Author explores walls that divide us

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November 7, 2012

 

Walls
Travels Along the Barricades
By Marcello Di Cintio
Published by Goose Lane
287 pages, $29.95

 

Reviewed by Andy Ogle

When one thinks of walls these days, one’s mind travels immediately to Israel’s ongoing attempt to wall out the Palestinians on the West Bank. Or one might recall the Berlin Wall and marvel that it has already been 23 years since it came down.

Marcello Di Cintio does go to the West Bank and he does discuss the Berlin Wall, but he begins his travel with barriers that most North American readers have likely never heard of — in the Western Sahara, at two Spanish enclaves in Morroco, and the barrier still being extended that separates India from Bangladesh. He even finds a homegrown example — l’Acadie fence that separates the well-off anglo enclave of the town of Mount Royal and the largely immigrant, lower-class community of Parc-Extension in Montreal. I confess they were all news to me.

That novelty in itself is one time-honoured feature of good travel writing — taking readers to exotic foreign places or unknown corners of one’s own country. But Di Cintio’s goal is much more ambitions than that. He wants to understand what these walls mean for the people who live against them, those for whom they were built to include or exclude.

“I wondered what it meant to live a barricaded life,” he writes. “I wanted to discover what sort of societies created the walls. More than this, I wanted to know what societies the walls themselves created.”

So, in February 2008, “because it seemed as good a place to start as any,” he flew into the Sahara Desert. Three years later, he finished his quest in Montreal, having more than succeeded in meeting his goals.

Among the lessons he learns is that walls often don’t entirely succeed in their primary purpose of keeping out those who want in — most notably the U.S. Mexican border fence and the barriers at Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves that are essentially the southernmost reaches of the European Union.

What the walls do succeed at — and here Israel’s wall, the Indo-Bangladshi fence, the barriers dividing Catholic from Protestant neighbourhoods in Belfast and the wall that separates Greek and Turkish Cypriots serve as key examples —is to reinforce in concrete and barbed wire the sense of us and them. “With unambiguous authority,” Di Cintio says of his stay on Cyprus, “the Wall declares, You are either Turkish or Greek.” Even on this tiny island, anything Cypriots might share is rendered irrelevant.

The walls also throw up an uncomfortable truth for Di Cintio. As an outsider, it’s easy for him to flit back and forth across the barricades. But they also, as he puts it, scoff at neutrality. To play the role of objective journalist, to talk with those on both sides and refuse to take sides is, he decides, to occupy a sort of no-man’s land, his own private “Dead Zone.”

Yet, at the heart of Di Cintio’s book lies the practice of journalism, of finding people on both sides of the barriers, be they the nomadic Saharawi, African and Punjabi refugees in Ceuti or the gun-toting but surprisingly anti-fence redneck in Arizona, willing and often eager to share their experiences and lives. Walls (long-listed for the $40,000 B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction) succeeds largely on that basis. Di Cintio’s willingness to go beyond mere reportage, to ponder his role in the story, lifts it to an even higher level.

Andy Ogle is a former reporter at the Edmonton Journal

 

 

 

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