Karen J McDonnell is a 2017 Hennessy/Irish Times shortlisted writer. Her work is widely published, and has won and been listed in competitions including the 2017 Robert Monteith, Poems for Patience, and Dermot Healy Poetry prizes. Non-fiction was nominated for Best of the Net 2014.
A graduate of NUI Galway, in 2016 she received a Tyrone Guthrie Bursary from Clare County Council. Doire Press published This Little World in 2017. http://www.karenjmcdonnell.com
By Karen J McDonnell
Call me Wall. For the most part. Occasionally, you may call me Fence. Either way, I have a job to do. That job depends on your viewpoint. It’s tough being a wall. I’m just slabs and cement. I can give you the statistics. I am, for example, at least 770km long. I can tell you what others say about me, and do to me. The dogs are constantly pissing up against me, or worse. Humans try to dismantle me or add stuff like barbed wire, watch-towers, and huge gates. They’ve made holes in me, big enough to pass a seven-year-old through. Don’t get me started on the writing. Graffiti on one side; government slogans on the other. The languages I’ve heard. The pitched battles I’ve seen – congregations of do-gooders, activists, desperados and the desperate, all ranged against the IDF. They all find a way of objecting to me while disregarding me at the same time. I deserve a bit more care, a bit of craftsmanship. I’ve been slapped up, metre by metre, in the middle of the night. Dawn rises and I’m embarrassed to even think about what I look like – the finish is so bad. They say cement is a luxury in Gaza – it’s on the list of things the Israelis won’t let through. That’s what I’ve heard. But what would I know? I’m just a wall.
So, I’m plain, luxurious, cement. Built by the Israelis, who call me ‘defensive’. Hated by the Palestinians, who label me ‘divisive’. Not my fault. Not my problem. I’m just here, dealing with the consequences. And there are consequences. There’s a place, a village, called Al Aqba. The boundaries have been re-drawn. Al-Aqba will be squeezed like a grape until it pops: demolished within eighty percent of the new boundary. Who knows where the seeds will fall. Another twenty-nine Arab villages will be totally isolated by me. When I say ‘by me’, you must allow me to reiterate: I’m just a wall, I don’t decide on these things. No matter. I’ll loop my way in and out of West Bank lives. Twenty-nine mini civilisations will fester, shrivel and cease to exist.
Over a hundred and thirty villages will lose the land that sustains them, and their extended families. Farmers will live on one side of me and their tomatoes will die on the other side. Sometimes, it will take Palestinians days to get around me. They are deliberately delayed at the checkpoints. Then, it’s too late to turn on hoses, or to pick the crops. Olive trees don’t blush and burst like tomatoes. They don’t wither in protest like grapes on the vine. They are not like carnations, their white-gloved capillaries groping for moisture, wilting like cinnamon-scented debutantes in an overheated ballroom. Olive trees proffer olives to whomsoever puts a hand up their khaki skirts. Doesn’t matter who claims ownership. They may twist their trunks, droop their leaves and wish for better luck, but they will outlast me. Providing someone doesn’t take a Black and Decker to them. It’s been known to happen: an olive grove will find itself too near a settler road, or in the middle of a projected settlement. I’ve watched chainsaws cut through a couple of thousand years in a small field full of poppies. Steeled, ruthless, noisy bastards.
There’s a family I know in Beit Sahour, who couldn’t get to their fields. They were denied access long enough for the Israelis to say that the land didn’t belong to anyone because it wasn’t being managed. Now it belongs to the Israelis. I’ve put a stop to a lot of movement in Beit Sahour. I snake around ar-Ram on three sides. Sixty thousand people live there. Before me, their neighbours in Bir Nabala could walk over in a matter of minutes to chew nuts, drink tea or smoke a pipe. Now it’s a trip of twenty kilometres, through at least one checkpoint. Of course, I get blamed.
On the government slogan side of me, they say I’ve stopped the suicide bombings. That, let me tell you, is no small thing. Once you’ve seen warm flesh bloodied and rendered, on a nice sunny spring day in Jerusalem, you don’t want to repeat the experience. When you see what shrapnel and nails do to my body, imagine what it could do to yours. Yet, there are Israeli groups, like B’tselem, who say that the Wall, that I, have gone too far. That I am an instrument of imprisonment, of deprivation, of apartheid. That I prevent bombs whilst divesting many of their basic human rights. They point out that I do not follow any logical lines, that I serve political aims. I trace the lines of annexation, and I make connection between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank extremely difficult. Connection is a word for family, hospitals, education. I exclude heavily populated Palestinian villages from Jerusalem, while reaching out into the West Bank to encircle settlements. They say I am the functionary of a Greater Jerusalem for an Israeli majority. I repeat: not my problem. I’m just the Wall. Nothing I can do about it.
I have a heart of stone. But, let me tell you, it’s not easy being me. I get to see things. I get to hear things. I take them in with the dust blown hard into my pitted, slabbed torso. The wind whispers stories and sadnesses through gaps between the tower blocks and my cap stones. I’m not a quality wall, but I can multi-task as much as the best of my breed. There was a guy like me who did a great job in Berlin until recently – so I’ve heard. A grey, unprepossessing sort of wall. There’s an old stalwart still doing trojan work in Belfast. Like them, I’m not compelled to tog out in history-pocked, dirty-cream, aged limestone. It’s not necessary to be situated in the best location in town, or claim to be the last remnant of the Temple of Jerusalem, to qualify as a wailing wall. You just need to witness, to embrace reluctantly, the wailing. And lately, there’s been a lot of wailing. I’m a wall. I don’t feel. I’m just telling things as I see them. I’m the Wall.
On the last afternoon, I walked across from the hotel to the hardware shop. ‘Marhaba.’
‘Uhm. Do you have any, uhm, spray paint?
Green for luck, in the Arab world. I’m Irish. It had to be green. Poor man. He was probably fed up with earnest activists like me. I wandered up the quiet street to the Wall. First, I would have to negotiate the plinth that was chest high and covered in broken glass. I hoisted myself up, and knelt on the glass facing – grey. Cricking my neck, I stared up twenty-five feet to the barbed wire. Slowly, I moved my head right and left, peeking at the watch towers. When does the IDF decide you’re a danger to security? Was there anyone looking at me at all? A taxi tore around the corner. The afternoon returned to silence. If I stared up at them, would that count as antagonistic behaviour? What is a respectable length of time for staring at Israeli watch towers? There was no one on Nativity Street to see what I was doing. Only a dove in a flack-jacket, carrying an olive branch, stared down from a mural on a nearby gable wall. No witnesses. Good. Unless, of course, I was shot. In such a situation a witness or two is preferable.
CATERPILLAR plant machinery is used in house demolitions. That’s why people are trying to get such companies boycotted. Did their share-holders care? I thought of these things as I raised myself up to my full height in front of the Wall. I contemplated calligraphic styles. I wished I was a bit taller. The Wall wore a cummerbund of graffiti beyond which I couldn’t reach. Was every activist with a spray can five feet, ten inches tall? It was going to be difficult to find a blank bit of cement on which to spray my immortal lines.
I looked at the Wall.
The Wall did nothing.
The watchtowers looked. At me.
And did nothing.
‘Really, you are a bit of an eejit.’
‘I want to do this.’
‘And it will do what good…?’
‘Is this for you, or for them?’
‘It’s for me. Me saying I am for them.
‘Oh, go on so. Eejit.’
The internal conversation is not always of great illumination.
I still had to decide what I was going to write, given the lack of graffiti space. Banksy, I wasn’t. Those who had gone before me had painted ferocious looking multi-coloured tigers, or single red blossoms. Some had scrawled in red and green. Many languages. But, there’s no respect for art anywhere. Large white-block letters spelling P A L E S T I I N A had encroached on previous epigraphs. I needed to pick a (short) phrase that was me: Irish, and heartfelt. Lán Grá. With a heart sitting on the extra-long horizontal of the L. Green. I squeezed it in between The answer removal of consolidation and …m i rozu. Black.
The minute I was finished I was questioning my Irish tuiseals and the green heart. Perhaps it was just as well there were no witnesses. The world is never short of art critics.
Apart from the glass and the chance that I might fall backwards off the plinth, and apart from the fact that I might get shot by an irritated or bored member of the IDF, I really wasn’t in any danger. There was a bit of me that wished for a movement from above. A shout would have sufficed. I would have remained dignified. I would have kept my fingers tight together, clenched in my palms. In any event, I slid over the crunching glass and off my pedestal. I walked into the middle of the deserted road, keeping an ear out for approaching taxis, and photographed my first graffito.
When I talk to people about the West Bank, about the Palestinians, I try to state my position – simply – before their eyes glaze over.
There are times when you can’t sit on the fence. Or the Wall. You have to climb down and stand on one side. So, I stood on the Palestinian side. In my head I kept common sense and a questioning respect. On the Wall, a green heart. In my pockets: water, tissues and a spray can.