One year ago today, I ended my journeys in Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland by flying to London, the heart of the British Empire which, over the past century, had placed its Midas touch on each of these three sites. Needless to say, I had emerged from my travels with a rather cynical outlook, waylayed slightly for the time being with the exhilaration and relief of finishing the trip and also meeting a very good friend in town.
As you may have noticed over the past week or so, my posting frequency fell off dramatically, reflecting the way that Walking Walls wound down. The truth is that 5 weeks was entirely too long to spend in Northern Ireland–more than enough to get the content I was looking for, and not enough to get more deeply engaged. So the extra time sagged and was spent on post-processing the 4000+ photos I had accumulated (still a work in progress).
Also, while it was a massive relief to be in an (mostly) English speaking place again, after a while I realized that I had responded by not engaging the environment the same way that I did in I/P and Cyprus where I was forced to be hyper-aware and rely on context clues to navigate space. Belfast was almost too comfortable, and I didn’t adjust accordingly.
But more than any of those excuses, I was simply grateful to be finished with the travel, which had finally become more exhausting than exciting in the last leg of the 90 day adventure, especially as my budget and the British pound caught up with me.
After the trip when people would ask what I learned, I developed a half-joking short answer response to the tune of “religion and the British ruined everything.” But at its historical roots, Walking Walls is a story about Colonialism and conquest, and how the victors demonstrate and enforce their control over space. When you think about it this way, it makes a lot of sense that walls and fences are the solution of choice in Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland; an ancient remedy for an ancient practice of domination. And so although my visit was recreational, it was indeed fitting that I visited London, the lion’s den, at the end of this adventure.
I anticipate that I will be posting further reflections on the trip after I have a chance to synthesize the mad writings from the past 90 days. I feel that the process of reliving moments from the trip one day at a time has been an invaluable springboard into the next phase of intensive work on the book.
I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to undertake this project last year, and am pleased that I had the chance to revisit such a powerful time in my life with this series of reflections. I hope they have been interesting to read as well, I have certainly enjoyed sharing them.
No, this fire is not from the streets of Belfast, but instead a mysterious scene from the window of a small trailer in rural Ireland. I glimpsed the eager flame when I looked up from our non-functional sink, through the thin, plastic window and across darkened farm fields and low hedges. I called for my girlfriend to look and she slipped her arm around my waist for warmth as much as comfort and agreed that we could not know what caused the fire to burn.
At this time last year, I was 7/8 done with Walking Walls, a little burned out, and in dire need of giving my bank account a rest. My girlfriend had a week of vacation for Easter and so it was quite apparent that the solution to all of these needs and wants was to spend a week together doing a work trade on a farm. So she flew out to Dublin where we met up before catching a train south to beautiful, rolling countryside. We were picked up in a rickety van by an excitable guy with dreadlocks named Phil, one of the homesteaders who drove us the last leg of the journey to his farm.
And so we found ourselves in an uninsulated trailer home with no heat or running water, while the Irish gods of weather seemed unaware that it was supposed to be springtime. Perhaps this explains our magnetic attraction to the distant fire across the fields.
For the next week, my Walking Walls posts will be less frequent, as I wasn’t producing much content for the first week of April. 90 days on the road, it turns out, is quite a long time.
February 20, 2012 marked the end of the first leg of Walking Walls, my last day in Israel/Palestine. I spent a lot of time uploading my photos to the cloud, backing up to my external hard drive, and wiping my memory cards to prepare for the legendary search operations at Ben Gurion. Apart from those efforts, I spent a lot of my day in the West Bank, starting the morning with a vigil at Qalandia checkpoint with Maschom Watch and later heading back to Walajeh, this time on foot, in search of a woman I’d been put in touch with by a mutual contact. She had told me to meet her under the giant olive tree in the village. Given my track record at this sort of quest, it’s needless to say that I did not find her or the group she was with. (We met in London a few months later.)
It was a busy day, and none of its hours added up to the milestone I thought it would. Transitions are hard, and they were especially challenging for this low-budget, plan-as-you-go adventure. Finding the time and energy to begin my mental transition to Cyprus didn’t fit in with my action-packed final days in the Holy Land.
That evening, I ordered a Sherut to the airport. I wrote letters to Jesse and Mori. I cleaned out my living space and moved my bags to the living room. And that was that.
I was glad to be going, no doubt, but I hardly knew where I was headed.
Last year on this day, I went on a wild goose chase around the Palestinian Territories just north of Jerusalem. The result was a meeting with the man pictured above, whose struggle with his property status, the wall, the Israeli army, etc. was so similar to that of another man I’d been trying to find, that I’m still not sure whether or not I missed my true target. This is remarkable and telling in and of itself, but what I didn’t discuss last year was how I got here in the first place.
Word of mouth is always a tricky thing to chase. I must have been feeling extremely adventurous because I headed to Ramallah with a vague description of a man who’s house was entirely surrounded by the wall and lived in Biddu, or some village close by. The promise that “everyone knows who he is” obviously emboldened me.
Ramallah was loud and busy as I began the delicate process of finding a cab-it’s tricky because you have to first speak with the cab boss, who is always shrewd and never the actual cab driver you will be assigned to. So when I asked for a driver who spoke English, I was not entirely surprised when I discovered, a few minutes after driving out of town, that I had been lied to.
The cab driver was decent and earnest, but we simply could not understand each other. He drove in the direction of Biddu and for the next hour and a half, we picked up an assortment of people that the driver knew in small villages along the way, most of whom spoke a little English. Between myself, the driver, and various guests, we took some guesses at locations to investigate. Was it a Christian monastery on a green hillside? Nope. Down this road? No, try the other side of the bridge.
Eventually, we found someone who seemed to understand my quest and directed us to a small house surrounded by red dirt. Its front door was overlooking a shallow green bowl of land filled with olive trees and cordoned off by a section of the wall. The house wasn’t exactly surrounded quite like I understood from my source, but I was willing to settle.
No one was there, so we drove into town where the homeowner was at work in his shop. I suddenly found myself sharing lunch with 5 or 6 other Palestinian men: pita, tomatoes, yogurt, and some kind of meat. They were generous and I was surprisingly hungry. Eventually, I spoke to this man; he spoke excellent English, luckily.
It literally took a village to lead me there and the path was strange, but not unpleasant, though I’m still not sure where it took me. And I can’t believe I ever thought I’d find where I was trying to go.
I had been focusing my lens on the doorknob of a Settler house in Wadi Hilweh when angry voices burst out of the intercom in front of me. It was going to be a pretty innocent photo, a detail shot for a photo essay I was working on; not that this would have helped my case with the occupants. I was badly startled, and without hesitation started walking away as quickly as possible. Paranoia gripped me. The entire neighborhood was thick with cameras and it would have been easy for anybody on the other end to see exactly where I was headed. I imagined the occupants had called up to the security guards stationed at the City of David plaza, where I would have to pass through. In fact, the occupants could have been following me themselves.
To my surprise, no one seemed suspicious when I exited the neighborhood or the City of David area. It seemed I had made good my escape as I passed into the Old City and through large crowds. Later, I decided that it had been a decent adventure and that getting yelled at by a Settler in Wadi Hilweh was, in fact, a good achievement.
I was at home in Minnesota for the holidays, and managed to convince my mom to drive around the countryside just east of our neighborhood so that I could take pictures of the landscape at night. It was snowing and the roads were slippery, but my mom was up for an adventure.
Since being in Boston, I’ve only caught a view without buildings a handful of times. I miss the big skies of the prairie, and all of their isolation and loneliness. I’d also forgotten how much longer and quieter the night feels when there aren’t buildings to block the huge darkness with their windows, radiating with yellow light.
I want to expand on this series, but am not sure when I’ll have the chance to. For now, here’s my take on winter nights:
This border might as well be the edge of the world. Maps do not penetrate its mystery and people do not pass through its few gates. I am sweating profusely as I walk toward it on a misty afternoon. My ears take in only the rustling of my raincoat and I feel vulnerable with my hood drawn and my hearing hampered. There is a tightness in my chest and I cannot decide whether I would be comforted or alarmed by the appearance of another human being on this quiet road. And I am all too aware of the absence of my passport (the hotel needed to keep it during my stay) every time a UN car or a Turkish Army truck passes my lonely hike.
The farm buildings I pass are dilapidated, cinder-block structures, their sides splattered with mud from where drivers have careened through puddles at the edge of this dead-end road. A Coke can rotates of its own accord in one of these pools of murky water, a bright spot of color in an otherwise dreary collection of houses. Turkish flags fly on a few of the patios, limp and faded. Slowly, I come into view of an ugly, ramshackle collection of huts that look like they had spilled down the slopes of the surrounding hills, and were now choking an otherwise beautiful valley. I can go no further, and instead set a route parallel to the border.
Every step I take on this road feels ill-advised, but there is a magnetic force pulling me along, just to see around the next curve, and the next, and the next, and the next… I am intensely aware of a watchtower atop the tallest hill, commanding a view for miles around. Certainly, they have been watching my progress, and for a moment that does not pass quickly enough, I contemplate the possibility that there were, at this very moment, rifles trained on my bright blue raincoat. Unable to recover my mental footing, I slip into a series of scenarios in which I am stopped by soldiers, questioned, asked for my passport, my equipment confiscated. I justify these day-nightmares by telling myself I need to decide how to react should these situations arise, but the truth is I am trapped by the thoughts, struggling to relegate them to the background.
The road now slopes downward, into a small and disheveled village and I can spot the flags that fly near the border. I am met with an odd sense of relief when I realize that the end of this particular walk is in sight and I will soon be able to turn my back on this haunted place. My heart is beating faster than before, despite the easier terrain as I pass the first of the houses.
Two old women stand near a car, staring unabashedly at me as I make my way toward them. I offer them a smile that more closely resembles a grimace and say hello. After I have passed them, the older of the pair speaks loudly in Turkish. My heart has leaped into my throat. I know that the border is just around the corner. I turn around and try to smile again, and explain that I do not understand. The woman frowns and says slowly, “No….going.” Doing my best impression of a dumb tourist, I feign surprise and exclaim, “Oh…that’s the…the…” My voice trails off and I instead wave my hand to mime a line, wall, border. They nod and look satisfied that I have grasped their warning. I would rather hear it from an old woman than a gruff soldier, so I do not hesitate before turning around and begin to put distance between myself and the border. This was something I needed to see and feel, but I am undeniably relieved as I walk away from the unknown, the decrepit, the dangerous.
On the trip back, it occurs to me that as long as a border is the edge of the known world, it will also represent the edge of our minds, and all the fear, doubt, and lack of reason that lurks there will manifest itself in these lands. Borders are where things fall apart. So we build walls to contain the frayed edges.
This afternoon I went back to Walajeh to spend some quality time in the village on foot. Just a few kilometers west of Bethlehem, Walajeh is across the valley from settlements in southern Jerusalem and around the corner from the settlement of Har Gilo, which continues to expand and encroach on the town. The solution to this proximity, is, of course, to build a wall around Walajeh that will create a tight enclosure around the village, a Palestinian enclave in what was once Palestinian land. But, construction on said wall is not finished, so there remains some (small) hope that Walajeh’s fate may change. Numerous gaps in the unfinished wall make it easy to ‘cross sides’ so it’s also a very strange and interesting place to visit for this project. Today was the first and last time I walked on both sides of the wall in a single trip, much less a single hour or minute.
Standing on both sides of the wall like this was a powerful experience, and I’m not sure I’ve fully processed it yet. I felt exhilarated by the idea of being in two places at once, kind of like when you’re a kid and you get to stand in two states at once, or three, or four (maybe this is just me?). I also felt triumphant, like I had somehow outsmarted the wall and managed to do what it prevents by its very nature. But I was also frustrated, because this line that I stood atop of doesn’t mean anything! It does not correspond to the green line, international law, or municipal boundaries. This spot was just a green hillside until last year when bulldozers carved it into a flat road and covered it with gravel and concrete. It holds no significance beyond that which concrete and the muscle of men can lend. Alas! The joys and sorrows of a border-walking border-theory junkie.
This is a tunnel that runs under where the wall will be built. It will serve as a dedicated checkpoint for the people who live in the house in the picture below, which will be entirely cut off from the rest of Walajeh by the wall.
Right now, with gaps and no guards, the wall around Walajeh is not keeping anybody out or in. But mentally, it’s already working.
The sun was getting low although it was only 2:30 in the afternoon, and a few of the PhDs were beginning to level their best threats at Wojciech, a Polish Geographer who had promised to get us up close and personal with the Belarus border before sunset. “If I don’t have pictures of this border, I will cut you into a thousand pieces,” the Bosnian-Italian professor told him matter-of-factly. The Israeli doctor muttered, “you’d better sharpen your knife.”
I was attending my first ever academic conference: Border Conflicts in the Contemporary World in Lublin, Poland. The last day of the event was devoted to a 12-hour excursion to Eastern Poland. All day, we had been looking at churches and cemeteries, while most of us were itching to see the actual border with Belarus, ominously nicknamed The Edge of Europe.
Finally, we piled back into the mini-bus and Wojciech announced that the next stop would be a new border crossing at Jableczna. The sun was hanging just above the horizon, but I felt pretty smug about my chances of photographing the border in low-light conditions. I was sitting in the window seat, watching the countryside of Poland D zip by. Dilapidated houses, barren fields, hardly any stores or shops. Economic ruin still reigned this far east, and it seemed oddly appropriate to find such conditions near the border, a kind of geographical gradient, a natural slide into Asia.
Suddenly, we turned a corner and nearly collided with a line of cars that stretched for at least a mile up to the border crossing. Every car was an older model, with Belorussian plates. Many of the drivers were standing outside their vehicles, smoking, chatting, drinking from thermoses. It looked like a long wait. Our purple bus flew past the line, up to the crossing point. We stopped at the first checkpoint, where Wojciech tried to sweet-talk the guard. The crossing itself loomed ahead, a huge cement gate, painted beige with cyrillic lettering, intimidating and illegible. After a few minutes the border guard told us emphatically to clear out. Do not get out, do not take pictures, do not pass go. The busload of academics griped and moaned. Nobody understands us.
Wojciech tried to make it up to us by stopping at a border guards’ post. We were suitably underwhelmed. But the guards mentioned a nearby trail that led down to the river, the border itself. We HAD to go. By now the sun was dipping below the horizon, and we found ourselves in a hazy dusk, tramping past rusting machinery, a goat tied to a tree, and an empty field, down, down to the river. Five of us scrambled onto a sandy embankment and inhaled sharply. We were here.
It was just a river, and I was thrilled by its ordinariness. There was nothing to distinguish it. The opposite bank was a stones-throw away, maybe 40 yards. We all joked about jumping in and having a go at crossing the border, and we all imagined refugees emerging from the woods at midnight, dripping wet, cold, but triumphant. But this river didn’t look different from the Canon River in my college town, where I spent lazy afternoons drifting down the current. The water here was slow. Plenty of cover. It would have been easy, I mused. Where was Fortress Europe? Where were the desperate immigrants? Where was the threat, and the protection?
We made our way back to the bus, still parked at the guard post, generally satiated by the hike to the river. I was lingering behind and returned last to find Wojciech in an animated but polite conversation with one of the guards, encircled by our group. We piled on the bus again and Wojciech translated the discussion for the non-Polish speakers, “The guard was just asking if we had a good time and told us we could have gone to a nicer beach. We were just 50 meters away.”
Oh, that’s nice.
Despite the tranquility of the river, the easy current, the concealing brush, the guards had been keeping a tight rein on our little expedition. Cameras, microphones, and God-knows-what-else had been strategically planted near the border. The guard’s smirk flashed in my head; they had reason to be rather pleased. Fortress Europe is hidden, more effective than a wall, alive and well. My mind was blown, James Bond-ish fantasies satisfied, and I settled into the dark bus for a bumpy ride back to Lublin.