The Writing’s on the Wall

The most famous of the Peace Walls, a menacing structure on Cupar Way, is a frequent stopping point for tourists who are encouraged to ‘add a message of peace’ to it’s already graffiti-strewn face. The Berlin Wall was also a well-known drawing board, and after all, who doesn’t want to be part of history? After spending an hour taking in as much as possible and analyzing the scribblings, I can safely put them in three distinct categories:

1. “I was here.” Nothing fancy, just names, dates, a record of a visit.

2. Religious stuff. Bible quotes, a lot of John 3:16, some Corinthians. I skimmed as they tended to be quite long, but they struck me as appropriate for the context.

3. Actual messages of peace. By far, the most popular was some variation of “make love not war/walls” but a significant number fell into a sub-category I will term “condescending messages of peace.” Below is the worst one, I actually felt enraged when I saw it.

This graffiti strikes me as insensitive, ignorant, intrusive, and a hundred other things but suffice to say this sort of message really bothers me. People just waltz in, take a look, put their thoughts in ink, and leave, returning to houses that will never be threatened by petrol bombs or be in danger of having a 60-foot wall block their sun.

And in general, I’m uncomfortable with the extent to which the Peace Walls and the Troubles have become a tourist attraction. All day along Cupar Way, open-topped buses whiz past, the guides shouting about how they are now crossing the frontline of the conflict. The doors fly open and people spill out and up to the wall, break out their permanent markers and add to the mass of words on the wall. Belfast’s open-topped buses would have been an inconceivable addition to the landscape 15 years ago, but today they blend into daily life oh-so-naturally. The same people will likely not speak to those who actually live in the area, spend time in the neighborhoods, or walk anywhere near the interfaces. They will not take the time to achieve a fuller understanding of Belfast’s past and present with the Peace Walls.

At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, I fully acknowledge that my own time here has been incomplete, intrusive, and unusually focused on seeing the worst places in this otherwise beautiful city. I cannot claim separation from this system.

And of course, it’s all right for tourism. Belfast is booming with the Titanic commemorations, a sparkling and busy city center, and becoming a reasonable tourist destination like other European cities its size, for the first time in 40 years. And the people who go on these open-bus tours and the like are certainly learning something about the conflict and its current manifestation. Surely that’s better than sweeping it under the rug entirely?

To make another comparison to Berlin, the biggest question tourists ask of the city today is: ‘where is the Wall?’ I’ve met some Berliners who bemoan the passionate and irreversible destruction of the Wall, thinking of the tourism and educational opportunities that slipped through their fingers. But this is of course wildly inappropriate because the conflict here is not entirely over, and these walls remain a massive problem for the city. Even if the Berlin Wall had been left intact, or more pieces of it, can you imagine the inequalities this would have created in the modern urban landscape? The East would have remained the East solely because of the presence of the Wall and all the mental walls it reinforced.

But I believe the point stands and the question remains: how do we encourage people to visit Belfast, learn about the Peace Walls and the Troubles without people’s lives and neighborhoods becoming an unholy spectacle? How do we achieve a style of tourism that is both respectful and educational? Maybe we could start by putting some of the 7 pounds for a bus tour toward bringing down the Peace Walls they drive by.

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3 responses to “The Writing’s on the Wall”

  1. policomic says :

    There’s a lot of wisdom in what you say here, and I think you’re absolutely right to be offended by the clueless condescension epitomized by that “get your act together” grafitti.

    I recently took part in a book discussion centered on the novel “Devil in a Blue Dress.” The book was set in post-WWII L.A., and offered a subtle, thought-provoking pictures of the institutionalized and deeply culturally embedded racism through which the African American protagonist had to navigate.

    But a lot of the discussion proceeded from the idea that racism (and fighting racism) is mostly a matter of personal conscience and behavior. One well-meaning fellow said that he made it a point to look every one of his fellow bus passengers in the eye and say “hello,” regardless of race.

    Well, bully for him, I guess, but talk about missing the point. Racism and other walls that divide us have been built over many years–many generations, in fact. Some of them are made of bricks, mortar, and barbed wire, and others of less visible, but just as substantial stuff. They are not just in our hearts, they are a part of our landscape. They are buttressed not only by hatred, but by fear, and custom, and apathy, denial, and–especially, I think (and this is why your project is so valuable)–by our ability to stop seeing them after a while, or to see them simplistically, like the person who wrote this grafitti.

    In order to dismantle them, we need to really see them–to understand what they are made of, how they were built, and why they have endured, what maintains them. And we need to understand that, though they can, with effort, be torn down, they are quite able to withstand the rubber hammer of self-righteousness.

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