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Walls: Travels Along the Barricades

by Marcello Di Cintio

Ursula K. Le Guin begins her seminal novel The Dispossessed with a characteristically simple yet profound observation about a wall: “Like all walls it was ambiguous and two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.” This assertion could well have been Marcello Di Cintio’s call to arms for his exploration of the human compulsion to build, transgress, and resist barriers and barricades of all kinds.

In Walls, Di Cintio travels the globe, from Morocco to Israel to the U.S.-Mexico border – and even to Montreal’s l’Acadie fence – to examine the lives shaped by these instruments of division. This is, however, no superficial travelogue. Di Cintio immerses himself in his chosen locations, providing historical background and rich reportage of the many social and political realities of being walled in (or out). What emerges is a collection of interrelated vignettes full of dense descriptions and fascinating characters that give the reader a true sense of place.

The overarching theme is how identities are defined by separation and demarcation. Di Cintio shows how social classes, religious affiliations, and nationalities are hewn, often by political fiat from faraway places. In this narrative, walls themselves have considerable agency to form and disfigure people. There is an inherent violence to them, even when they are erected specifically to bring peace. But so, too, do they inspire creativity and courage among those who would cross them or simply subvert them with art or messages of unity.

Di Cintio’s ethnographic method is the perfect approach to his subject. He is at the centre of his story, but this is far from gonzo journalism; instead, it is a deeply humane, honest, and even cautious account by an outsider who seeks as much as possible to understand local contexts. It is a story told from below that shows how everyday lives are affected by big-picture politics, and a challenge to our historical urge to construct order out of steel and stone rather than through dialogue.