Years ago, while visiting the Great Wall of China, I slipped past the roped-off tourist area and hiked up the steep slope beyond to see what was on the other side. What I came upon was both surprising and instructive. As the Great Wall descended into the next valley, it became little more than a line of rubble, a mound of loose stones, disappearing into the distance, the Ozymandias arrangement a far cry from the imposing presence depicted in souvenir photographs.
The Great Wall is one of the most magnificent failures in human history. It is both an illusion and a delusion. A crumbling ode to the absurdity of wall-building itself.
We live in a borderless world, one of interconnected webs and global networks. Or, at least, that's the narrative. In Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, Marcello Di Cintio brings us up against a harsher human reality. Walls exist, and no amount of postmodern musings can wish them out of existence.
I first heard about Di Cintio's project several years ago when he contacted me for advice on Belfast, a city defined by its walls. I provided some research materials, but wasn't involved in any other way with this book. In fact, I doubted whether anyone could pull off what Di Cintio was proposing. Namely, to travel to the most divided, disputed regions on earth, where violent religious, cultural, political and economic divides are made of steel and concrete, in razor wire and desert berms, to meet with people on both sides of these structures and provide a testament to the psychological, social and environmental damage they create. It seemed quixotic at best, foolhardy at worst.
I'm happy to say I was wrong. Di Cintio has pulled it off with aplomb. He takes readers into the wall-imprisoned villages along the Bangladeshi border, breaches the barriers of Western Sahara, is tailed with comic ineffectiveness by Indian security agents, and is caught up in tear-gassed protests in Palestine and bonfire riots in Belfast. He explores the tragic silliness of Cyprus, the racially tinged Spanish enclaves in North Africa, and – pointedly – brings it back to one of Canada's own barriers, the l'Acadie wall in Montreal separates Parc X from the Town of Mount Royal.
This is a remarkable book, and Di Cintio is a thoroughly engaged – and engaging – traveller and wordsmith. He shares tea with desert nomads, visits holding camps filled with broken-dreamed West African and Punjabi migrants, and – most dangerous of all, perhaps – travels the U.S.-Mexican border alongside a gun-toting, yet oddly endearing, redneck environmentalist.
Di Cintio meets the artists and activists who are working to subvert these barriers: poets in the West Bank, painters in Belfast and a musician who is turning the U.S.-Mexican wall into a 2,000-mile-long musical instrument. Di Cintio runs a 10-kilometre marathon in the Sahara, quotes Dr. Seuss, is caustically understated in his depiction of Israel's security walls, and is ultimately defeated (as I was) by the complex absurdities of Northern Ireland's Protestant/Catholic divide.
The security perimeters Di Cintio visits go by various, often Orwellian names: "peace lines" and "green lines," "friendship walls" and "preventative structures." They are often referred to, by the authorities who erect them, as "fences," which suggests neighbourly chats over backyard pickets. But with Di Cintio's unflinching portrayal, they all become Walls – with a capital W.
"The Wall does not defend," he writes, "it defines."
A line drawn on a map, even an arbitrary line – especially an arbitrary line – shapes us in ways no one can predict. Building a wall, after all, is an act of both exclusion and inclusion; it shapes the people on both sides of the line.
"To resist barriers is a human instinct," Di Cintio reminds us. "Walls and fences dare us to defeat them, to find a way over, under, or around."
Di Cintio describes the divisions these walls produce as Frankenstein monsters, "easier to create than control." He writes of "bullet-blistered buildings" and the "medieval clarity" of barricades. And when he compared the endless – and ever-increasing – number of walls that slice up Belfast to someone with a compulsion to cut himself or herself, I kicked myself for not having come up with the same imagery when I wrote about the self-inflicted wounds of that divided city.
The walls Di Cintio visits show no signs of coming down, but the underlying human spirit – the small, defiant hopes and everyday heroism of the people faced with these barriers, and the communities along them that refuse to be cleaved – is, in its own strange way, uplifting.
Travel writer and novelist Will Ferguson is the author of Beyond Belfast and, most recently, the literary thriller 419. He lives in Calgary with his wife, Terumi, and their two sons.
Editor's note: The l'Acadie wall in Montreal separates Parc X from the Town of Mount Royal. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.