Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Everyone Smokes In Jordan

    We walked into warm sunshine. Aisha’s high heels clicked on the flagstones. I took in the crisp air, a welcome change from England’s damp autumn.
   Aisha delved in her jeans for coins to tip the valet. She turned to me, shading her eyes against the sunlight. ‘Settling you in has been a problem. We’ve been looking for flats over the past couple of weeks but it’s been hard to find something for the budget your company specified. I think I’ve found somewhere, though. Do you feel up to looking at it later on?’
   ‘Yes, yes I would. That’s great. Thanks.’
   I’d assumed from her husky voice she was, in common with Ibrahim and the rest of Jordan, a smoker. But if so, she didn’t do it in her Lexus, which smelled faintly of leather and her rich, musky perfume.
Olives Page 14

Oh my, but the Jordanians smoke like chimneys. I remember someone telling me that the Israeli Dimona reactor was responsible for Jordan’s high cancer rate – he was smoking at the time. Whenever in doubt, in Jordan it’s always better to blame the Israelis.

Another theory to account for Jordan’s high cancer rate is that the soil is unusually rich in uranium. And everyone will sit around the table, nodding sagely and tap their ash into the ashtray in the middle.

It doesn’t really bother me. I used to smoke heavily myself and enjoyed it thoroughly. I gave up in August 2001.

I had a Jordanian client due to hold a celebration event just after 9/11 happened. I flew out to consult with them on 10/11. Someone at the airline had decided not to give passengers newspapers, each of which carried, of course, the images of those aeroplanes smashing into the World Trade Centre towers. The mood in Jordan was odd, a combination of sympathy for the awfulness of the tragey, and a sense of ‘now you know what it feels like’, perhaps a fierce, grim satisfaction.

We sat around the boardroom table and debated whether the event should go ahead or not. Of course the decision was made to cancel, but not before we’d kicked it around for an hour or so. I had beaten my sixty a day habit three months before and now I was locked in a room with a bunch of Jordanians who were all chain smoking as we weighed the big decision. My fingernail marks are still etched in that mahogany table.

So I made Aisha a smoker. Was that wrong of me in these PC times?
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Monday, 30 January 2012

Olives Is Blocked In Jordan

    ‘The Dead Sea’s some place. You’ll like it. Who you are working with at the Ministry?’
    ‘Aisha Dajani? She works with the secretary general there, Emad Kawar.’
    ‘Yah, I’ve heard of her. Her family owns this place, you know?’
    I soon realised Lars had a massive network of friends and followers and was totally plugged in to the beating heart of Amman’s social scene. ‘Yes, she found it for me.’
    Lars nodded sagely. ‘Makes sense. It’s a big family, spread across this whole area. They’re Palestinian. A lot of money. She’s the pretty one? Drives a Lexus?’
    I shrugged. ‘I guess so.’
    He raised his can, his index finger pointed at me. ‘That’s big trouble. Big family, big money. I tell you, Arab men are crazy jealous. Stay away.’
    Olives - Page 37

I've just had the news. Olives - A Violent Romance won't be going on sale in Jordan. The first distribution company that turned it down didn't give a hard reason, just a lot of corporate weasel words about them being 'currently overloaded with existing distribution projects'.

As someone who writes corporate weasel words, I can spot 'em a mile off. And these said to me, 'Your book's as hot as a Fukushima fuel rod and we're not touching it.'

The second distributor has just confirmed that Olives is to, at least in Jordan, be a victim of some of the very attitudes and issues it touches upon.

"...it would not go through censorship as it mentions, although in fiction, the family name Dajani which is an existing family and all over the Middle East. they are of Jeruslamite origin, and quite influential. I therefore have to decline..." 

Imagine any book in the UK being blocked from distribution because the main character is called Smith or perhaps Rothermere. Or Rothschild. Imagine not being able to separate truth from fiction.

Please note I'm not saying 'banned' because it never got as far as the censor. The booksellers have blocked it out of fear that someone from a big family will take umbrage from a work of fiction using the family's name.

So I'm sorry, Jordan, but you'll just have to order your copies of Olives from The Book Depository (the link's on the right next to the links for Kindle, Nook et al). The good news is it'll ship within 72 hours, shipping is free and the book'll cost you just the same as buying it from a local bookshop.
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Sunday, 29 January 2012

Amman's Rich History

   I crossed the room and snatched open the curtains. The sight of the city spread out in front stilled me for a moment, the ragged ribbon of cars glittered in the early morning sunlight, snaking between the stone buildings stacked on the hillsides. A wave of vertigo forced me back. The realisation this was my new home made my stomach churn.
Olives - Page 13
Amman is built, like Rome, on seven hills and the buildings clinging to their sides are split by stairways that form a strange snakes and ladders-like network.

The city is built on the site of the ancient city of Philadelphia and contains some remarkable Roman ruins. It’s home to almost three million people today, but after the collapse of the Roman city was a village among the ruins until it was settled in the late 19th century by Circassians following their expulsion from the Caucasus by the  Russians.  King Abdullah I decided to make Amman, a small town by then, his capital following the Arab Revolt, when the Emirate of Transjordan was established. Or, as Newt Gingrich would likely have it, invented.

It’s a little known historical footnote, the expulsion of the Circassians, but it possibly ranks up there with its Ottoman cousin, the expulsion of the Armenians. Both expulsions can only be seen as genocides, with estimates of over 1.5 million Circassians killed by the Russians either in pogroms or in the forced marches that saw the majority fleeing to the Ottoman Empire in scenes that would be echoed a generation later with the Armenian genocide.

And Amman also has an Armenian community, Orthodox Christians whose churches and services of worship are so rich and so very different to the rather indifferent Christianity I was brought up with. Pal and former colleague Lena was a member of this community and eventually married a gentleman from Aleppo, also known as Halab. The wedding was in a C14th Armenian Orthodox church buried deep in Aleppo's labrynthine Ottoman covered souk. It was like going back in time: a wonderful, rich place, dark and mysterious, with ikons and chandeliers glittering, patinated wood and worn stone floors.

Like Beirut, then, Amman is somewhere you can hear both mosques and church bells. And that is a wonderful thing, believe me.

(BTW, as we're celebrating Amman, today is the birthday of His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan! Happy birthday, your Majesty!)
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Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Royal Automobile Club, Jordan

I tensed at the sound of heavy footsteps echoing down the corridor, the clatter of keys on steel. The door was opening to my shame. I felt sick. A surly policeman stood aside for a silver-haired man in a brown suit and heavy beige overcoat. He cast an incurious eye around the cell, brushing at his moustache with his fingers and wrinkling his nose.
   ‘Paul Stokes?’
   A smoker’s rumble. I nodded. ‘I am Ibrahim Dajani. You must come with me now.’ I stood, steadying myself against the wall. ‘What’s happening?’ He smiled. ‘You are being released. Come.’
Olives - page 9
Ibrahim Dajani is a character you’ll meet every day in Jordan, usually driving a Mercedes 500 on the way to the Dunes Club or perhaps to a meeting where nothing very much will be discussed at great length until, at the very end of the conversation, the point will be raised in an offhand way and dealt with casually whether it's a matter of mice or millions.  He’s very much of a generation, the men who grew up in the days of ‘the old King’, the remarkable Hussein bin Talal.

I’ve always been amazed at how many older Jordanians I’ve met were educated in the UK, but the two countries have long had strong ties – including the Sandhurst education of the king and his father. The British hand in the creation of the Emirate of Transjordan, as it was known, is evident from the country's borders. If you can see a dead straight border anywhere in the Middle East, you can depend on there being a Brit with a ruler and a pencil behind it.

Somewhere I’ve got a book called ‘Clangers’, a series of military bloops and mistakes. It tells of the legendary Sergeant Major Brand of Sandhurst, (where the NCOs are training second lieutenants and so have to call their pupils ‘sir’) accosting a highly amused King Hussein with “King Hussein, sir, of all the kings I’ve had pass through my hands you’re the horriblest of the lot, sir.”

King Hussein was, among other things, a radio ham and a car lover, which is why he gave his patronage to the RACJ, the Royal Automobile Club of Jordan back in 1953. On his death, his son Abdullah II took over the patronage of the club. The RAC Club is just the sort of place you’d find a well-off gentleman of Ibrahim’s generation and he is, of course, a member
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Friday, 27 January 2012

No Middle Class

"I followed him, the slam of the door and chink of keys echoing with our footsteps along the corridor. We burst into the bright neon light of the reception area and a woman in her late twenties rose to her feet, her kohl-accented eyes flickering uncertainly."
Olives - Page 9

And so we meet the character Aisha Dajani in Olives for the first time, a young Jordanian woman working for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Amman. From a wealthy family living in the West Amman district, Aisha is from an unusually liberal family that has, however, some murky connections.

The unusually liberal aspect of her character and background has occasioned some comment, with some readers wondering why I chose to make the Dajanis non-practicing Muslims. This was a conscious decision on my part to minimise the unfamiliarity of the environment and create more empathy with readers - bear in mind the original audience of Olives was intended to be British.

However, it's not an unrealistic portrayal - particularly within wealthier circles. Like everywhere else, Jordanian society encompasses a wide range of attitudes and behaviours, in belief as in everything else. In general, Jordanians are conservative - a conservatism to be found in Christian as well as Muslim communities - and yet at the same time generally tolerant of others. As in much of the Middle East, this tolerance is an attitude that goes hand in hand with respect, so people will generally pass things by if they feel at least some attempt is being made not to force it in their faces.

It has long been said that Jordan has no middle class. You're either very well off or desperately poor, the latter being by far the majority. That is less true today than when I first heard it in 1988. But the streets of East Amman are still a very different place indeed to the wealthy pale-stone mansions that bedeck Abdoun, where many families have links to fortunes made in the Gulf.

The funny thing about this deeply conservative Muslim society is they never censored the Internet. And society didn't collapse. Something I like to point out to UAE based telcos when I get the chance.

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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

First Post

"Amjad asked if this was my first time in Jordan, a question I remembered from my last trip, along with the familiar honorific ‘seer’ and the faint reek of cigarette smoke. He was delighted when I replied no, I had been before. The stands of trees flashed past, the brown land dotted with pale stone-clad houses and patches of cultivation. Every few hundred metres, someone at the roadside hawked steaming canisters of coffee or great bunches of radishes, rows of gleaming beef tomatoes and stacks of huge, green and yellow mottled watermelons."
Olives - Page 3

When I arrive in Jordan, I'm invariably met at the airport by one sort of driver or another. They're usually hotel transfers, occasionally have been more exotic (once a Royal Court silver Mercedes with a soldier in attendance - it would have been more impressive if the rear wasn't filled with particularly voracious mosquitoes) but always ask the same question.

"Is this your first time in Jordan, seer?"

The seer is 'sir' as she is pronounced. My answer is currently, "No, my sixty-ninth". That does for 'em, I can tell you.

It's not really my fault - I wasn't counting. The Grand Hyatt was - and presented me with a wee book and letter from the GM to celebrate my 40th stay. That was the week after the Amman bombing, when the hotel contained the grand total of 16 guests and the lobby was blanked off, the appalling damage and bloodshed behind the plasterboard left to the imagination - and to those of us who had been sent the thoughtful viral Powerpoint that did the rounds, at the time, of the carnage the Hyatt bomb had caused.

Olives was originally written before that bombing, in 2004 and yet almost presciently predicted bombs in the one country in the whole Eastern Mediterranean to have enjoyed security since the tumultuous events of 1948. It's a grim thing to have predicted.

And yet nobody knew of that prediction, precisely because nobody wanted to publish Olives. Today, I can agree with the early refusals. The late ones, I find harder to take.

Olives is, ultimately, about Jordan. About the Jordanian people, about the place they live in and the events around them that shape their lives. And if you're interested in those things, or want to find out more about the background to the book itself, this is my attempt at fleshing out the question marks it raises and also at answering questions readers raise.

So, from a foreigner, this is a blog about Jordan.

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