Walls: Travels Along the Barricades
Marcello Di Cintio
Union Books, 288pp, £14.99
In Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, there is a small display of Wall fragments. Next to this are panels showing the erection of the “Anti- Fascist Protection Rampart” in 1961. On one of them, at one point, was graffiti across the East/West Berlin border, with “USA” and “Mexico” written on each side. That scribble does not feature in Marcello Di Cintio’s Walls but it may as well have. This travel book is an exploration of the surviving walls that mark borders and bifurcate urban areas all over the world. The Berlin Wall is hardly mentioned because it no longer exists – but it was also, Di Cintio writes, deeply unusual as walls go. Despite its name, it was built to keep people in. Those built to keep people out – of Spain, of the US, of Israel, of the Short Strand – have proven considerably more enduring.
Timely as the book is, there are absences. No gated communities are included, although Di Cintio is sharp on the various euphemisms – gates, fences, “peace lines” – used to make walls sound like something other than walls. His book has a wide geographical sweep. Beginning with the walls built by Morocco to control insurgents in the Western Sahara, it takes in the West Bank wall, the fortifi – cations built recently along the border between India and Bangladesh and, in a final and welcome surprise, the barrier in his native Canada that divides the “garden city” of Mount Royal and the working-class district of Parc-Extension in Montreal – erected in the 1950s and still standing.
The most penetrating chapters are those either on walls that bisect small areas – such as Belfast or Nicosia in Cyprus – or on those that run through geopolitical fault lines, as in Israel/Palestine, the US/Mexico and Spain/ Morocco, where the first and third worlds rub up against each other.
Along with the geographical sweep come all the conventions of travel writing. Like most genres, travel writing is an acquired taste, a peculiarly middle-class genre in which authors describe at length the smells, tastes and picturesque customs of a given area and very seldom bother to explain how they managed to get to the place they’re writing about or how they came to know these eloquent people from all walks of life. As writers in this mode go, Di Cintio is very good – honest, sharp, nuanced and vivid – but it’s hard not to be constantly distracted by apparently irrelevant questions such as: “How do you just go to Western Sahara and hang out with guerrillas in tents in the desert? Do you just turn up? Was it just luck that your two guides in Belfast turned out to be ex-members of the IRA and UDA?” It’s not that I doubt his veracity but that he seems able to teleport between places.
This approach has its virtues – the descriptions of landscape and townscape are acute, whether they are his vivid renderings of the deserts in the Western Sahara and Arizona (he keeps his eyes open, because the sand doesn’t scrape your eyes as sharply that way) or his accounts of the baroque streets of Ceuta and Melilla on the Spanish-Moroccan border or the tiny enclaves and exclaves that make up residential Belfast.
His sympathies are with the oppressed and he mostly avoids sentimentality. He is angry but unprejudiced in the West Bank; he notes the huge death rates of immigrants trying to walk through the sliver of unwalled land on the US-Mexico border; and he recounts some painful stories told to him by those trying to escape to Spain and hence Europe through Ceuta. The historical asides are unobtrusive and erudite, particularly in reminding us how much the British empire’s careless partitions of Ireland and India have created intractable problems. Yet all of this entails enjoyment of passages such as his description of how, wandering near the Bangladesh-India border in Bengal, he drinks some Assam tea and realises: “I’d never drunk fresh tea before. Compared to this vegetal richness, the tea that emerges from the dry bags I soak in Canada tastes like iron filings.” And how, while rioters in Palestine have grace, those in Belfast are lumpen.
All of this is part of the genre. If you want an account of these proliferating new borders and architectures of security, seek out Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege and Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land, which provide more detail, more context, more analysis and more strategies for fighting the barriers.
What is memorable in Walls is its deep pessimism. Whenever a dismantlement appears to be imminent, as in Nicosia, inertia and cynicism invariably win out over the let’s-allhold- hands anti-politics of the UN and the NGOs. In Belfast, Di Cintio notes the removal of the “peace line” that once divided a park in Ardoyne but considers the underground wall that runs between the Catholic and Protestant sections of the Belfast City Cemetery to be “a more relevant symbol than the image of little girls frolicking through a gate that opens every once in a while”. The constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people are not only enduring but thriving.
Owen Hatherley’s most recent book is “A New Kind of Bleak” (Verso, £12.99)