Dervla goes to Gaza. . .
There can't be many prestigious travel writers who, at the age of 80, become political activists in one of the most hotly disputed corners of the world. But that is what veteran Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy has done with her latest book, which is about her sojourn in Gaza, the Mediterranean strip under the control of the Islamist movement, Hamas, and consequently blockaded by Israel.
Hamas is sworn to the destruction of Israel and occasionally lobs homemade rockets at it but most of the time the narrow, densely populated territory festers in an uneasy stand- off with its larger neighbour, a situation that Murphy describes in vivid and sympathetic detail.
Murphy has been writing travel books for decades and is best known for titles such as Full Tilt – Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965) and A Place Apart, about travelling around Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
In 1979, she published a memoir entitled Wheels within Wheels. However, in recent years she has become drawn to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and this Gaza book is the first of two about living in the region.
She is also to publish a book about living in the West Bank, the other part of the occupied territory nominally ruled by Fatah, the secular rival to Hamas and successor organisation to Yasser Arafat's PLO.
Murphy thus joins an extraordinary number of Irish individuals and organisations with an interest in this conflict. This interest possibly has something to do with the parallels between our histories but for a small country, with no geopolitical or ethnic connection to the region, Ireland has provided some of the most vocal opposition to Israel's policy, be it through the Gaza flotillas, government statements or Trocaire's recent proposal for a boycott of goods from disputed settlements in the West Bank.
It must be said that Israel also has its trenchant Irish defenders and a recently formed Irish support group called Irish4Israel has held a rally at Dublin's GPO.
But Murphy is firmly in the opposition camp, so much so that she is opposed even to the original State of Israel within its 1948 borders and she has publicly written to President Michael D Higgins, urging him not to pay an official visit to Israel, which she blames for the isolation and suffering in the Gaza Strip.
The book is thus a departure from her usual style in being so explicitly political, but she carries her research lightly, and her account is still an honest and evocative portrait of life in the coastal strip, and the struggle that people there not only have with the shortages and military attacks but also with the increasing stranglehold Hamas has over everyday life, something she has a particular problem with as a plucky, independent woman. And she reminds us that even stricter Islamic organisations are waiting in the wings.
Murphy has a style which is seemingly simple, but direct and compelling: she recreates the lanes of Gaza and the "war degraded fields where women labour in the midday heat wearing garments prescribed by fundamentalist bullies".
Unlike many travel writers, she meets lots of people: hospital doctors, families who have experienced rocket attacks, women who are resisting the new Islamic behaviour codes and charming but truculent Hamas leaders who are in for the long haul.
Paranoia abounds, about electronic intelligence-gathering or the possibility of informers. In one haunting scene, she visits a well-to-do woman, who has built a homemade shrine to her 'martyred' son in the disco-lit basement of her large house.
It is clear that Murphy is uneasy with this commemoration adorned with the son's sports gear, toys and excellent school citations, but she airs no judgments and lets the scene stand. Her intuition for people is strong and she deduces that the mother too, who is not from a militant political background, is uneasy with it but has done it because that is what is expected in Gaza.
She also has problems with the number of arranged marriages, including among cousins, and the subsequent physical consequences this might have.
Gaza is economically sustained through a series of tunnels through which goods and sometimes arms are smuggled and she describes a visit to this subterranean network and the industry built around it.
In one tent, "crates and cartons of tinned foods were piled high and a wiry little man with a grizzled beard and a poverty-worn face was about to descend, sitting on a plank like a playground seat". Animals, people, car parts – all are transported through this tunnel.
At the end, Murphy is exasperated by the paralysis of the situation in Gaza, and by the officialdom, especially Egyptian, which make things worse. But ultimately she is cheered by the humanity and resilience of the people who are, in many ways, transformed by the political importance of the conflict in which they are involved.