Rob Hardy on books


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A Book of Barricades



Rob Hardy


Do not quote Robert Frost's "Good fences make good neighbors" to Marcello Di Cintio. When he was working on his book Walls: Travels Along the Barricades (Soft Skull Press), he avoided mentioning his project of visiting walled-off nations and cities and neighborhoods, because every time he did, someone would quote that line and it "made me want to scream." Still, if you needed evidence that "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," his book bountifully provides it. People have built walls for as long as they have been building anything. The Emperor Hadrian is remembered for nothing else besides building a wall across Roman Britain in the first century CE. Scholars now think that it had little utility in keeping people in or out, and was nothing but "a theatrical expression of imperial power." The walls Di Cintio visited all have this trait, while they tend to fail in their ostensible primary missions of stopping the transfer of violence or smuggled goods or job applicants or freedom-seekers. At some level, governments must think the walls are worth the show, because they spend millions on building and maintaining them. Di Cintio has traveled to eight different wall sites to try to find out what is really going on, and to see what the walls really accomplish. It's a travel book with a mission, to show what it is like to live near a wall and how the walls fracture communities and understanding. As he points out in his introduction, globalization, international markets, easy electronic communication, multinational corporations, and even global terror networks "are nationless and borderless and care nothing about the lines we draw on our maps and fortify with steel. And yet the walls continue to rise..." 




The most famous modern wall is famous for its fall, the Berlin Wall. Di Cintio makes no visit to the wall's remains, but the Berlin Wall is mentioned here frequently. An East German psychiatrist even observed in 1973 that East Germans who lived near the wall were more liable to schizophrenia, phobias, alcoholism and suicide, and the nearer they were to the wall, the more likely they were to have problems. It was a Wall Disease ("Mauerkrankheit"), and though there are no diagnosticians at the walls Di Cintio visits, the disease crops up frequently in the malice, silliness, anger, and nuisance that these walls bring to those who live near them. Di Cintio comes from Canada, a land bounded by natural boundaries of shorelines, and then the world's longest unfenced boundary between two nations, so he is just the fellow to find the anomalies of having to live with walls. 




Di Cintio's sentiments are always with the oppressed people that have to endure the walls, and he has many happy traveler's tales to give us, like visiting the Saharawis, who are walled off by Moroccan authorities by means of a huge security barrier, the world's longest, of berms and stones, and also mines to keep things exciting. Visit the Saharawis if you want to feel welcome: "Every family I visited was the same. I needed only to appear and they opened their world to me. The moment I sat, a glass of tea was placed before my knees. A pillow came for my head. Laughter was immediate." He discovers, too, that the Saharawi word for "tent" is the same as the word for "family." At the Bangladesh-India border in Bengal, he shares Assam tea, and finds, "I'd never drunk fresh tea before. Compared to this vegetal richness, the tea that emerges from the dry bags I soak in Canada tastes like iron filings." Encounters like this, and he finds them all over, make his quest seem pleasant. 




Not so the tear-gassed riots he experiences in Palestine, or the bonfire riots in Belfast. He looks with disdain on President Obama's declaration that the walls have come down in Berlin as well as Belfast, and maybe the President isn't the only one to think that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement demolished the Belfast walls. "The entire city," he writes, "feels bristled and spiked." The barricades in Belfast were built to keep Catholics and Protestants from punching each other, and while they might do that, they don't keep epithets, pipe bombs, nail bombs, and more from being hurled over the steel fences and barbed wire. The walls have been made higher with little effect. A community worker says he thought the wall would stop the violence, "But people on both sides, being very ingenious and fuelled by religious hatred, very quickly saw ways around it." Here is a situation Di Cintio has seen in other walled communities: "Only those who couldn't afford to live anywhere else - the poor, the elderly, the infirm - lived on the interfaces. Rents were cheaper along the fortified lines because no one wanted to be there." Walls seem only to alter, and worsen, the situations they were erected to solve. 




The arbitrariness of the walls is shown in Belfast, where the "Peaceline" (not the only euphemism for barriers here), erected by the British Army in 1969 as a temporary measure, turned from barbed wire to concrete and corrugated metal with wire mesh at the top. Forty more Peacelines have grown out of this. "No one knows the location of all the barriers, who built them, and when." Even worse is the Radcliffe Line, named for Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer whom the British parliament assigned to draw a new frontier between India and Pakistan in 1947. He didn't want the job, but accepted it as his duty, and was told he would have six months to carry out the huge task. When he got to India, he was told it was really 35 days. Radcliffe knew little about India, and it would seem, little about human nature or practicality: his line even went down individual homes, so that a house's kitchen might be in India and the salon in Pakistan. Bangladesh struggled for independence from Pakistan in 1971, but the line remains, emphasized with barbed wire and steel. It is an impressive but not an impervious obstacle. Bangladeshis can still cross in and out, but it seems like a strong barrier. Its existence does not do much except increase a sense of us-versus-them. 




Di Cintio finds people who can't do anything about their walls, so they try to turn them into something else. There are graffiti artists who decorated the West Bank wall between Palestine and Israel, and they did not do it just for propaganda or for esthetics. The Send A Message project would take your thirty Euros, spray your message onto the wall, photograph it, and send you a picture. The messages were far from inflammatory, and most were simply frivolous, like "Hey, Ruby, let's get married," or ads for blogs or rock bands. The money funded a Palestinian youth center. Then there is musician Glenn Weyant, who says of the wall at the U.S. / Mexico border, "Some say it is a fence. Some say it is a wall. I say it is an instrument," a 2,000 mile-long musical instrument. He proves it by putting microphones on it and drumming on different parts of it. 




Di Cintio visits as well the wall between Nicosia and Lefkosa, and Ceuta and Melilla. (His book could use some maps.) He even finds a wall where one might least expect it, near his home town of Montreal. There's a two-kilometer fence that separates the affluent town Mont Royal from its poor neighbors in Parc-Extension. It has stood for fifty years, supposed to keep out the riff-raff, but it is permeable. While other walls in the book are scaled by those in search of freedom or better lives, at Halloween "... Parc-X kids crossed their Wall in search of better candy." This is one of the book's many amusing moments, and Di Cintio is a charming and entertaining writer. The overall effect of all these walls is sad, though. What he says of one wall could stand for the others: "Instead of addressing the despair that leads migrants across our borders, we build a wall. The walls admit our defeat. We throw up a wall right after we throw up our hands."



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