Tag Archive | Belfast

Into the Lion’s Den: London, Colonialism, and Walking Walls

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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.

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A year ago today, I spent the morning at Common Grounds Cafe, a not-for-profit, fair trade coffee joint around the corner from my hostel. I was becoming a morning person and developing an unforeseen taste for coffee drinks that contained milk.

Disorder

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It’s amazing how the order imposed by walls leads to greater chaos in their midst; this seems like a paradox until you understand that walls do not impose order to begin with, they fundamentally disrupt the fabric of society around it.

The urban decay that surrounded the Belfast Peace Walls was the most visual and obvious instance of this phenomenon I have ever seen.

Painted lines

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Territory marking tactics like these scuffed up Loyalist blocks always struck me as the nationalist version of “Jack was here.” They have less to do with conveying information than self affirmation; nobody (except me) wanders around the neighborhoods of Belfast without knowing exactly where they do and do not belong, it’s just part of living and growing up in the city.

To me, “Jack was here” was genuinely informative, adding a layer of information and understanding to how I read the city. But the painted curbs, street signs and blocks like these are rarely seen by outsiders, considering the degree of segregation that dominates movement in the city. Few outsiders make it far enough to be intimidated or informed by the painted concrete. Instead, they function most frequently as mirrors for the painters and their community, forming comfortable little borders for daily commutes or walks with their dog. It seems like the graffiti artists are actually painting themselves into a corner, limiting the space comfortably available to them through this fairly innocuous, yet persistent visual motif that anchors their experience of the city.

Looking out

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I don’t fully understand the connections between the Republican movement and the other countries represented here by their flags: Poland, Palestine, the Philippines, and China. The relationship between the IRA and PLO is fairly well-known and this connection was most frequently represented in Irish neighborhoods of Belfast (though interestingly, not reflected in Palestine that I noticed). The presence of these other flags, however, remains a mystery to me as I haven’t done enough reading to understand these connections. (Can anyone fill me in?)

It is interesting to note that I didn’t observe the same international connections and relationships being highlighted in Cyprus or Israel/Palestine-the dialogue of these conflicts felt insular, more like an echo chamber than an international community.

Walls in the head

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Posted on a North Belfast Peace Wall. Spotted March 22, 2012.

Open and Shut

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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.

Graves

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There were a lot of people in this Republican cemetery when I visited a year ago today. Fresh flowers left by gravesides dotted the field with pockets of orange, white and green. Memories of loss are still raw and fresh.

How to normalize violence and division:

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This imagery is everywhere in Belfast, infamously immortalized on the sides of buildings in larger than life murals. After a while, you have to remind yourself that this is not normal for a city, reads as an overt threat for certain populations, and also that it is legitimately terrifying.