Marcello Di Cintio on his book Walls

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First aired on Q (2/1/13)

They are the go-to solution for governments the world over, and their numbers have only increased since the Berlin Wall came down almost 25 years ago. But author Marcello Di Cintio rejects the notion that "good fences make good neighbours." The Calgary writer spent more than four years researching security barriers in Israel, India, Mexico, Belfast and elsewhere, and he presents his anti-wall argument in Walls: Travels Along the Barricades. The book is on the longlist for the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and was named one of the top 100 books of 2012 by the Globe and Mail.


"My interest in [walls] started with a trip I made to Israel-Palestine in 2004," he said in a recent interview on Q. "I'd been there before, in 1999. And I'd walked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, which sounds very biblically epic, but really it's just a 90-minute walk along a sidewalk." The most remarkable thing, Di Cintio told guest host Jim Brown, was that "you couldn't really tell where Jerusalem ended and Bethlehem began." But on his return visit, he found that the security barrier that was now in place created a clear demarcation. He was struck by the wall's "concrete audacity," and began to wonder what it was like to live alongside it.

When Di Cintio started to do more research, he discovered that there's been a world-wide boom in wall-building. "We live in a connected world, and yet we're putting up more and more barricades. It seems like a throwback to a medieval time," he said, adding that everything else, like communications, commerce and even culture, is wall-less. "Even the things we're afraid of...terrorism, bird flu, there's no borders. Yet here we are building literal walls."

His initial idea, Di Cintio admitted, was to explore "what are these walls the symbols of?" But he came to realize that for the people who lived there "they're not symbols at all. They're walls. They are physical entities." Only those who live at a distance, he added, "have the luxury of seeing them as representations of something, as symbols. For those who live there, they are concrete barriers standing in front of their windows, standing between themselves and their school and their fields and their orchards. And that's what I really wanted to look at. The physical intimacy with these structures."

In Walls, Di Cintio also deals with the phenomenon of tourists who go to these sites and write messages of peace on the walls, a practice he sees as "superficial" and self-serving. "The people who live there hate this stuff," he said.

And although Di Cintio spent time living alongside these walls, he draws a crucial distinction between his experiences and that of the locals. As a Canadian, he had the ability to pass through with his passport. "But that's not the reality for the people who live there," he said.

Di Cinto views the walls "not as a solution to tensions but as a surrender to them." He couldn't cite any instance in which the walls were in the best interests of the people they were meant to serve. "In every single case, those barricades preserve the conflict they are meant to address."

Di Cintio argues that barriers are essentially uncreative, but that creativity is involved in their subversion. In the course of researching the book, he encountered people who came up with inventive ways of getting around them. He also met artists who have subverted the walls by transforming them in one way or another, through art. He described a Belfast artist's way of making the wall disappear, in a sense, by pasting "high-resolution, life-size photos on each side of the wall of what the landscape would be like without the wall."

Even those who feel protected by a barrier "are affected in a negative way," according to Di Cintio. He cited an East German psychiatrist who observed that people who lived in close proximity to the Berlin Wall suffered psychological disorders in higher rates than other people. He saw the same thing in his travels. "The walls create an enemy and with that comes fear."

Di Cintio struggled with writing the ending of Walls, caught between pessimism and optimism. "It's a human impulse to build these things. We're not going to stop. But at the same time, I argue that perhaps it's a greater human impulse to tear them down. The better part of us wants to tear these things down," he said. "They're an affront to what it means to be human."

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