At Checkpoint Charlie, for nearly three decades the gateway between East Berlin and West Berlin, it could take an hour or more to move from east to west through the great Berlin Wall. The guards cross-examined drivers and passengers in cars and buses and trucks, matching passport photos with faces. Then they searched the vehicles, to make sure that no East German was doing a Houdini to escape into the Western Zone, looking in trunks, engines, baggage compartments, storage areas, even beverage coolers and food hampers. Another guard rolled a steel-framed mobile staircase against buses and tall trucks, scrambling up to survey the tops. A low device with a wide mirror was slid under each vehicle to inspect its underside.
The humorless guards wanted no conversation during any of this.
Like a prehistoric snake, today another larger Wall slithers and gnaws across the Palestinian countryside, often undulating between raw trenches and electrified razor fencing. The concrete slabs, eight meters high and three meters wide, cast shadows many times their size. According to Israeli military officials, the Wall’s total length will be some 810 km. Each km costs approximately $2 million.
Two walls, thousands of miles and decades apart, yet both severing lands once united, separating prosperity from hardship, hope from despair. From the moment we passed through Checkpoint Charlie into the Eastern Zone, we couldn’t help feeling under constant surveillance – probably, because we were. Armed soldiers could suddenly appear at any time.
Delphine’s experience in my new book, DELPHINE, was much the same, only worse.
Again and again, she gazed on the shuffling, dusty lines of people waiting for permission to pass through the checkpoints. Often, they were trapped in the sun for hours. She saw the smoking, idling trucks and crowded buses. The aged cars and bicycles. The weary pedestrians and the workmen desperate to get to their jobs. The women with bundles on their heads and restless children clinging to their long dust-gilded skirts and voluminous coats.
She finds it almost impossible to understand what she’s seeing when she first confronts the great Wall cutting across Palestinian lands.
Driving on a new two-lane highway between towns, Delphine and Layla were abruptly stopped by two armed soldiers in a jeep, guns ready, as if they expected the two women to pull out their own weapons.
“This road is restricted,” barked one of the young men, demanding identification.
Under his camouflage-patterned helmet, he was quite good looking, Delphine thought. How could such an angelic-looking youth be so fierce? Was it all an act or had he internalized the behavior so that it had become part of him? Despite his gentle features was he really a hardened soldier, a potential killer who hated whatever “enemy” he was told to hate?
The Palestinian Wall also has become the world’s longest graffiti space.
“Only Free Men Can Negotiate,” reads one carefully painted notice on the gray surface. Nearby, a giant dove flies forever across the concrete toward the distant top of the Wall. Windows have been painted on it, opening up the concrete to imaginary scenes of orchards and meadows and lakes. Painted ladders climb like Jack’s beanstalk toward dreams of freedom and equality.
The Berlin Wall was doomed in 1989, after a series of radical political changes in Eastern Europe. After several weeks of unrest, the East German government announced that its citizens could freely visit West Germany and West Berlin. The result was like a party, as crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto what had officially been called the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.” Souvenir hunters, soon labeled “Woodpeckers,” began chipping at the Wall. Later, the government brought in equipment to remove most of it.
The fall of the Berlin Wall led to German reunification in October 1990.
The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, and other walls built to separate, exclude, and isolate various peoples have crumbled, vanished, or been turned into tourist attractions. The future is impossible to predict. The fact remains, however, that as long as one group constructs walls against another group, lives are affected, people suffer, and resentment and anger grow.
In my book, DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, Delphine sees at first hand how the land is scarred and people’s lives are changed forever by such a wall.
The book is available at University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Texas A & M Consortium, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.