Award-winning author and journalist
This essay runs in conjunction with 6 Degrees, a three-day discussion in Toronto on walls, homes and inclusion.
Poet Mourid Barghouti fled Palestine in 1967 at the birth of the now half-century old Israeli occupation. He returned to Palestine in 1997. In his memoir, I Saw Ramallah, he describes standing on the Allenby Bridge and glancing across the Jordan River at his homeland after 30 years in exile:
Who would dare make [Palestine] into a distraction now that it has declared its physical self to the senses?
It is no longer ‘the beloved’ in the poetry of resistance, or an item on a political party program, it is not an argument or a metaphor. It stretches before me, as touchable as a scorpion, a bird, a well; visible as a field of chalk, as the prints of shoes.
The political and economic realities of fortified borders are well-discussed. Politicians and engineers, and their critics, gather to debate where such barriers should go, how will they work, how much will they cost, and who will pay for them. Often lost in these discussions are the more intimate effects such barriers have on individual families, both psychologically and physically. Following the footsteps of Barghouti and other Palestinians through Israel’s border controls, checkpoints and walls reveals what it means to be a family facing these fortified edges. Their stories stand as cautionary tales for today’s wall-builders.
When the Jordan River became a border in 1967, Barghouti’s homeland became an abstraction. Palestine was reduced into a mere political argument. A distraction. A line of poetry. Barghouti’s story shows that a place rendered out of reach diminishes until it stops being a real place at all. Barghouti would bring his Cairo-born son, Tamim, to Palestine a few years later. Only breaching the border and seeing the land in the flesh restored Palestine into a tangible reality for both father and son. Only then did Palestine become the place their family came from.
Israel’s barriers complicate the definition of “home” for Palestinians, especially for the families of refugees from the 1948 war who have never seen their homeland. In 2015, I travelled to Palestine to learn about the displaced lives of Palestinian authors, like Barghouti and others. I crossed into Gaza, where a vertical wall of concrete slabs encloses two million Palestinians in a tiny strip of land on the Mediterranean. Author Mona Abu Sharekh guided me through the clean side streets of the Shati refugee camp. Eighty-five thousand refugees live in the half-kilometre shantytown, making the camp one of the most crowded places on earth.
We wandered through the market — past carts of vegetables, the stink of chickens, and groups of unemployed young men idly smoking — before entering the warren of streets that wind through most of the camp. I would’ve gotten hopelessly lost in Shati’s maze were it not for Mona. She was born in the camp and spent much of her childhood in these streets.
Mona, though, hesitates to call Shati “home.” Mona’s father’s family comes from Asqalon, just west of Jerusalem, and fled to Gaza in 1948. For Mona to describe any place but Asqalon as her home would be to concede defeat to the occupation. “But I don’t feel Asqalon is my home,” she admitted. Mona has never been there. She can see the city from the top of Gaza’s tallest buildings, but it remains unreachable, both physically and emotionally. Asqalon exists only in her father’s memory — so much so that he disapproved of Mona’s choice of husband because his family was not Asqalani. “I don’t have my life there,” Mona said. “My life is here. All the streets. All the corners of Gaza. My family are here. All my experiences. The first person I fell in love with was here. I was married here. This is the place that lives inside me.”
This is the refugee’s dilemma: to long for somewhere you do not know, and demand a return to a place you’ve never been.
By far, the most notorious of Israeli’s border fortifications is the “security barrier” around the West Bank. Israel started its wall project in the fall of 2002 during the bloodiest days of the Second Intifada. More than 650 Israeli civilians had been killed by suicide attacks since the outbreak of violence in 2000. In response, Israel designed and began to erect a 700-kilometre-long system of security barriers around the West Bank. For most of its route the barrier is a three-metre-high fence equipped with barbed wire, electronic sensors and night-vision cameras. Alongside the larger Palestinian centres, the barrier is a wall of grey concrete slabs. Floodlights and security cameras mark the length on top of the wall, and cylindrical watchtowers pose like vertical cannons along the route. I was always struck by the barrier’s concrete brashness. Its proud rejection of nuance and grace.
In his collected diaries, A River Dies of Thirst, the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish describes the wall as a “snake eager to lay its eggs between our inhalations and exhalations so that we say, for once, because we are nearly choking to death, ‘We are the strangers.’”
But the wall is not a place for metaphors, I don’t think, compelling as they are. Just as Barghouti’s glance across the bridge transformed Palestine from an argument into something “touchable,” the wall casts the idea of the occupation into a literal concrete reality. For the Palestinian families who try to navigate through — those the wall was built to enclose and exclude — the wall is not a snake or a symbol. The wall is a wall.
Barghouti knew this. In I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, he
This wall has been designed to imprison an entire human community. To imprison a morning greeting between neighbours. To imprison a grandfather’s dancing at his grandson’s wedding. To imprison the handshakes exchanged at a ceremony of mourning for the death of a relative. To imprison the hand of a mother and prevent it from holding her daughter’s when she gives birth. To separate the olive tree from the one who planted it, the student from his school, the patient from his doctor, the believer from his prayers at the mosque. It imprisons dates between teenagers.
Barghouti also wrote about the Qalandiya checkpoint that breaches the wall between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Or rather, he refused to. “There’s no need to describe the exceptional tragedies that take place here,” he wrote. “It’s enough to picture in one’s mind the density and solidity of the fortifications, their iron-ness and cement-ness, and then to picture the fragility of the human body, any human body.”
Just as a border can act upon the mind, rendering a place into something less than a place and distorting the notion of home, the border can also act upon the flesh.
I once crossed Qalandiya on a Thursday morning during Ramadan when hundreds of people were trying to get into Jerusalem in advance of prayers the following day. The ordeal began in a large shed built of corrugated steel and lit by anaemic fluorescent tubes. From here, the crowd pressed forward into a series of caged chutes — flanked by vertical steel bars and topped with a metal grate — that divided the crowd into tight single-file lines. The cages were so narrow that anyone carrying a bag or a child had to enter sideways. Barbed wire coiled above us while the floor collected discarded cellophane from cigarette packages and other trash. The steel and concrete surrounding us imposed a chill on the scene as Barghouti’s “iron-ness and cement-ness” came in contact with the warmth of human flesh.
I inched forward through my cage, then grabbed the bars of a revolving steel gate and pushed through. I emerged into another security zone with three rooms separated from each other by a concrete half-wall topped with a pane of bulletproof glass. Each room had a remotely controlled turnstile. The 50 or so Palestinians crowded in the room had to listen for the soft metallic clunk that indicated the turnstile had been opened for a few seconds. Then everyone pressed forward, those at the back shouting at those at the front to move faster. I ended up compressed alongside a family with three young boys. The surging crowd terrified the boys into tears each time the assembled mass of bodies started to push and shout. For these children, fear is the price of passage. Crossing Qalandiya means offering up your flesh — your body’s fragility, as Barghouti would say.
This sort of family trauma is not exclusive to Palestinians, of course. Three strands of barbed wire divide families along the India-Bangladesh border where cousins who used to play soccer together now eye each other with suspicion. “They are becoming more Bangladeshi now,” a young Indian farmer once told me of his family on the other side of the fence. In southern Arizona, the undocumented mother of three teenaged children constantly fears deportation across the border. “We always say in the morning that you have to have a hug and a kiss for Mom and Dad because we don’t know what is going to happen that day,” she said. I met a German woman who described how the Berlin Wall replaced normal familial relations with the one-sided transfer of consumer goods. Instead of exchanging kisses and conversation, her family was held together by packages of cocoa, chocolate and nylon stockings sent from her parents in the West to her sister and grandparents trapped in the East. The Wall’s fall collapsed this artificial relationship and revealed the family had already been shattered.
As nations rush to harden their borders — chill them with steel and bristle them with barbed wire — leaders need to remember that families despair everywhere that walls rise. Their sufferings do not appear along the dotted red lines men draw on maps. But they are there.