Travel Writing

A Rift in Time – Raja Shehadeh

Posted in Biography, non-fiction, Travel Writing on March 17th, 2011 by admin – 2 Comments

I don’t do politics….perhaps a lifetime in Northern Ireland has been partly responsible for that!   My faint knowledge of the Middle East conflict is restricted to vague images of Yasser Arafat and the 80s trend of wearing that little tassled scarf – oh and I can also recognise the Palestinian and Israeli flags as they are frequently flown in Nationalist and Loyalist areas, dare I say, in order to wind each other up…

So, it was with slight trepidation that I picked up A Rift in Time, Raj Shehadeh’s memoir of his great-uncle Najib Nassar.  Raj is a prominent Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist.  He lives in Ramallah on the West Bank, currently under military occupation by Israel.  In this book, he retraces his uncle’s footsteps during his time on the run from the Ottoman authorities between 1915 and 1918.  Najib came under suspicion of espionage and treasonable activities as he voiced opposition to the Ottoman participation in World War I and spent three years in hiding in different locations, depending on the generosity of friends and foes alike.

Raj’s present day  journey, following in his uncle’s footsteps,  lacks the fluidity of Najib’s adventures, given that he is faced with border restrictions, army checkpoints and other physical obstructions.  He finds the landscape ravaged by the intensive farming favoured by the Israeli settlers.  Villages which welcomed and sheltered Najib back in the 1900s are now wiped off the map, having been razed to the ground in 1948. 

I found it useful to have a map of the area at my side especially when Shehadeh was moving through different areas, Haifa, Ramallah, Jericho, Tyre, Beirut, the Jordan Valley as it made it easier to follow his journey and that of Najib.  As a result I had a better understanding of the shifting borders and how the political landscape has changed although I remain bewildered as to how around 750,000 Palestinians became refugees and were not allowed to return to their homes.  Admittedly, Shehadeh’s account has a habit of  jumping from one century to another, from one country to another and it can be difficult to keep track of things but then we are dealing with a very complicated situation. 

Here is a man who yearns for political agreement achieved by peaceful means and he recognises that the past is important and we can draw lessons from it, but we must also put the past behind us and strive for an egalitarian society.

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Review – Journey to the South – A Calabrian Homecoming by Annie Hawes

Posted in Proofs, Travel Writing on September 20th, 2010 by admin – 4 Comments

What better way to brighten up a dreary, rainy Autumn day than a bit of armchair travel, the opportunity to transport yourself to warmer, sunnier climes.  In this respect Journey to the South ticks all the right boxes.

This is the third of Annie Hawes’ travel memoirs set in Italy, the first two focus on her life in Liguria as an English “blow-in” trying to fit into Italian rural life.  At this stage she is engaged to Ciccio di Gilio who lives in Liguria but is considered Calabrian as his family hail from Calabria, the toe on the boot of Italy.  This volume details their trip to the deepest South to seek out the de Gilio roots, meet up with extended family and get a feel for Ciccio’s “homeland”.  What ensues is an, at times, comic and frequently chaotic pilgrimage as they are accompanied by Ciccio’s mother, sister and nephew, all of whom have very different impressions/preconceptions of Calabria.

I love all things Italian (despite being a pale, freckled Celt) and this book is an absolute joy, giving the reader an insight into the idiosyncrasies of life in the Mezzogiorno.  Calabria is like another country when compared with the “sophisticated” North.  We hear of dodgy dealings, sinister Mafioso intrigue, government scams but you really feel that the Calabresi are true survivors with a strength of character stemming from the constant struggle to subsist despite an inhospitable environment, lack of industry, extreme poverty and a seemingly indifferent government.

However it’s not all doom and gloom as Annie Hawes is a very gifted writer and an excellent people watcher.  Ciccio’s Calabrian relations literally jump from the page and the descriptions of mealtimes are mouthwatering (although I think I’ll pass on the goat’s head…)  Some travel writers can occasionally drift into condescending mode, reducing people to stereotypes and presenting a series of anecdotes but Annie paints a very vivid picture with well rounded characters.  In just 350 pages you experience a real flavour of the South complete with traditions, agriculture, festivals, superstitions, local dialect as well as a potted history going right back to the Normans – it’s a veritable feast for the senses and the mind – enjoy this taste of Italy!

If you are interested in reading further about Southern Italy, I would highly recommend Christ Stopped at Eboli, an autobiographical novel by Carlo Levi whose anti-fascist stance led to his being banished to Lucania (now known as Basilicata) for a year in 1935.

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Review – Return to the Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater

Posted in Travel Writing on June 13th, 2010 by admin – 2 Comments

Book details


Weidenfeld & Nicolson


Hardback Edition

I have a secret to tell…. I have been renting an olive farm in Provence since 2001 when I first read Carol Drinkwater’s memoir The Olive Farm …. well, in my dreams, I have!!  I know that there is a myriad of travel memoirs out there, all wanting to impart their story of how a crumbling old house was restored to grandeur, usually peppered with a few anecdotes about quirky locals – just to add extra ambiance, n’est-ce pas… however, this series is very special to me as the author really is passionate about her environment and on a larger scale “our” environment which is quite frankly under threat.

“Return to the Olive Farm” opens as Carol returns from a 16 month expedition around the Med in search of the origins of the ancient and mystical Olive tree.  She had written two books about her Olive quest and her travels and it is now a delight to return to Appassionata, the Provencal farm she shares with her husband Michel and to renew acquaintance with Quashia, her gardener, who doesn’t quite see eye to eye with his boss when it comes to farming methods.  I love the passion which Carol obviously has for olive farming  and her lust for life and for discovering the natural world. 

The main focus this time is on the possibility of having a truly organic olive grove and the many obstacles towards achieving such an admirable objective, given that France doesn’t have a particularly strong record in championing the organic way.  It is definitely so much easier and less heartbreaking to take the mass pesticide/bumper crop route and you find yourself really rooting for Carol to succeed without all the usual chemical parphenalia.  I am in awe of how she keeps on going despite constant setbacks but then that could be the stubborn Irish streak, I guess – speaking as a fellow Irish woman!  There’s also a wonderfully vivid backdrop of supporting characters such as Madame, the fearsome Asbestos inspector, Michael Latz, the first Organic Mayor in France, Marley, Michel’s grandson, not forgetting the honey bees.

So what else makes this stand out from the rest of the heap?  I think a lot of its attraction for me stems from the honesty of the writing, the attention to detail, the intensity of the writer’s relationship with the land, the willingness to take risks, the constant interest in what other local farmers do, the lack of fear when entering traditionally male-dominated arenas, the ability to deal with recalcitrant, inebriated builders with good humour and grace!!  Above all you feel like you’re observing a very intimate moment in someone else’s life as they fall back in love with a place they’d left behind.

So, I would advise you, allez vite and get caught up with this series if you haven’t already done so and if you’ve already shared in life at Appassionata, then allez vite aussi, snuggle up and get reacquainted!

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