Walls: Travels Along the Barricades
Winner of the 2013 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
Winner of the 2013 City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell Book Prize
Winner of the 2013 Wilfred Eggleston Prize for Non-Fiction
Nominated for the 2013 British Columbia National Award for Non-Fiction
Nominated for the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
Nominated for the 2013 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award
Named to The Globe and Mail‘s list of the top 100 books of 2012
What does it mean to live against a wall?
Human civilization has always been preoccupied with border barriers and fortified lines. In the first century A.C.E, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a 120 kilometre limestone wall across Roman Britain. In 1754, English antiquarian William Stukely gushed that Hadrian’s Wall was only exceeded in its brick-and-mortar might by the grand patriarch of human walls, the Great Wall of China. Stukely wrote that the “Chinese Wall makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the moon.” One must admire the confidence of an 18th century earth-bound scientist to describe what can be seen from the moon. As it turns out, his claim was both bold and incorrect; the Great Wall of China cannot be seen from the moon. But the myth, like the Wall, endures.
So does the impulse to build walls. In the 1800s, the Danish repurposed an ancient Viking Age wall as a military fortification in their war with the Prussians. In the 1870s, Argentina built a line of trenches and watchtowers called the Zanja de Alsina to protect Buenos Aries province from invasion by the indigenous Mapuche. At the beginning of World War II, France constructed a concrete barrier along the border with Germany to defend against a Nazi attack. The Maginot Line did not impress Hitler’s army who simply marched around it. Later, East Germany built their own wall. The Berlin Wall went up in 1961, dividing east from west for almost thirty years.
The Berlin Wall made Berliners sick. Or at least it drove them mad. In 1973, East German psychiatrist Dietfried Müller-Hegemann observed that the Berlin Wall caused psychosis, schizophrenia, and phobias in the East Germans who lived in its shadow. The closer to the physical wall his patients lived, the more acute their disorders. The doctor called the syndrome Mauerkrankheit, Wall Disease, and predicted depression, despondency and high suicide rates would persist in Berlin for as long as the Wall stood. The only remedy was to bring it down.
The humiliating failure of the Maginot Line and the emotional liberation felt as Berliners chipped their wall into souvenir dust hardly dissuaded the world’s wall builders. South Africa built a 120-kilometre electric fence, dubbed the ‘Snake of Fire’, along its border with Mozambique in 1975 to keep violence from the civil war there from spilling over the frontier. The United States turned Baghdad into a labyrinth of vertical concrete and is building a wall along the Mexican frontier. India built fences along its borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh, and through the disputed region of Kashmir. Fences separate North and South Korea and keep Zimbabweans out of Botswana. In addition to the barrier around the West Bank, Israel just completed another wall along its Egyptian frontier to keep out migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Greece is doing the same along its border with Turkey.
These physical walls feel like a throwback to antiquity. We’ve been told the walls are supposed to be coming down. We speak of globalization, international markets and global villages. Barriers to trade and travel keep falling, and we can communicate with anyone instantly from nearly anywhere in the world. Borders themselves matter less and less. Our contemporary angels and demons – multinational corporations, climate change, global terror networks, Hollywood movies, bird flu, Katy Perry – are nationless and borderless and care nothing about the lines we draw on our maps. And yet the walls continue to rise. I wondered, then, if the new walls are not anathema to our borderless world but a natural response to it. We need to put something, anything, under our control. So we counter economic and electronic entropy with simple geometries of bricks, barbed wire and steel.
What of those who live alongside the new barriers? What does the wall mean for those living in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico? Or India and Bangladesh? The Berlin Wall came down, but do the residents of divided Cyprus and Belfast suffer their own strains of Mauerkrankheit? I wondered what it meant to be walled out, or in, and to live a barricaded life. I wanted to discover what sort of societies create the walls. More than this, though, I wanted to know what societies the walls themselves create.
I suspected I would learn little from reading political pronouncements or staring down at lines on a map. From a distance, the walls are just social and territorial constructs. But for the people who live against them, those for whom the walls were built to include or exclude, the walls stand as cold physical realities. I needed to be where the posts are pounded into the ground and a country stakes its territory in bold concrete. I wanted to understand why the walls exist, what they mean to those who live within them, and how they make us sick.
So, beginning in 2008, I traveled to some of the world’s most unfriendly edges to meet the people who live along the walls. I travelled to the Western Sahara, then to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. I visited Israel, Palestine and the divided capital of Cyprus. I travelled along India’s fenced frontier with Bangladesh. I visited the Arizona borderlands, and the so-called Peacelines of Belfast. Then I returned to Canada to visit the infamous l’Acadie fence in Montreal.
During my travels, I heard some incredible stories. In the Sahara Desert, I met a Saharan poet who braved landmines and Moroccan soldiers to cross over a desert wall. I met a young Punjabi man whose family gambled all they to send him over the fence into Europe. A village headman in Meghalaya explained how the coming border fence would evict him from his family home. In Palestine, a young man led a weekly protest against the wall dividing his village’s farmers from their fields. I spoke with a Native American elder about how the U.S. border wall severs her ancestral land, and played a ‘duet’ on the Nogales wall with a musician who uses the barrier as a musical instrument. I met ex-gunmen in Belfast who now fight to bring down the walls that lacerate their city.
I learned that the walls fail at keeping out those they aim to keep out, and I meet the brave men and women who’ve defeated the walls. I learned, too, that the barricades function most-effectively as theatre, each projecting a sense of power and security they don’t, in fact, exercise. I discovered that the walls replace the blurred nuances between communities with a cold, medieval clarity. With the Walls, there is only Here and There. Only Us and Them. I learned that the walls everywhere infect those that live in their shadows with unique strains of the Wall Disease. And I felt what it meant to live alongside a wall.
Reviews for Walls: Travels Along the Barricades:
This is a remarkable book, and Di Cintio is a thoroughly engaged – and engaging – traveller and wordsmith.
- The Globe and Mail
Di Cintio’s ethnographic method is the perfect approach to his subject…. [I]t is a deeply humane, honest, and even cautious account of an outsider who seeks as much as possible to understand local contexts.
- Quill and Quire (starred review)
[Di Cintio] observes and reports tirelessly, then makes powerful and poetic connections between all that he has seen and heard. Walls is a moving and extremely engaging book, a reminder of “the constant thrum of hope” amid so many man-made obstacles.
- Canadian Geographic
A perfect mix of fact and vivid first-person narrative leaves you feeling that you’ve witnessed death-defying acts of bravery, and fallen ill with Wall Disease…. Walls is a humanizing history of the world’s barricades that we need now more than ever.
Marcello Di Cintio’s new book is exactly the kind of non-fiction I adore most. It’s ambitious, intensely personal, and uses one basic idea as the jump-off point for tackling all kinds of fascinating issues along the periphery.
- The Edmonton Journal