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.
Of the three sites I visited during Walking Walls, I’m still debating which one is the odd man out, and whether or not it even makes sense to think about the conflicts through the lenses that would group them in such a way. You could make endless arguments that distinguish one site from the other two: Israel/Palestine as the odd one due to not being part of Europe…the physical borders have yet to be fully constructed….most recently a violent hotspot. Cyprus because the UN is still involved…because the border is built to stop an army instead of individuals. Northern Ireland because the borders are entrenched in neighborhoods…because the walls were requested by the residents.
But even as I was writing that list, I was struck by the number of things that I had to omit after encountering dissenting opinions on this trip. For example, although I cannot articulate the details of the argument, I now know better than to classify the Troubles as only an intra-state conflict. I have come to appreciate that the generalizations I made above are much more complex than I have characterized them to be; I think you could find exceptions to any of them.
I can’t reflect on this project without being comparative because I intentionally went to three different sites to gain a more complete understanding of what it means to live in a physically divided society. The idea was to unite the partition in different places through the common, human threads in my experience. But you cannot separate the personal stories from the conflicts. A Palestinian refugee is not a Greek Cypriot refugee is not a Belfast resident who moved to a different neighborhood to escape car bombs and gunfire. Glossing over this would be a disservice to the individuals, the complexity of the conflict, and the difficulty of any solution.
But at the same time, it’s not very useful or interesting to completely separate my reflections on each site, because it misses an opportunity to deepen my understanding of why and how people build walls, and discourages any transfer of good ideas for solutions from one place to the next. There will be some good insights on the X axis from thinking about the intersections of these three sites, both in commonalities and differences, the negative and the positive.
I’m not sure what the Y axis is at this moment. Maybe it’s the stories of exceptional circumstances, the extremes on the scatter plot, the odd man out. That’s worth thinking about too.
It’s possible I’ve posted this picture here before, because it’s one of my absolute favorites from the trip. Hiking up to the Mourne Wall this day last year was a good reminder that wall-building is a very old practice, undertaken for any number of reasons, almost an instinctive, territorial urge. Because of this, it is at once completely understandable and extremely strange that we are using this old technique for 21st century conflicts.
One of the main reasons that I am obsessed with political partition is because it is incredibly visual. Walls are extremely simple, easy to communicate, and read well as images. One of the challenges of Walking Walls was trying to make barriers look interesting and different after photographing them for 3 months straight. I remember thinking that I was grasping for ideas when I lay down in the wet grass to take this picture in Portadown one year ago today.
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.
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.
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.