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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Walls: Travels Along the Barricades by Marcello Di Cintio ? review

A tour of the world's most disputed border areas becomes a forceful study in human suffering

To wall is human and, if the story of the Garden of Eden is true, to exclude is divine. Since the beginning of civilisation, people have built walls to keep things in, or out. The ancient Egyptians constructed massive mudbrick walls around their temples, wavy ones that represented the primeval waters of chaos and served to ensure the purity of their sacred enclaves by keeping out everyone but the priests. The Roman emperor Hadrian, with his usual efficiency, commissioned a wall, backed by a series of defensive forts, to protect his empire's northernmost frontier from a troublesome neighbour. Walls, it would seem, are part of the human story. But there are exceptions: the most unwalled country in our own time, enclosed by water on three sides and the world's longest fenceless border on the fourth, is Canada. What better subject for a Canadian writer, then, than to try to understand what it means to live alongside a wall?

In eight chapters, eight walls, Marcello Di Cintio visits some of the world's most contended regions to witness glaring examples of exclusion. Some are well known because they continue to make headlines – the illegal wall the Israelis have built to keep out Palestinians, for instance; and the barrier the US has constructed along its southern border to exclude Mexican migrants. Others will be less familiar. Who remembers that the Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara are still fighting to liberate their land from Morocco? Their struggle has been going on since 1975, when the late Moroccan King Hassan II led some 350,000 of his subjects to occupy the former Spanish colony. To back up their disputed claim that the land was historically theirs, the Moroccans built a series of walls. By 1991, when a UN-brokered ceasefire stopped most of the killing, the Moroccans had built the world's longest continuous wall, some 2,700km long and, like the shorter Great Wall of China (21,196km), visible from space.

Di Cintio has a good grasp of the specific issues that have led to the building of the Moroccan wall, as of the others he visits, the walls that separate Palestinians and Israelis, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Indians and Bangladeshis, Africans and Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans, Protestants and Catholics in Belfast, and rich and poor in Montreal. Faced with the reality of each of these barriers – some, in truth, no more than fences – he looks back at history and politics to understand how the need for separation arose and invariably comes up with political or economic reasons.

And then he spends time with people whose lives have been shaped or destroyed by separation and exclusion.

Some of these stories are more immediate than others, the power of the narrative being in direct relation to the level of injustice meted out on people on the wrong side of the wall. It's not hard to empathise with Palestinians whose lives have quite literally been cut by the wall – for many of them, their land lies on one side and their village on the other. Similarly, for those of us inside Europe, it's easy to understand why young Africans would want to run at the border of Spain's North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, hands wrapped in cloth to stop the razor wire cutting. Many of them have already made extraordinary journeys across the Sahara to reach the Mediterranean, and this last obstacle is all that stands between them and Europe. These people see the walls as separating them from a better life. "In the imagination of a refugee," Di Cintio writes, having just heard a young Sahrawi describe somewhere she had only dreamed about, "any place on the other side of the Wall, wherever it is, must be beautiful."

Occasionally Di Cintio gets it wrong, as when he describes Palestine as "less a place than it is an idea". Millions of Palestinians would dispute that comment. More often he gets it right, as when he considers the ways people find to subvert walls, from climbing them to cutting through them, tunnelling under them, walking around them, decorating them – Banksy being the most famous of many artists who have decorated Israel's West Bank wall – and even to ignoring them. "An ignored wall ceases to be a barrier at all."

But ignoring barriers that divide your life, your land or your identity is easier said than done, as Walls makes clear. This is not a perfect piece of reportage: I wanted it to look deeper into the intellectual side of the argument surrounding exclusion barriers. Nor does it consider the future consequences for those people who live alongside walls: long after the physical Berlin Wall came down, for instance, the barrier lived on in the minds of Berliners. And nor do I feel Di Cintio justifies his upbeat claim, at the end, that "the urge to tear down barriers is a stronger impulse than the urge to build them". But what he does do, bravely and forcefully, and with impressive commitment, is to bear witness to the pain and suffering of people who live in the shadow of separation barriers. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds