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No more walls: 'I want my country back'

By Farzaneh Milani (originally published by Daily Progress, Charlottesville, VA

Farzaneh Milani (file photo
This is not the country I migrated to four decades ago. It is not the space of my dreams and the protector of my most cherished values. This is not the United States of America I knew. I want my country back.

Consider for a moment the issue of walls.

I vividly recall what first attracted my attention when I arrived in the United States from Iran: It was the absence of walls. The first entry in my diary was a short sentence.

"There are no walls around the houses here," I recorded with utter surprise and certain dismay.

Coming from a walled society, I felt unprotected and exposed. I felt as disoriented as a cat without whiskers.

How could Americans protect their privacy and safety while enjoying open spaces at the same time? Used to enclosures, I equated openness with vulnerability and danger.

What baffled me even more was that American dogs had the freedom to roam at will in yards not surrounded by walls. The idea of invisible fences was totally alien to me.

It took me several years to understand how safety, privacy and civil liberties could be protected without concrete walls.

Only gradually did I begin to enjoy the openness of American architecture and American society. Slowly, I came to appreciate the fact that walls merely create the illusion of safety, not safety itself. In reality, they provide security neither for those who built them, nor for those who count on their protection.

I became convinced that the more confident a nation felt in its strength and in its people, in its ethics and in its values, the more often it would offer open spaces to its citizens, even to its pets.

History bears witness to the futility of walls. Take China's Great Wall, Russia's Green Wall, the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall. Built at great cost, they proved to be no more effective than the ill-fated Walls of Troy or the Maginot Line in France.

Once awed by this confident respect for openness, I am now shocked by the changed face of the American landscape and society. I see walls going up everywhere, often in the most unlikely places.

Truth, the first casualty of this new industry, is now surrounded by walls. As a consequence, it has become a charade, a virtual reality, a burden, a caricature of itself. It is qualified, negotiated, manipulated, improvised. It is veiled.

Gated communities raise walls of separation and display the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots.

Walls of corruption around big businesses have grown so tall, so impenetrable that corporate whistleblowers are busy at work.

Walls of secrecy and opacity obstruct civil liberties both at home and abroad.

Not only are foreigners held for years without being charged with crimes, but American citizens also are held in secret detention, imprisoned behind walls of cement and silence.

American diplomats, the army and, increasingly, average citizens living overseas seek safety in isolated compounds, behind barbed wire, iron gates, electric fences and "green zones."

Legal and political walls of mistrust are reorganizing the cultural geography of America. They are endangering the identity of a free people. No wonder then that "stonewalling" has become part of our everyday speech.

And now the country whose president stood before the Berlin Wall not long ago and demanded that it be brought down is building a three-mile-long and 12-foot-tall concrete wall in Baghdad, separating a Sunni enclave from its surrounding Shi'ite areas

This country of walls and veils is not the America that opened its doors to me. I want my country back.

About the author: Farzaneh Milani is professor of Persian literature and women studies at the University of Virginia.

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