DERVLA MURPHY published her first book ‘Full Tilt’ in 1965, in which she told the story of her extraordinary journey by bicycle from her home in Lismore to India. She has been travelling and writing ever since, and is now acknowledged as one of the great travel-writers of the world, and is described as intrepid, courageous, highly moral and uncompromising.
Her most recent book, written in her early eighties (still travelling and with a “new” hip) has the deceptive title “A Month by the Sea.” But this is not a story of sunshine and sand and halcyon days. The sub-title “Encounters in Gaza” gives a more accurate description of its subject.
While the coastline of Gaza borders the Mediterranean, it attracts no tourists, because it is a narrow strip of land into which 1.6 million Palestinians are crowded. It is embattled, isolated, blockaded by sea and by air, its exits and entrances controlled by Israel.
My reading of this most recent Murphy book coincided with a lecture - or discourse - given in Clonmel by the distinguished journalist, writer and authority on the Middle East, Robert Fisk. In responding to a question from the floor, he said that it was unfortunate that any criticism of the Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians risks being labelled as anti-Semitic.
Dervla Murphy’s independence is now too well established to risk any such labelling. While she looks at the history and geopolitics which have brought two peoples, descendants of Abraham, into such brutal conflict, her agenda is with ordinary people, the men, women and children, who share this small, bombed, cratered and grossly over-crowded place, and whose only wish is to live normal lives in peace.
The history is complicated, and as Fisk so eloquently described in his lecture, the modern troubles in the Middle East have been further complicated by interference from “the West,” and more particularly in recent times by the Blair-Bush alliance, andby the fact that the USA and Israel are tied by an umbilical cord (his words).
Dervla Murphy quotes some of the recent statistics associated with that alliance. In 2010 “US military aid to Israel was the single largest expenditure in the US Foreign Aid budget. Since 1972 the US has vetoed 41 Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli violations of international law.”
NOT ENTIRELY INNOCENT
“A Month by the Sea” traces a modern timeline of this history. In 1897 the First Zionist Congress was held in Switzerland. This established the World Zionist Organsation “to secure a home for the Jewish people” (Murphy clearly notes the difference between Zionism and Jadaism). This was in response to the anti-Semitism then rife in Europe and particularly in Russia. (And of which Ireland was not entirely innocent). As we so tragically know, this anti-Semitism reached its terrible climax in the Holocaust.
The British in 1917 added further complications in the Balfour Declaration which agreed to the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine, but it also proposed independence for the establishment of an “An Arab nation covering most of the Arab Middle East in exchange for Arab support against the Ottomans.”
It would be comforting to write: “the rest is history,” but as we look at the troubled Middle East today, that would not only be simplistic but dishonest.
“A Month by the Sea,” looks at a small strip of that area, Gaza, and in this Murphy does what she is superb at doing, she meets the ordinary people who have to endure the vicissitudes of history, and the fall-out from the power-play of empires.
She has a unique talent as a traveller in her ability to meet these ordinary people, and to hear their stories. She listens. She is not a journalist and does not carry the often intimidating tools of that trade: the cameras, the microphones, the recorders, even the notebooks.
As her regular readers will know, she has a wide range of contacts and a capacity for friendship. Friends introduce her to their families and their friends, and to extended contacts, and in this way she gains access to a variety of views and opinions and loyalties and indeed to fanaticisms.
On her travels in Gaza she met families where fathers and mothers were killed in opportunistic explosions and attacks from “over the border.” These were sometimes spontaneous and sometimes in retaliation for attacks over the same border from al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, or from some other strand of the multi-layered “revolutionaries,” of the genre with which we have not been unfamilar in Ireland in recent decades.
She met young children who had lost their limbs and old women who lived in makeshift shelters because their meagre dwellings had been destroyed especially in the bombing which resulted from the so-called last war in Gaza - the Israeli Operation code-named “Cast Lead” (December 2008-January 2009) which resulted in the deaths of 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis (“four of the latter from friendly fire”). Her contacts, according to the Foreword written by Oxford Professor Avi Shlaim gave her access to “moderates and militants from a baffling array of political factions and senior Hamas officials.”
“A Month by the Sea” is a “must read” for anybody interested in the troubled Middle East. Dervla Murphy, the world-traveller, has written elsewhere how happy she always is to return to the tranquility of her home in Lismore. Robert Fisk echoed much the same sentiment when, addressing his audience at the Clonmel gathering, he said: “Do you realise how lucky you are to live in Ireland?”
How lucky, indeed!
“A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza” Dervla Murphy, published by ELAND. Price €24.30