Divide and conquer
[Q&A] Building walls to divide people may sound barbaric, but it is a phenomena that has withstood the age of time. To this day, nations continue to build walls that divide and separate lands, families, and villages. Fascinated by this historic, yet present-day practice, Calgary born and raised writer Marcello Di Cintio explores life behind the barriers in his newest book, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades. A graduate from the University of Calgary with a degree in microbiology and English, Di Cintio has turned the world into his laboratory, where he often travels to investigate the cultures and traditions around him. The Carillon spoke with the author about his latest book, and the building of these barriers.
The Carillon: What interested you about walls?
Di Cintio: I’ve been to Israel and Palestine in 1999, before the wall [was built]…But when I returned to the region in 2004 … [I found a] 40-foot concrete barrier with a sign that said, ‘Peace Be With You’… and to me it was shocking. I had read about the wall but to be standing in the face of it…it was really something else. After seeing that, I did a little bit of research, and Israel isn't the only one putting up these walls. We’ve been doing it forever, as a human species, and we’re doing it even more now. That last bit was interesting to me…We are supposed to be living in a high tech world there’s no walls to economics, no walls to communication, even [in] culture there’s no walls; the same songs we hear in Calgary we hear in Algiers. There’s no borders. Even stuff that we fear, terrorism, is a borderless phenomena. Yet at the same time that we have all this digital borderlessness, we are building the most ancient, basic, and medieval structures.
The Carillon: Do you think these walls are more than physical barriers, but have a figurative meaning behind them?
Di Cintio: My first thought was that I was going to…write about what these walls meant. What was their figurative, symbolic meaning? Do these walls represent ancient hatred? Do they represent racism? Do they represent fear? But, when I started to travel, I realized pretty quickly that for people who live in physical proximity to these things, the walls aren’t symbols. They’re walls. They’re these physical barriers that separate them from where they want to be. Only us, standing so far away from them, have the luxury of talking of these things as symbols. For people they affect, they’re not symbols at all.
The Carillon: You make an interesting point in your book, differentiating between the word wall, and the word fence. Can you elaborate on this?
Di Cintio: I think naming is very important. For example, the East Germans, who built the Berlin Wall, it was illegal to call it a wall. They called it the ‘anti-fascist protection bulwark,’ a very soviet, cold-war type of name. The Israelis don’t call their wall a wall, either. It’s a ‘separation barrier’ or ‘security fence.’ The word ‘wall’ suggests something villainous. There’s something bad about a wall, and there’s something less bad about a fence. As I say in the book, a fence is a place that separates you from your neighbor, with white pickets, and you can lean over it and borrow a cup of sugar. The barriers that I went to write about, even when they’re not…physically walls, behave as walls. They don’t let anyone go through. They are restrictive, and they are oppressive. The word fence does not encapsulate that.
The Carillon: Is there any resistance to these walls?
Di Cintio: I think it’s human nature to resist a wall. When we’re kids, we see a door that’s marked ‘Keep Out,’ and at the very least we’re going to touch the doorknob. We’re attracted to that idea. I saw resistance all the time. Whether it was orchestrated and organized resistance, especially in Palestine where you saw demonstrations against the wall, or whether it was on a very person to person level, where I met lots of people who somehow physically subverted their walls: the African guy who climbed over the barb-wire fence, the Mexican woman who tunneled under through the sewage drainage pipes underneath the US-Mexico border, three men crossing a mine field in the Western Sahara. Those are the greatest stories that I saw.
And then, the other one too, which I think is really interesting the artists who somehow subvert the walls, by transforming them into something else through art. My favourite [is a] guy in Arizona who’s a musician, he plays the wall. He plays it with drumsticks, he bows the barbed wire with a cello bow, and he makes these weird recordings of what the wall sounds like. He says, ‘what I’m doing is kind of crazy … but so is the wall itself.’
The Carillon: What was your experience like being inside these walled societies, but also having the opportunity to leave, and be walled out?
Di Cintio: The bulk of my focus was on the people who the wall was specifically built for. However, if you look at the Israeli-West Bank wall, for example, the Israelis who live far from the wall, which are most Israelis, they support it. They believe the wall is protecting them, it offers this sense of ‘security’.
I talked to this guy on the US-Mexico border – he lives right on the border, he sees people come over all the time – men, women, children, and he made this joke, and he says, ‘you have some lard-ass in Dubuque, Iowa who’s just watching TV and he sees a picture of this fence and thinks, ‘that’ll stop the migrants from coming.’ It might stop a fat slob like him, but not some motivated Mexican worker trying to come up.’
But, it struck me midway through these travels how, in a way, I was betraying the whole process – the fact that I could go through all these walls. As a Canadian, I was able to pass wherever I wanted to go … I was taking it for granted, just kind of weaving back and forth throughout these lines, when the people who lived there either couldn’t physically do, or [were] absolutely terrified to do.
The Carillon: You make a beautiful point in the book saying, “Walls can’t stop stories from being told,” can you tell me more about this.
Di Cinitio: I didn’t know how to end the book; to be optimistic or pessimistic. Even though this seems to be a human compulsion, to build these [walls], the greater human compulsion seems to be to tear them down. In honour of those people who I’ve met who did do that – who subverted [the walls, or]…who are working tirelessly to either take the walls down physically – because of them, the walls will eventually come down.
As long as those resisters are still out there, then those stories will continue to be told. All the places I’ve visited were sad places, places of emotional and physical pain, but I was so inspired by those people working so hard to take those things down. Those stories will get out.
Di Cintio will be visiting Regina on Feb. 26, 7:00 PM at the Artful Dodger to talk about his recent book.
Photo courtesy of Marcello Di Cintio