Walls: Travels Along the Barricades

Winner of the 2013 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

When Ronald Reagan exhorted Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, it was not only a political act. As Marcello Di Cintio discovers, walls divide far more than nations. In this beautifully written reportage, the author brings readers the personal stories – gripping, haunting, humorous, and inspiring – of people living against walls around the world, from the “peaceline” of Belfast to the l’Acadie fence of Montreal.  – 2013 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize jury


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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. 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 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.

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, India and Bangladesh, and in the divided capitals of Cyprus and Northern Ireland? 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. For this I needed to be where the posts are pounded into the ground. 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 traveled to the Western Sahara, then to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. I visited Israel, Palestine and the divided capital of Cyprus. I traveled 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:

 

What he [Di Cintio] does do, bravely and forcefully, and with impressive commitment, is to bear witness to the suffering of people who live in the shadow of separation barriers.

- The Guardian

[A]s a colourful, compassionate tour of hot spots where “nations stake territory in bald concrete”, this beating of the bounds can’t be topped.

- The Independent

A beautifully written reportage, part travel, part history, part politics, full of acute observations and analysis. Recognizing that, as an outsider wielding a Canadian passport, he is in the enviable position of being able to pass through walls, Di Cintio makes meaningful connections with people on the ground to understand local contexts. The results are personal stories of living with walls, of subverting them and of defeating them, at once gripping, haunting, humorous and inspiring.

- Traveller

Di Cintio leads a whirlwind tour of the world, looking at the unlikely places where the human mania for erecting barriers has shown itself… Solid journalism that takes readers into cheerless, contested places they probably would not wish to see for themselves. An eye-opener.

- Kirkus

[Walls] is a book that follows its thread, that unpompously accepts the haplessness of being an outsider, and that is justly impatient with communities that hide behind a wall rather than ask difficult questions.

- The Times of London

[Di Cintio] brings a fair-minded, maple-baked sensitivity to the madness of dividing lines and barbed wire, but the effect is all the more saddening. If someone as uncholeric and sweet-tempered as Di Cintio found more despair than hope, it’s not a good sign. Still, he writes well, unpicking some of the world’s trouble spots in spare and lucid prose.

- Literary Review

Di Cintio’s journeys successfully articulate the diminishing, humiliating effect of the walls on those who have no choice but to push against them.

- Sunday Telegraph

[an] illuminating, brilliantly composed book.

- Financial Times

What’s it like having a physically massive, politically symbolic barrier for a neighbour? That’s the question posed by this deftly written travelogue, which drops into settlements in Isreal, Northern Ireland, Mexico and more to paint stark portraits of life beside some of the world’s most notorious reinforced borders.

- Time Out UK

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.

- Geist

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

Walls: Travels Along the Barricades