There is an ancient wall that surrounds the Old City of Damascus. It remains largely intact which is a remarkable feat since it took its current shape from the Romans. The Romans, master builders of the ancient world, constructed solid walls to defend cities and keep out the undesirables. They also built them to last, digging deep foundations with large symmetrical boulders. Subsequent empires must have liked the wall because they neither tore it down nor enlarged it. The wall in Damascus survived even as it became useless for protecting the city against new technologies and weapons. Before the uprising in Syria there was revived interest in the wall as a cultural artifact in the booming heritage industry. Today the main industry in Syria is war and that has led to more walls, both physical and mental, being constructed throughout the country. Yet, the idea of walls is spreading beyond the region leading one to reflect on the meaning of barriers, enclosures, and dividers when in today’s world being walled off has never been so impossible.
Many old cities in the Middle East still have their premodern historic walls; Jerusalem for one, Aleppo had a wall. But others, like Baghdad and Cairo, long lost theirs as they became modern and expanded beyond the mural enclosure. There are also cities with dividers from recent conflicts. In Beirut, the wall that separated east from west during the civil war (1975-1990) is still present in people’s minds. In Jerusalem, another invisible wall still divides the western Jewish part from the eastern Palestinian side of the city along the Green Line, the Armistice border enacted from 1949 to 1967.
There are also newer barriers in the Middle East. The Israelis have built one to protect themselves from Palestinians and to separate the West Bank from Israel proper. In Baghdad, the city that got rid of its medieval wall, the American occupational forces decided it needed a new one to keep the Sunnis and Shia separated after the fall of Saddam because they could no longer live together. Now the new administration is proposing to build a wall along the southern border of the United States. One could easily think that the new administration was inspired by examples in the Middle East to divide, enclose, and block.
I began fieldwork in Syria in the wake of another contentious American presidential election and the administration that came to power then, eventually led a war against Iraq. While the reasons put forth for the war were plenty, one main goal was to bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people. The rhetoric of democracy and human rights was not fooling anyone in the region. I was in Syria at the time and could see how the grand experiment of making Iraq a beacon for democracy for the rest of the region was farcical. The Syrians were certainly not signing up. Rather Iraq became a beacon of another sort—of sectarianism. Instead, authoritarianism turned out to be much more contagious than the diluted form of liberal values the US was attempting to introduce in the region.
My time in Syria before the war was most instructive on living with authoritarianism. Running into walls was part of this experience while I was conducting research on gentrification. Sometimes during interviews, there would be an awkward silence and an abrupt end to the conversation. I was not always sure what happened, but I learned to be very careful in how I framed my research topic especially the questions I asked. While I thought my work was harmless enough, I was the subject of suspicion. Some Syrians thought I was a spy and it was futile to convince them otherwise. Rather I adopted local practices and learned to censor what I said and did. I learned, as in the saying, to walk by the wall and pray for protection. The saying is common in Syria and in different parts of the Arab world, perhaps because there are so many walls and they might provide the illusion of protection from the arbitrary wrath of the regime.
The current administration with some of its recent executive orders and charges of nepotism are rather familiar in many countries of the Middle East. The travel ban and the chaos that ensued at points of entry, for instance, are all too common for travelers in the region and especially for refugees fleeing war. Even with passports and visas in order, it is the border guards at both points of exit and entry that decide if one leaves and one enters. Border guards are always enacting laws and sometimes they are the only ones that know about these laws. There are stories of people stuck in between, the dreaded no man’s land, where they cannot return and cannot proceed. Having regimes where the president’s or the king’s family are heavily involved in political life are also familiar. While the United States is not an authoritarian regime, the current political climate is eerily like one. There is so much mistrust and suspicion that it is easy to see how walls can go up much quicker than they come down. I am not sure what the solution is, but walking by the wall and asking for protection seems like a good idea!
Yet, the United States did not just build walls in the Middle East. While not an exhaustive list, it continues to conduct drone strikes, support dictators, impose sanctions, and overlook human rights violations by its allies in the region. As in the Arab saying, the chicken that digs in dirt gets it all over her head, the United States could not be involved in the region without something like the dirt of authoritarianism getting stuck. Or, perhaps there was always an authoritarian streak in American politics that is now difficult to contain with its involvement in the Middle East. Maybe the chicken should seek protection by the wall.
Faedah M. Totah is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.