The symbolic nature of wall-building

In August of this year, the EU mission to Kosovo finally initiated its project to redevelop the main bridge in the city of Mitrovica. The project had been in state of limbo since around August 2015, when construction workers first enclosed most of the bridge within a fence of corrugated steel sheeting, leaving only the footpath on the western side open to foot traffic across the river Ibar/ Ibër. Still, the ‘closure’ of the bridge itself was nothing new; it now merely took on a different form and look. I recall how in 2009, on my first visit to Mitrovica, the bridge, though still passable on foot, was blocked to traffic by lines of barbed wire and concrete pyramids. For a short period spanning 2010 and 2011, it once again became open to vehicles, but this changed in the aftermath of the ROSU incident in July 2011, when roadblocks were erected by local Kosovo Serbs to hinder troop and police movements in northern Kosovo, including on Mitrovica’s main bridge. This time the improvised barriers came in the form of huge piles of building rubble and sand; not necessarily aesthetically pleasing, but effective nevertheless. Some years later, in June 2014, the rubble roadblock was removed, only to be replaced by a so-called ‘Peace Park’; stretches of grass interspersed with rows of concrete planters, filled with lines of miniature conifers, which covered the northernmost portion of the bridge.

As part of the EU-brokered dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, an initial agreement reached in August 2015 foresaw the reopening of the bridge to road traffic. However, following the placing of the aforementioned steel fencing, progress stalled until the last remaining details were ironed out on 5th August 2016, in part due to disagreements on relative jurisdictions and administrative lines between municipalities in the north and south of the city. Finally, on 14th August, work began to clear the ‘Peace Park’ and commence with the bridge’s revitalisation. It is intended that the redevelopment should be completed by 20th January next year.

The case of the bridge as explained in these opening paragraphs is not meant to be the main focus here; however, an understanding of the developments surrounding this particular area of public space is important to enter the discussion I now wish to move on to. Whilst it would be possible to dedicate an entire piece to the symbolism of the bridge itself, my intention here is to discuss walls instead. Or rather, one specific wall which has become the source of controversy in Kosovo in recent days.

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The wall constructed at the end of the main street in northern Mitrovica in December 2016. Image reproduced with kind permission of Julia Druelle, freelance journalist and photographer. http://juliadruelle.photoshelter.com/

 

Alongside the EU-funded and -fostered project to reopen the central synapse between the south and north of the city, the municipality in Mitrovica North simultaneously commenced revitalisation works to create a pedestrian zone from the area’s main high street, Kralja Petra (King Peter), which runs northwards directly from the end of the bridge itself. Discussion and planning of this redevelopment has been underway in the north for several years now; thus it was eventually decided to harmonise the two projects so the reopening of bridge and street to the public could take place on the same day. According to a statement by the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS), “the revitalization of the bridge, as well as King Petar (Kralja Petra) Street, will greatly contribute to facilitating contacts between all people of Mitrovica North and South and will thus contribute to exchanges and understanding.” Moreover, “the Mitrovica Bridge will become the symbol of normalization of relations between the Kosovo Serb, Kosovo Albanian and other communities.”

Yet as the construction work developed last week, it appeared the implementation of the ‘harmonised’ project for Kralja Petra was developing rather differently to what was imagined. The municipality commenced with construction of a 2-metre high wall, essentially cutting off access from the bridge to the main street, not only for cars (as was to be expected), but (at least symbolically) for people also. According to media sources in Kosovo, the decision to build a wall in this fashion seems to have been met quite suddenly, whereby members of Mitrovica’s Serb community have also been caught by surprise.

You say wall, I say ampitheatre?

In the reactions to the controversy emerging from both sides of the Ibar, we already see disagreement and confusion. The head of urban planning construction in north Mitrovica states that the wall was “clearly agreed upon” during talks in Brussels. This is denied by Kosovo’s Minister for Dialogue, Edita Tahiri, and the mayor of south Mitrovica, Agim Bahtiri. Yet original plans obtained by Prishtina Insight show that a wall was indeed to be included, although in the preliminary design this was only to be around a metre high. After negotiations on the issue took place last Thursday, some of those involved claimed the finished wall was now to be torn down completely. This was in turn denied by northern Mitrovica mayor Goran Rakic; as Prishtina Insight reported over the weekend, the mayor now states that the wall will be “redesign[ed]…into an ampitheatre” in order to become “a summer theatre open to citizens from both sides of the bridge”. Having made the transformation from wall to ampitheatre in the space of a week, it appears that even a stretch of grey concrete may potentially become all things to all people. Perhaps it is just a matter of perspective; indeed, Dragan Spasojevic, Mitrovica North’s urban planning chief, observed that “[w]hoever looks upon this as a wall sees something that divides, but whoever looks at this as an amphitheatre sees something that connects, because I believe this amphitheatre will one day be used by Serbs and Albanians.” Thus a wall may not only be a wall, if we decide to call it something else.

Irony aside, it is clear from the disparate political reactions that this construction is a divisive act, regardless of where you stand. Yet as observed in an article on the Albanian-language news site Insajderi, this wall-building action comes at a time when it appeared relations between the two communities were becoming more relaxed, with interethnic tensions somewhat in abatement. Hence it might seem an odd moment at which to carry out such a heavily symbolic act. So is the structure indeed as controversial as it appears to be (and as it has been viewed by the Albanian community)? To better understand the motivations behind the building of the wall, let us examine a number of questions regarding both the real and symbolic purposes such a wall might serve, especially in light of the positions of the actors involved. How can the wall be perceived, evaluated and constructed by different actors or members or society? Does the wall serve only to block, or does it also have a protective function? If so, who exactly does it block and/or protect (and in the latter case, from whom does it provide protection)?

Walls of meaning

It is interesting to reflect on how much meaning can be packed into what is essentially a simple and oblique physical formation; plain, unadorned, with apparently little to say at first glance. Walls are, after all, some of the most basic structures humanity creates. And yet they are also a vital means of shelter. Moreover, it seems that walls may also have a lot to communicate, even where they apparently say nothing at all. Their’s is a message which goes beyond language. In essence, walls might first appear to keep things out, be that the wind, the cold, or other people. But it should be remembered that they also keep things in; warmth perhaps, as well as those people one wants to ensure stay inside, whatever the reasoning may be.

What does the wall in Mitrovica mean for the builders, first and foremost? They are, after all, the primary instigators of this action. From the Serb perspective, one could foresee that the wall presents a means through which a local actor might intervene in the political processes currently being determined at a higher level. Thus while the decision to reopen the bridge was met in the context of interstate negotiations at the European level, one might question to what extent this is fully backed by local political actors. Whilst still complying with the agreement (and with Belgrade) on the face of things, building a wall might appear as a way to simultaneously resist and rebel against the will of said national and international political actors. Moreover, it may also serve to exert reverse-pressure on the Belgrade-based authorities, as a reaction to the pressure local authorities are presently placed under to obey these agreed terms.

Still, for those commissioning the building of a wall, there are sure to be other motivations. This act is also an apparent securitisation of the public space which borders the end of the bridge. But if this is the case, who does the added ‘security’ defend, and from whom? According to the official word, the structure should protect “pedestrians from traffic“. Thus as a design principal, the primary point would be to stop people from driving onto the newly pedestrianised street. But is this a general precaution, or a specifically targeted one? Who is then seen as the threat? Would it be reading to much into things to assume a case of ‘othering’ here? One might indeed interpret this as a typical example of out-group construction, the fear of attack by the ‘Other’, be that an individual member of the Albanian community, or an organised assault conducted by government or international forces. Given such a reading, the sense appears to be that the reopening of the bridge, and its linking with a major public thoroughfare now potentially filled with strolling members of the public, would create a vulnerability which needs to be defended against.

But if this is the fear being addressed, does is it still seem necessary to create something of this height? After all, looking at the present construction, although tall, it seems rather thin; surely if one wanted to prevent vehicular access it would make more sense to use thicker, heavier, lower-lying obstacles? This potential weakness of the wall, combined with the height aspect, makes one think that the structure aims to present a visual, symbolic message and function beyond that claimed by its creators.

The wall appears not only to deny direct physical access. It blocks the natural line of sight one has to the main street when crossing the bridge from south to north. Hereby, it prevents visual access to the world beyond the wall; from a symbolic perspective, it creates an abrupt, stark and unnatural division within both the physical and visual realms of public space. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that such a barrier works in both directions; it is not a two-way mirror. What is blocked for one is blocked for the other also.

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The view from the other side. Image reproduced with kind permission of Julia Druelle, freelance journalist and photographer. http://juliadruelle.photoshelter.com/

What, then, are the experiential effects of this interruption of the visual space? Firstly, it disrupts the ability of each side to look into and make connections with the visual world of the other. This, moreover, leaves one both restricted in seeing who is present in the world over the other side of the barrier, and limited in catching a glimpse of the life taking place there. As such, it makes the socially and psychologically constructed boundaries between communities all the more real.

Yet perhaps the wall simultaneously provides a shield from observation for those who would pass between the two social realms, from one side of the mirror to the other? In this sense, it might offer a certain security to all. Still, the effect here is questionable, as rather than allowing a freer flow of people, this obstacle channels them into narrower spaces (the gaps at the edges of the wall), where they can be more easily observed or challenged when attempting to go beyond the barrier. Hereby the social osmosis of individuals can be more easily policed and controlled, a control directed not only towards the ‘other’, but also towards one’s own community. Hence a wall such as this is a mental barrier to people’s freedom of movement; a warning to those on both sides that it is not so straightforward to transition back and forth across a divided yet essentially singular space.

From the Albanian perspective, the experience of the blocking of physical and visual access is perhaps felt particularly keenly. Again, this is more in the symbolic sense than anything else. Practically speaking, few Albanians in fact make use of the main road in northern Mitrovica at present; those that pass over the main bridge on foot tend to live in areas close to the northern bank, and their world usually turns immediately to the left or right upon crossing the bridge. In the current socio-cultural environment, there are probably few who would want or need to head straight on.

Thus the construction of the wall here can also be read as an act which is predominantly communicative, but consequently visually and physically manifested in public space. The mental barrier which results from the idea that you can’t go somewhere, or that it is unsafe to do so, is here brought into existence in the real world. It is irrelevant that it will probably be possible to get around the wall if one chooses to (for there will have to be a way for local residents to gain access to the high street); the effect of what is transmitted to the individual citizen confronted by such an object is far more important. Here it doesn’t much matter where one stands in relation to the wall. The feeling generated, whether it be the sense of being unwelcome, or that of being trapped, reinforces the notion of divided communities and spaces, strengthening the barriers in the mind.

For those on either side, especially older generations, the appearance of the wall may hit particularly hard when accompanied by a sense of loss for the world beyond. The feeling here is that a part of the city which one once knew and lived is gone and will not return; that the fault lines will no longer be overcome. From the interviews I have held with Mitrovicans on both sides of the bridge, it is abundantly clear that personal memories of life in the city are closely tied to particular sites and spaces, and often with places that in the last 16 years have become strange and unknown, but for which a yearning remains. While this physical piece of one’s past remains distant and intangible, the individual’s sense of self may never feel truly complete.

The future potential of walls

What will happen remains uncertain for now, for we are dealing with a developing narrative. Will the wall indeed become the ampitheatre, the conjoined social space for all? The latest vision of the EU apparently foresees stairways on either side, leading people up and over the wall in both directions. But should the wall remain in its present form, one wonders what will become of it. Noting the already-prevalent graffiti surrounding the bridge area, I could imagine that such a vast expanse of blank concrete would present an irresistible new canvas for audacious urban artists and activists. What new messages might then find their way onto and into this particular public space? What will the wall ‘say’ in future? What steps might civic actors take to claim ownership and reappropriate this object, in order to present other symbolic meanings? What forms of ‘resistance, resilience and adaptation’ may yet be to come?

Even Easter eggs aren’t Easter eggs anymore…

easter-eggsOver the last few days I’ve come across several articles in British media concerned with how Easter eggs apparently aren’t even Easter eggs anymore (see link). Some in fact went so far as to claim they had been ‘banned’. This elicits the common reactions relating to questions of ‘offence’, political correctness and ‘respect for values’, and in some cases generates unpleasant rhetoric directed towards the groups deemed to be responsible.

Whilst I feel this is little more than cheap copy for the media outlets that publish such stories, designed to distract and provoke, and thus guaranteed to generate clicks, I’m going to be a hypocrite and draw attention to it, as it seems worth taking some time to ask what exactly is going on here. In thinking about this, I’ll focus on the question of ‘responsibility’. Thus I’ll leave aside the matter of how true the claims about the use of the word ‘Easter’ are, which is also up for debate, as discussed in this article in The Journal (and elsewhere).

Now, perhaps I’ve missed something, but I found it difficult to find where anyone ‘being offended’ came into this. None of the articles actually referred to specific persons taking offence over Easter eggs. I haven’t come across credible cases of significant numbers of people having objected to references to Easter (although there’s always the odd individual, you can’t avoid that). I haven’t heard about mass protests outside Tesco by individuals horrified by the presence of chocolate eggs relating to a Christian festival. But I’m happy to see further evidence where it is available.

The thing is, if companies have elected to remove Easter from the packaging, they’ve done so freely, and I doubt it’s as a result of some form of mass objection to it. It’s also not because a rule now dictates that they have to do so; Easter eggs are not ‘banned’. It’s a calculated choice, and comes down to greed and the desire to earn more.

This is an outcome of commercialisation. Businesses aim to sell chocolate to more people. The easiest way to do that is to stop marketing it as something related directly to a particular religious celebration, as this appeals to a narrower section of the potential market. So someone takes the decision to market it just as chocolate. Marketing is psychology; removing the word ‘Easter’ has the psychological effect that people are less likely to make the connection, and are therefore more likely to buy your product than if it is marketed as being explicitly Christian. That’s not only about appealing to people from ‘other cultures’; it works just as well for those who reject the religious aspects all together and would therefore be less likely to buy something with an explicit religious attachment.

Is the choice to omit references to Easter something we can ridicule? Yes, certainly. Is it the responsibility of anyone other than the companies themselves? Nope. They can print what they want, in the end, and in fact have been doing so for years. But the media are always quick to portray this as being about some mysterious ‘others’ objecting to aspects of an ‘indigenous culture’. In turn, many people are then happy to jump on the bandwagon of outrage, directing their anger at non-existent groups of bogeymen which allegedly seek to ban all ‘tradition’. In reality it’s a business decision. So if you wish to be outraged by something, maybe direct your attention towards the ongoing commodification of cultural practices; the fact that businesses are happy to treat these types of cultural symbols as if they are just something to be bought and sold, with no meaning beyond that.

But how did we get here? If we wish to lay blame on someone for this, perhaps we also need to take a look in the mirror. Who, ultimately, has continued to buy into this process for decades? Who has chosen to make these cultural events into festivals of consumption? It isn’t only the chocolate manufacturers. Businesses follow trends. If they have removed the word Easter, it’s because they felt that most existing customers are not looking for that and will buy their products anyway, regardless of the wording on the box. It’s interesting to observe that many of us don’t pay much attention to the ‘cultural value’ of something until we feel it’s being taken away. Yet the tendency to treat Easter as something which is about little more than consuming chocolate has been pervading society for years (note for example how Easter eggs were immediately on supermarket shelves after Christmas). And perhaps that’s also OK; in the end, everyone is free to value and celebrate it however they choose. But then don’t be surprised when businesses do the same. You get what you pay for.

Returning our focus to the media, the outlets which generate these stories do so to make money from readers, because it garners attention and therefore generates clicks and sells advertising. It’s also a bit ironic that the complaint about how Easter eggs are packaged appears to have originated with… a Manchester company which produces ‘meaningful’ Easter eggs and might, possibly, be looking to promote their own business through the attention garnered by the articles they have now featured in. But it’s important to recognise that as publishers of advertising, media outlets also play a role in the focus on products and purchasing which has been generated around key celebrations. How many full page spreads on discounted chocolate eggs have you come across in recent months? And how does that compare to the number of articles published which reflect on other aspects of Easter beyond the pure marketing of products?

The way the festival is being represented and promoted on a day-to-day basis influences what we associate it with and where our priorities lie. Thus it might be worth reflecting on that and approaching these types of stories with a more critical eye, instead of looking for easy scapegoats.

writing where the energy is

Some great thoughts on how to get into the writing flow.

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The conventional advice offered to people who have some trouble writing is to engage in “free writing”. Write, usually in timed sessions, whatever comes into your head about a particular topic. Write without stopping. Write perhaps to prompts about a particular aspect of your work. Write without stopping to think, because it is the thinking that gets you into trouble. Shut off your inner editor and just write.

There are many versions of, and modifications to, free writing. One that I like is what is called “Writing without a parachute”. Parachute-free writing, or what Barbara Turner-Vessalago calls free fall writing, is a process designed for creative writers. It has five basic tenets, three of which are easily applicable to academic writing:

1. write what comes up for you – this suggests that you don’t have a plan or prompts, you just write what comes into your mind

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Identity matters

Probably the most important issue I have been dealing with in my work over the last few years is that of identity. To be honest, this is a subject which has been following me for roughly the last decade, both personally and professionally. Looking back, it’s kind of fitting to realise that my own academic interest in this subject seems to have developed at a time when I was also closely confronted with ‘identity’ and all that it pertains on a more day-to-day, personal level. Namely, it was during the first year I spent living outside not only the city I grew up in, but the country of my birth, that I also began to question what makes us who we are, and how where you come from influences the way you look at the world as well as how other people look at you.

I used to keep a blog which, though I might not have realised it at the time, focused mainly on these sorts of identity-related matters, being a space where I reflected on the different cultural experiences I was faced with when getting settled in new places. Often, the posts I wrote at that time were amusing (or were at least intended as such) anecdotes about misunderstandings, misbehaviour and unexpected yet largely pleasant meetings I and those around me had as we explored unfamiliar surroundings. One story which always springs to mind is the birthday I celebrated in Osaka, Japan, when, catching the scent of something delicious in the air, we ventured down a dark alley next to the railway station at Ishibashi and chanced upon a small, one-room izakaya-type bar which we were warmly encouraged to enter by one of the patrons, an English teacher at the local high school, as it turned out. We spent a great few hours with this gentleman, watching baseball, talking football and trying a variety of the delicious foods he recommended, which were cooked right in front us.

An izakaya in Tokyo. Photo by Japanexperterna.se

An izakaya in Tokyo. Photo by Japanexperterna.se, used under Creative Commons.

As was the case here, so many positive encounters and surprising episodes happened due to our ‘strangeness’ in the environments and contexts in which we found ourselves, because we were operating outside of our usual comfort zones. What is part of the everyday for the local can seem new, exciting and intriguing for the stranger, who sees this world through almost child-like eyes, with a hunger for knowledge and information, seeking to be confronted with the unknown and what is, for them, the exceptional. But furthermore, experiences such as that described above could only take place because of who we were and who others were. In this way, the things we witness, the memories we create and the lives we live may be seen as ‘identity contingent’. Read More

A new channel

As a young researcher, one of the challenges I face is how to share my work with a wider audience. This isn’t just a matter of exposure; it is also about medium and mode of expression. Not only would I like that more people know what I do (and, indeed, that I exist), but I would like my research to be made more accessible for people beyond the usual circle of interest for such topics. This blog should, I hope, contribute towards this end, and thus towards the spreading of ideas.

This isn’t my first foray into the world of blogging; I have kept blogs and online journals in the past, particularly when travelling or moving to new places. However, this one is intended as a fresh start, focusing on a new topic. I plan to update it regularly, either with developments in my own research or pieces on other issues which catch my interest. Hopefully it will prove an enjoyable project, both for me as a writer and for you as a reader.

A first ‘real’ post should be upcoming, so watch this space!

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