Literary festival journeys to Middle Eastern tragedy

Olive trees in Palestine

Olive trees in Palestine


When Benedict Kiely came from Tyrone to Dublin to be a writer his brother-in-law advised him to head to Nelson’s Pillar and “take any tram there to that tram’s terminus, then walk back to the pillar. When you’ve covered every route out by tram and back on the loop, you’ll know Dublin.”

I’ve often followed his advice, replacing the Pillar with Connaught Place, l’Arc de Triomphe, Tiananmen square and so on.

Kiely is known for his short stories, but he did occasionally try travel writing so it’s apt that this year’s Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend in Omagh on September 13th-15th ( focuses on travel literature.

It’s also fitting that three of the speakers offer their perspectives on the tensions and terrors inflicted by neighbouring Middle Eastern communities upon each other, just as Kiely himself did in his stories probing the sectarian fault lines of Tyrone.

Carol Drinkwater, star of All Creatures Great and Small and author of a trilogy about life on an olive grove in Provence,planned to travel through the Middle East in search of the roots of olive cultivation, but her journey turned into something more poignant when a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon confided his yearning for the olive trees on his ancestral farm from which he had to flee.

In her book, The Olive Route: A Personal Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean, Drinkwater writes of visiting Cana (now Qana) where Jesus performed his wine miracle and seeing photographs of an Israeli air strike which killed 107 unarmed refugees, but notes that it is “unnecessary to describe the limbs and decapitations”, before moving swiftly on in search of ancient olive trees in Syria, Turkey, Malta, Libya and Greece.

Eventually, she arrives in Israel and, after hearing stories of settlers bulldozing Palestinian olive groves at night, she joins a protest to replant olive trees on land cleared by the army.

Throughout Syria she finds remnants of olive culture, familiar to Mary Russell, who is also speaking in Omagh about her travels in Syria. These indefatigable Irish travellers were to be joined by a third, Dervla Murphy, who recently spent time in the Palestinian Territories. Alas, Murphy cannot attend due to illness.

Her latest book A Month by the Sea: encounters in Gaza proves travel writing still plays a powerful role in bearing witness. She writes rivetingly of the struggle to rebuild after Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel hit Gaza with rockets for 22 days, killing over 1,400 Palestinians, wounding 5,000.

Despite stories of despair, the book is inspiring because of the skill with which Murphy bears witness, capturing people’s fears and hopes, and the courage with which a few women dare to challenge the restrictive practices imposed by their imams.

It is compassion for humanity that marks out the Middle-Eastern writings of Drinkwater, Russell and Murphy; the same quality that was so evident in Kiely’s Ulster stories.

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