What the Walls Taught Me | The Washington Center

What the Walls Taught Me

As you may have figured out by now, I am doing my best to take full advantage of the museums in Washington D.C. As I comb through the exhibits in the many museums, there is one artifact that I have seen multiple times: pieces of the Berlin Wall. Yup, we’ve got pieces of the Berlin Wall on display in a whole slew of places in D.C. including the Newseum, the National Museum of American History, and even CIA headquarters. These chunks of the wall on display remind me of my travels in Cyprus and what I learned about division while I was there. Seeing these walls around D.C., I wonder about what the historical displays are trying to teach us about our future: if these walls could talk, what would they say about boundaries to peace?

This is a photo of the Berlin Wall on display at the Newseum.


My musings about the functionality of walls all started when I travelled to Cyprus. If you’re unfamiliar with the country, it's an island in the Mediterranean coveted by many for its incredible landscapes and ideal location for trade between the East and West. The sun beams on the island, smiling at its rich history, culture and people. To many vacationers, the island is a perfect piece of paradise. To the locals, however, Cyprus is an island divided. Though the country gained its sovereignty in 1960, the Turks invaded the island fourteen years later to occupy the North, an occupation that is still in place today. Soon after, the United Nations intervened to neutralize the threat of war by erecting a wall—a Buffer Zone— to separate the opposing sides of the country, the North and the South.



I travelled to Cyprus to present my literary research on Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples at two universities there, European University of Cyprus in the South and Near East University in the North. I had the opportunity to interact with audiences on both sides of the wall. The first time I passed through the buffer zone, passport in hand, I thought that I would be stepping from one world into another. Though there were some distinct differences between the communities— like language, currency and religion— there were far more similarities.


On both sides of the barrier, the Cypriot students were studying English literature. Both classes struggled with the same passages, were frustrated by the same flawed characters and experienced the same emotions when they read. These responses were not all they shared; regardless of their location, these students grew up with a wall dividing their country, having never seen but having been taught to hate the other side of the island they call home.


The buffer zone does more than just divide the land between the Cypriots—this line creates a collective consciousness in each community that is fueled by hate. The wall acts as permission to forget that the people on the other side of the wall are just that, people. The Cypriot students taught me that their differences are a matter of perception rather than reality. The walls showed me that division is not a solution but instead a catalyst.


The Cypriot Buffer Zone

As time passes, the lessons I learned in Cyprus fade in my mind. When I walk the streets of Washington D.C., I am consumed by the present: what I am learning in the here and now. I don’t often reflect on the wall that I left behind in Cyprus. However, each time I come across a piece of the Berlin Wall, I am confronted by the reality of division once again. Just as the lessons I learned in Cyprus have become less prominent for me, I suppose they have too for many who remember the days of the Berlin Wall. Museums serve an essential function to us all by helping administer a reality check: a harsh reminder that walls are not only barriers for people, but also barriers to peace.


The upcoming election in the United States has many Americans thinking about how a giant wall along our Southern border will make the country great again. Each time I see pieces of the Berlin Wall, I am reminded of the lessons I learned during my time abroad. Many perceive the wall to be the ultimate solution to our immigration woes, one that will serve America for generations to come. I have seen the reality of such a wall. Rather than protect our posterity, I believe this wall will serve as a tool to teach future generations to hate those that are different from them. To me, it would be greater to give our children the tools to overcome differences through diplomacy rather than encourage their prejudices by erecting a wall.


On a personal note:

Here is a great new song from a budding new artist, Chris Dalla Riva. While Chris is now a Boston based musician, we became friends in smalltown New Jersey. Check out his new EP, Obliged to Call!


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