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How do walls change society? This writer travelled the world to find out

A Palestinian demonstrator flashes the V-sign after placing a Palestinian flag atop the controversial Israeli barrier during a protest marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the West Bank village of Nilin November 6, 2009.


Update: Marcello Di Cintio received the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing Wednesday night. He spoke to the Globe recently about his book.

This is part of a series of interviews with authors nominated for a political-writing prize. Read about how amalgamation hurt Montreal and Noah Richler on how we talk about war.

Marcello Di Cintio did not set out to write a book about politics.

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Walls: Travels Along the Barricades was intended as a travelogue – a collection of personal stories about the people who live in the shadow of the physical barriers that human beings have constructed to block themselves off from one another.

But the Calgary writer's journey though Morocco, Israel, Palestine, India, Cyprus, Montreal, Belfast, the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere is much more than a collection of vignettes about lives that have been dictated by the proximity of a wall. It is a denouncement of the stone, steel and barbed-wire structures that have been created to separate peoples on the basis of religion, ethnicity and social class.

Mr. Di Cintio said in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail that he is thrilled to be one of the nominees for this year's Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and also surprised that a travel book was considered. But it is clear, he said, that the nature of disputed boundaries and the walls that define them is very much political.

What is it about walls that fascinates you and where did this interest begin?

I was first drawn to the topic after seeing firsthand the wall around the West Bank. I saw it in 2004 for the first time. I had read about it in the media like everyone else but standing in the shadow of this audacious structure it really struck me. And I wondered what was it like to actually be somebody who has to live in the shadow of this thing.

After returning home from that trip I started to do a little bit of research and I realized how many of these walls we have built as human societies and how many we are continuing to build. There seems to be an acceleration of the building of these things. That struck me too, because we should be living in a borderless world. For everything else there are no walls ... There are no walls for our economy so we can trade with anyone else around the world. There are no walls around communications. I can pick up my cellphone and call someone in Cairo if I want right now. There are no walls around culture. The same movies and music that are produced in one part of the world are played in the bars and the pubs in another part of the world.

How did you choose which walls you went to for your book?

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What I wanted to do was to go places where there were so-called 'important' walls, walls that people talk about. So Israel-Palestine, of course, and the U.S.-Mexico border, as well at the walls that people don't talk about so much, the western Sahara being one, and the Indian-Bangladesh fencing along that border being another. And then I wanted to go from big national borders to things more intimate. So going from the U.S.-Mexico border to Belfast where the walls carve the city up into these tiny little enclaves.

What have you learned about the Canadian experience, then, seeing the walls around the world and seeing the ones here in Canada? Is there something that speaks to Canadians about walls?

What I wanted Canadians to see is that we have the luxury of standing far away from these things, to see the walls as symbols and as representations. The wall is a symbol of fear, a symbol of hatred, a symbol of failure, all this sort of stuff ... And yet, these places are not representations, they are human societies. For the people who live there, the walls aren't symbols, the walls are walls. The walls are made of concrete and steel. They are something physical that is standing between them and where they want to be, or a physical structure keeping them out.

What can you say has been common to all the walls that you visited?

In every case, the walls fail. They fail to accomplish what they set out to accomplish. Or, at least they fail to accomplish what people have been told they were built for. Every single wall can be defeated and, in my book, I show you ways that people have subverted the walls. I tell those stories all the time. The walls also almost all act as theatre. The walls often project a sense of security which is different to actual security. In every single case the walls create an enemy, they create an us and a them or create an other. And the walls suggest everywhere that whoever is on the other side of this wall is my enemy. Whoever is on the other side of this wall means to do me harm. Even if that's not true, there is a suggestion that there is something wrong with the people on the other side.

I was on the India-Bangladesh border talking to a farmer. And forever that border has meant nothing. At certain parts along that borderline, the people who live on one side and the people who live on the other are the same people. They are in the same families, they speak the same language, they eat the same foods and worship the same gods and read the same poetry. And they never noticed the border before. Now, all of a sudden, there is a triple layer of barbed wire fence on that line. And I heard these farmers telling me "Oh we shouldn't associate with the people on the other side any more." And I said: "Why?" And one of the guys said: "They are becoming more Bangladeshi." And I said: "What does that even mean?" And they didn't know. And, to me, what was really shocking was how a structure as simple as a fence – what's more simple a technology, what's more simple an architecture – but even something as basic as that has the ability to constitute strange emotional effects and complicated emotional and psychological effects on the people living near them.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

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