A few weeks ago, my daughter and I were remembering one of her favorite children’s books, “Talking Walls: Discover Your World” by Margy Burns Knight, illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien. I first read it to her 25 years ago, and since then, the idea of walls has been more fraught than ever and resonant in myriad ways.
I was drawn to the book to show my little girl the variety of walls in the world. There was the Great Wall of China that can be seen from space, the serendipitous 1940 discovery of the Lascaux cave in the French woods with walls that display magnificent ancient paintings of horses, bison and antelope. Of special interest to us was the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
We lingered on the pages about this special wall, stuffed with slips of paper holding wishes and dreams and prayers. Yet both the text and illustration felt misleading. Only bearded men in traditional ultra-Orthodox garb were represented. The notes in the wall’s crevices were described as “handwritten Hebrew prayers.” The description glossed over the dynamism of the Jewish Diaspora, and the fact that these most intimate requests to God were written in many languages.
More than two decades later, another wall has garnered attention—the structure built up along the U.S.-Mexico border. Here are some quick physical facts about that wall, which in a casual search on Google comes up as a Wikipedia entry headlined “Trump’s Wall.” The U.S. built new barriers along 455 miles of its 1,933-mile border with Mexico, 49 miles of which previously had no barrier. Thirty-foot-tall steel fencing replaced the smaller fencing that was there to deter cars and trucks. However, construction of the wall was halted when President Biden was inaugurated.
The motivation behind this recent wall construction clashes in spirit with other walls in the world, some of them explored in Burns Knight’s book. The Vietnam Memorial Wall, Diego Rivera’s murals, the walls of the late Nelson Mandela’s prison walls—all of them commemorate different events and eras. All of them embrace our humanity.
A generation ago, Ronald Reagan demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” He was speaking about the Berlin Wall, which fell spectacularly in 1989 piece by piece. Built in 1961, the Berlin Wall was the haunting physical manifestation of the Cold War. Its purpose: to keep citizens in the Eastern bloc from migrating en masse to the West. It was a death trap too. Over the years, hundreds of people died trying to scale the wall or get around it at various points along the 96 miles of the divider with West Berlin. The Berlin Wall also loomed large in the imaginations of writers such as John Le Carré and filmmakers like Steven Spielberg.
The 1990s continued the promise of a wall-less era. The metaphorical walls between countries in Europe came down when the European Union was established in 1993. The intention to become a globalized world with free movement of goods, currency and people was one of hope. The millennium, however, has seen a number of wall-building projects resume all over the world. The idea of open borders once hailed in the 1990s became liabilities again. Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015 has occasioned the building of 800 miles of fences erected by Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary and Macedonia.
In the Middle East, JewishBoston readers are undoubtedly aware of Israel’s 400-mile security barrier, separating much of the West Bank from Israel. It was constructed in 2002 in response to Palestinian suicide bombings and other acts of terror perpetrated in Israel. The barrier—Israel does not call it a wall—has been controversial while at the same time admittedly saving lives. Nevertheless, the 20-foot high barrier continues to be a flashpoint for Palestinian anger and the object of global condemnation. Critics have pointed out that the barrier impedes general movement and trade and cuts off Palestinian access to jobs in Israel.
In a different context, walls can be empowering. At their most elemental, they support roofs, floors and ceilings. They give buildings shape and form. Walls provide shelter and security. In one of the rabbit holes I went down researching the complicated history of walls, I came upon this bit of delightful symbolism: In tarot, the symbol of the brick wall indicates progress. It signifies building things such as confidence, strength and reputation rather than an obstruction.
Walls have also doubled as plen air galleries throughout the millennia. Burns Knight highlights Aborigine wall art. Aborigines have the oldest continuous tradition in the world for displaying art, which is found on many cliffs and cave walls throughout Australia. She shows her young readers the Mahabalipuram Animal Walls in India, which are part of the world’s longest bas relief. Artists from the city’s art school repair the carvings. Burns Knight teaches that the diverse people of India, which includes Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, revere animals and all forms of life. Animals have also appeared in Muslim art in India. In 1867, the walls of Great Zimbabwe, a city important politically and economically in 14th- and 15th-century Africa, were rediscovered. The walls were overrun after there were rumors that gold was hidden within them. They are now historical ruins.
At the end of her book, Burns Knight asks her young readers a series of thoughtful questions: Do walls need to stay up or come down? Do you build walls? Would you tear them down? Can you imagine a world without walls?
There are no correct or definitive answers, which is the point. Walls have been with us since ancient times. They have functioned as fortresses as well as canvases that tell our earliest stories. They have been covered in graffiti that protest injustices or convey propaganda. They have built communities and divided them.
In 2009, the writer Haruki Murakami won the coveted Jerusalem Prize, a literary award given biennially to a writer whose body of work reflects themes of human freedom, society, politics and government. I’ll end with an excerpt of the speech he delivered at the ceremony in Israel, in which he evoked the image of a wall as a means to criticize harsh governmental policies and its effects on its citizens:
“If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg. Why? Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg. Each of us is confronting a high wall. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals…. We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us—create who we are. It is we who created the system.”