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Do walls work?

Are walls monuments to failure, asks TIMERI N. MURARI.

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The "barrier" at Kfar Saba in Israel.

DO walls work? I wonder.

They are necessary to support the roof of a house. However, do Walls work to divide cities and people?

They are necessary to support the roof of a house. However, do Walls work to divide cities and people?

The new converts to building Walls are the Israelis. They are building a wall through Bethlehem to keep certain Palestinians out. The Israelis are evicting the Palestinians from their homes and sacred places to accommodate the Wall. I do not know how high or how long this Wall will be. Walls, like these, have a tendency to grow both in height and in length. Walls, like medieval fortresses, cut both ways. This Wall will also keep the Israelis in.

Bethlehem is the birthplace of Christ; read whatever symbolism you want into this Wall. It is ironic that the Israelis have taken a leaf out of the German (East) belief in the Wall Theory to control the movements of people. The infamous Berlin Wall, was started at midnight on August 13, 1961 and by the time it was completed, the Wall was four metres high and 166 kilometres long. The East Germans too forced their people out of their homes and bricked up the doors and windows. So, homes became a part of the Wall. The German theory was that the Wall kept West Berliners out. It also, ostensibly, kept East Germans and East Berliners in. That Wall never worked, despite border patrols and guard dogs and searchlights. Many East Germans defied the Wall, and many died crossing over it. Many survived the crossing too. It came down in 1989; razed by the citizens of Berlin and not governments. They took ordinary hammers to the Wall, and shattered it.

No doubt, the Israelis will refine their Wall too. No doubt, it will grow too. There will be barbed wire, Wall patrols, guard dogs and searchlights. Many Palestinians will die crossing this Wall. These will be the terrorists the Wall was built to contain. In that blood soaked land, it is hard to define who the terrorists are, as many innocents die too.

The most famous Wall was the Great Wall of China. It can be seen from the moon and every modern day tourist is photographed standing on the Wall. It was not meant to become a tourist attraction. Nor was the Berlin Wall. However, these strange things happen to Walls of this nature. The Chinese emperor Shih-Huang-Ti of the Qin dynasty began building the Great Wall in 221 B.C. and completed his portion of it by 204. B.C. When he died, it was 1,900 km long. Later emperors extended his grand efforts to protect China and lengthened the Wall to 2,400 km. The average height of the Great Wall is 7.6 metres and the width around nine metres. The theory behind this Wall was to keep out the nomadic tribes that were raiding China. Obviously, the Wall did not work as, a few centuries later, the Mongols swept over and around it to invade China, and rule it briefly.

I am sure there had been many Walls before the Great Wall, though not so magnificently conceived and executed. And there have been many Walls since. Walls do not have to be built of brick and mortar. Walls can be invisible, though clearly defined in a people's mind. The original Walls, before authorities thought of physical Walls, divided people into their social classes. There were the Aristocrats, the Priests and the Peasants, to keep it simple, separated by such inviolate Walls throughout the history of man and well into the 20th Century. In many European cities, there were Walled-in areas where the Jews had to live. These were the ghettoes. In the last century, Revolts and Revolutions demolished these Walls, especially in Europe. The French demolished their social Wall in a Revolution that took place a century earlier. The people themselves razed those Walls and, though Europe is not exactly classless, the divisions are blurred, and not so harshly defined. Churchill called the Soviet Russian Wall, the Iron Curtain. Iron was no stronger than brick and mortar. In the 1980s, Glasnost drew aside that curtain. Even as a Wall, more a no-man's land, still divides South from North Korea. In India, our mental Walls remain firmly in place and well defined, either through caste or through religion.

Our newest nation on the planet was also quick to build its Walls. America's first Walls, as the European settlers spread out across the land, constantly moving west, were the Reservations. The American Indians (Native American) in their time were the terrorists. The Apache, Sioux, Mohican, Comanche and other tribes, fighting losing battles against the superior numbers and superior firepower of the invaders, conducted guerrilla strikes again the settlers. They killed with bows and arrows and spears and, later, guns. They did not possess bombs. Once they were subdued (read defeated and demoralised), they were penned within the Wall. The Wall (Reservation) was supposedly meant to protect them but the Reservations were only prisons to contain and be rid of them, finally.

The other famous American Wall in the south was Segregation. Black people (African Americans) knew exactly where the Wall stood between them and the white folk. It was a fluid Wall that ran through restaurants and buses, schools and churches. A Wall does not have to be solid; it is instilled in the minds of the suppressed. It is also a weapon of terror, especially when it is invisible and in the mind. When do you know you have crossed it? A look, a word spoken out of place, could be your end. The Americans fought a civil war partly because of that Wall. It fell finally only in the 1960s and the 1970s. The South African Apartheid Wall, that saw the condemnation of that country for decades, equally suddenly collapsed.

So, how long, both in length and in time, will this Bethlehem Wall exist? There is no doubt it will grow longer. It is the nature of these Walls. It will encircle the Palestinians, even as the Reservation encircled the Native American a century ago. Every Wall comes with its own baggage that cannot be contained by it. The Wall never grants the wishes for which it was built. A Wall does not bring peace of mind, security or serenity to the people who build the Wall. A Wall only becomes a challenge for the people it is meant to contain or exclude. They will devise ways and means over and around it, even as the Mongols breached the Great Wall of China.

The Bethlehem Wall reveals only that man has exhausted his imagination, and compassion, to deal with a people whom he desires to exclude from his vision of the Promised Land. We have not progressed far since 221 B.C. The Bethlehem Wall, like all Walls, is only a monument to failure. One day, the toot of a trumpet could bring it tumbling down. Like that Wall in Jericho.

Timeri N. Murari has written 12 novels and two works of non-fiction that have been published in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. He has also written and directed films and stage plays. Visit the writer at www.timerimurari.com

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