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.
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.
I’m fascinated by the visual language of walls and their aesthetic appearance. I don’t have any grand conclusions to draw here, but it was apparent to me that at outwardly, the Peace Walls appeared the least dangerous of those I visited on this journey. But I also know that means it’s time for a second look. In Belfast, the typical physical deterrents at borders (guards, barbed wire, multilayer fences, consequences to passage) have been internalized by people who live nearby and are complemented unflinchingly by the urban infrastructure. This wall is much stronger than it appears, and much more deadly than a garden fence.
It’s not easy to imagine how physically intimidating and oppressive the wall is until you get right next to it and feel its weight. A year ago today, I wrote about how I touched the wall for the first time. I (almost) would have liked to say that I felt some unmistakable negative energy flowing into my hand through the contact; it would have been a dramatic story. But it would have been a ridiculous lie. Instead, I felt cool, rough concrete. Nothing more. Nothing less.
However, the weight of the wall, the feeling you get from walking or standing next to it, is derived from much more than it’s physical presence as a concrete monolith. Its power is almost entirely based on the ideas, fears, and laws that guided its construction and are continuously reinforcing its structure. Concrete crumbles without symbolism and idolatry as supports.
But here we are. Cool, rough, concrete.
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.