Dividing Walls

The Plaque reads: “This is an original segment of the former East German Communist Regime on 13 August 1961 to stem the flood of people fleeing from East Germany to freedom in the west, and to isolate the western sectors of Berlin.
The wall soon became a sad symbol, not only of the artificial separation of Berliners but also of the political divisions of Germany and Europe as a whole. A symbol of the suppression of freedom and violation of human rights. Its fall on 9 November 1989 was the climax of the peaceful revolution of the East German people and opened the road to freedom in Eastern Europe as well.
During its existence the wall underwent several “improvements”. This segment is part of the last configuration. The massive base was intended to foil breakthrough attempts by vehicles, whereas on top and not represented here – slippery tubes and barbed wire were to thwart attempts to climb across.
The eastern part was painted white so that border guards could better spot – and shoot at – refugees. The final deterrent, a so called “death strip” was plastered mines, booby traps, trip wires and was patrolled by marksmen with watch dogs.
On the western side graffiti artists took it on as a challenge to express their protests and revulsion, or simply to “beautify” it.
588 people died trying to overcome the wall.”


Almost every day I walk past a segment of wall that is no longer a wall. It is a reminder of a wall. It is a reminder of the breakdown of a wall. It is an original segment of the Berlin Wall. Its dividing death-span lasted from 13 August 1961 to 9 November 1989.

Sadly, since then many more dividing walls have been built. “It is a worldwide phenomenon in which the cement has been mixed and the concrete laid without most of us even noticing. Thousands of miles of walls and fences have gone up around the world in the twenty-first century. At least sixty-five countries, more than a third of the world’s nation states, have built barriers along their borders; half of those erected since the Second World War sprang up between 2000 and now.”[DIVIDED – Why We’re Living In An Age of Walls, by Tim Marshall].

This is not surprising when we witness on a daily basis “A key controversy in every major election campaign of our time—in the United States, United Kingdom, continental Europe, Asia, and Africa—is that of strangers at the frontier, whether they go by the name of migrant, immigrant, refugee, alien, or invader. Who is in and who is out? Who belongs to the nation and who does not? Who deserves shelter and who does not? Who should stay and who should go? Back to where they came from—if there is anything left for them? Who decides the answer to these questions? And according to what criteria, interests, and intentions?” [Radical Hospitality. From Thought To Action, by Richard Kearney and Melissa Fitzpatrick].

According to Kearney and Fitzpatrick:

“The crisis is acute, and it is set to worsen exponentially as the climate situation grows more alarming and despotic leaders on every continent increasingly endanger their own peoples. Never has the stranger been more in need of hosts to provide shelter, sustenance, and dignity. And never have the doors of welcome seemed more shut.” (p.2)

They propose that a new understanding or interpretation “of hospitality is needed in our age of mounting hostility.” (p.3) They call one such form or experiment of hospitality “narrative hospitality”. They explored this in “The Guestbook Project” that was founded in 2009. They write:

“It began as an interdisciplinary seminar focusing on the theme of “Hosting the Stranger: Between Hostility and Hospitality.” The project was intellectually inspired by the fact that, in most Indo-European languages, the word for “guest” and “enemy” is the same—for example, hostis in Latin is the common root of both “hostility” and “hospitality.” So too for xenos in Greek (xenophobia and xenophilia), Gast in Old German (friendly guest or ghastly enemy), and so on. The aim of Guestbook was to explore how enmity could be translated into empathy by acts of narrative exchange, transforming cycles of violence into radically imaginative moments of welcoming the stranger.” (p.25-26)

Here is the powerful story that motivated Kearney to start the Guestbook:

“In the 1980s, at the height of “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, I was invited as a young professor of philosophy to come to Derry, a city divided by war, to moderate a workshop between republican and loyalist prisoners. During the workshop, one of the IRA [Irish Republican Army] prisoners told of how one night he was asleep in his bed when a loyalist gang broke into the house, bound, gagged and blindfolded him, threw him into the boot of a car, and drove him to a barn outside Derry. Strapped to a chair and about to be shot, he asked if he could smoke a last cigarette. His captor consented and offered him one. And as he smoked the cigarette—very slowly—he told the story of how he had become involved in republican violence: how his grandfather had been brutally murdered by the British police force, how his father had been incarcerated and tortured, how his mother had become an alcoholic and suffered a nervous breakdown, how his brother had been knee-capped and maimed for the rest of his life… And he went on until he finished his cigarette. Then he waited for the gun to go off. But it didn’t. There was no sound. No movement. He waited for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes—Nothing. Eventually, he managed to free himself and looked around. There was nobody there; the barn was empty. He walked home. When the IRA prisoner finished sharing this in the workshop I was chairing, another man, a Loyalist paramilitary prisoner, stood up at the back of the hall and said, “I was the assassin who gave you that cigarette. And I would have shot you. But I couldn’t shoot you because, when I heard your story, I realized it was my story.” (p.26-27)

Who knew that listening to another’s story can breakdown walls?

With grace,

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