Adonis Diaries

Archive for November 26th, 2013

New walls to divide who? Our walled world…

Almost a quarter of a century after the Iron Curtain came down, the walls are going up again. In steel and concrete, with watchtowers and barbed wire, mankind is building separation barriers at a rate perhaps unequalled in history – at least 6,000 miles in the last decade alone, according to a Guardian analysis.

Now, in a unique project, Guardian journalists have visited 10 of the most controversial, striking, contested and extraordinary walls, from the US-Mexican border to the West Bank, and from Europe’s eastern and southern frontiers to the divided cities of Homs and Belfast.

We have tried to establish why these new divisions are going up now, in an age when globalization was supposed to tear the barriers down – particularly when, as history shows, walls rarely did what they set out to do.

Using satellite imagery, users’ pictures, video and first-hand testimony, Guardian reporters across the world chart the new walls being built to divide people from their neighbors.
Jon Henley (an illusion of security from Berlin to the West Bank),  and Guardian correspondents published this November 19, 2013

Why are we building new walls to divide us?

Our walled world

The wild frontier

Location: US-Mexico border. First built 2006. Made of steel, concrete, wire mesh 345 miles. Jo Tuckman

Physical barriers along the huge US/Mexico border were few and far between and enforcement patchy until the Clinton administration began a crackdown around the main urban crossing points.

These started with the operations Hold the Line, between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in 1993, and Gatekeeper, between San Diego and Tijuana, the following year.

A US border patrol agent stands near a section of the US-Mexico border fence
A US border patrol agent stands near a section of the US-Mexico border fence.
Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

The 9/11 attacks in 2001 brought fears that terrorists could slip into the US along with economic migrants, with attention turning to the more isolated parts of the frontier where most illegal crossing had moved. At the time net immigration into the US from Mexico hovered around 500,000 a year.

Measures approved during the Bush administration, and continued by Barack Obama, brought more and sturdier barriers with cameras and floodlights, as well as a duplication of border patrol agents.

A plan to develop a hi-tech virtual fence along irregular terrain proved a failure. With recession looming and drug war violence ballooning, the Republican right insisted on the need to seal the frontier altogether. At the time net migration from Mexico was trailing off to zero. Deportations reached record levels.


Mexican film-maker Adriana Trujillo tells the story of Felix, a part-time actor who earns his money getting people across the walled and fenced frontier between Mexico and the United States. Video: Adriana Trujillo

Efforts to push through immigration reform at the start of the second Obama administration brought yet another drive to beef up barriers and enforcement.

A comprehensive bill passed by the Senate with bipartisan support in June conditions a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants on more fencing, more agents and more air and sea surveillance. The ball is now in the court of the House of Representatives.

José Martín Canales, 41, deported migrant

José Martín Canales, deported migrant
‘We are the ones who pay the price when all we want to do is work’. Photograph: Luis Perea for the Guardian

My story is a story of migration, for generations. My grandfather was from the state of Zacatecas and crossed the border to work after the revolution [in Mexico from 1910-20], but was forced back by the depression. My father brought us from Zacatecas to Juárez when I was a baby, and worked in El Paso. Back then it was like one city, there wasn’t even a fence. I would cross all the time over the river to see my aunt and my cousins. We crossed to eat their hamburgers.

I went as a migrant myself in 1994 just when things were getting tougher. Even then I got a plane from El Paso to Dallas and then to Anchorage, Alaska, with no trouble. I worked packing salmon there, but I’ve also worked in restaurants, car washes, construction and as a gardener.

The first time I was deported to Tijuana [in Mexico], I returned the next day. It was 1995. The second time I went back through a sewage tunnel into Arizona, but later they blocked that off. The third time I came back to Juárez and jumped the fence. It was 1998.

Not long after I was picked up and sent to prison for three years for illegal re-entry. They put wetbacks [illegal immigrants] in with hardened criminals and they like putting people in solitary for months. My girlfriend stopped visiting and I don’t know what happened to her. I don’t care either.

I was deported from prison in December 2002 when they were talking about stopping terrorists crossing. I know the score and won’t try again because I don’t want to be locked up in their jails again. I have some good memories of the US but we have started to hate them because they separated us when we were together. I think they are getting really tough now because of the mafias, but we are the ones who pay the price when all we want to do is work.

A US border patrol agent looks for footprints from illegal immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border
A border patrol agent looks for footprints from illegal immigrants near Nogales, Arizona. 9/11 raised fears that terrorists could cross isolated parts of the frontier. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

I was deported from prison in December 2002 when they were talking about stopping terrorists crossing. I know the score and won’t try again because I don’t want to be locked up in their jails again. I have some good memories of the US but we have started to hate them because they separated us when we were together. I think they are getting really tough now because of the mafias, but we are the ones who pay the price when all we want to do is work.

What few jobs there are pay almost nothing and the narcos feed on that. The corruption of the authorities makes it worse, and that is why there has been a war here in Juárez with 15,000 dead. When the soldiers came they picked on people like me because of the way we look. I am covered in scars from the beatings.

I don’t like my country now. I like theirs less

Pastor José Antonio Galván, 62

Pastor Galván is the founder of the Vision in Action shelter for mentally ill people, near Juarez.

I am proud to be Mexican. I grew up in Juárez and after I got married I migrated to California. Later I was in El Paso earning $500 a week, in the 1980s, but drugs burned my mind.

I got deported and wandered around Juárez like a madman for a year. My life changed when I beat up a guy in El Paso and he took my head in his hands and prayed for me, and that cured me. I got my family back and I became a pastor in El Paso.

I quit it all and came to Juárez after the Lord told me I needed to feed the crazy street people here. First I had a soup kitchen in the red light district of Juárez. I opened the shelter in 1998.

Every time I cross the frontier is a victory. Sometimes you wait three hours on the bridge in your car but I never get desperate. I got my green card seven years ago. This little piece of paper is power and I have it. It is a blessing. Thanks to this I can feed my guys.

And I have benefits in the US. I will get a pension every month when I’m 65, and my wife will too. Nobody gives you anything here. I had an operation on my heart for free. Milk or gasoline, everything is cheaper and better quality there. The culture in El Paso is very similar because there are so many Mexicans. The difference is economic.

María Guadalupe Guereca, 57

María Guadalupe Guereca
‘The frontier has treated me very badly and sometimes I want to go far away but what is left of my family is here’. Photograph: Luis Perea for the Guardian

María is the mother of Sergio Adrian Hernández who was shot dead aged 14 by a US border agent in 2010.

They are racist over there, and the worst are our own people who change when they go. The border agent who killed my son was a Mexican.

Sergio Adrian was the youngest of my six children. He was a sensitive boy. He started walking when he was one. I don’t even know what he was doing here down by the bridge with two other kids. They had gone to visit his brother, who works taking luggage out of buses for inspection when they cross.

They said that my boy was trying to cross when the agent shot him, but it is not true. They said he was throwing rocks but there aren’t any rocks here to throw. My son did not deserve to be killed like that. They killed him in Mexico and they say that makes it all right. I wanted the agent punished but we lost the case. The lawyer in Houston helping us said there is hope in the appeal, but I don’t have any.

I work in the municipal government building just over there and I used to come here to the river quite a lot. I’d stand by the column where he was killed, and I’d think and look at the graffiti for my son on both sides. About six months ago some US agents walked over the river to where we were and asked how long we were going to keep causing trouble. They laughed when I said I would never give up. It made me nervous to come back.

I have lived all my life in Juárez apart from two years in Los Angeles working in a restaurant. I worked as a maid in El Paso too, crossing every Monday and coming back on Saturday. We would pay one dollar to cross the river on a tyre. There was water in it then.

The frontier has treated me very badly and sometimes I want to go far away but what is left of my family is here. Sergio is dead and I have a daughter in the US. She has no papers. Another daughter left Juárez after her boyfriend was killed and she got threats. She left three children behind.

Manuel Guzmán (not his real name), 62, farm worker with US visa.

It used to be so nice here in the valley. There were football matches and lots of activity all the time. There were always narcos, but they didn’t go around killing people.

There was work in the fields too. The machines took many of those jobs, but the young people could still work in the clothing factories in Juárez until things got bad and the factory buses taking them to their shifts refused to come here.

This bakery behind us shut about two years ago because there was nobody to buy bread. The hitmen took over the ranches by the river. They took the cows and the harvests, and they told people to get out. Back then it seemed they were killing people for fun. Those with residency crossed the border. Those without just went. There is no illegal migration here either any more.

I love my country and I’m not going anywhere. I’ve worked on a nut ranch in the US since 1978, and I’ve got a visa and children over there, but my wife has diabetes and doesn’t have papers. One of my sons was killed when he crossed the border to visit his mother. They killed him in a gasoline station because he was dressed like somebody they were looking for.

I am pleased the army is here keeping the drug traffickers quiet, but they still kill people and they still move drugs over the border. I work next to the river and sometimes I watch them put up ladders and pass packages of drugs over the big new fence that just went up. They do it when the patrol changes shifts. It takes minutes.

I have mixed feelings about the other side. You can get work there and earn in an hour what you can earn in a day here, but the fence is humiliation for Mexico and it makes me sad. From their standpoint all the people in Mexico are mafiosos.

Paper crosses tied to the US-Mexico border fence representing migrants who died trying to cross the Arizona desert
Crosses tied to the US-Mexico border fence represent migrants who died crossing the desert.
Photograph: Alexandre Meneghini/AP
Photography © NASA

The divided desert

Location: Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. First built 1980. Made of mostly sand, also landmines and barbed wire

Marcello Di Cintio

The berm is built of sand and stone, but also of rumours, half-truths and bluster. It is the world’s longest and oldest functioning security barrier, and runs through disputed desert land between Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania.

Near Tindouf, in Algeria, lie several large refugee camps whose residents are Saharawis. They don’t belong there, at least not on that side of the berm. They come from a patch of sand called the Western Sahara on most world maps, its borders drawn with tentative dotted lines. The Spanish called it the Spanish Sahara.

The Moroccans call it their southern provinces. For centuries, Saharawi camel herders called it home. Now it is the “occupied zone”.

A woman flies the Saharawi flag in Western Sahara
A woman flies a Saharawi flag in front of the Berm in Western Sahara.
Photograph: Stefano Montesi/Demotix/Corbis

The Saharawis have been battling the Moroccans for the territory since the “Green March” of 1975, when King Hassan sent 350,000 volunteers into the Western Sahara and claimed the area for Morocco.

Though the region belonged to Spain at the time, dictator Francisco Franco was dying and had little energy to resist.

The UN insisted that the Saharawi people be allowed a referendum on sovereignty, but General Franco signed a secret document that divided the Spanish Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania.

The Sahawari resistance, known as the Polisario, declared war. They pushed the Mauritanians back to their border in the south. Then, although outgunned and vastly outnumbered, the Polisario troops circled and destroyed the Moroccan military units one by one in daring guerrilla operations.

The Moroccans changed their tactics. With the help of France, Israel and the United States, Morocco devised a strategy based on desert walls, or berms. Each time they gained a swath of territory on the eastern front, they built a wall to secure it and lined it with landmines. By the time the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991, six walls had been built. They extend eastward like ripples in a pond, and their combined length stretches to over 4,000 miles.

A Saharawi woman and child walk near a mine in the desert
A Saharawi woman and child walk near a mine in Western Sahara. Morocco has not signed the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty. Photograph: Minetularabas/GuardianWitness

The Saharawi refugee camps were established on land given by the Algerian government in a show of solidarity with the Saharawi cause and a thumbed nose at Morocco. The Saharawis are grateful, but the land itself is not much of an offering.

The few plants that survive on the Hamada du Drâa, a rocky limestone plateau, grow armed with thorns. Like most of the Sahara, this land is far from imagined desert scenes. There are no sudden green oases, no slow shift of curving dunes; only pallor and the whip of cold winter gales.

The oldest of the refugees arrived during the 1980s when the war with Morocco was at its peak. These old men and women sit cross-legged and talk about the French-built fighter jets that doused the fleeing refugees with napalm.

Moroccan soliders stand by a desert fortification in Western Sahara
Moroccan soldiers stand by a desert fortification in Western Sahara.
Photograph: Francois Mori/AP

A woman named Damaha tells a story about having to leave her toddler son behind and escape to the camps when Moroccan soldiers raided her town. Almost a year passed before she heard her son was alive and safe with his father – she still remembers the date, 14 October 14 – and 20 more years went by before she saw him again. They reunited in the camps in 2001.

Malainin fled to the camps with his brother and their friend in the summer of 2000. The three men, all activists, walked 60 miles through the scorch of the August desert. When they reached the minefield, the men unwrapped their turbans. Each man held on to an end of the cloth so they were a turban’s length apart — about three metres from end to end. If there was a problem, they could communicate by tugging on the fabric. And if one of them stepped on a mine, they reasoned, the other two would be far enough away to survive the blast. They made it safely over the minefield, then climbed the wall. Eventually they made it to the camps.

The Berm of Western Sahara
Sand, stone, rumours, half-truths and bluster – the Berm is the world’s longest and oldest functioning security barrier. Photograph: National Geographic/Alamy

Most of the refugees I met, however, were born in the camps. They have never been to the other side. The only home they have known are the camps’ tents and mud-brick shacks.

One afternoon, as I shared tea with a group of refugees, I asked a woman in her early 20s, Ama, about the homeland she had never seen on the other side of the wall. Ama flicked her teapot lid closed, smiled, and turned her eyes upwards. “It is very lovely,” she said. “There are real streets and buildings. Lots of cars. The ocean is nearby, and it is a huge distance filled with water. You can swim in it, and there are fish. And it can rain there for days.”

In the imagination of a refugee, any place on the other side of the wall, wherever it is, must be beautiful.

• Marcello Di Cintio’s Walls: Travels Along the Barricades is published by Union Books

Photography © NASA

The newest wall

Homs, Syria
First built
Made of

3 miles

Mona Mahmood

Since the Syrian civil war broke out in earnest, Homs has become a city crisscrossed by walls, separating different neighbourhoods according to their ethnic makeup and loyalty or hostility towards the regime.

Bab Amr quarter, known for prolonged resistance to the army, is enclosed by a wall separating it from Al-Insha’at quarter, which is inhibited by a mixture of posh Sunni locals and Christians. The only way to get inside Bab Amru is to go through checkpoints guarded by the army. Only one car can cross at a time.

A wall built by the government to separate the al-Insha’at quarter from the Bab Amr district in Homs
A wall built by the government to separate the al-Insha’at quarter from the Bab Amr district in Homs. Photograph: Reuters

Snipers line the three-metre high wall, which was built a year ago from concrete.

Al-Zahra district, meanwhile, is loyal to the regime. RPG and gunfire never stops, so the regime built a six-metre wall around it.

Abu Ahmed, Farouq brigade commander in Homs

The regime used concrete walls to separate Alawite districts off from those inhabited by Sunnis. At the beginning the regime was looking for something like a buffer zone between loyal and disloyal districts to provide security, by which Alawite people can get into our districts but we can’t get out.

By the end of 2012, some fighters had infiltrated Bab Amru and tough battles broke out. The regime was afraid to lose Bab Amru again especially as it is adjacent to three Alawite districts.

In old Homs, a huge wall of concrete was built. If you go to the offices of the Political Security Branch in Homs, you will see something like a prison. The road is divided into two parts and there is a kilometre-long wall.

The regime now is more concerned about Alawite families than the army. No one can climb the wall, without coming under intense fire.

The regime is trying to provide as much security as it can to the Alawite population to make them feel that their districts are safe.

Captain Yazin Juma, Syrian army commander in Homs

I got an order to start digging a trench around Homs to stop rebel infiltration from the city centre to other areas. Within a few days, huge bulldozers arrived in Homs and the new plan was carried out immediately.

They also told us to build a high wall around Alawite districts in Homs, such as Al-Zahra, Akrama, Wadi Aldahab and Nuzha. The wall was to be made of concrete cement and provided with cameras.

The whole mission took Juma and his soldiers two months to accomplish.

Far away from Homs, on the Turkish border, the Syrian conflict has provoked a further spate of wall-building. Near Nusaybin, a town in south-eastern Turkey, the Turkish authorities have started construction of a wall along the border. In this part of the world, the populations are largely Kurdish on both the Turkish and Syrian sides of the line.

The barriers of Bengal

India-Bangladesh border
First built
Made of
barbed wire, concrete

2500 miles

Delwar Hussain

India is constructing a 2,500-mile barbed-wire fence around its neighbour Bangladesh. Though it is not fully completed, the twists and turns of the metal curtain already separates families and communities, with those who live on the border often finding their homes in one country and their paddy fields in the other. Watch towers, floodlights and armed border guards dot the landscape.

Members of the Indian Border Security Forces patrol along the fence separating India and Bangladesh on bicycles
Members of the Indian Border Security Forces use bicyles to patrol the barbed wire barrier separating India and Bangladesh. Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Delhi argues that the fence is necessary to thwart an array of national anxieties from smuggling, illegal migration to terrorism. There are anything between 2 to 20 million undocumented Bangladeshis in India, many of them climate-change refugees. Dhaka says the rhetoric is based upon irrational fears and is an example of Indian bullying as it attempts to become the regional hegemon.

More than a 1,000 people have been killed alongside the border over the past 10 years, mostly by trigger-happy Indian Border Security Force (BSF) guards who operate under near impunity. Delhi has promised to switch to non-lethal weapons however fails to follow through on its pledges

Felani Khatun

In 2011, the death of Felani Khatun propelled the issue of the fence to the fore. Born in India, the 15-year-old was travelling with her father to their ancestral home on the Bangladeshi side in order to get married a week later. She was dressed in her finery and wore wedding jewellery. Being poor, marginal people who have little or no paperwork, there is no question of Felani or her father crossing legally. Her father managed to jump across the fence, but the hem of Felani’s trousers became tangled up in the barbed wire. She screamed, drawing the attention of a BSF guard who then shot her dead.

Felani’s body hung on the barrier for several hours in view of the villagers from Fel and Coochbehar on both sides of the border. Eventually it was dragged down by the BSF, her hands and feet tied to a bamboo pole and then carried away. A day later, Felani’s body was handed back to her family. Her jewellery was missing. Pictures of the teenager’s body dangling on the Bangladesh-India border became symbolic of wider issues of inequality and saw widespread condemnation of the BSF. As a result, last month a special court was set up for the first time to try the accused guard, however he was found not guilty of murder.


Boropani, a village divided by the India-Bangladesh border

Lamin is from the Indian side of the divided village of Boropani and works as a coal miner. The 30-year-old is part of the minority Garo community who are indigenous to this part of the borderlands. Lamin, like many Garos, has family on both sides and often crosses back and forth.

“There are some border guards that are reasonable and they will let you cross if you give them money, especially during Christmas or one of the other religious festivals,” he said. However Lamin’s usual experience is anything but convivial. “If the BSF (border security force) catch you crossing, they will first stamp on you with their boots, then beat you up and only then ask which country you are from. They get drunk and attack anyone. It doesn’t matter to them whether you may be Bengali or an Indian. The BSF don’t see anyone who lives in the border area as human.”

He adds “I do not have a problem with the Bengalis coming here to work and us going there to visit family or to shop in the bazaar. We are known to each other and have always done so. It is the border guards who create the problems, not the people.”

Photography © NASA

The rich-poor divide

São Paulo, Brazil
First built
Made of

40 miles

Jonathan Watts

Alphaville is one of Brazil’s oldest, biggest and best-known walled communities. Based outside São Paulo, it was established in 1978 for a metropolitan elite who wanted sanctuary from inner-city crime.

Since then – and with the extra incentive of low taxes – the gated community has steadily grown and spawned countless imitations. Alphaville now comprises 16 gated compounds, or condominiums, with dozens more on its periphery, plus a surrounding commercial and industrial district.

Sao Paulo's gated community of Alphaville bathed in cloud
Another pleasant valley Sunday: Alphaville’s 60,000-odd residents are separated from Sao Paulo’s social problems by 40 miles of walls and 960 guards.
Photograph: Diego Lezama Orezzoli/Corbis

The walls vary in size but a typical example is Alphaville 3, which has a 2.5 mile-long (4km-long), whitewashed concrete perimeter structure that rises to a height of 2.5 metres, on top of which sits an electrified and barbed 1.5 metre-high fence. In addition, the 4,000 residents of the Alphaville 3 compound are protected by CCTV and 60 security guards; they are unarmed but can call upon militarised police units stationed nearby.

A rough extrapolation suggests the 60,000-odd residents in the 16 Alphaville condominiums have a total of 40 miles of walls and 960 guards, as well as hefty police backup. Alphaville has now become a franchise, with similar gated communities in cities throughout Brazil, a reflection of a wider global trend that has seen thousands of miles of walls erected between rich and poor neighbourhoods around the world.

Clovis Leme, 60, fence contractor

Our fences drastically reduce the risk of an intrusion. They can’t be cut, they can’t be toppled and they can’t be scaled. It’s perfect,” he boasts. “And there is no risk to life from the shock. It’s just a deterrent.

It’s stressful in São Paulo. People worry about their children and move here so they can provide security for their families.

These walls have changed my life. If you put all of Alphaville together, it is definitely the biggest walled compound in Brazil.

When I was a child, society was more equal. There was no violence at all. We used to have milk bottles delivered outside our home and no one ever stole them. It was a freer, safer society.

Hagop Kassabian and Rita Figueiredo

Hagop and Rita are married business partners and Alphaville residents.


I never lock my front door and I leave the car key on the dashboard. I have got so used to doing that, I sometimes forget when I am outside and do the same thing

It’s like living in the countryside. Everyone knows everyone. It’s a beautiful place and the education standards of the residents are higher than average.

In a perfect world, this would not be necessary. Walls add to social divisions, but I’m glad I’m on the right side of them

If I were to wake up one morning and find the wall was suddenly gone, my life would totally change. I’d be unhappy and worried because I’d lose the peace of mind that comes from knowing my children can come and go safely. I think I’d look for another compound.


We wanted to live in a simple and safe community. That’s why we moved here. Alphaville has met our expectations.

When I look at the walls, I don’t like the fact that I need so much protection. But I’m glad they are there. In Brazil, there are too many people who live on the street and carry out robberies. I’m glad I don’t face those risks, and that my children can run around without worrying.”

Tower blocks in Alphaville in Sao Paulo
‘They don’t come here; we don’t go there. We’re just neighbours. That’s all.’
Photograph: Gavin Mather/Alamy

Douglas Cunha

Douglas works as a gardner in Alphaville but lives outside the compound in the poor Imperial district.

Alphaville is over there; Alfavela is over here. The rich are inside; the poor are outside. It’s a problem. It’s complicated.

I like the condominiums. They’re beautiful. The people I work for are not very friendly.

Others in his community express similarly mixed feelings. Because of its high density of rich residents, Alphaville has some of the highest tax revenues in the country, which means local public schools and hospitals are better funded than most.

“We’ve got a new road now and tapped water, thank God,” says his elderly neighbour, Zenalea Rosa, who has lived in Imperial for 21 years.

But the trickle-down benefits are uneven, and inequality is glaring. Brazil has made great strides to alleviate poverty over the past decade but there is a long way to go. Cunha says he earns only 400 reais (£108) a month. About half the population of Brazil live on an income below this level, although the minimum wage is supposed to be 674 reais. Crime levels, education standards and health indices are all far lower in communities such as Imperial than in places such as Alphaville. This is one reason for the wave of protests that swept Brazil in June.

Some residents sing the lyrics of a rap song by O Rappa that captures the unease: “The walls of the condominium are supposed to bring protection, but ask yourself whether you are in prison.”

Tower blocks and other dwellings in Alphaville in Sao Paulo
‘It’s a place that distances residents from reality. My own parents call the place the Truman Show.’ Photograph: Carlos Cazalis/Corbis

Antônio De Oliveira, 21, resident

There’s a prejudice against poor people in the way the residents are separated from the workers. When the workers come here, they have to come through security, like at an airport. It reminds me of apartheid. That’s not an exaggeration – though in this case it’s not by race but by social class.”

When I lived in the city for a few months, I felt liberated because its not natural to live in a condo where you have to drive kilometres to get to the closest store.

The first thing these walls say is: the government failed to provide security for all of society, so a small percentage provide security for themselves, because violence is one of the major problems in Brazil. Secondly, they remind us of income inequality. This is a horrible legacy of Brazil in the 20th century and earlier.”

It’s a place that distances residents from reality. My own parents call the place the Truman Show.

Photography © NASA

Strait are the gates

Israel and the West Bank
First built
Made of
concrete, steel, razor wire

310 miles

Harriet Sherwood

Israel started building the West Bank wall in 2002. It said the barrier was designed to prevent the incursion of Palestinian militants. Palestinians say the purpose is to grab land and impose a de facto border. The barrier takes 9.4% of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and “no-man’s land” onto the Israeli side; about 85% of Israeli settlers live between the Green Line and the barrier.

Abd al-Fatah

A 51-year-old Palestinian who lives on land he owns in contested territory to assert his ownership. Video: Guardian and B’Tselem

Omar Hajajla, 47

Omar Hajajla
‘The only thing I want is my house and my land, nothing more, nothing less’.
Photograph: Harriet Sherwood

Hajajla is a construction worker from al-Walaja, a village surrounded by the barrier.

In 2008, we were surprised to be told by the occupation authorities that this house would be the only one in the village outside the wall. They told us this would create a lot of trouble for us, and they offered us money and land to move. My answer was that the only thing I want is my house and my land, nothing more, nothing less. Then they threatened me, but I said I am supported by someone even stronger than the state of Israel – God.

They suspended my permit to work in Jerusalem. They used dynamite close to the house in the hope it would be destroyed. They harassed us every day. But we refused to leave.

Now the tunnel is the only way to connect the house to the village. My children go to school two minutes away, but now it takes 45 minutes to go round the barrier.

The truth is, the psychology of my children has changed. Their friends don’t come to visit them; people are scared because we live in a military zone, they can be stopped and asked for IDs. The children feel like they are living in a jail.

When the barrier is finished, the whole of al-Walaja will be surrounded, with only one gate. People will be suffocated inside a cocoon.

Israel says the wall is for security, but the real reason is to confiscate as much Palestinian land as they can, and to isolate us in the hope that we go away.

Claire Anastas, 42

Claire Anastas
‘We need a permit just to go on our own roof, for “security reasons”, they tell us.’
Photograph: Harriet Sherwood

Anastas is a Bethlehem souvenir-shop owner, whose home is surrounded on three sides.

I’ve lived in this house since I got married in 1988. During the second intifada [Palestinian uprising], the soldiers used to come to our house to shoot from the roof. It was very frightening, they would wake up the children and threaten us with guns, and cage us in a corner. We lived in the middle of fear.

In 2003, they built the wall around the house in one day. They blocked the entrance to our shop. They wanted us to leave, but we refused.

This used to be a lively area, on what was the main road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Our customers were mostly [Christian] pilgrims, but also Jews. Since the wall came, we lost millions. Local people were afraid to send their children to play or come to a birthday party. We are on the front line.

My daughter left to live in England because she couldn’t stand it. There are 14 in this house, including nine children. We need a permit just to go on our own roof, for “security reasons”, they tell us.

We are buried alive in a big tomb. It’s inhuman. But we hope the wall will come down one day. Nothing is impossible.

The crossing

At the end of 2007, Israel closed two crossings that connected it with the southern West Bank, leaving Palestinians only three crossings to use. Since then, thousands of Palestinian laborers are forced to spend most of the night waiting in long lines to enter Israel. Video: B’Tselem

Saaed Amireh, 22

Saaed Amireh
‘The Israelis find it difficult to deal with peaceful protests’. Photograph: Harriet Sherwood

Amireh is unemployed, from Ni’lin village.

The village land used to be 5,800 hectares (14,300 acres). Now, after the barrier and five settlements, we have 800 hectares left (1,980 acres).

When we started our protests, we walked with our hands in the air, saying: ‘Just leave our land alone.’ But they shot at us with rubber bullets, teargas, stun grenades. They thought they would frighten us and we’d stop. But we are under occupation, we have to fight back.

Five people from our village have died, and hundreds have been arrested, including many children. There are 34 people from Ni’lin still in jail.

Now the barrier is complete, but we are still trying to break through it every Friday, although the numbers are fewer. The area between the village and the fence is a closed military zone. We have prayers there on Fridays, under the olive trees, to show our steadfastness.

My family lost all its land, we have eight dunams (8,000 sq m) left out of 240. My father lost his permit to work in Israel because he was active in the protests and went to prison. My sister was shot in the hand at the age of 13; two of my brothers have been arrested. Eight women in the village miscarried after inhaling tear gas.

The Israelis find it difficult to deal with peaceful protests. We practice unarmed resistance, but we believe it is our right to resist the occupation by all means. We’re proud of our resistance against a strong military power. If you bring a stone, they bring an F16. It is not an equal fight.

If you are unarmed, it doesn’t mean you’re weak. It takes more courage to stand with a bare chest against an army.

Yousef Selmi, 25

Yousef Selmi
‘The wall even took our view, and stopped the breeze coming from the sea’.
Photograph: Harriet Sherwood

Selmi is a farmer in Qalqilya, a West Bank city enclosed by the wall, apart from one road and a tunnel to a neighbouring village.

Our family has farmed this land for 45 years. Before the wall, Israeli-Arabs and Jews used to stop on the main road to buy from us. But everything is different since the wall came. Now Qalqilya is isolated. We live in a bottle. Sometimes they take off the lid, then they put it back on again.

When they built the wall, they destroyed our land and everything on it. The wall devoured five or six dunams (5-6,000 sq metres).

Even the local market is affected. People can’t work inside Israel now, so they can’t afford to buy fruit and vegetables. Some families don’t even have five shekels (90p) to buy bread. A lot of people don’t have work.

The soldiers have a road next to the wall; they come every few days. Sometimes they give us a hard time, put us against the wall and interrogate us. We are always afraid.

The wall even took our view, and stopped the breeze coming from the sea. The wall suffocates us. When I was younger, we used to go to the sea every week. Since they built the wall, I’ve not been even once. You need a permit.

There’s not even one in a thousand chances that the wall will ever come down. I have no hope. Yesterday was better than today, and today is better than tomorrow.

Al Jib

The dividing wall built by Israel near the Palestinian area of Al Jib. Video: B’Tselem
Photography © NASA

Europe’s new border

Greek-Turkish border near the Evros river
First built
Made of
barbed wire

6 miles

Helena Smith

The Evros wall was built by the Greek government last year to stop “third world” migrants breaching the land border Greece shares with Turkey. It runs the length of the 10,600-metre long frontier, widely considered the EU’s most vulnerable front and, until the erection of the wall, the easiest “back-door” entrance to the west. It cost €3.2m (£2.7m) to build.

Apostolos Handirides

Apostolos Handirides in Orestiada
‘For the first time, there’s a real sense of security’. Photograph: Helena Smith for the Guardian

Handirides, who is 60, lives in the village of Nea Vyssa, a 20-minute drive under police and military escort to the barbed wire barrier, and sees himself as a “frontier guard”.

At least twice a month, he makes the 10-minute trip to the town he still calls Adrianoupolis (known as Edirne to the Turks) where his grandmother grew up.

The barrier brought us great peace of mind. You’d wake up and see these poor, wretched beings walking by, and sometimes they would cause trouble. Now we don’t have to look over our shoulders at all. For the first time, there’s a real sense of security.

My grandmother, Anna, came in 1923 and I remember her regaling us with stories about all the good and bad things of life over there.

The fence, of course, hasn’t stopped us crossing the border. I don’t speak Turkish but they speak very good Greek over there. Often I’ll drive over [via the nearby frontier crossing] to have a meal or coffee with friends.

Frosso Petriziki

Petriziki, who is 42, who works in a pharmacy in the Greek village of Nea Vyssa, often takes the bus over the border for a shopping spree in Edirne. Along with other locals, she comes back with fresh produce, clothes and appliances, which are cheaper in Turkey.

They say we shouldn’t support Turkey and, deep down we know we shouldn’t. But what to do when things are so difficult, when there’s so little work and so little money?

It’s very good that the barrier is there. Before, it was just so frightening. My kids would be out playing at night in the square and there would be all these immigrants just hovering around and they’d be scared to come home.

Some days I’d open my door in the morning and see 20 people, even women carrying babies, all covered in mud and washing their feet and clothes with the garden hose.

I’d try to help but then I’d get to the pharmacy and there would be more sitting outside.

Nikos Dollis

Dollis, the owner of the Utopia coffee shop in Nea Vyssa, fears the border barrier has helped the business of people smuggling with traffickers now focusing on delivering their human cargo via the river Evros.

In practice it’s been a huge boost for traffickers. People smugglers from both sides are collaborating even more. A lot of dinghies are being sold in Turkey for next to nothing, we hear, so that traffickers can ferry migrants across the river.

Before they were mostly economic migrants and were actually very calm. Our big worry is that the ones who are now fleeing war won’t be as peaceful.

Anti-migrant barbed wire fence in Evros, Greece
Greece’s border fence has closed routes used by migrants to cross the frontier with Turkey, leading some to attempt more hazardous crossings of the river Evros. Photograph: Pallister Wilkins/GuardianWitness
Photography © NASA

Ninety-nine walls

Belfast and Derry
First built
Made of
concrete, barbed wire, iron and steel

30 miles

Henry McDonald

There are now 99 separate walls in Belfast dividing working class Protestant and Catholic communities. The net cost to the economy: a £1bn a year.

Some are as high as 18ft. The largest, which cuts off the loyalist/Protestant Springmartin estate from the nationalist/Catholic Springfield Park was made of 1m bricks.

The walls crisscross the border lands between loyalist and nationalist communities in Belfast, the streets that were once known as the “Murder Mile” during a period when north Belfast witnessed a quarter of all the deaths in the Troubles.

A graffiti-covered peace wall in Belfast
Graffiti covers one of Belfast’s peace walls, some of which are as high as 18ft. Photograph: Alamy

Nearly a quarter of a century after a reinforced concrete and steel 12ft wall was erected separating the two communities of Clifton Park Avenue and nearby Manor Street, the barrier is now part of residents’ normality. On dead ground on either side of the wall there is even a project to grow food on allotments and build “men’s sheds” for the adult males of each district to seek some shelter from the pressures of everyday life. One community worker, Paul Little, said the allotments and the sheds would help “slightly humanise” the area around it.

Joe Finn, 47

A peace wall divides communities in Belfast
‘I have never seen any of my Protestant neighbours over there’. Communities divided in Belfast. Photograph: Vehbi Koca/Alamy

Finn lives within 100 yards of the wall in Clifton Park Avenue.

Will this wall come down? No, definitely not in my life time. I think it will still be up here in this street when I am in my 60s or even 70s. It makes us all feel a bit safer. When there was open access to this street and others in the area there was a real sense of threat.

Before ‘the Wall’ I remember waiting for a taxi to take me to work one morning, to my cleaning job at the Royal Victoria Hospital in west Belfast. While I was standing in the street, I saw this black cab coming up from Manor Street on the loyalist side and driving around and around the district. I was so frightened about being bundled into it, kidnapped and killed that I went back into the house and arranged for the taxi to pick me up in a safer part of the area. Looking back to that morning makes me shiver, I really think it was a close call.

I can also recall a young child having glass shoved into his mouth by loyalists on the other side. Before the barrier was reinforced at its base, there was a gap at the bottom of it. The kid was playing on the dead ground by the Wall and he was spotted then trailed underneath the fencing to the other side.

I have never seen any of my Protestant neighbours over there. The first houses on their side of the Wall are at very least 20 yards away from it. They have created their own buffer zone as well. If they took an opinion poll of people just in this area alone the vast majority would vote to keep it up.

Ray Grant, 32

Grant is a year-old community worker in Lower Cliftonville.

I was four or five when the first barrier went up although until we had the ceasefires and the erection of the bigger wall, there were riots in these three streets every single night. I remember being about seven when I made my first paint bomb to throw at the loyalists on the other side. This area, these streets were a battleground for years. The Shankill Butchers gang used to kidnap Catholics, kill them and then dump their bodies not far by during the 1970s. It was a crazy, scary place growing up but to be honest it was also exciting.

Do I think ‘the Wall’ will come down? I’m not sure. Working in this community you find attitudes differ depending on the age group. Older people who lived through the Troubles say never bring them down or at least they don’t think they will come down in their lifetime. I’m sceptical they will too but it’s funny working with kids in their early teens.

A huge pile of wood destined to become a 12th July bonfire
A huge pile of wood destined to become a 12th July bonfire overshadows a peace line. Grafitti on the Catholic side warns residents when the fire will be lit.
Photograph: brawford/GuardianWitness

I now do a lot of cross community work with kids from our area and kids from the Lower Oldpark and the Shankill. They are more critical about the Wall being up and say they would like to see it down one day. But the strange thing is they would never dream of going on their own across any of the streets leading to the Lower Oldpark elsewhere. They will come across with us on cross community projects. And they do breach the Wall in their own way. They are in constant touch with Protestant friends they have met over there via Facebook and Twitter.

One hundred kilometres further west is Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city, where the Fountain estate is the last Protestant enclave on the west bank of the river Foyle. Many Protestants have long since left, but a few remain, trying to make the most of their isolation.

Jeanette Warke, 74

Jeanette Warke on the Derry Walls, Northern Ireland
‘They cannot take down any of the barriers or gates around us without the consent of the people who live here’. Photograph: Paul McErlane for the Guardian

Warke is a long-term resident of the Fountain estate.

We have an allotment going here near the New Gate of the old walls and some of the produce we are growing will be sold at an open air market later in September. We would also like some of this empty green space to be turned into a memorial garden to remember the fallen soldiers and others who have died in other conflicts.

If there were no attacks, no threat, this would be one of the best places to live anywhere. We are in a great location being right beside the old walls in a unique tourist attraction. We have the beautiful St Columb’s Cathedral on our door step.

The population of the Fountain is actually going up again and there are some young families moving in. There is a widely held view that this is part of our heritage, our religion, our culture but the Northern Ireland Office, the first minister, the justice minister can say all they like. They cannot and should not take down any of the barriers or gates down around us without the consent of the people who live here. Only they should be allowed to decide if and when they come down.

Photography © Google

The 38th parallel

North Korea-South Korea border
First built
Made of
wire fence, barbed wire

155 miles

Justin McCurry

The demilitarised zone, or DMZ, stretches for 155 miles from east to west and is lined on its northern and southern perimeters with fences topped with barbed wire to prevent invasions and defections. It first went up in 1953 after the armistice agreement detailed the exact distance both sides were required to withdraw from the frontline.

The fence is regularly patrolled by troops who wear special markings to indicate to the enemy that their intentions aren’t hostile. Soldiers from both sides may patrol inside the DMZ, but they are prohibited from crossing the military demarcation line that splits the zone into two strips just over a mile wide.

South Korean soldiers patrol inside the demilitatrised zone
South Korean soldiers patrol inside the 155 mile-wide demilitatrised zone which separates two nations still technically at war. Photograph: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The border is lined by observation posts and, concealed in the nearby hills and mountains, almost two million troops, including about 640,000 from South Korea and 28,000 from the US. Experts believe about 60% of North Korea’s military assets, including 600,000 troops, are positioned on or near the DMZ.

Hundreds of South Koreans, at least 50 Americans and countless North Koreans have been killed during skirmishes over the past 60 years.

Although North Korean attempts to tunnel beneath the DMZ have proved unsuccessful – four incursion tunnels were discovered before they were completed – the North’s artillery units are within easy range of the South Korean capital, Seoul, just 37 miles away.

A tourist in South Korea touches ribbons tied to the fence marking the border with North Korea
Colourful paper messages supporting reunification of the two Koreas adorn a fence near the DMZ. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

Lee Jae-geun, farmer Tongil village, demilitarised zone

To get to the plot of land where he grows sweet potatoes and soya beans, Lee Jae-geun must pass through a military checkpoint manned by soldiers toting assault rifles. Lee farms in Tongil Village, the only populated area of the demilitarised zone that separates South and North Korea.

“There are threats all the time,” he says. “It doesn’t bother us. If all of a sudden there were no threats and everything was totally peaceful, that would be strange.”

While North Korea’s sabre-rattling doesn’t scare Lee much, the political theatre on the peninsula does have real effects on life in Tongil Village. Earlier this year, when inter-Korean tensions spiked and North Korea cut off access to the jointly operated Kaesong industrial complex, Lee was locked out of his land for three days. In 2010, after an artillery exchange on Yeonpyeong island left four South Koreans dead, Lee was denied entrance for 15 days. All his dogs and chickens starved to death in that time.

While there is some apprehension over the possibility of conflict, Tongil Village also has unique benefits. Unlike almost everywhere else in South Korea, there is no industry here and few cars. Strict rules mean there has been only minimal development; the land is mostly untouched and the air is clean. Villagers drink untreated water, which they draw from aquifers, and gleaming white cranes gather at every body of water.

Lee sometimes wishes he could sell his land and farm somewhere more predictable. But with poor inter-Korean relations, the possibility of conflict scares away potential buyers and pushes down land values, so he knows he would not get much if he did sell his land. “It’s my responsibility to maintain this so I don’t have much choice,” says Lee, crouched down while pulling weeds. “I just hope the politics can stay calm so we can keep up with our work.”

• Steven Borowiec, Seoul

North Koreans work in a field near the border with China
North Koreans work in a field near the Chinese border over which most defections from the hermit kingdom take place. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP

Oh Sehyek, North Korean emigré from Haeju

Oh Sehyek was born in Haeju, a North Korean city close to the border. For all its proximity, however, Oh had no contact with the forbidden south. The separation was policed more through fear than physical barriers. He remembers a story his father told when he was young:

“Once, when he was a soldier, my father crossed the border by mistake. He was fishing in the Rimjingang and became so engrossed that he actually went a few metres into South Korea.”

The Rimjingang is a river that traverses the demilitarised zone, flowing into South Korea from the north. Oh’s father noticed that he had strayed too far and immediately turned round, terrified that he would be caught.

Oh’s first contact with the south was also unintended.

“I was tuning the television and I found a programme from Seoul by accident. I watched it a few times, with the sound turned very low,” he says.

He didn’t know at the time that the punishment could be fatal if he was reported. But he knew to tell no one – not even his family. Something about the show intrigued Oh and set in motion his decision to defect.

“I had to go,” he says. “I hoped my sister would come with me but I was scared to talk about it.

Once I said, ‘Sister, should we try to go to China?’ But her answer was, ‘Are you crazy? How dare you think of it?’ So I had to go alone.”

Rather than making the short journey south across the demilitarised zone, Oh had to travel all the way to the north, to the border with China. He sold his father’s army uniform to make money for the journey.

“That was 10 years ago, and I made it out, but I haven’t seen my family since,” says Oh, who now lives in Seoul. Recently he tried to contact his sister through a broker who takes messages from defectors in South Korea to their relatives in the north.

“It took a while,” he says, “and when I finally heard back I was thrilled, but I was also suspicious that she might be in the hands of the security police.

“The broker said her message was: ‘Please come back here so we can live together. The government would forgive you everything.’ But I could not trust what she said.”

• Daily NK reporter, Seoul

Photography © NASA

The edge of Africa

Melilla and Ceuta, separate towns in north Africa
First built
Made of
barbed wire, motion sensors

7 miles

Paul Hamilos in Melilla. Additional reporting by Jesús Avellaneda

In the words of the writer Lorenzo Silva, the barrier that carves its way between Morocco and Spain’s north African exclave Melilla, is “a symbol of the failure of Europe, and of the human race in general … a fence that separates two worlds”. Looming large over the Spanish territory and the border towns of Morocco, the barrier is in fact a fence in three parts, whose purpose is to prevent illegal immigration, and smuggling.

Spanish soldiers patrol along the barrier which separates Spain's North African enclave of Melilla from Morocco
The borders of Ceuta and Melilla were barely fortified until the 1990s.
Photograph: Reuters

Until the 1990s, the border between Morocco and Melilla was barely noticeable, with few physical barriers and an easy flow of people and goods back and forth. It was common for both Moroccan and Spaniards to cross and return to their respective homes, making it hard to tell exactly where one country ended and the other began.

But, as mass immigration from west Africa into Europe took off, calls for a more permanent physical barrier led to the development of the fence that today stands more than six metres tall, with hi-tech sensors, razor wire and 24-hour armed patrol guards. The same situation applies in Spain’s other north African exclave, Ceuta. This is where Fortress Europe meets north Africa.

Sara Mohamed Shaib, 29

Sara Mohamed Shaib from Melilla
‘We often hear the screams and shouts of people as they are attacked by the police when they try to climb over at night.’
Photograph: Jesús Blasco Avellaneda for the Guardian

Sara lives in a house in Melilla that backs on to the fence.

It makes me sad to think what that fence has done to Melilla, not just because it is so ugly, but because it is the only thing people know about the city when they come here. When people visit, they always ask to be taken to see it, but it’s not a tourist attraction. “Where’s the fence,” they ask. “La valla [the fence]” is now part of our vocabulary, which is a terrible thing.

In our house, because the border is so close, we often hear the screams and shouts of people as they are attacked by the police when they try to climb over at night. And we often find people hiding in our garden. When I was younger I used to get very scared, but now I realise that most of the time, they are much more scared than you are. We have a well, and I have found young men down there too, but when you talk to them they don’t want help at first, because they are so terrified.

Everyone has their own story. One time I met a young woman, which is rare, and she told me she did not know what had happened to her baby. I didn’t want to judge her, but I wondered what kind of a mother would make such a dangerous journey with a baby. But I learned that she had been raped on her journey from her home to Spain, resulting in the baby.

My mother and I try to help as often as we can, giving them clothes, and taking them to the police station, where they register themselves for expulsion. One of the ironies for the sub-Saharan Africans is that in order to stay, they have to register themselves for expulsion, so they can start the paperwork. So we put them in the boot of the car, cover them up, and take them there.

The border has also had an effect on my family. My sister and my nephews live in Rabat in Morocco, which means I hardly ever get to see them. They need a visa to get over here, but because my nephews are minors, that’s not so easy. And the last time I went to Morocco, I got caught up in a huge avalanche of people at the border, and the police started hitting me. I asked them to stop, but they carried on hitting me like everyone else. So now I don’t go – they’re only 12km [7.5 miles] away, but they might as well be on a different continent.

I would love to be the kind of aunt who is always around, but I won’t get to see them grow up.

Suha Abongwa, 23, from Cameroon

Suha Abongwa, 23, Gurugu mountains, on the border between Morocco and Melilla
‘Some people wait here in the mountains for weeks, months, years’.
Photograph: Jesús Blasco Avellaneda for the Guardian

Suha was interviewed hiding in the Gurugu mountains, on the border between Morocco and Melilla.

I have been hiding in these mountains for the past two months, and I dream about crossing the border every night. It weighs on my mind. I am from Cameroon, and my plan was to get to Morocco, climb over the fence, and then from Spain to get to Germany, where I want to study. I want to get a white-collar job and use the knowledge I learn to take back to Cameroon, so I can improve my country economically, socially and politically. There is no work there, but in Europe I am sure I will find work. I left without telling my parents, and hope to be very successful one day.

We all know about the Gurugu mountains; it is where you come to meet with other Africans who want to cross the border into Spain. We are all brothers here, we don’t care what country you come from. We all have the same goal. My plan is to wait here, until there are enough of us, and then we will go over the border. Some people wait here in the mountains for weeks, months, years. We find whatever food we can, or go and take the leftover meat from restaurants, which we make into a soup or cook with a small fire. Some of the Moroccans treat us like animals, throwing stones at us, and reporting us to the police. Many of us get sick with stomach complaints, because often we only have sugary water to drink, which makes us ill, but we don’t have any medication.

Every day, when the police come to look for us, we hide in terrible places, under rocks, because there is nothing worse than being caught by the Moroccan police. When they catch you they drive you back to the desert, but that won’t stop us.

But the torment here in the mountains is much worse than my fear of getting over the wall. This is no way to live. I would rather try my luck getting over the wall and then get to Europe. I cannot go back now. By God’s grace I will get there.

José Palazón, 58

José Palazón, human rights worker, Melilla
‘You may have lived here all your life, but if you don’t have the right paperwork, you’re not recognised as a citizen’.
Photograph: Jesús Blasco Avellaneda for the Guardian

José is a human rights worker in Melilla.

With each centimetre that the fence grows, so the violence and the marginalisation increases. Many have been left with no regular supply of water, gas, or other basic amenities. The situation on the border now is almost one of war, with armed officers standing guard, often attacking people as they cross. I hate the fence for what it has done to us, not just because it has divided the two countries, but because of the paranoia it has brought to Melilla, and the way that it differentiates between those who live here with and without documentation.

The border’s tentacles reach all across the city, into its cafes and bars, ending up on the desks of the civil servants who run Melilla. You may have lived here all your life, but if you don’t have the right paperwork, you’re not recognised as a citizen. You are a ghost. And so many people here don’t even know about the border, and the damage it does. People refuse to even talk about this, yet often have Moroccan-born women cleaning their houses, earning €400 a month, who can’t even send their children to school. They choose not to think about that, because if they did, they would have to come to terms with the world that has been created around them.

People act as if the biggest problem for this city is the few hundred Africans who cross over the wall each year, when living among us are tens of thousands of Moroccans without any paperwork or any rights.

Abdel Ghani, 38

Abdel Ghani from Beni Mellal, Morocco, living rough in Melilla
‘Even though there are fewer jobs in Spain now, it is still better than nothing’. Photograph: Jesús Blasco Avellaneda for the Guardian

Abdel is from Beni Mellal, Morocco and is currently living rough in Melilla.

I first came to Spain back in 2000, from Morocco, landing in Tarifa, Andalusia, and working my way up the country, doing whatever jobs I could, in construction and agriculture. I worked in Almería, and Madrid and ended up in Guadalajara. I got my official papers to allow me to stay in 2005, and I thought I would stay forever. I have many Spanish friends; they liked me, and I was a really hard worker. Sometimes we used to go out to dinner with the family of mye Spanish boss. He treated me like any friend.

But then in 2009, I was expelled back to Morocco; I still don’t know exactly why. In Morocco I tried to find work, but there is nothing for me there; they pay €6 a day for working in fields, and construction work isn’t much better, but the cost of meat is more expensive than in Spain.

I got back over the border into Melilla three weeks ago, and have been sleeping in the streets since then. I will go back to mainland Spain however I can, even though now I don’t have the paperwork. I don’t know how long I will be here, or how long it will take, but I will do it. Even though there are fewer jobs in Spain now, it is still better than nothing. I think I will probably go in a boat, but I will have to return to Spain. There is nothing left for me here.

A mural based on the EU flag adorns a wall in Melilla
A mural in Melilla comments on the situation facing migrants trying to reach mainland Europe. Photograph: Mustafa Berkane/GuardianWitness

Fadma Mizian, 65

Fadma is an unemployed mother of six from Nador, Morocco.

I am a widow and have six children, four girls and two boys, and 13 grandchildren and I have lived all of my life between Morocco and Melilla. During the day I used to go to Melilla to look for work, and when the sun went down, I would come back home to look after my family, make food and try to relax a little in order to prepare myself to return to the fight the following day.

In the past, there was no difference between Melilla and Beni Enzar: it was all one place, more or less. I used to be able to go into into the Spanish part without any problems, where I worked as a domestic help, cleaning houses, cooking and looking after children. Sometimes I also smuggled stuff across the border to earn a little extra money. My husband and I would buy food and other goods in Melilla, and then cross back into Morocco to sell to shops and businesses.

Now, the fence stops me from even seeing Melilla, and the border has become more dangerous. It’s much more difficult to enter Melilla, I need to take my passport with me, and there are often huge queues and gatherings of people at the border crossings. Sometimes they don’t let me in, and occasionally the police have hit me because there were too many people, or they wanted to close the border.

I don’t know what the future has in store but I am very worried that things are only going to get worse. I get scared when the helicopters fly over us, and when we hear commotion and noise at the border and lots of police cars turn up. All I can do is pray to God that he helps us and that one day things at the border will improve.

A security guard stands on the other side of a barbed wire fence from migrants in Ceuta
A security guard stands on the other side of a barbed wire fence from migrants in Ceuta. Photograph: Patrick Robert/Corbis
Photography © NASA

End notes

Jon Henley

So-called multi-celluar defence barriers in Kabul, Afghanistan
One of many so-called multi-celluar defence barriers contributing to the militarised atmosphere in Kabul. Photograph: ID3713576/GuardianWitness

The walled world is proliferating, fracturing. We’ve focused on 10 examples all of which seem to represent something unique. But it is by no means an exhaustive list. The Afghan and Iraq wars left behind them capitals dotted with security walls, and the Arab spring has thrown up new urban barriers – in Cairo and Aleppo for example.

The urban wall is something that Nicosia has had to live with for four decades. And even though travel restrictions in the Cypriot capital have been partly lifted, getting from A to B is not always possible.

Barrels painted in the blue and white of the Greek flag form a barrier in the divided Cypriot capital of Nicosia
Blue and white barrels form a barricade in south Nicosia, part of Cyprus. On the other side, controlled by Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, red and white barrels do the same job. Photograph: Nikolas Kyriakou/GuardianWitness

Israel and India are not the only country walling themselves in: the Saudis have embarked on a similar idea, reinforcing in particular the border with Yemen.

Uzbekistan has fenced itself off from most of its neighbours for ‘anti-terror’ reasons, enhancing the sense of isolation that comes with being the world’s only landlocked country entirely surrounded by other landlocked countries.

Other border barriers separate Botswana and Zimbabwe, Iraq and Kuwait, South Africa and Mozambique, and China and North Korea.

Wall blocking a road into Tahrir square, Cairo
An illusion of security? A wall blocks a road into Tahrir square, Cairo.
Photograph: haroldmoan/GuardianWitness

In the short term, walls may appear worthwhile investments. But they never address the underlying causes of the conflicts they seek to mitigate. At best, walls create an illusion of security – because those on the “wrong” side will always be working out how to get around them.

At worst, they are counter-productive: a people that believes it has solved its problems by isolating itself physically from whatever threatens it – broadly, inequality – can put off asking itself the bigger questions.

They might, just possibly, do better to recall Frost’s words.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

• Jon Henley on how walls create an illusion of security


Editors: Mark Rice-Oxley, Paul Torpey, Seán Clarke, Ranjit Dhaliwal

Interactive design and development: Andrew Mason, Daan Louter, Chris Cross, Alex Purcell

Additional research: Mona Chalabi and Matthias Stoltz

Commissioning editor: Jamie Wilson

Satellite imagery: NASA, except Belfast: Google Earth

How to finish in a revolution? The writer, the revolution

The Qasabji bar in Damascus, on an unremarkable road just outside the Old City, was where Khaled Khalifa and I had our best conversations. Qasabji was a singular room shaped like a boxcar, crowded with wood tables, benches and chairs that pushed against one another and three walls

Khaled always entered first and greeted the customers sitting at tables near the door. He bent down, kissed the men, flirted with the women, and strutted to where Nabil, Qasabji’s owner, had cleaned a spot for us.

Khaled ordered either a glass of arak or the local Damascene beer, Barada, pulled a cigarette from his pack, lit it, and added to the purplish haze of smoke. I only saw Qasabji bar at night, crowded and smoke-filled, loud, dim. Khaled always faced out, better to see the men and women, but mostly the women, and when an attractive one entered he banged the table with his fist and hooted like a wolf.

Matthew Davis posted on Guernica  this November 15, 2013

The Writer and the Rebellion

“The last chapter is the most difficult to finish in a revolution, as in a novel,” writes Khaled Khalifa from war-torn Syria.

(This sentence is from the French explorer Alexis de Tocqueville who visited the USA in 1840 and described the political and social system)

Toni Milaqi, Coffee Time, acrylic on canvas, 120×90 cm, 2008. Courtesy of artist.

I met Khaled Khalifa in 2007. He was a fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where I was working. His third novel, In Praise of Hatred had come out in Arabic the year before, and within the year would be short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, commonly known as the Arab Booker, and Khaled would be profiled by the New York Times.

Qasabji was one of two Damascene locales where Khaled had often written In Praise of Hatred. He had worked until the early hours of the morning, Nabil serving him cup after cup of coffee. It was a romantic image, the focused writer, the devoted bartender, but everything about Khaled was romantic—his outsize personality (he once orchestrated an entire club to dance while standing atop a bar), his love of women (his womanizing is notorious), his capacity to drink (he buys Smirnoff vodka in two gallon jugs, places them around his apartment, and fills them with olive oil when they’re empty). And when he talked about writing, he spoke with a refreshing earnestness:

“If you are going to be a writer, you need to be strong.”

“You cannot write a novel emotionally hot. You must be cold.”

“At one point, I decided that if I did not make it as a writer, I would kill myself.”

Khaled Khalifa was born on New Year’s Day, 1964, in a small village near Northern Aleppo. His father was an olive farmer and owned an olive oil company; his mother raised children.

Khaled was the middle child of a large family of 13 that would come to have 9 boys and 4 girls, something he once told me allowed him the chance to get lost.

Aleppo is Syria’s most populous city, a commercial hub that has historically been a meeting point of Eurasian cultures. Khaled’s family lived among this diversity.

“There are two faces of the city. One face is like a ghetto. We were living there. I remember this neighborhood because all the poor people, like Armenians, Kurdish, Turkoman—these nationalities were living in the past. These were the poor people, the farmers, and they came from the villages.” There was another newer Aleppo that was more cosmopolitan, more “Aleppine” as Khaled called it. His family lived between these two cultures.

At the time of Khaled’s birth, Syria was nearing the end of a tumultuous political period. Syria was given independence from France in 1946. By the time of Hafez al-Assad’s coup in 1970, the Syrian government had been through 4 different constitutions,  20 cabinets, the formation and disintegration of a merger with Egypt, and 4 previous military coups—three in 1949 alone.

The turbulence was in part due to the end of WWII and the collapse of the Western colonial system that had dominated the Middle East between the two world wars. It was also a result of a blossoming Arab intellectualism in the wake of this fresh independence, the buds of which were often left-leaning and communist.

Though Aleppo was historically a commercial town, not a political or intellectual center, it was not immune from these ideas, and its local cotton industry was the focal point of attempts to organize workers and put into practice what was being debated in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad. Khaled’s older brothers brought these ideas into the Khalifa household.

By the time Khaled was in high school, a different political movement was developing in Syria. Though political Sunni Islam had existed in Syria since the 1930s, it grew following the November 1970 coup orchestrated by Air Force Commander Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president.

Hafez Assad was a member of the minority community of Alawites, a heterodox Shia Muslim sect which came from the northwest mountains of Syria. He was also a member of the Ba’ath Party—the secular, left-leaning political party that had been founded by a Christian Syrian(Michel Aflak) and an Iraqi in 1947.

Throughout the 1970s, Assad’s Ba’ath Party faced mounting opposition from The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in urban centers such as Hama, Homs, and Aleppo. This opposition culminated in assassinations of government ministers and military personnel, one of the boldest attacks occurring in June 1979 at The Artillery School in Aleppo, when many young officers were killed and dozens more wounded.

Hafez Assad responded with brutal force, arresting, torturing, and murdering thousands of Syria’s citizens.

In March 1980, an entire division of the Syrian army entered Aleppo, and for more than a year, it conducted house-to-house searches for sympathizers to the Brotherhood.

It is this bloody period in Aleppo’s history, as Khaled was a teenager, that In Praise of Hatred recounts. His narrator is an unnamed teenage female whose family participates in and is victimized by the violence. Like many great novels, it uses the personal to get at the national.

What is rare about In Praise of Hatred is that it does the dual work of documenting a period decades past while also illuminating the present.

In March 2011, the Syrian people joined the “Arab Springs” in other countries in revolting against their regimes, and the response by Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s son, who took power in 2000, has been similar to his father’s. “I was translating a section on the university in Aleppo,” Leri Price, the novel’s English translator, wrote me over email, “and how there had been purges and murders of its professors, and when I turned on the news that night the BBC were [sic] running a story about purges and murders of the staff in the University of Aleppo. You couldn’t make it up.”

Khaled spent over 13 years writing In Praise of Hatred. In one of our conversations at Qasabji, he said the novel finally fell into place when he discovered the character of the Yemeni, Abdullah, a man in his mid-forties who wants to marry one of the narrator’s aunts. That’s the character’s dramatic purpose. His intellectual purpose is to give background on the various Islamic parties and spin tales of martyrs and battles that captivate the narrator and send her to Aleppo’s religious front lines.

No one wins in Khaled’s novel.

Sectarian hatred leads to pain on all sides: families are torn apart; cities destroyed; memories seared; a country traumatized. Not surprisingly, like most art or writing critical of the regime, the novel is banned in Syria. Yet the novel is widely read there.

Khaled likes to tell the story of its launch in Damascus, an event, he jokes, that drew the entire capital city. “On one side, were all my friends, and writers, and other artists. And on the other, was all the Mukhabarat,” the secret police.

In 2009, two years after I first met Khaled, I spent the summer in Damascus learning Arabic. On my second night in the country, Khaled picked me up from my hotel. Short and stout, the nexus of his body lodged in his rotund gut, his curly salt-and-pepper hair bushy on both head and chest, he engulfed me in an embrace and said, “Matt, Matt, welcome to Damascus, my friend, welcome to my paradise.”

His red Peugeot had a large scrape and dent along the driver’s side door from a recent accident. Inside, empty and half-empty Gitanes Lights cigarette packs littered the floor, and there was so much white ash on the dash, the seats, and the consul, it looked like it had snowed inside the vehicle. We turned out of the parking lot and found our way to congested Al-Thawra Street.

We drove to a store and bought chicken, vegetables and hummus and then drove to his apartment. Khaled lived up a mountain and across from a mosque. I spent several evenings at this apartment, usually for dinner as a prelude to Qasabji or his favorite club, Mar Mar.

There were two bedrooms (one for sleeping and fucking and the other for writing); a large living room with a television, usually tuned to Al Jazeera; a balcony with a view of the lights of Damascus; and a sizable kitchen.

Khaled’s money came from writing television scripts. He was quite good at it and was paid handsomely, and sometimes, when I was at his home, I heard him arguing with producers or directors over money.

His first love was poetry.

Khaled began writing in childhood, publishing poems as early as the fifth grade. At university in Aleppo, he discovered fiction, and by his second year, he was writing his first novel. He tore it up.

“You tore it up?” I asked during one of our conversations at Qasabji.

“Yes, because I felt it was not my voice. I took the voices of other Arab writers. It was very important for me because I tore it up after two years of work. I wrote for two years, very important years for me. All my time was for reading and for writing and for sex and for hasheesh. And for discovering books and the city and the country. I discovered everything.”

Khaled studied law in college, though he rarely attended class. He claims he was able to graduate by cramming for college exams 50 days before they were given. When he graduated, he did his customary two years of military service required of every Syrian male and then moved to Damascus.

He and his friends established a literary magazine called ‘Alif (the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) in order to create a new, modern Arabic literature. He wrote a novel, the first one of his to be published. “I left poetry. Good-bye poetry forever,” he said.

The novel’s publication ushered in the most turbulent period of Khaled’s life. He moved in with his parents to avoid being homeless. They hounded him to get a job as a policeman or judge, especially his mother, who worried not only about his financial situation but about confrontations with the government if he pursued his dream of becoming a writer.

He told me he was very sad at this point, because he knew novels take a long time to write, and that any other work would take him away from his fiction. He lived in Aleppo off-and-on for five years.

Eventually, because of the strain with his family, he moved back to Damascus. He took money from friends for one year and wrote. He began writing for television, and when he sold his first script, “it was a very very very very big moment for me.” He paid his friends back.

His mother couldn’t believe that he had been paid that much money for writing. His twenties were over and his thirties about to begin. It was 1993. He had just penned the first chapter of In Praise of Hatred and published it in his magazine ‘Alif. “But I felt it was not good. I wrote 90 pages and tore it up and started again. When I wrote the next 20 pages, I said ‘Yes, this is my novel.’”

Thirteen years later it was done: a novel born of an idea when he was depressed and broke and unemployed inside his parents house in Aleppo—of memories from his time as a teenager whose city was at war. The novel and its writer have made an important impression in Syria, especially among its young.

I met several twenty-something Syrians working in the international community who were effusive in their praise; a young filmmaker, Bassel Shahade, once pulled me aside with a smile to say Khaled approved of his film idea; and during an evening when Khaled and I were out to dinner with a young musician and writer, a waiter asked if I knew who I was eating with.

“That’s Khaled Khalifa,” I said.

“No,” he protested. “That’s a god.”

In the early morning hours of September 16, 2010, I arrived in Damascus for the second time. Syria was becoming the place for foreigners to study Arabic. The country was cheap and fun and its Arabic dialect was often thought the language’s most beautiful. There was a sense that after 4 decades of secrecy and closure, a curtain was being drawn open for Syria’s Great Reveal.

An influx of foreigners rented apartments or Arab homes in the Old City, creating an army of backpackers on the cobblestone streets where once Romans and Crusaders had walked. In more formal, geopolitical ways, Syria was receiving a second look. Once lumped in with North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as part of Bush’s Axis of Evil, the Obama Administration placed the country close to the center of its Middle East policy. The idea was to further isolate Iran by making inroads in Damascus.

President Obama nominated an Ambassador to Syria for the first time since 2005, the experienced Arabist Robert Ford. Even the mainstream media showed a renewed interest in Syria beyond terrorism and international conflict. National Geographic featured a story about a new Syria opening up to the world; Vogue published a controversial hagiography about Asma Assad, Assad’s wife; and the Times ran a series of profiles of Syrian artists and intellectuals.

It was this last topic that had brought me back to Damascus. My first summer there, largely because of Khaled, I had met dozens of artists, writers, and filmmakers who had left Syria because of censorship or oppression or opportunity but were returning to a burgeoning creative scene. It was part of Syria not widely known in the West, and I wanted to write about it as a means to explore Syria’s history, politics, and culture.

A Fulbright Fellowship gave me 9 months to do so, and before I left for Syria, I had formulated a rough arc of my nine months in country. Because of the pervasiveness of Syria’s Mukhabarat, I decided to delay contact with people or issues that could potential threaten the regime. No mention of politics unless they arose in context. No meetings with public dissidents. No interviews with political or religious activists.

I would spent the first 8 months meeting artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians, asking them about their lives and creative work, getting a feel for the dynamic in Syria’s capital city, and then, with a month left, ask tougher questions that could potentially lead to trouble. The rationale was simple. It behooved both my own personal safety and those of my subjects to avoid complicated, political issues.

So in September and October, as I settled into a spacious apartment with a gorgeous, panoramic view of Damascus, a city that, legend has it, Muhammad did not want to enter for fear you only enter paradise once, I spent time with artists whose work was benign: a group of young artists experimenting with animation and video art who wanted to start a comic book series; a musician and singer in the Damascus Higher Choir who invited me to the group dress rehearsal for Carmina Burana at the redolent Damascus Opera House; and Bassel Shahade, the young filmmaker making a short film about a poet whose heart literally broke from failed love.

And, of course, there were my conversations with Khaled at Qasabji.

Khaled’s control of English was better than my control of Arabic, so it was the former that we spoke. We understood each other well, but if there were times when I wished language wasn’t a barrier, it was when we spoke about the Mukhabarat, the secret police.

In 2009, a couple days after I arrived, when Khaled’s English and my Arabic were at their worst, we had dinner at an outdoor café. We were eating chicken schawarma and drinking a kind of yogurt, sitting on plastic chairs, and a wedding party drove by with horns honking.

“Ah, just get to the fucking,” Khaled shouted, and then he hit my leg in cahoots.

This was at the peak of Khaled’s popularity in Damascus, the same summer when the waiter asked if I knew I was sitting with a god. Totalitarian regimes allow godliness in singular form, and I asked Khaled whether he had ever had contact with the government. His answer was choppy, and I’m not confident in its veracity, though it rings true. He said that when he began winning awards for In Praise of Hatred, he was asked to meet with one of Bashar Assad’s close advisers. The adviser offered Khaled whatever he wanted—a new car, a new home, money—if he would speak positively of the regime. He declined the offer.

A year later at Qasabji, amidst the cigarette smoke and conversation, Khaled lamented to me the lack of development in Syria’s literary culture. He said many writers live abroad and that one of the reasons was the censors. But, he said, visual art thrives here, in part because Bashar likes and doesn’t really understand it. He pointed to the wall, where an abstract painting hung over the table, and pretended to be the Syrian President. “Yes, I think this is just fine,” he mocked.

He told me that a writer’s life was no different than any Syrian’s life—they all faced dictatorship and censors. A fruit vendor was as restricted as an artist.

Maybe it’s because of the recognition he has received, the acclaim that started in the Middle East, spread to Europe, and is poised to proliferate in Britain and the United States, but Khaled never seemed bitter when he talked about the struggles of being an artist or writer in Assad’s Syria.

At our first dinner together in 2010, he regaled me with stories of his summer, which he had spent in Europe with an “important man’s wife,” answering questions from European journalists. He said they all wanted to know what it was like to write under a dictatorship, about what the censors were like, and what that means for him as a writer. He waved his hand.

After 3 years, he was tired of answering such questions. He told me that a writer’s life was no different than any Syrian’s life—they all faced dictatorship and censors. A fruit vendor was as restricted as an artist. Instead, he was eager to talk about the new novel he was working on. He held up his two pudgy index fingers and placed them parallel on a horizontal plain. “It is about the Baath Party and the Syrian people,” he said, a smile creasing his face. “And how they never meet.” He moved his fingers in a straight line, always parallel.

The last time I saw Khaled in Syria was, of course, at Qasabji. It was October 9, 2010, and he was preparing to leave for a one-month writing residency in Hong Kong. He hoped to work on the new novel, which he was tentatively calling The Parallel Life. We spoke about our plans for the winter when he returned—how he was going to bring me to the mountains, to a home he was building, so we could write our novels in peace. How we were going to invite our Egyptian friend Hamdy and our Mongolian friend Ayur, both writers we knew from Iowa.

A few weeks later, in early November, I was sitting inside the University of Damascus campus. The previous day, a group of Fulbright Fellows had gathered at the university to fill out forms for Iqama, or residency. The application took all day, and we had returned to receive our passports with our Iqamas stamped inside. Everyone’s passport was ready except for mine and a friend’s. We were told to walk to the passport immigration police station close by and answer more questions.

It became clear early on, when the officers asked us how many states were in the United States and what was the last state admitted to the union, that this wasn’t a routine clarification of answers. It became more apparent when we were escorted out of the police station and asked to get into an unmarked white van.

We spent part of the afternoon in jail for reasons we did not know. We were interrogated on three separate occasions, and were offered coffee, tea, and chocolate in a lieutenant’s office while watching American action movies. We waited in this office until evening, when we were told to leave the country. There was no explanation given, only a stamp in our passport that said: “You are welcome to leave Syria in 48 hours.”

Before we left the station, a line of generals shook our hands and said: “Ahlan, wasalan,” Welcome. The next night, we traveled to the airport for a scheduled flight to Amman. A hawk-nosed border guard typed in our passport numbers and became confused. He visited his superiors, spoke with our Syrian handler. We were interrogated for a fourth time. Finally allowed to leave, our handler gave us our passports with a warning.

“I shouldn’t tell you this,” he whispered. “But on their computers you are labeled as national security risks.”

Our deportation instigated three weeks of diplomatic wrangling between the U.S. and Syria and between different agencies in the U.S. government. At one point, John Kerry spoke with Bashar al-Assad about us, and Bashar said there had been a mistake and that we could return. The culmination of all this was a choice between Syria and Jordan; the caveat was that if I chose Syria and was detained or deported again, I would lose my fellowship.

I wanted badly to return to Damascus, but by Thanksgiving, I had chosen Jordan. Three weeks later, Muhammad al Bouazizi self-immolated in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, which sparked the Tunisian Revolution, which sparked The Arab Spring, which I experienced from Jordan’s sleepy capital of Am

When revolution spread to Egypt, Khaled, back in Damascus, posted to Facebook: “If we succeed in Egypt, we will win every where.” Protests in Syria began tepidly, as if waiting for results in other countries.

On January 26, a man self-immolated in the fashion of Muhammad al-Bouazizi.

A week later, A Day of Rage planned for February 3 netted very few participants. Yet by March 15, following the detention, torture, and murder of teenagers who had scrawled anti-regime graffiti in the Southern Syrian town of Daraa, a town abutting the Jordanian border, a more cohesive protest movement coalesced.

Protests were now taking place in cities across the country, with Daraa at its center. I followed Khaled’s response on Facebook.

March 18: Who can stop this raging sea of waves?

March 23 There is no third road ahead of us. We either live with dignity or die with dignity.

March 27: How alone we are in this world. Even the soil and the skies are against us.

March 27: If emergency law disappears, I will really quit smoking.

Snipers on top of buildings wantonly killed protesters in Daraa, Homs, and Baniyas. Reports emerged of torture, rape, mutilation. A singer’s vocal chords were yanked out of his throat. A cartoonist’s hands broken and smashed. Refugees poured out of Syria to the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

April 30: Those who inside wish to wake up and not see the name Daraa on the map, I tell you look inside for a second and you will discover that the beast that lives inside you will eat you and Daraa will remain the queen of cities.

May 3: Can someone explain to me how an artist, all kinds of artists, and a writer, all kinds of writing, and at the same time, the siege of Daraa? I swear I still don’t understand it.

In late July 2011, I returned to the U.S. I spent a night with my family in Chicago and then drove to Iowa City, where Khaled was teaching a writing course to Arab teenagers. He had told me to find him at Java House, a coffee shop on Washington Street full of young writers and burgeoning scholars, and when I walked in, Khaled was ensconced at a wood table, getting news on the revolution out through Facebook.

Khaled hugged me and we left to go outside so he could smoke. We talked about my deportation, the revolution, the regime, and Syria’s future. The revolution had only been on for several months, and successes in Tunisia and Egypt had given hope across the region and in Syria that other regimes would soon collapse. Khaled was ebullient.

We covered many topics. He said that he hadn’t been restricted at all in his movements, that he wasn’t directly working for the revolution though he was broadcasting it, that the regime will fall and those in charge will be tried as criminals, and that when the regime fell, there would be blood for about a couple of months before things subsided.

That evening, we went to George’s, Iowa City’s Qasabji: a dim, narrow bar of perpetual darkness. We met friends who still lived in town and drank and talked late into the night. “I think now, in Syria, we have a very new idea,” Khaled told me. “Now I’m writing my new novel. I have been writing for four years. But now, I will rewrite it, because I feel it is old writing. We have a new time, and new ideas, not just for writing but for the people too. Now we can understand our people. We are talking about this with young writers. What will be the future, I ask. You must be better. Because after the revolution you have new ideas about writing and about all art. We will have new ideas.”

I drove Khaled to DeKalb, Illinois the next morning, where a Syrian musician friend of his lived. The two men hugged and joked and watched Al Jazeera. They went to his back deck for a cigarette, and the friend told Khaled he shouldn’t return to Syria, that it was too dangerous. Khaled protested and said he must be there at this time, that he couldn’t leave now, that he knew how to keep safe. When he stood up, his pants were soaked. He had unknowingly sat on a chair with a large puddle. He smiled at me through his stubble.

Syria was disintegrating.

In mid-August 2011, as Khaled returned to his country, President Obama called for Assad to go. In mid-November, Jordan’s King Abdullah became the first Arab leader to ask for Assad’s removal. The killing didn’t stop. In an interview with Barbara Walters that aired December 7, Assad said a leader who kills his own people is crazy. Two weeks later, a two-day military campaign began in the Jabal al-Zawiyah area in Idlib, killing at least 200 people. The Arab League called for Assad to step down on January 22, 2012 amidst shellings and bombings of cities like Homs and Hama. On February 4, China and Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on the violence.

January 18: Sometimes silence is a tank

January 19: The last chapter is the most difficult chapter to finish in a revolution, as in a novel

February 6: Khaled sent a letter to friends around the world that began: My friends, writers and journalists from all over the world, in China and Russia, I would like to inform you that my people are being subjected to a genocide.

On the same day Khaled posted his letter to Facebook, the US Embassy in Damascus shuttered its doors. More than a month later, the UN and Arab League supported the Kofi Annan proposal to end the violence.

On March 31, the Assad regime claimed victory over the opposition.

On April 12, a UN-backed ceasefire began. On April 25, many children were among the 69 killed during shelling of Hama. On May 3, an 18-year-old student at The University of Aleppo, Khaled’s university, was tossed out of a five-story window for protesting the Assad regime.

On May 25, over 92 people, thirty of whom were children, were massacred in the Sunni city of Houla.

On May 26, in a funeral for a friend who was shot in the head during a peaceful protest, Khaled Khalifa was beaten by security forces. His left arm was broken.

On May 28, Bassel Shahade, the young filmmaker whose face had turned into a smile when Khaled approved of his project, who had left a Fulbright Fellowship at Syracuse to train activists how to shoot video, was killed by shrapnel in Homs.

May 29: Who doesn’t know our martyr Bassel Shahade, I tell you he’s a kid who knows only the rays of light. Bassel, you broke our hearts.

June 1: Bombings, bombings and bombings now

June 3: Unbelievable bombings and heavy gunfire

July 20, 2012 in a Facebook message to me: Hi Matt, until now I am safe, but under bombing and fear. Don’t worry.

Perhaps because of its premeditation, it is the death of the 18-year-old tossed from the fifth floor of Aleppo University that sticks with me. Its only solace is that somewhere in the city of merchants on the Old Silk Road, there is another Khaled Khalifa taking note.

“I cannot say more in these difficult moments,” Khaled wrote in his letter to writers and journalists across the world, “but I hope you will take action in solidarity with my people, through whatever means you deem appropriate. I know that writing stands helpless and naked in front of the Russian guns, tanks and missiles bombing cities and civilians, but I have no wish for your silence to be an accomplice of the killings as well.”–Khaled Khalifa, Damascus

In 2012, In Praise of Hatred was translated into English and published in London by Doubleday. The ending had changed. In the Arabic original, the unnamed narrator leaves Syria and joins her uncle in London. In the English translation, the novel ends with the narrator discharged from a lengthy prison sentence, presumably to remain in Aleppo. Khaled was furious with the change, but, he told me, he was in Damascus, so what could he do.

Ever since the war began in January 2011, I had little doubt that Khaled Khalifa would remain in Syria, in Damascus, his paradise, to help usher in the new ideas he spoke passionately about in Iowa City.

More than two years on, however, I wonder whether this ending will change, too. Khaled’s health is failing; he is depressed; he has been barred from leaving the country. I get none of this from him, only those close to him. From him, I get positive emails, an optimism as much at Khaled’s core as his rotund gut and passion for writing.

Khaled’s fourth novel was recently published in Cairo. I’ve also heard that Qasabji is still open, Nabil still serving arak and beer, albeit at a higher price.


Matthew Davis is the author of When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter’s Tale, parts of which won awards from The Atlantic and The Best American Travel Writing series. He was a Fulbright Fellow to Syria and Jordan in 2010-2011 and is currently a Tom and Mary Gallagher Fellow at The Black Mountain Institute at UNLV.

14 Priceless Ads from 1950s Lebanon

The Golden Days of Beirut were undoubtedly before the Civil War, especially in the 1950s and early 60s.
Lebanon was a prime destination for the world’s most prominent jet setters, almost every brand in the world was open in Beirut, nightlife was amazing, hotels were next-level and heck, we even had a red light district.
November 22, 2013  by


On this 70th anniversary of Lebanon’s independence, all we have to show for it is an ugly 50,000LL bank-note with a spelling mistake, two suicide bombings, no government cabinet and a continuing influx of refugees without any light at the end of this long tunnel.

Perhaps, it’ll do us some good to remember what the good old days were like, what our grandparents lived through, how your grandma might’ve had dinner at The Carlton Beirut, which your Grandpa paid for with a cheque from Chase Manhattan…

Wajid Hitti, a good friend of mine, has digitized a massive collection of the ads from that era his father had saved up from the days he worked at Gaumont Palace in Down Town Beirut (which used to stand next to St Vincent de Paul church).

During the war, the building was largely occupied by Syrian troops, and the tower (11 stories was a lot back then) fell into ruin. Wajid’s dad found out the Syrian troops were burning the books and booklets from the 50s-60s era, and made sure he reclaimed them in order to preserve the pop culture heritage of a time when it was a pleasure to live and love in Beirut.

I will be posting ads like these regularly from now.

To kick things off, here are 14 amazing ones.

And again, a MILLION thank yous to Wajid and his father for giving us the opportunity to back in time on this bitter-sweet day.

West Hall ❤

TMA… The abandoned aircrafts you see while taxiing off in Beirut’s Airport

Phoenicia ❤

A nice word by one of Lebanon’s best Presidents, General Fouad Chehab


Gotta love the kilt

T. Gargour & Fils!


Imagine what the Church and General Security would do to this ad!
Gotta love the 50s ❤





November 2013

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