Posted on April 18, 2013, by & filed under News.

The Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy, in A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza, (Erland Press 2013), has given us a book which, I am sure, will be of interest not only to ICAHD members. It is a torch to put into the hands of sceptical friends and colleagues… like Palestinian Walks, or I remember Ramallah, I believe it will appeal to readers way outside the ranks of the already converted….

I used to think that travel books were accounts by Europeans of their exploits among the quaint and exotic, some kind of downmarket, opinionated, anthropology. Reading this, and now other works by Dervla Murphy, I realise I have to apologise. This is a serious work of exploration and explanation, engagement and speculation, from an outsideras perspective certainly, (from our perspective), one that complements those volumes which record directly the outlook and experience of Palestinian writers.

I am clearer too (if this book is typical) of the distinction between _travel writinga and journalism. With very few exceptions journalists seem to speak from a position within, and therefore as spokespeople for, the prevailing order regardless of whatever inhumanity and suffering flows from its deplorable priorities. They therefore habitually omit the background which alone helps us understand the protagonistsa actions in the present (listen to BBC coverage for illustration). They seem to see their role as preparing us to concur unquestioningly with the trite but deadly inanities of realpolitik, leaving principle, common sense, even common decency out of the picture.

In trying to get behind the pictures they paint, and remain in touch with the humanity of the peripheral and voiceless, we need people like Dervla Murphy. In the case of Gaza there has been a particular need, at least for me. There has been something about Gazaas unique situation that has made it particularly difficult to think imaginatively about what it might mean to be trapped there. Encountering the weirdness that is Hebron, or talking to the residents of about-to- be destroyed villages of the Negev was, for me, insufficient to bring _Gazaa itself to life.

So I very much needed Dervla Murphyas A Month by the Sea: encounters in Gaza to break through this failure of the imagination. While I have found my eyes sometimes glazing over while reading the more academic or political contributions to the literature on Palestine, here I found myself riveted by a writer recounting what she heard from those she met. There is here no claim to be neutral or even-handed. What the reader is offered is an attempt by someone of a particular Western background and moral sensibility to understand what she sees and hears and feels. Murphy is always aware that there is much _a foreign visitor wouldnat noticea. But her limitations carry certain advantages: her commitment is to the truth as she sees it, informed by a moral sensibility which most of us would at least claim to share. In her unobtrusive way we learn what kind of person she is too, and knowing this provides some basis on which to assess her findings. So I see her now as a kind of self-appointed, and therefore truly independent, Tribune of the People, carrying always a strong sense of responsibility for that other context _ the Westas shameful collaboration with Israelas ideology and practice of ethnic cleansing. We do not come away feeling sorry for people caught up in a humanitarian catastrophe, but enraged at this mirror that is being held up to us _ that this is what the Lords of Humankind, our political leaders, whose legitimacy supposedly derives from us _ have deemed acceptable and necessary punishment to a people determined not to disappear or submit.

Setting out with no expectation of taking sides in the conflict, Dervla Murphy was already a convinced anti-Zionist by the time she forced her way through the chink in the siege opened up by the revolution in Egypt. (She had spent time previously in Israel and the West Bank, about which another volume is promised.) Yet Murphyas dismay at the nature of the Zionist project is not a prelude to double standards or apologetics when it comes to her encounters with the Palestinians that she encounters from all walks of life in Gaza, from the powerful to the powerless. Her book reads so smoothly that you have to pause to consider the skill with which it is constructed, and the balance she has achieved. She explains rather than judges, yet retains a definite sense that the context, while essential to our understanding, never cancels out her subjectsa responsibility within even the narrow scope for agency allowed to people in Gaza. Unfazed by fears of being labelled a _cultural imperialista, she is forthright about her feminism, her rejection of violence, her repugnance at the Hamas Charter. She is critical of the PA as a collaborationist institution, sorrowed by the tendencies towards the stricter interpretations of Islam that have long been evident in Gaza, and angry in particular at the consequences for the lives of women there. She does not hesitate to ask the uncomfortable questions, while at the same time she sees her role as allowing people to speak for themselves. Refreshingly absent is the journalistsa presumption and intrusiveness, or need to sensationalise.

Murphy makes some interesting observations and suggestions for those working in solidarity with the Palestinians. Aware of the paradox that the _two state solutiona is dead in the water yet remains the currency of international diplomacy, she is concerned that _Free Palestinea as a slogan plays into Israelas hands. She is frustrated too by campaigning that focuses on Israelas breaking of international law, preferring to see a movement motivated by a sense of natural justice. Israelas repression of the Palestinians, she urges, is not an isolated error of judgement, or due to Israel adopting erroneous policies towards the Palestinians: it is central to Zionism and the notion of a Jewish state.

One of the obstacles that we have to overcome in advocating for change in Palestine is that the reality on the ground is so perverse that it is difficult to believe. To try to convey what one has seen and learnt can leave the impression that one is a brain washed fanatic. The reality can be demoralising for us too _ the situation seems so entrenched, so lost. To a degree A Month by the Sea adds to this: itas a hard book to read, as one would expect, painful and relentless. But it is not numbing: it is the antidote to any activistas lagging sense of purpose. In fact, in the ways that it depicts individual men and women adapting to their circumstances while subverting the _systema, the manner in which they survive circumstances they are evidently not supposed to be able to endure, somehow conveys the systemas fragility, its absurdity. Just as hothouse conditions provide an environment in which various plant blights prosper, so many of the less attractive developments within Gazan society seem to depend on the enforced absence of space, security and normal interactions with the outside world. So it is ultimately, despite everything, a hopeful book. Its underlying message is that this canat go on, that thereas no future for ethnic nationalism, that the present is not just bad but _ in the long run at least _ unsustainable.

In 2008, the author of this review joined a fact-finding tour in Palestine-Israel for health professionals, coordinated by ICAHD in Jerusalem.

Read The Independent ‘Book of the Week’ review here