Tag Archives: dervla murphy

Review of ‘A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza’ by Dervla Murphy (originally published in the London Magazine)

21 Aug

When the great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said was asked about his hopes for justice for his people, he paraphrased Antonio Gramsci: ‘I’m a pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the spirit.’ While it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the shattered landscapes and tragic encounters of Dervla Murphy’s remarkable new book about Gaza, there are reasons to be optimistic too.

Arriving in the shadow of Operation Cast Lead, in which the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) killed at least 700 civilians at the cost of 13 Israeli lives, Murphy’s worst fears about the plight of Gazans are confirmed. Wherever she turns are bombed-out ruins, shanty towns, desiccated lands, and malnourished and wheelchair-bound children. Shatti Refugee Camp has the worst human living conditions she has seen in seven decades of world travel. Everywhere on the Strip, the tap water is so contaminated that it can penetrate egg shells. The Israeli-Egyptian blockade has made ghost towns of once lively business districts.

The blockade is just one reason why Murphy comes to view Gaza as a prison, more literally than figuratively. Israeli soldiers make for sadistic wardens, brutalising and humiliating the inmates on the pretext of ‘collective punishment’. Farmers risk being shot by snipers from watchtowers as they walk through a free-fire zone to tend the crops their communities rely upon for survival. The enforced isolation of Gaza from the rest of the world has compelled its people to build a network of tunnels for the importation of essential food, medicine and equipment. Weapons are smuggled through “Tunnelopolis” too, but they are nowhere near as sophisticated or numerous as those at the IDF’s disposal.

Near the Israeli border, Murphy visits one particular family who personify this condition of national captivity. They are living a nightmare of perpetual harassment by jeeps, helicopter gunships, warning shots from snipers and taunts through megaphones. Seemingly for the IDF, it is not punishment enough that two of this family’s children have already been seriously injured by shelling.
A Month by the Sea skilfully segues between eyewitness travelogue and external analysis of the social, cultural and political complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Murphy eloquently deflates the myths of Israeli hasbara (propaganda) and its ‘confusing misinformation that makes outsiders feel that they can’t really understand what’s going on – so they lose interest’ (37). While the United States and much of the rest of the world accepts Israel’s disingenuous casus belli – that its very existence is threatened by Palestinian terrorism – the reality on the ground, as Murphy sees, is exactly the opposite: ‘For decades they [the Israelis] have been attacking defenceless populations through curfews, closures, sieges, house demolitions, olive-grove bulldozing, well poisonings, shootings, bombings, torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial’ (162).

In considering the international response, she accuses ‘the duplicitous Tony Blair’ (107) – now Official Envoy to the Quartet on the Middle East (consisting of the UN, US, EU and Russia) – of personally enriching himself by brokering business deals between the Israeli government and the ‘quisling’ Palestinian Authority, whose collaboration with Zionism has driven so many Palestinians into the arms of Hamas and even more extreme factions. The Quartet is nominally committed to a two-state peace process but, so Murphy argues, this is in fact a smokescreen behind which Israeli settlers continue to steal land from the Palestinians.

While Murphy records the testimonies of many Gazans – including the erudite Hamas politician Dr Mahmoud Al-Zahar – it would have been interesting to have heard the opposing view in a close encounter with, say, a leading Zionist. All the same, she is even-handed enough to criticise those tendencies within Gazan society that inflame the conflict and inhibit international sympathy for the Palestinian cause. For Murphy, Hamas’s rule has a ‘flavour of dictatorship’ about it, buoyed by strong currents of Islamic fanaticism and anti-Semitism that have been flowing since the secular Egyptian occupation ended in 1967. However, such immoderation appears to be stoked by Israeli false flag operations intended to divide and rule the Palestinians. When an extremist Syrian imam blew himself up in a Gazan mosque in 2009, the police found Israeli-made explosive vests in the rubble.

Murphy is also concerned about the rights of local women, a quarter of whom are reported to be victims of physical violence. One of the most poignant encounters in the book is with Yara, a twenty-six-year-old who has suffered public ignominy after escaping from a forced marriage and losing custody of her children. One comes away with the sense that, for many Gazan women, there are other kinds of prisons within the prison.

It is a testament to Murphy’s character that she remains brave and upbeat in the face of all this danger and misery. This eighty-year-old grandmother has no qualms about accompanying a group of protestors into a free-fire zone because she has been told that, for PR reasons, the Israelis are less likely to open fire when they see a Western face. Her positivity is more than matched by that of the Gazans themselves, whose philosophy of samoud is a ‘quality not understood by the Zionists, comprised of courage, obstinacy and a calm sort of pride’ (52). The bright young activists whom Murphy meets on Gaza Port’s breakwater believe that a combination of samoud, binationalism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel (in the mould of the global campaign against South African Apartheid) will finally achieve freedom and justice for all Palestinians.

(Originally published in the London Magazine)

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Travels in Old Asia review (originally published in the London Magazine)

14 May

Western travel writing on Southern Asia may have become a crowded market, but Eland Books has recently republished three of the finest titles in the canon. Dervla Murphy’s Where the Indus is Young is an arrestingly vivid account of one stoical woman and her even more stoical six-year-old daughter’s treks through the Karakorum Mountains of Baltistan, an under-explored province of northern Pakistan. Travels into Bokhara concerns the adventures of Alexander Burnes, the Scottish spy, polyglot and orientalist who is regarded as a prototype of both Lawrence of Arabia and Wilfred Thesiger. An altogether more humorous – but no less evocative – read is Travels on My Elephant, Mark Shand’s quest to discover India from the saddle of a flighty but affectionate elephant named Tara. Although these books differ in many ways, they share preoccupations with cross-cultural encounters, unlikely or unusual itineraries, and the impact of modernity on natural environments and ancient civilisations.

Originally published in 1991, Shand’s travelogue begins on the kind of whimsical note that one associates with the English gentleman traveller-writers of earlier that century: ‘I had decided on a quiet jaunt across India on an elephant.’ After failing to buy an elephant from the wife of one of India’s greatest actors, Shand promptly heads to a small town in Orissa, follows a trail of dung to a camp of saddhus (holy men) and finds Tara, a young and fit – if malnourished – female of the species. It is love at first sight: ‘I knew then that I had to have her’. Recruiting a rum-sodden mahout (elephant master), Shand sets off on a six hundred mile ride to an elephant mela (market) in Bihar. Despite the centrality of elephants to Indian civilisation (we are told that throughout the 13th and 14th centuries AD, epic wars were fought to secure ‘superior breeds’ in Orissa), the sight of one being ridden in the India of the late 1980s by a half-naked Englishman causes children to panic, moped riders to crash and men to literally collapse with laughter. Such scenes prompt one to wonder how Britons might react to a half-naked Indian man exploring their country on the back of a shire horse.

Thus Tara becomes a symbol of the old India in conflict with the new. Perhaps the funniest demonstration of this is when she, a representative of the most traditional form of transport in the Subcontinent, encounters a typically contemporary coach load of Russian tourists. Amid the cries of excitement, Tara proceeds to steal a bottle of vodka with her trunk and empty its entire contents into her mouth.

But there is a serious overtone to Shand’s story too, a real melancholy about the destruction of India’s heritage. He shares his brother-in-law Prince Charles’s distaste for modern architecture and is saddened to find the once-grand Maharaja’s palace of Kheonjar looted and stained with graffiti; ‘an opulence long gone’.

Similar themes permeate Where the Indus is Young. One of the remotest parts of Southern Asia, Baltistan in the late 1970s is a society resisting progress, and this is to author Dervla Murphy’s delight: ‘my reactionary heart throbs with love for Baltistan’. Lack of outside influence has kept Baltis scrupulously honest, as Murphy realises when she is trusted to pay for some bootlaces by simply putting her money in an unsupervised box. When she opens the box she finds out that 500 Rupees – a considerable sum – is inside and that no-one would think to pilfer it. Homes are left unlocked and there is no need for watchdogs, ‘local standards of honesty being so high’. Every village Murphy and daughter Rachel arrive at they are showered with hospitality, even when the inhabitants are in ill health and have only meagre food supplies.

However, this is not a state of affairs that can last, as an enlightening discussion with a local Raja reveals. He is concerned that the central government in Lahore’s road-building and tourism development schemes will bring ‘disease-carrying’ aeroplanes and jeeps. Indeed it is the sudden approach of a jeep – a rare glimpse of modernity on a ‘rocky wall rising sheer out of the [River] Shyok’ – that causes Rachel’s pony Hallam to rear up and almost throw her over the precipice. This chilling moment will forever be engraved on her mother’s memory.

Alexander Burnes also travelled in the Indus region, although he did so some 150 years before Murphy and in very different geopolitical circumstances. The ‘Great Game’ between Russian and British imperial interests in Asia is afoot and Burnes is sent by the Empire to chart ‘a route so unfrequented’: the course of the Indus River beyond the borders of British India. His knowledge of local languages and customs, his talent for disguise (so effective that Turkmenistanis mistake him for an Afghan) and his literary skills (his cousin was Robert Burns, even though the surname is spelt differently) make him the perfect man for the mission.

In an act of what the travel writing scholar Graham Huggan calls ‘shadowing’, Burnes compares his own experiences of these lands to those of his hero, Alexander the Great, some two thousand years previous. At first, the comparisons are unfavourable. With an almost Byronic nostalgia for the oriental civilisations of yesteryear, Burnes regrets the ‘gradual decay’ of the ‘celebrated’ ancient city of Tatta, its beguiling architecture, substantial silk industry, and fertile land having tragically ‘passed away’. Earlier on in the journey, such an attitude seems to go hand-in-hand with patronising judgements about contemporary Asians (‘the cringing servility of the Indians’/‘ignorant barbarians’), but the more Burnes sees of this part of the world, the more impressed with it he becomes. By the time he reaches Kabul he is moved to declare, ‘I do not wonder at the hearts of the people being captivated by this landscape’. To the erudite and open-minded Chief of Kabul he even goes as far as to admit that he has become something of a cultural hybrid: ‘I informed him … that I was an Englishman, and that my entire adoption of the habits of the people had added to my comfort.’

Much the same can be said of the other two writers. After seeing India astride his darling Tara, Mark Shand falls in love with Indian wildlife in general and with Indian elephants in particular. Of visiting the eccentric Eurasian enclave of McCluskiegunge, he writes, ‘perhaps the term Anglo-Indian represented what I was when I rode in’. Dervla Murphy starts integrating into Balti culture as soon as she arrives, embracing the ascetic lifestyle – dried apricot diet and all. Meanwhile, it takes Rachel several gruelling experiences – including a fall into a glacial torrent – before she is ‘completely adjusted to the oriental way of life’.

From great travel writers we should expect great powers of physical description, and this trio does not disappoint. Dervla Murphy is a little hard on herself when she claims that words cannot do justice to the sublime wonder of the Karakorums, as she consistently succeeds in rendering the otherworldly formations of the frozen landscape in the intensely detailed and lapidary style she is rightly famous for:

Much of the track was covered with thick sheets of ice, and

waterfalls had become towering, transparent columns,

surrounded by the bizarre elegance of giant bouquets

of icicles formed around clumps of thyme. Fantastically

convoluted masses of ice hung from roadside rocks…

 

In a similar vein, Mark Shand has a nature lover’s eye for the delicate balance of Southern Asian ecosystems, and how – at least for the time being and in certain locales – peasants in ‘bright lunghis of emerald green’ can live in harmony with ‘piebald and blue’ kingfishers and ‘clumps of bamboo and palm trees’.

Alexander Burnes’s cartographic expertise may have won him the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, but he is equally adept at bringing to life such sumptuous spectacles as Maharaja Runjeet Sing’s meeting with Lord Bentinck, the Governor-General of India. Burnes writes beautifully of gold and silver-clad noblemen, ‘a lofty arcade of yellow silk’, ‘the richest carpets and shawls of Cashmere’, and a velvet tent ‘glittering with every ornament’. The event concludes with the Maharaja offering the British fifty-one trays of lavish gifts, as well as the finest horses and elephants.

These three books may have been written in different historical moments, but their observations remain of interest today. Burnes, in particular, is sometimes prophetic. He discerns a kind of globalisation taking hold in the ‘commerce extending uninterruptedly over such vast and remote regions’ and upbraids both the African and Islamic slave trades for breaching ‘human rights’. His curiosity about Southern Asia’s melting pot of unique cultures and subcultures prefigures the work of modern travel writers such as William Dalrymple, who fittingly provides the prologue and epilogue to this edition of Burnes’s book. In the afterword to Travels on my Elephant, Mark Shand explains how he set up the Elephant Family, a charity that is still campaigning for the conservation of Asian elephants today. As for Murphy, it would seem that Baltistan has changed little in almost forty years, and its ‘diamond-brilliant summits’ and ‘fearsome peaks’ not at all.

(Originally published in the London Magazine Feb-Mar 2013)

Missive #19 – ‘Travels in Old Asia’ review in the London Magazine

10 Feb

TLM Feb_Mar 2013_Cover

Greetings all, my latest piece for the London Magazine, a review of three classic travel books on Southern Asia, is out now.