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Chef and food writer John Gregory-Smith on why he believes you should travel the Middle East with as few preconceptions as possible

Pillow talk: Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel feels like a starting point for discussion

HAVING built a career travelling around the Middle East, I’m all about changing perceptions of this part of the world. I’m fascinated with its history and culture and, as a chef, I find the food thrilling.

In May, my book, Saffron In The Souks, is published. For it, I spent months driving around Lebanon to learn about the country and its cuisine, later surprising friends with stories of ancient cities strewn along the blissful Mediterranean coastline, drives through vast valleys filled with vineyards and wild nights out in Beirut.

Israel and Palestine are also favourites of mine. I know for many, just saying the ‘P’ word will ignite anger or even fear but I believe they are two different countries, both of which I have enjoyed immensely.

When I travel, I put any preconceived ideas to one side. Starting with a blank canvas helps me better understand things and form more immediate bonds with the people I meet.

As a gay man, I have to be extremely careful in countries where my choices are not tolerated but I travel because I want to understand our world better and not be afraid about where I go.

Monkey business: John Gregory-Smith hangs with a Banksy bellhop

Of all my Middle Eastern adventures, Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, which opened two years ago this month, has been the most enlightening — and the most extraordinary. It’s breathed life into a forgotten place, bringing in 50,000 tourists in its first year and employing 45 local people. It’s particularly incredible when you consider the challenge of the project. Banksy’s brand relies on his anonymity — tricky when you’re trying to get in and out of a city surrounded by an 26ft wall.

Crossing through military checkpoints in Jerusalem means taking even the most mundane object into the city is no mean feat, let alone a self-playing grand piano and bespoke Jacuzzi. But visitors — including myself — flooded in.

Banksy created a space unlike any other — an exquisite, nine-room hotel that’s the ultimate statement piece. It’s politically charged from the minute you enter the Dickensian dining room on the ground floor, where a cosy fireplace glows through a mound of mortar-blasted rubble. Gas-masked angels dangle from the ceiling and, hidden behind a bookshelf, a secret staircase leads up to the largest collection of Banksy’s work in the world.

As I sat in my plush bedroom, looking out on to the drab, graffiti-covered wall that surrounds Bethlehem, I wondered, why here? The answer was simple: Banksy wanted to ignite conversation about the West Bank. He’s used the hotel as a way of getting people into a place they otherwise might not visit. The point being, you go and make up your own mind, then start a debate from there.

I’m not saying a stay at the Walled Off Hotel is the weekend break for everyone — it isn’t. It’s in a part of the world that is extremely volatile but if you can get there it’s unbelievable. You can marvel at the ultimate Banksy exhibition, take in a city that oozes history and dive into a spectacular cuisine.

But the most fascinating aspect of going somewhere commonly known for doom and gloom is seeing its beauty, and good people going about their daily lives as best they can. Surely that’s worth talking about, wherever it might be.