner who met the elusive artist

The 'Armoured Dove' artwork sits outside Maha Saca's Palestinian Heritage Centre

Armoured Dove, credited to Banksy, outside the Palestinian Heritage Centre in Bethlehem. Photo: Sarah Maisey
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Between Hebron Street and Manger Street in Bethlehem, it's impossible to miss the painting of a peace dove wearing a flak jacket covering a large patch of wall.

The piece, called Armoured Dove, is a commentary on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is widely credited to the elusive British artist Banksy.

While it may or may not be a genuine Banksy (more on that later), it also acts as a handy signpost for arguably one of Bethlehem's most intriguing shops: the Palestinian Heritage Centre.

Run by Maha Saca, this gem of a space, which opened in 1991, is part museum, part shop and filled to bursting with historical items that document a Palestinian culture now largely lost.

And it is this modern-day piece of graffiti that, in many cases, drives people towards it.

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

"It was an Israeli soldier," she says. "I said, 'I have enough of those already', and asked for something softer. So he suggested the dove."

People are unsure whether this is all true because the Armoured Dove doesn't appear on Banksy's official website, making provenance hard to verify, but Saca is convinced the artwork is real.

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

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

Even her son-in-law, visiting from America at the time Saca recounts this story, is adamant he has never seen the image.

Was it Banksy? Who knows. Saca may or may not have a priceless artwork on the wall outside her shop, but either way what's inside is unquestionably invaluable.

Baskets, furniture, dresses and jewellery have been collected over 30 years, and Saca is now both a proud guardian of her nation’s heritage and a walking encyclopaedia on Palestinian embroidery.

Traditional Palestinian embroidery, also known as tatreez, was added to the Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage in December 2021, and to help prevent its demise, Saca sells modern-day cushion covers and purses covered with its unique markings.

One cushion case has a vaguely floral pattern of mostly 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.

Not only does this market for modern work help to keep the techniques alive, it also provides much-needed income for Palestinian women in the refugee camps of Azza, Aida and Dehesha.

Saca also stocks rail after rail of dresses. The distinctive cross stitching that decorates traditional Palestinian dress is more that just a pretty design, but rather a visual guide of who the wearer was; her marital status and where she was from.

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

From Ramallah, she has a white dress covered in delicate red stitches, while another is covered in the flower-like patterns associated with Ramla.

There is a thobe from Safad with distinctive, diamond-shaped patchwork, and colourful dresses smothered in stitches, recognisable from the desert region of the Naqab.

While some of the finest pieces are not for sale, instead kept as an archive, Saca is happy to share her wealth of knowledge about every item, easily trotting out information on where, and from whom, she bought it.

Saca is the guardian of a collection that demonstrates how rich and nuanced Palestinian culture once was, making her one of a number of women across the world fighting to preserve this unique heritage.

That, no matter what way you look at it, is priceless. Banksy would undoubtedly agree, whether he was there or not.

Banksy in Palestine: A look at the street artist's work in Gaza and the West Bank — in pictures

Updated: August 06, 2022, 8:56 AM