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.
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.
This time last year, I was back in Dublin after a week of roughing it in rural Ireland. The amenities of the city were a welcome change, and the weather was finally cooperating. I was set to go back to Belfast the next morning for one more week of Walking Walls. At this point, the project was winding down and I was spending lots of time editing and writing and thinking, and less time pounding pavement and meeting people. I still had a substantial punch list for the last week in the North, but by now, my travels felt like they had more to do with killing time and pinching pennies than the intense pace I set at the beginning.
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.
On this day in 2012, I went down to Silwan again. While I was there, young men and women with guns carried a number of heavy bags into the City of David “National Park.” This event is far more strange in my memory than I found it at the time. In Israel/Palestine, there is nothing very unusual about young men and women with gun carrying heavy bags, or doing any number of things, although there should be.
There’s not much to say about January 29th and 30th, 2012. At this time last year, I was experiencing my first bad bout of sickness away from home. It was a mysterious bug that waylaid me for two days, a frustrating and unpleasant time. I also developed a deep mistrust of red lentils, the only unfamiliar food I ate before getting sick.
According to a tweet that I posted last year at this time, I spent some of the two days working on the postcards that I sent as part of the fulfillment for the crowdsourcing campaign that helped finance Walking Walls. Writing these postcards was a lot of work (there were 3 rounds of 43, one round per country) but I’m really glad that it was a part of the experience. Loads of people told me after the fact how much they loved receiving them, and I think the role they played in allowing others to be a part of the journey was an extremely valuable way to build community around this project.
So maybe these days weren’t a total loss after all. I’m not planning to post tomorrow as this reflection addresses both the 29th and 30th.