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.
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.
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.
We may not be able to control how the cards fall when walls are built by states that are motivated by fear. We can protest, be arrested, go to court, but there too often comes a time when the foundation has been built and division is cemented on the ground, and these measures become less effective because it is harder to bring a wall down than to leave it there. Walls, after all, are about limiting these options, beating your path for you by dictating where you can and cannot go, what experiences you have, and implying what you should think about the other side by making it almost impossible not to think in us-versus-them terms.
But when walls change the rules, we can choose what they represent to us. If we are taken in by their unfeeling, monolith blocks, if we live in fear of their prickly-poking barbed wire, if we treat them as the alpha and omega of our world, then they have won, and things will begin to unravel around them accordingly as people’s conceptions of their place in the world shrink and spiral. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the cruelest variety; the walls themselves lack agency in this process, it is entirely based on how people act around them. If those who guard the wall worship it as their idol, they will destroy anyone who thinks otherwise. If those who oppose the wall cannot see through it’s sham, they too will fall under its spell of violent dichotomy. If we choose to empower walls and the places they inhabit with the mystic fear of the edge of the world and monsters unknown, we surrender ourselves to base human behavior as the walls come to represent the edge of our minds, reflecting the fear, doubt, and lack of reason that lurks there.
I do not know much about bringing walls down because they are so often resilient to attacks that humans can muster. If we let them, they will grow larger in our minds and should brick and mortar ever crumble, our eyes will be unaccustomed to the sunlight revealed by cracks and holes. But by refusing to worship the walls, we can prevent the edges they create from fraying and curling upon themselves, burned. If we reject the idolatry that has always been so tempting for humans, and instead maintain a vision that extends beyond the concrete plane that surrounds us, subverting the wall for a higher, and more difficult purpose: human relationships. I do not know much about bringing walls down, but if we can see through them, we will be ready when they fall.
I’ve been working on the Walking Walls book for a little more than a month now, on the weekends, and I think it’s far enough along to release a little more information. The whole thing will likely come in around 100 pages. There are five chapters:
Introduction – to the project and conflicts
Key Concepts – walls as a site of security vs. conflict, walls in geographic space or not, and walls as symptoms of a greater ill
My Experience – outlined by revealing moments in Abu Dis, Palestine, middle of nowhere, North Cyprus, and Shankill/Falls, Belfast
Others’ Experience – short description and a quote from various individuals, opposite their portrait
No, I don’t have an anticipated release date, I don’t know how it will be published (ideas and solicitations welcome!), and I likely don’t know much more than I’ve outlined here. Nonetheless, I’ve found it to be a very enjoyable process so far, and feel good about what I’ve done. In that spirit, I’d like to share two mockup pages and would really appreciate any feedback on design, writing, layout, anything. The first page is from the introduction:
The second is an excerpt from “My Experience,” probably the section that feels most vulnerable and scary:
Again, any comments or ideas are very welcome.
How do maps address divided space and occupied territories?
This map was produced by B’Tselem and shows where the separation barrier has been built, has been approved to be built, and where the green line is. Yes, these are three different places. Naturally, the most complicated part of the map is the area around Jerusalem, where lines snake and weave. It’s just as messy on the ground.
I got this map from a lady in a booth right after the passing through the Lidra Street checkpoint to enter North Cyprus. This cartographer solved an awkward problem by simply omitting all detail in the Republic of Cyprus. Here there be dragons.
This is an official tourist map courtesy of the Republic of Cyprus and a Carleton alum who marked it up for me with helpful notes. The area to the north of the Buffer Zone contains some sketches of streets (I wonder if they’re accurate?) but otherwise notes resignedly, “Area under Turkish occupation since 1974.” I wonder if this phenomenon can be partly attributed to the two sides competing for tourist attention? (Maybe they won’t visit if they don’t know what’s over there..) Every map has an argument.
Unsurprisingly, my maps of Belfast never marked the Peace Walls. The Walls do not denote any sort of change in rules for the powers that be, only for the people that live there, so the Walls are not added to maps. Furthermore, it would be an unsightly blemish to wares in the Belfast Tourist Center, where I acquired this booklet. So, it was up to me to look up the locations I needed to visit, and mark them on my guidebook, sometimes with an R or L for Republican or Loyalist, so I could remember which side was which when I visited. My entire collection of maps is marked up with these lines and notes.
I wonder how someone living in these neighborhoods would map their city or world? Sounds like another project…
My latest fascination related to European history and borders is embodied by this video:
There are a couple things that really strike me here:
1. The fluctuation on the British Isles. Scotland, Ireland, and Wales alternate between independence and being sucked up by England’s imperial gravity over the course of the video.
2. The long fragmentation of ‘Germany’, particularly as other nation-states become larger and seemingly more unified around it.
3. The amazing music choice, somehow making 1000 years of European war and conquest more dramatic than it already is.
But these are just minor observations. What I really want to talk about is the last 20 seconds of the video, the last 70 years it represents, and how we understand the permanence of borders.
So go back and watch the last part, starting after World War II where the purple of Nazi Germany is squeezed off the map. After this there is a minor shake-up, and then, calm. For the three-second period that represents the Cold War,nothing changes. This is astonishing after having watched the European map morph unrecognizably for the last three minutes. At 3:16, the Iron Curtain falls, the Soviet Union collapses, and Eastern Europe gets rearranged, while Western Europe remains still. Overall, this 70-year period from World War II to the present day sees significantly fewer fluctuations of borders and territory than almost any other 70-year period throughout the rest of the video.
In the long view, 70 years is not much time, and the medium of the timelapse illustrates this perfectly, giving equal weight to each year as an impartial observer. My lived history, the German division that gets my heart racing and my fingers reaching for the pause button, the Nazi occupation which looks so terrifying on this screen, are all treated equally, as the format cannot understand or accommodate which events resonate with its viewers, which movement of lines and colors changed lives. It is the combination of this equality inflicted by the medium, and the familiarity of the last 70 years by virtue of the human lifespan, which makes this period stand out and demand special consideration.
Europe has become an ‘easy’ place to travel, a summer destination for college students and retirees alike, comfortable, peaceful, and relatively well-off.
It’s easy to forget that this is a new development for a weary continent.
When we learn geography, it’s too often from the perspective of “this is how things are” not “this is how things are…for now.” My lifetime alone has seen the fall of the Soviet Union, the dawn of the European Union, Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty, the construction of the Israeli Separation Barrier, South Sudan’s secession, the rise (and fall?) of the economic borders of the Eurozone. And despite this, I still have an overwhelming, gut reaction to regard current borders as the Alpha and Omega of political geography, because stuff like this feels real:
But my fascination with borders comes from the inevitable yet improbable changes they undergo, physically, mentally, geographically, politically. It’s easy to forget that these changes happen at all when you’re standing at the base of a 30-foot wall. But this timelapse of European borders reminds me that these changes happened both 1000 years ago and in my lifetime, and in all likelihood, they will happen again, for better or worse. Changing borders requires daily work, maybe a watershed moment, but also patience to remember the long view and appreciate the passage of time, because stuff like this is real, too: