I happened to be in the city just after the line through it had been rubbed out. It had cut deep and the imprint was still strong. Faces, voices, stories accrued to the memory of the wound.
There were backstreets full of motor workshops, windows fuddled with car parts. A confectionery of little churches. In the pottery district, brushes licked bowls so lightly the marks meant birds’ wings.
North and south had been closed to each other since the sixties. Later, certain classes of tourist were allowed to cross. Now at last the citizens themselves could experience or revisit the other half of their city.
To make the crossing, you had to walk a long, earthen corridor with low clusters of buildings at either end. Cue a pageantry of uniforms and documents. There were strict controls on timing; the corridor was open only between such-and-such o’clock, and each side had different rules about how long you could spend in the other half without being penalised. The new freedom was like a package of knives, elaborately wrapped.
The north was visibly poorer than the south. The food was spicier, the vendors friendlier and the siesta was more universally observed so that, when I got there, the streets were eerie in the afternoon heat. Huge banners hung on the facades of buildings: pictures of the Founder on a white background, with legends that might have been threats or promises.
I chose a small, shaded restaurant for lunch and soon got talking to the only other diner there. His English was very good. He was from the other side but hadn’t been able to travel these streets since he was a twelve-year-old boy, when he used to cycle through them on his way to school.
I imagined him hurtling along, whistling, barely sparing a glance. At twelve you have so many other preoccupations, and how could you know that streets were about to be snatched from you. In the long afterwards he must have closed his eyes and tried to summon every door, every stone.
Now he was crossing daily to eat lunch there. The language was coming back to him—he had heard it spoken a lot in his youth and he enjoyed practising what he knew. It amazed him that, although he remembered so many words, he had forgotten how good the food was.
The following day, back in the south, I was drinking coffee at a crowded café on the edge of a square. A news team was at work there, quizzing passers-by on how they felt about the newly unfolded city.
I heard a grunt and turned to see a man whose face shone with insult. They should ask me, he said. I could tell them. I would say why should I show my passport in my own country? To cross my own city? To be told what time to come and go at? And for this I am expected to jump up and down and clap! He banged his glass down on the table.
If you cut a city in half, can you solder it back together again? One blot says of course, and smiles, talks, eats, and makes a shape like the sun rising out of the sea. One blot says fuck you, you can shove your controls, I will never relent, I will never forget. He makes a shape like blood seeping out from under a door.
What do you see?