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To Build a Wall

Nader Khalili, an Iranian born architect who worked tirelessly for years building and promoting sustainable, affordable, earth-based housing, once explained the concept of walls, comparing Persian and Western ideas of this most basic of structures.

Walls in Iran, according to Khalili, are the basis of a community, and a way to bring people together while at the same time giving them security and freedom. The Persian word “humsayyay”, neighbor, literally means, “one who shares the shade of the same wall.” The root of the word is “hum”, which means togetherness and unity. Other words that share this root are “humdal”– two people who share the same heart, or love each other, and “humsaar” or husband and wife- literally, two people with their heads together. Walls provide security and freedom for the people within, but are not seen as something that separates or divides the people. As Khalili says, when you share a wall with a person, you have to look at him to some extent as a friend, as you rely on each other to tend the structure, while at the same time sharing the shade and benefits of it. Some houses are even built with a common wall, making this relationship even more important. I remember in Damaaj, a small northern village here in Yemen where we lived for three years, that the neighbors always knew when we got home because they could hear the children through the wall we shared with them. This didn’t bother them; rather, they were comforted to know that we were there for them, on the other side of the wall.

In so many other parts of the world, walls are built to divide- East and West Berlin for example, or Israel and Palestine. All too often, these walls divide people into the haves and the have-nots or the desirables and the undesirables or the tyrants and the oppressed or the rich and the poor. No longer able, in this age of cruise missiles, fighter jets and drones, to truly protect the people within, they serve the basic purpose of keeping someone else out; of dividing hands as well as hearts. And the someone else tends to be cast in a negative light, as somehow alien, or other, or even as an enemy.

We all build figurative walls between ourselves and the world at large. Sometimes we are afraid of being hurt. Sometimes we are ashamed of what others would see if they peeked behind our carefully constructed facades. Sometimes we just want privacy- for some part of us to remain ours, and ours alone. But it seems to me that we could all take a page from the book of Nader Khalili and the language of his native country, and try to look at walls in a different light. We all want protection, we all want privacy and freedom and security; but what price are we willing to pay for this? Do we have to see walls simply as something to keep people out? To separate and divide individuals and communities?

Perhaps, instead, we should look at them as the Persians do- while they do offer freedom and security, they also act as the mortar between the blocks of the community, as each person is connected to the person next to them, sharing in the shade of the same wall. We could all benefit from looking over our walls at the people on the other side, and taking the time to lean over and have a chat and try to get to know one another. To see the similarities as well as the differences– and to accept these differences as simply the way Allaah has fashioned us and the world around us. Allaah, the Most High, says in the Qur’aan,

And among His signs is the creation of the Heavens and the Earth, and the difference of your languages and colors“ (Surat ar-Room, From Ayat 22)

Of course it wouldn’t be possible for us all to become “humdal,” but perhaps we could at least start taking steps toward becoming a good “humsayyay.” Allaah says,

Worship Allaah and join none with Him (in worship); and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, the needy, the neighbor who is near of kin, the neighbor who is a stranger, the companion by your side, the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess “ (Surat an-Nisaa, From Ayat 36)

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