We were the last ones through the gate before the Peace Walls in West Belfast were closed for the night at 6pm, one year ago today. I whipped around to watch the custodian shut and bolt the heavy metal doors after crossing over. It is actually someone’s job to open and close the Peace Walls. I wonder what side they are on (if any), whether it matters, and how they feel about their job and its contribution to the everyday drama of division vs. integration.
I’m fascinated by the visual language of walls and their aesthetic appearance. I don’t have any grand conclusions to draw here, but it was apparent to me that at outwardly, the Peace Walls appeared the least dangerous of those I visited on this journey. But I also know that means it’s time for a second look. In Belfast, the typical physical deterrents at borders (guards, barbed wire, multilayer fences, consequences to passage) have been internalized by people who live nearby and are complemented unflinchingly by the urban infrastructure. This wall is much stronger than it appears, and much more deadly than a garden fence.
The word ‘peace’ is one half of a dichotomy that is preventing real engagement from the outside in Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland. It’s too easy for Americans to assume that since there is no intifada, there is peace; since the UN peacekeepers are present, there is peace; since the Troubles were resolved, there must be peace.
And technically speaking, you can have ‘peace’ as we understand it (a cease-fire, an agreement on a piece of paper) without having resolution, community, justice, reconciliation, education, freedom of movement, freedom from the threat of violence. Declaring peace without the aforementioned is an excuse to get out before the really tricky work begins.
The sculpture pictured above sits squarely in the middle of an interface zone in West Belfast. Some might say it stands as a bold counterpoint to its surroundings. I see it as a empty plea to gloss over the contradictions in its midst, which speak so much louder.
Faces stared at me everywhere I went on my first full day in Belfast. Faces on plaques, murals, posters: memorials to the murdered literally line the main roads in Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods throughout the city. From this cue, I immediately understood that the conflict and violence here was much more personal. Confronting that was scary; the threat felt real but I couldn’t read the neighborhoods and their history well enough to know who had a target on their back. I knew there was safety in my naivete.
March 14, 2012 was split between two different countries, and two vastly different modes of travel. The first, Cyprus: warm, palm trees, airport with wifi, food and drink on the plane, well rested and light. The second: the United Kingdom: cold, poor, tired, dark, hard floor of Heathrow Terminal 1 with no 24-hour places to eat.
My first hours in the UK were rough and tense. The following morning (it doesn’t make sense to distinguish by something so arbitrary as dates in this story) I boarded a flight to Belfast which landed in a dense fog and cold mist. It was a bitter beginning to the last leg of this journey; in my run-down state, I cringed at the industrial streets of Belfast, imagining shadows around corners and in doorways.
My 24 hours in transit between these opposite corners of Europe, shifting focus between the massively different, dividing conflicts in each wasn’t exactly a typical approach to island hopping.
March 13, 2012 marked my last full day in Cyprus, and also the first (and only) time I have visited a mosque- the Selimiye Mosque in north Nicosia. The building used to serve as a cathedral, which explains the Gothic architecture in the photo above. This strange history is repeated elsewhere in Cyprus (and indeed could be a metaphor for the island itself), but to me it represented a beautiful (if troubled) fusion of spaces and traditions. The vaulted ceilings and absence of seating combined to create a single chamber that was remarkable for its vast emptiness. The carpet was plush under my stocking feet while stained glass windows dappled pastel light on the walls. The air inside was cool and a bit musty as if the interior of the building featured its own climate, independent of outside. It was an enriching experience and rewarding to see a degree of preservation and adaptation at play in the building’s use.
No pictures from March 12, 2012. I think I spent most of the day writing my 43 postcards at a cafe. Compared to the five weeks I spent in Israel/Palestine, my short stint in Cyprus flew by, and for the most part, was much easier, emotionally lighter, and generally a bit weirder. With just a day and a half to go on the island at this time last year, my looming departure seemed rushed. It would have been nice to squeeze in an extra week in Cyprus (and spend part of it on the Karpaz Peninsula).