Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Far Enough

Sometimes I think I didn’t go far enough in Olives. Sometimes I read accounts from friends in the West Bank, blog posts and emails that make me wonder why I was so light-handed in the way I presented the history of the fictional Dajani family in the book. Some, of course, will argue that I went way too far and have presented a highly one-sided and mendacious account of a history of which I know nothing.

Every week canisters of tear gas fly through the air at Nabih Saleh, demonstrators beaten away with clouds of choking gas. Every day there are stories of armed fanatics attacking farmers. Every year the olive harvest is a flashpoint and the stories of olive trees being continually uprooted are distressingly frequent. These narratives all too rarely make it into Western media. And when they do, they are often presented in a voice that is too partisan for people to feel comfortable with the message.

So when I do occasionally worry that the book doesn’t present enough of the conflict, violence and inhuman treatment of innocents, I usually content myself with the thought that Olives tells just a little of a bigger story, but hopefully gets enough across to interest people in delving a little deeper and perhaps looking at what’s happening a little more critically. Which is a part, at least, of what I set out to do with the book.

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Monday, 27 February 2012


“a fast and mesmerizing read.”
American Bedu

“The following night I picked up the book again and finally put it down at 2am. Rest assured that I need a very good reason to stay up until 2am on a school night, and that night I was so gripped by the book and eager to find out what happened next that the time ran away with me.”

“The intensity of Paul and Aisha’s love story is the novel’s defining strength with their intimacy heating up to a feverish pitch as disasters escalate and put them at risk.”
The National

“If you take Tailor of Panama, add a sprinkle of Lawrence of Arabia, introduce rich and memorable characters, a modern concern about water scarcity, and bring up the speed, you will get Olives – A Violent Romance by Alexander McNabb. Reading this book was an absolute delight, with an intriguing ending that still keeps me thinking.”
Hanging Out Globally

“Alexander McNabb, having travelled extensively across the Middle East, has created a hard-hitting novel tackling real-life issues coming out of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Olives: A Violent Romance joins an emerging genre on the conflict which attempts to humanise it, making it accessible to readers from all walks of life. It gives a taste of the realities and challenges facing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Israel and the diaspora.”
Middle East Monitor

“There is definite tension in this book and I was gripping my iPad near the end as it all came together. Right up to the end I wasn't sure who the "bad guys" are (and, really, both sides have good and bad, which is shown in this novel). I love that it isn't clear who is stalking whom until the very end.”
Helen’s Book Blog

The Mental Thing About Deir Yassin

   I spoke to Aisha but looked at Mariam, a strange triangular conversation. ‘How did they meet?’
   Mariam looked misty-eyed, gazing out of the window as she talked. ‘At a market in Nazareth. The families took a long time to come to terms with the fact they were in love and wouldn’t marry anyone else, Mariam says. My father was born here on the farm, in 1946. She says he cried all the time as a baby but when he was two they were forced to leave the farm and my father fell silent. She worried about him, he was so quiet and still.’
Olives Page 178

Many Palestinian families found themselves on the road in 1948, the year of Israel’s foundation. It’s not a story people like to tell outside the Arab World, the mass migration of some 700,000 people from their homes. Many were farmers, villagers – simple, traditional people who would have barely understood what was happening around them beyond the simple existential threat of men coming to drive them away or kill them.

They were encouraged in this by hearing tales of massacres – just over a month before April 16th, ‘Al Nakba day’ or Israel’s foundation day, depending on which side of the wall you figuratively stand, over a hundred villagers had been massacred by Zionist paramilitaries (or terrorists if you prefer to use the term the British authorities used to describe them. Your terrorist is my paramilitary!). The men from the Irgun and Lehi entered the village and systematically murdered the villagers, throwing hand grenades into houses and lining prisoners up on the heights of the quarry and shooting them to let their bodies fall into the quarry.

It’s an act that always brings the little town of Oradour to my mind, although the scale is different (ten times as many died in Oradour). But then I have always found comparing massacre as a numerical exercise is frighteningly inhumane. Call me squeamish.

Condemned by Jewish authorities, the Deir Yassin massacre undoubtedly struck fear into other Arab communities and is credited with being a pivotal event in the decision of the surrounding Arab countries to attack Israel.

And so the family in Olives took to the road, leaving their farm behind as they sought safety, taking their silent baby with them as they fled the killing and the clearing of land that was to take place and take away so many people’s homes.

The ruins of Deir Yassin were settled and apparently a few houses remain as part of a mental hospital today. An insane irony, perhaps.

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Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Reading

I woke, disoriented, to the insistent chirruping of the bedside phone – Aisha was waiting down in the hotel’s reception. I told her I’d be ten minutes, splashed water over myself and shaved, a puffy-eyed thirty-something gawping back at me in the mirror. The misty apparition nicked me in his haste. By the time I was done, three or four dots of toilet paper decorated my face.
Olives, Page 13

The Great Author prepares for The Reading by getting rid of the five o'clock shadow and brilliantly cutting himself in the process. Grappling for the styptic pencil, I remembered the passage in Olives where Paul cuts himself before going to meet Aisha in the hotel lobby.

Don't get me wrong, I love doing readings. But you always feel you could have done it better, could do it better next time - get the pace right, interest people in the book. I rummaged through the jostling Sharjah traffic thinking over the scene I'd picked (after much deliberation), where Paul's girlfriend Anne comes to Amman to visit him, a visit that goes horribly wrong as Paul and Anne discover they've grown apart and Paul, in particular, has changed.

TwingeSHJ is being held at the Al Maraya Art Centre at Sharjah's Al Qasba leisure area. The week-long festival of arts and culture will feature a total of 50 artists, performers, poets and writers. It got off to a fine start last night with a recital by poet Abdulla Kassim, in Arabic. He was followed by Emirati writer Noura Noman, who read from her debut novel, a YA sci-fi adventure. Noura wrote the book in Arabic and then, amazingly, did it again in English, translating the work herself. It's a rare thing to find science fiction in Arabic, let alone created as a native language work and Noura, who had been nervous all week about giving a reading, breezed through it with panache. She'd even brought copies of the passage in English for any English speakers in the audience!

I wish I'd thought of that, because by now I had realised the vast majority of the fifty-odd people in the audience were Emirati. The reading I'd picked just felt, well, wrong. It was too European, the conflict between Paul and Anne, too centred on a type of relationship that would be alien to the audience. I grabbed a copy of Olives and started flicking through the book, trying to find a passage that would have more resonance for a predominantly female Emirati audience. And there, I had it. The passage where Paul talks to Aisha's grandmother Mariam on her little farm on the West Bank, the land split by the Israeli 'security fence', the 450-odd mile long mix of wall and chain-link fence that carves its way greedily around the West Bank, taking detours to leave the 1967 border and slice rich land or water resources out of the Palestinian Territories. Mariam, who only appears in a couple of scenes in Olives, still resonates as a character - a strong, matriarchal woman who has kept going despite the tragedy and loss around her.

The substitution left me reading a passage for the first time and squinting at the small print in poor light but it was undoubtedly the right decision. A lively Q&A followed, kicked off by the Tweeter At The Back, Monsignor Rupert Bumfrey, and then, seemingly in a flash, the first night of TwingeSHJ was over and I was walking out into a great soupy cloud of fine atmospheric dust, the harbinger of strong winds and storms predicted for the UAE today.

Next stop: The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature...
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Friday, 24 February 2012

Reading at Twinge Sharjah

Anne’s flight landed on Saturday afternoon, halfway through the Jordanian weekend. I’d taken the week off work, the first issue of the magazine having gone to the printers and the Web-formatted content alongside a neatly laid out online newsletter duly placed in the hands of the Ministry’s digital team.
Robin didn’t know about the extra effort I’d gone to. I saw no reason to tell him.
Anne didn’t have the ten Dinar visa fee I warned her to have ready for immigration and so she had to change money and queue again, by which time the queue had doubled.  The airline lost one of her bags and she waited by the carousel for an hour before reporting it missing, tracking it down just in time to walk into a bored customs officer who spent an enjoyable half an hour rooting through her underwear and personal effects.
By the time she came around the corner of the partition in arrivals, red-faced and scowling, I had spent two hours nagging the BA duty officer to death. A wave of relief, tenderness and sheer delight washed over me and I ran to her and scooped her up in my arms, laughing and talking gibberish. We pushed her trolley together, arm in arm, through the tatty airport to the car park.
Anne slept in the car as we drove back to Amman and I took care not to wake her until I switched off the engine outside the house. She opened her eyes, glancing around her. She was disoriented, her skin was pale and there were dark smudges under her eyes. She put her hand on my arm, as if to steady herself, and peered up the steps to the house above us.
‘Is this it?’
Olives, Page 101

I'm giving a reading from Olives at TingeSHJ - Twinge Sharjah - the Sharjah Urban Arts Festival, which starts tomorrow at Al Maraya Arts Centre, a really cool artspace at Sharjah's chilled and pretty Al Qasba. I'll be joined by two Emirati writers, Noura Noman and Abdulla Kassim who will be reading from their respective works. The festival is a week-long celebration of the arts (you can click on the picture for more details) featuring, in total, some 50 artists.

I like doing readings. You sort of talk a bit about the background to the book, then explain what happens up to the point where your reading starts. You read an extract from the book as entertainingly as you can for the audience and then take questions. I had to ask writer pal Dan Holloway about how to select readings - he's a great deal more experienced than I am at 'literature as a performance' - he does literary death matches and things - and his advice was keep it short and pick a passage that has a beginning, middle and end but that also has relevance to the story or theme of your story.

At Twinge Dubai I read the scene where Paul Stokes meets Gerald Lynch for the first time. Everyone hates poor old Gerry, which is a shame as he's the main character in my next book, Beirut, so they'd just better get used to him and his little foibles. But that meant I couldn't take the easy option and just read the same thing over. I sat flicking through a copy of the book, biting my lower lip and umming and aaing until it hit me, much like a large wet fish, between the eyes. Paul's English girlfriend Anne's visit to Jordan! I was talking to the TwitBookClub about it last week, it's one of my favourite parts of the book and is a piece of writing I am personally pleased with.

Anne's visit doesn't go well from the very first instant to its explosive conclusion. It's a mean, cold little disaster. And that's my reading for tomorrow. I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Israeli 'Security Wall', Palestine

‘We’re heading for Qaffin,’ said Aisha as she watched the countryside go by. ‘It’s on the way to Tulkaram.’
   I remembered the names from news broadcasts. Daoud had told me the farm was in the country between two of the biggest flashpoint areas in the whole territories. I wondered why it had never occurred to me to pinpoint where the farm actually was, how close it was to these places. He also told me the Dajani’s land had been cut by the Israeli security wall, although the whole farm was actually on the Arab side of the 1949 and 1967 lines. The wall did that – it snaked around the old delineations of territory to seize little bits of farmland, grab at water or snatch at green areas.
Olives, page 165

There are places where the ‘security wall’ slashes 10km into the West Bank, redefining the 1967 border to, literally, cut off water-rich and cultivable land. It’s the most breathtaking land-grab in modern history, yet has gone largely unremarked in Western media, a stretch of wall and (mostly) fencing over four hundred miles long. Some ten per cent of the West Bank, as defined by the widely accepted 1967 border, has been sequestered by the barrier.

The construction of the wall itself, with its wide ‘no go’ zone, uprooted tens of thousands of olive trees, many of which were hundreds of years old. And frequently it snakes between villages and the farmland that sustains them, forcing the farmers to queue at gates for access to their own land. It never misses the chance to grab at a well or spring in the water-hungry land.

There’s no more anxious time than the harvest, when the olives are ripe. This is when access to their trees matters more than usual. It’s supposed to be a time of celebration, but for many each year the harvest is a time of bitter humiliation and disappointment, of grasping at whatever opportunity presents itself to access their land and snatch their crops back to the other side of the wall.

British graffiti artist Banksy tells a remarkable story about the barrier. He visited the West Bank to paint a number of pictures on the wall, typically humorous and ironic images. He tells the story of an old man (and I recount it from memory, BTW) who approached him while he was working (risking an unpleasant sojourn in an Israeli jail) and said, ‘You’re making the wall beautiful.’
‘Thank you,’ said Banksy.
‘No,’ said the old man, ‘We hate this wall. We don’t want it beautiful. Go home.’
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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Delaying Beirut

I had originally intended my second serious novel, Beirut, would launch at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. I was wrong to even think that was possible.

Back when I decided to self-publish Olives, in September 2011, it all seemed simple enough: put the book up on Amazon and CreateSpace and print a local edition. I’ll gloss over all the details of permissions, ISBN numbers, printing presses, distribution and the like – if you’re interested in how to self publish your book in the UAE, you can always come along to my workshop at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on the 9th March.

But suffice it to say, a decision taken with a ready-to-go manuscript in September resulted in a book being widely available in the UAE’s bookshops in January, with reviews only starting to come in Jan/Feb and many reviewers still to give their opinion of Olives at the time I write this.

At the same time, I’m actively promoting the book, with this blog, on Twitter, with bookclubs and various signings, appearances and the like. Olives is taking about an hour out of each day right now – social media is an expensive tool if you count your cash by the second  and it’s pretty much the only tool a writer has in the Internet age. You could argue word of mouth, but that’s really what social media’s about, isn’t it?

So the plan is to work on the final edit of Beirut in April and have it submitted to the UAE’s National Media Council for Permission to Print (which I doubt it’ll get) in May. If it’s knocked back, I’ll print in Beirut, although I have to say Beirut’s chances of getting sold in Beirut are pretty slim, too. If self-publishing Olives has taught me one thing, it is that publishing novels in the Middle East is a thankless task when it comes to ‘sensitivities’ and ‘cultures of respect’.

I reckon Beirut can go to print in June at the earliest. That would mean possibly hitting the shelves in late July/early August for the holiday rush in the UAE. But distribution is a very analogue game and so’s book marketing with ‘traditional media’ reviewers. I’m probably best off getting review copies out then and keeping the book back until September for distribution, aiming at October as a public launch date.

As a self publisher straddling the analogue and digital worlds, something made necessary because Amazon, Apple et al won’t sell e-content to the Middle East, I find myself constrained by analogue, rather than Internet, time.

Which is why Beirut won’t launch at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature...
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Monday, 20 February 2012

From Dubai Festival of Literature to Abu Dhabi Book Fair

March is quite a busy month one way and another. The 9th will see me infesting the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, although I’ll be around the Festival in the week without a doubt, doing my annual outside broadcast with Dubai Eye Radio, a gig I always enjoy immensely.

I'm kicking off my involvement  in the LitFest this year with a presentation to 500 pupils of the Dubai American Academy which, I have to say, is a chilling prospect at the least.

If I survive that one, I’m then scheduled to take part in a moderated session with two other writers, Liz Fenwick and Sarah Hathorn called ‘First Fictions: Three different success stories’, which aims to explore different routes to getting published – Liz is publishing her debut, The Cornish House, in  May with Orion while Sarah went self-pub back in 2010, when it wasn’t quite as fashionable as it is now. The session’s being moderated by literary agent Luigi Bonomi and should be an interesting debate on the road from ‘traditional’ publishing to today’s market-challenging publishing models.

First Fictions: Three different success stories is on Friday 9 March 15:00-16:00 at the Al Baraha 2 room at the InterContinental Hotel.

I’m also doing a workshop at the Emirates Festival on how to self publish and promote your book. As I said over at my ‘regular blog’ the other day, more and more people are taking matters into their own hands and self publishing, but it’s a unique game to play in the UAE for all manner of reasons and I’ll be extending as much help to others as I know how. I’ll also be looking at routes to digital marketing for authors, which is a problem many of us face when we’re trying to get our books ‘out there’.

Later in the month, there’s GeekFest Sharjah on the 22nd but that’s going to be an Olives Free Zone – the geeks have put up with enough of me promoting and pushing the book, they deserve a night off.

On the 27th and 28th, I’ll be in Beirut making trouble as usual at the seminal ArabNet Conference, the region’s leading – and largest - digital conference and a key event for anyone that cares about online technologies and how to use them to build cool things. I’ll be taking the opportunity to have a signing in Beirut and probably getting up to something noisy and naughty in Gemayze to celebrate Olives being on sale in Lebanon.

And then on the 29th, I’m doing a signing at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, as well as taking part in a panel session discussing the state of digital publishing in the Arab World as part of the professional programme. My co-panellists are an august bunch, so it’ll be fun to throw a brat with a pocket full of fireworks in there – and that’s precisely what I intend to be.

April 1st, I’ll have my feet up with a mug of cocoa looking forward to editing Beirut!
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Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Crossing

   We crossed over at the Sheikh Hussein Crossing, a drive North from Amman through the green-flecked beige expanse of rocky hillsides. Daoud’s man Selim came with us to smooth the process of crossing the border. The queue at the Jordanian checkpoint snaked back from the barbed wire fences and the scattering of low buildings and concrete barriers marking the crossing point. The Jordanian soldiers were thorough and suspicious as they searched the car and checked our documents. We were finally waved through. I found the whole process unnerving, bracing myself for the infamous Israeli checkpoint. I was already jittery passing though the Jordanian side, fear making me gabble nervously and point out silly things around us. I looked across at Aisha, but she seemed lost in her own thoughts. I noticed she was gripping the door handle.
   ‘Are you okay?’
   Her smile was taut as she shook her head. ‘I never like this very much. Sorry.’
Olives, Page 155

Today, I’m very proud indeed to welcome a guest post by the woman behind the delightful Ussa Nabulsiyeh (A Nabulsi Story) blog, Sara Refai. A volunteer teaching in Nablus, Sara is a former colleague and dear friend. She also writes like a dream. Here are her thoughts on ‘the crossing’...

Click, clack, click, clack. My foot bounces from side to side and I mirror its movements with my head.

Bored. Change it up. Clickety clack clack, clickety clack clack.

Seven hours at Allenby Crossing will do that to you. 

I hoped it would be easier the second time around. Maybe it was. I was nauseous for weeks before I left Amman for the West Bank the first time. This time I was less apprehensive; knowing what to expect, but just as anxious.

My teaching position in Nablus was my livelihood. I had no plan B if I didn’t get in.

Some people are turned away because they are known activists. Some are turned away because of their Palestinian roots. Others, because their IDF soldier-cum-customs agent had a bad day.

Roll the dice, smile big and hope they don’t pay too much attention to your Google search results.

I look longingly at the recently vacated seats beside me. They were probably half way to Ramallah now. Surrounded by bare walls and an uninteresting floor, you notice if the people originally behind you in the queue are allowed through as you watch them with envy. 

On the Jordanian side the process is boring, but it’s not intimidating. Nicotine stained Jordanian officials smile and chat with you despite the tedious waiting around. You pass your luggage through sagging X-ray machines and face the difference between the foreigners’ terminal and the vastly more crowded and chaotic terminal for those only holding Arab passports.

The bus ride through No Man’s Land could be considered picturesque with its dry, expansive, wasteland appearance. The Jordan River will literally trickle under the non descript bridge that takes you out of Jordan.

My head snaps up as I hear someone call my name. An agent from the Israeli Ministry of Interior is waving my passport and looking around the waiting area.

I jump up – forever optimistic that this could be the last round of questions.

The questions never change, but the faces do. A different person for every round. Polite, probing and questioning your presence. Looking for the lie, waiting for the mistake.

You first present your passport at the entrance of Allenby after being relieved of your luggage by the Arab baggage handlers. It’s like the scene of a fish market – loud, crowded, hot and confusing. A long winding line leads to the first security check. You approach the window and are questioned by the IDF soldier that sits behind it.

What are you doing here? How long will you stay? Why are you here?

On to  x-rays for hand luggage and extra searches.

Do you speak Arabic? What religion are you?

Another soldier points you to the appropriate queue.

The queue is interminable. Soldiers take their time and investigate every potential question mark. Their job is not to smooth over the process and save time;  their job is to examine every detail of every story they come across.

If there is the slightest question mark, you are sent to the waiting area. Where I am currently sitting. To wait. Maybe an hour. Maybe 10. 

I focus my now tiny attention span back to the sun glassed face in front of me.

“So, are you less nervous this time?” mid-thirties and tanned. In another life he could be a surfer.

“Why?” I respond, wrong footed.

“Last year you were very nervous. At least that’s what you said on your blog.”

“Ah…yes, well… no, not really.”


More questions and another  two hour wait before I am questioned again and reseated.
It takes literally 30 seconds to cross Allenby. To talk it from entrance to exit. It was seven hours before I was wordlessly handed back my passport.

I open it. Stamped.

Safe. Until next time.

(Thanks to @youseftuqan for the snap of the Israeli side of the crossing)
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Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Twitter Book Club

There are many book clubs in the UAE, of which the most interestingly structured must be the Twitter Book Club, which organises itself around, you guessed it, Twitter. @TwitBookClub or #TwitBookClub are the places you'll find 'em lurking and growling bookishly.

Olives was 'read of the month' last month and so yesterday I sat down at Wild Peeta, Dubai's famously social gourmet shawarma joint (@WildPeeta to you) and faced the Twits in attendance as well as one who had to travel to India but who had left behind a review and some questions she wanted to ask.

The conversation started with a review of the club's other picks for the month (Olives was 'mandatory', there were a number of other reads also recommended) and I started to get a dry mouth when club members weighed in. Virginia Woolf took a couple of particularly hefty kicks to the literary derrière and even Umberto Eco's semiotically inclined behind got a drubbing.

And then the searchlight was on me, the sirens going off and the dogs barking. Olives has some similarities to John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, observed one member, in that it is about a fool who falls in love with a local girl and tries to save her from herself and/or the baddies. While I am always delighted at any comparison with Le Carré (well, obviously apart from 'has less talent than Le Carré's discarded thumbnail'), I couldn't quite get this one.

The conversation, as I have learned it usually does, really kicked off with how everyone thought Paul was a sap although, as the session went on, it was observed that perhaps part of the reason everyone thinks that is the book is written in the first person so we are privy to Pauls' thoughts, feelings and doubts and perhaps pick up more of his vulnerability than we would if it were written in the third person and, therefore, were perhaps a slightly more dispassionate account. We talked about Aisha, her place in society and her role in the book and about how Olives would go down in right wing America (not well at all, apparently. In America, I am assured, this book would be highly controversial, which rather had me raising the old eyebrow). Everyone was surprised Gerald Lynch goes on to be the main character of my next novel, Beirut (I did a short reading of Beirut, which is a very different book indeed to Olives) because they all hated the drunk, blackmailing SOB. Well, who wouldn't?

We talked about the controversies - the Jordan blocking name thing (general agreement that it's, errr, fiction) and also the issues of alcohol and sex in the book, as well as the research behind (and very reality of)  the water crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean, the history of Palestinian families and Palestine and other questions the book raised with readers.

Three hours went by in subjective minutes, at the end of which they thanked me for coming. I was amazed. You spend three hours talking about my work with me and thank ME for coming? The thanks, as always, are fervently from me to you.

I have to add, There Were Cupcakes, thanks to @TheRegos...

In short, it was a blast. I do like book clubs!
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A Few Gifts For Home

   I hadn’t thought we were going to be acting as a private aid convoy, then felt unworthy as I remembered how the family sent little luxuries over whenever they could. Luxuries I had come to think of as everyday things – candles, toothpaste, fine soap, English tea and liquorice allsorts, the latter a particular weakness of Mariam’s, apparently.
   ‘How much stuff are we taking over?’
   ‘A couple of bags. We won’t take too much in case it doesn’t get through. The Israelis sometimes just confiscate the lot.’
   ‘Okay, I’ll come to yours. Nine? Can I bring anything for them?’
   ‘Nine’s fine. And yes, it’d be a nice idea to bring Hamad some sweets, maybe. Zalatimo? He’s crazy about them.’
   Amman’s famous Zalatimo Brothers, a shop in the bustling Shmeisani district packed with huge trays of fine, butter-soaked filo pastry parcels filled with nuts and honey, tubes of fried vermicelli packed with pistachios, neat, rich cakes of cracked wheat and nuts and date-filled crumbly maamoul pastries, all ready to scoop up and be tightly arrayed into their distinctive dark red and gold tins.
Olives, Page 153

Zalatimo is such a guilty pleasure: honeyed filo pastry and vermicelli sweets that reek of buttery sweetness packed, as Paul points out, in distinctive dark red tins. The Zalatimo business actually started in Jerusalem in 1860 and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Zalatimo opened up in Amman.

Now they’re something of a national institution, one of those gifts you have to bring back from Jordan along, probably, with a bottle of olive oil, some holy water and a brace of Silsal pots. And then there are olive wood carvings, intricate little pieces of silverware from the women of Wadi Dana, the glassware and ceramics and the colourful traditional kandouras.

There are much nicer places to buy handcrafts from Jordan than the Airport Duty Free: one such is the Jordan River Foundation, which was established (and is still chaired) by Queen Rania.  The Silsal Pottery is really a must visit experience, a stunning collection of contemporary ceramic creativity. And if you can’t get down to the Wadi Dana and stay in the village to visit the stunning nature reserve, you can buy the silverware and other craft products at the Wild Cafe’s shop. I’m quite fond of the gift shop attached to the stunning Haret Jdoudna restaurant in Madaba, a favourite lunchtime treat - and the food there is simply majestic.It'll b a long time before I forget their potatoes sauteed with rosemary with an egg scrambled into them. Sitting up on the sun-dappled roof with dishes of food, great company and cold beers on a sunny spring day, things are about as good as you'd want them to get...

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Balfour Declaration

 I sipped at my little cup of strong coffee. ‘Do you think you can take the water bid?’
   ‘Yes. I know we can. We’re a million miles ahead of the British when it comes to our technical bid and they know it. In fact, it’s something of a worry. The British don’t always play fair in Jordan, you know.’
   Ah, the cunning British. The Arabs have never lost their view of the ‘Breets’ as cunning, Machiavellian strategists. What I found odd was how such a bunch of muckle-headed chinless wonders with their classical educations, convictions of racial superiority and love of brown boys’ pert arses could ever be seen as cunning.
   I said as much to Daoud. ‘Ah,’ he said, smiling a rueful smile. ‘But maybe we have to demonise them. Imagine, if we took your view of these people, the Storrs and Glubbs, Philbys and Lawrences. Imagine how little it would make us, to have been conquered by these creatures. We’d rather build them up to be cunning and forceful. At least it would explain how they could take everything away from us.’
Olives, Page 135

You can tell the British were in Jordan, because of the nice, straight borders. Suits with posh voices, pencils and rulers in fact defined much of the Middle East. I am often amazed at how little rancour I have encountered in my time wandering around the region, even when history rears its conversational head.

One thing I hear quoted a lot is the line that the creation of Israel was down to the British and their Balfour Declaration. Few people who state this are aware of what the Balfour Declaration actually is – seven lines of text rather than some grand treaty that defined Israel.

"His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

It’s actually a pretty weasely piece of diplomatic speak as Great Statements go. And it was actually unpopular with the British public of the time. But the Balfour Declaration was part of a prevailing sentiment at the time among the Great Powers that “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” was something to be looked upon favourably.

In fact, British policy in Palestine – in the Arab World in general – was a mess. The Sykes Picot treaty, the McMahon-Hussein treaty, the attempts at settlement of the Hashemites around the region and the subsequent Anglo-French declaration all clearly show the British and French as being the dominant powers in the region, jostling for pre-eminence at every turn. They also show the British had no coherent objective or policy for the region. They didn’t know what the hell they were doing, in short…

A collector of books on Middle East history, one of my more prized possessions is ‘Orientations’ by Ronald Storrs. Storrs, a friend of TE Lawrence’s (who used the defining phrase, ‘clever little Lawrence’), was the governor of Mandate Palestine and his views on Zionism were typical of British views of the time, although his view of the Arabs and the cost of Zionism was more advanced than, perhaps, Joe Public's - and certainly more than Balfour's.

Storrs spent much of his time as Governor trying to perform an impossible balancing act. The British prevaricated and 'viewed with favour', trying to maintain the status quo in Palestine, limiting Jewish immigration as much as they could (Lawrence Durrell’s brilliant Alexandria Quartet is centred around the struggle to obtain entry certificates for Jews from Europe to get into Palestine), while trying to cope with increasingly violent frustration from the indigenous population of Palestine as well as being effectively barricaded out of the institutions of state they had created by the Jewish administrators they had appointed.

Zionism is a world movement. Arabism does not exist. Although it is said that a knowledge of Arabic will take you from India to the Atlantic, yet Arab merits, defects, rights and grievances are essentially local in character... The Arab of Palestine therefore feels himself under an overwhelming inferiority in the presentation of his case to the conscience of the world. He is aware that he has not the ability, the organization, least of all the material resources or the audience for effective propaganda... Against the scientifically controlled publicity of the two greater continents he has about as much chance as had the Dervishes before Kitchener’s machine guns at Omdurman.
Ronald Storrs, Orientations (1937)

However, indecision and inaction had their reward. The Arabs became more rebellious as they realised the impossibility of their position. The Zionists, always a strident voice on the world stage, became a violent  force when the Irgun bombed the King David hotel in 1946, an act of terrorism that incidentally killed more people than any subsequent bombing in the entire Arab/Israeli conflict.

The road to 1948 had been embarked upon. By now the British were still indecisive, but powerless. Filling the vacuum, America took centre stage.

But you know what? If Balfour had never declared, nothing would have changed one jot. Nothing.

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Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Magazine

Image: Willi Heidelbach

   A box of advance copies of the magazine’s first issue arrived from the printing press. I scanned a copy. It looked good. It smelled good too – there’s nothing quite like the smell of fresh print in all the world. I picked up a handful of them and made my way up to Abdullah Zahlan’s office. I sat down with Zahlan and waited for him to go through the magazine. He flicked through the pages, nodding appreciatively.
Olives, Page 119

It’s an oddly fresh smell, yet pungently chemical. If the print job was a rush, your fingers will slide on a powdery dusting of china clay – printers use it to dry the ink faster and stop pages sticking together. You pull the pages open and thrust your nose into the gutter and there it is, magic marker meets trichloroethylene, a hit of solvent abuse that comes alongside the feeling of achievement, as your efforts are rendered concrete. You scan the pages one last time for 'literals', a little fearful thrill to make the satisfaction that bit more complete. Tragically, new novels don’t smell half so good.

It’ll only be so long the reek of a new magazine will be commonplace. Perhaps five years, perhaps ten. The idea of a print only publication already feels a little archaic and, certainly, Paul’s reason for travelling to Jordan for a year in Olives is already a minor area of conflict in the book as ‘new guy’ at the Ministry of Natural Resources Abdullah Zahlan wants more of a web play than a paper magazine. But his ‘old school’ predecessor Shukri (we never find out Shukri’s first name) has signed the contract with TMG for a print magazine only. Paul’s git of a publisher, Robin Goodyear, stands by the contract but Paul, the guy stuck on the ground tries to help out and at least give Zahlan some help in creating a more online property.

Jordan is one of the most advanced contributors to the Internet in the Middle East, the region’s most competitive telecom market and a major source of innovation, investment and IP development – thanks in no small part to the REACH process kickstarted by King Abdullah in 1999/2000.  And yet there are still more Shukris than Zahlans. The Middle East, generally, lags the West and Asia in its adoption of Internet technologies and even the boost the ‘Arab Spring’ has given to Internet and social media adoption hasn’t quite driven the region to truly embrace online.

Which is lucky, really. Otherwise my callow young journalist friend would never really have had a reason to go and live in Jordan at all...

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Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Golan Heights

Photo: Daniel Case
The Golan Heights are both notorious and beautiful, a majestic sweep of green rising up from the lowlands around Lake Tiberius, a couple of hours’ drive north of Amman. Exploring the North of the country was Lars’ idea – he’d made the suggestion the night before at dinner.
   We stood in the ruins of the Roman City at Umm Qeis and looked out at the green swell of one of the world’s bloodiest and most hotly contested pieces of land, and I was humbled into silence. Anne was next to me, her jacket collar turned up and her hair whipping her face. It was a day of clear, cool sunshine. The clouds were starting to gather, drifting across the rich blue sky and casting jagged shadows across the ruins and the hump of the Golan beyond. I heard the shouts of the tamar man selling his date juice in the ruins behind me and turned to see him lugging the huge, brass pot on his back, bright ribbons and pompoms decorating it.
   Lars spoke to Anne, raising his voice against the breeze blowing across the black stone skeleton of the city Rome had left behind. The wind gusted through the centuries and across into Israel. ‘The Israelis took it from Syria in ’67,’ Lars shouted against the wind. ‘You could stand here at the time, apparently, and watch the MIGs dancing in the air as the land shook with the bombs. I know a guy who was here. He was crazy to have been close to it as like this. He said it looked beautiful, the explosions and smoke. The border’s down there, in the valley. The Syrians used to launching the rocket attacks from the heights down onto the Israelis. Gave them more range.’
Olives, Page 107

Standing at Umm Qeis always reminds me of being a kid again. It’s one of two places that does this to me. The other is flying in to Beirut.

I have vague memories of watching fighter jets on TV flying above the Golan, it must have been in 1973, the little silver/white shapes twisting and turning, popping out flares behind them. Even to this day, I can’t fly into Beirut without seeing those little shapes following my path down the corniche from the North before we glide out to sea then turn to land at Beirut International with Sassine looming majestically above us.

Looking out over the Golan now is a funny feeling. The valley below marks the Israeli border, the road snaking down through farmhouses clinging to the hillside.  The 1967 war alone displaced over 100,000 people from the Golan, mostly Druze and Circassian families. They were never to be allowed to return.

The 1967 war was, at least in part, triggered by Syrian attempts to divert the water flowing into Lake Tiberias (or the Sea of Galilee or Kinnaret or whatever you want to call it), with an interplay of efforts to block the water and block the blockers culminating in  a conflict which saw Syria lose Tiberias and the resources that feed it from the Golan.

The lake is also fed by a complex series of underground aquifers, a fact that fascinated me so much it cam to lie at the core of the conflict in Olives, with Daoud's scheme to tap the underground sources to provide water for Jordan and the West Bank at Israel's expense.

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Monday, 13 February 2012

Amman's Roman Amphitheatre - And A Hidden Treasure

   I stood centre stage in Amman’s Roman amphitheatre feeling the pressure of my own voice reverberating from the stone seating circled around me. I watched Anne as she walked in the flat arena, called out to her. ‘Come up here and try it. It’s so acoustically perfect you can hear a man talking in a normal voice even if you’re sitting all the way up at the back.’
   She looked up at me and smiled. ‘I’ll take your word for it. What’s the equipment behind you? Do they still have concerts here?’
   I surveyed the stage behind me. Beyond the speaker stacks I could see the shabby Eastern city climbing up the hill towards the Citadel, straight stairways set into the tightly packed buildings, reaching towards the cloudy sky.
   ‘Yes. A big Lebanese singer played here over the weekend. Not bad to be using a venue after two thousand years, is it?’
   I jumped down to her and managed to wind myself in the process. Anne laughed and put her arm in mine, her cheeks rosy with the cool autumn air. She had zipped her brown leather jacket up, her red scarf tucked into the top.
Olives, Page 105

Paul’s girlfriend Anne comes to visit him in Amman for a few days, an event that interrupts the growing intimacy between Paul and Aisha and reminds Paul that he already has a relationship with his lover and landlady. Anne’s a high-powered international lawyer, a contrast to Paul who’s a journalist and, if truth be told, a bit of a slob compared to Anne’s smart-set friends.

They go out on a day’s sight-seeing in Amman and no such trip could be complete without a visit to Amman’s Roman Amphitheatre, a marvellously preserved artefact that does, indeed, have the quality of acoustic perfection described in Olives – as do the other Roman amphitheatres you can find dotted around Jordan.

There are a number of Roman remains in Jordan, some of which haven’t even been excavated yet, but the most significant sites to visit are in Amman, Petra, Jerash and Umm Qeis. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Roman Baths in Amman are stunning but still haven’t opened to the public as far as I can tell. We managed to sneak our way in a few years ago thanks to a friendly member of staff, who took us for a private tour around the site, which was undergoing a very leisurely looking dig/renovation at the time.

Jerash has not one, but three amphitheatres. This huge city, the most important Roman ruin in the Near East, is remarkably preserved and has been the subject of excavations for much of the past century.  Every summer it’s transformed by the three-week Jerash Festival, a major cultural event in the Jordanian calendar.

But the Amman Amphitheatre conceals a little secret. The Folklore Museum of Bedouin Life is a tiny but fascinating display of artefacts, textiles and weaving from the remarkably rich Bedouin culture of the Jordanian desert.  It’s a neat little wonder, this place, I never tire of wandering around it and admiring the intricate, colourful kandouras and the head-dresses of jangling silver coins and tokens, the goat-skin water carriers and camel-hair tents.
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Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Palestinian Problem

   She talked to the table, her voice low. ‘My father was born on a farm in Palestine in 1946, outside a village called Qaffin. It’s the farm we have today. My grandparents left during the troubles in 1948, what we call the Nakba, the disaster. You know this, right? The Nakba?’ I nodded. ‘When the Zionists threw my people from their land and declared Israel a state. They had a saying, you know, “A land without a people for a people without a land.” But it’s a lie.’
Olives, Page 83

This, to me at least, is a key scene in Olives, Aisha’s recounting her family’s history to Paul, who is being a very nosy Brit indeed. She’s obviously fond of him and opening up something very private to him, but Paul can’t help being a journalist and prying, wanting more every time he’s thrown a morsel until he pushes Aisha too far.

The history of the fictional Dajanis in Olives is by no means atypical or far-fetched. It’s grounded in a very bitter reality, the removal of a people from their land in huge numbers: estimates put the dispossessed of Palestine at 700,000.

In 1948, the founding of the State of Israel marked the end of a long-held dream for a group of men who had laboured tirelessly since the late 19th century to found a home for the Jewish people. The Zionists strove not only to press the case for such a home, but also to conflate Jewishness with their campaign, which met with resistance from many Jews trying to get by in an increasingly anti-semitic Europe (Including Russia and Eastern Europe).

1948 saw over 500 Palestinian villages destroyed. Fleeing the violence, hundreds of thousands of families found homes in squalid, teeming refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Many more remained, to be concentrated over the years into the areas we now know as the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians call this event (as Aisha points out in the extract above) ‘Al Nakba’ or the catastrophe. It forms the background to Olives because it’s the background to the story of Aisha’s family in the book.

Thousands of families lived in the camps holding on to their rusty iron doorkeys and title deeds, documents issued to them by the authorities of the British Mandate and doomed not to be recognised as valid by the new state of Israel. Many still hold these documents and hope for ‘the right of return’ – to be able to go back to the houses and farms they owned before they were driven out by stark fear. It is, sadly, a forlorn hope but, as Aisha tells Paul, it is hope for a better future that has kept the Palestinian people alive in diaspora.

   She was trembling. ‘No. Abu Ammar was a unifier. There was no Palestine, no Palestinian people, no Palestinian identity. We lost everything, you see? Arafat brought us the dream that one day we could go back to things we had lost, that one day we could become a nation again. What could my father believe in other than this? We are lucky, at least we still have some of our family land, but only because we are on the border, only because we had an Arab Israeli lawyer on our side. Back then, there was no hope for any Palestinian other than Arafat offered.’

One reviewer called the family history in Olives ‘hackneyed’, which is a valid opinion but one that flies in the face of the many people who have told me they identified with a history similar to their own family’s tales. And these tales are all too rarely told to anyone who’s listening. Part of the reason for Olives was to do just that.

Granted, the reader is occasionally left cringing at the clichéd, melodramatic dialogue, but perhaps that is a reflection of the whole region; the whole conflict as a cliché based on reality. Individuals well-versed in the history and realities of the Middle East probably won't be able to help rolling up their eyes at the hackneyed descriptions when Ayesha explains what happened to her family…
Middle East Monitor

If the book makes just a handful of people stop grazing the headlines and take a deeper look at issues like these, it’ll have been worth the whole journey of writing it and publishing it. So far, it looks as if hundreds have. And, to me, that’s worth putting up with “well-versed individuals” rolling their eyes around the place.

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Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Amman Citadel

   Lynch picked me up when I walked into the Citadel, Amman’s central hill topped with the ruins of ancient civilisations and one of its big tourist attractions. The guide hassling me to take a tour melted away when Lynch appeared. The Irishman strolled casually beside me as if he’d been there all along.
   We walked up the hill until it flattened out onto the top of the Citadel, stopping by the Roman columns that overlook East Amman in its blue, hilly haze. The Roman amphitheatre was below us, the colourful shops and tenements of the Eastern city spread out crazily around it, stretching up into the hills beyond.
   We stood together in the warm breeze. Lynch lit a cigarette. ‘You been here before?’
   ‘No. Never got around to it.’
   He puffed out smoke. ‘They’ve done a good job here. They excavated it in layers, preserving the best of each age. Roman, Byzantine, Muslim. It’s all here. Thousands of years of history on a single hilltop.’
   ‘Can we get down to brass tacks?’
Olives, Page 74

Paul and Lynch wander around the Citadel, bickering as Paul is unwillingly recruited to spy for the British intelligence agent, Lynch stopping to highlight occasional sightings of ancient monuments, something the Citadel has aplenty, from Roman Cisterns and columns to Byzantine churches and even ancient stone olive presses.

Paul is surprised at Lynch’s knowledge of the history around them, perhaps because he’s a bit of an intellectual snob and saw Lynch as something of a boorish drunk. Lynch, of course, has a couple of surprises up his sleeve, but isn’t going to be taken in by a load of history and doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to shock Paul, either.

The Citadel is one of the most ancient sites of continuous human occupation in the world, with evidence of Neolithic occupation running through into ancient Philadelphia, the Roman era and through the Byzantine and Ottoman empires to the present day. It’s an L-shaped hill (you can just make out the shape on Naeema Zarif’s cover art for Olives, it’s one of the elements she combined to form the multi-layered pattern) that forms the central tumulus of Amman’s seven hills, the Jordanian flag inevitably flapping on the flagpole at its crest.

Amman itself was originally named for the Ammonites (and we’re not talking prehistoric crustacea here), the people who settled the city in the twelfth century BC and who referred to the city as ‘Rabbath Ammon’, or ‘great city of the Ammonites. Their lack of hubris was to lead to their downfall, as the city was taken by the Israelites under David, then the Assyrians some two centuries later.

One of history’s unlucky women, Amman was to be taken many more times – by the Babylonians, the Ptolemies (it was Ptolemy Philadelphus who named the city ‘Philadelphia’), the Seleucids and then, nine hundred years after David, by the Romans in the first century BC. Two hundred years later, the Roman emperor Trajan incorporated Philadelphia into his province of Arabia.

Philadelphia was a prosperous Roman city, the great cistern on the Citadel just one of many important Roman artefacts in Amman and greater Jordan – Amman’s amphitheatre is a remarkable achievement, yet there are others to be found at the remarkable city of Jerash and also in Petra (always celebrated as a Nabatean site, but actually an important Roman one, too) which remain as remarkable testaments to the Roman’s feats of acoustic engineering. Amman also had an extensive and luxurious Roman baths which were, at least last time I visited them and sneaked my way into the site, jaw-droppingly impressive and not open to the general public.

With the decline of Rome, Amman became part of the Eastern Empire, Byzantium, then in the seventh century BC, the tired remains of the once majestic Roman city were wrapped into the Islamic empire of the Ummayads (and renamed with its ancient name, ‘Ammon’). Briefly a part of the Crusaders’ ‘Outremer’, the city entered a long period of decline until the late Ottoman era when the Turkish/German Hejaz Railway transformed the ruined city. Viable once again, Amman saw its final awakening as the capital of the new Kingdom of Transjordan under Abdullah I, part of the settlement of the Arab Revolt that redefined the Middle East after World War One.

Perhaps oddly, the tracks of the old Hejaz railway still traverse Jordan and you can (as I did above) stand and photograph the very railway line that TE Lawrence gave so much time and effort to blowing up.

Much of this history is evidenced on Amman’s Citadel, excavations have so far unearthed very little of what those layers of time still conceal and yet the site already feels almost impossibly rich in history. It’s a fascinating place to wander around, exploring each layer of history even as you gaze out at the vista of Amman around you. It’s all the more enjoyable if you don’t have a British spy with a strong Northern Irish accent and a heap of attitude badgering you...

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Friday, 10 February 2012

Bethany And Christ's Baptism

   ‘This is Abdullah, he’s a guide here. He works part time for Ibrahim.’
   She nodded.
   I said hello to Abdullah and we shook hands before he turned and led the way through the buildings and down a stone-flagged pathway. I spotted a city in the foothills across the valley on what must have been the Israeli side of the border.
   ‘What’s that?’
   ‘That’s Jericho. It’s part of Palestine now.’
   Jericho. I remembered it from primary school –  being forced to sing Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat for the school play. Joshua and his army, marching around parping away at trumpets to break down the city walls. I screwed up my eyes against sun’s glare and watched the far-away city walls, the buildings little more than white dots in the shimmering air.
Olives, Page 62
Bethany sits at the head of the Dead Sea, a religious site of enormous importance. This is where John the Baptist performed the ritual of baptism on Jesus.  John is a critical figure in all three of the ‘revealed religions’, Yoḥanan ha-mmaṭbil in Hebrew and Yuhanna al-maʿmadan in Arabic, John has been linked (as, indeed, has Jesus) to the Essenes, an ascetic sect identified strongly with the Dead Sea and, indeed, with Christianity itself. Just around the corner from the Baptism Place is an unprepossessing hummock which is, apparently where the Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven on a chariot. You can't really throw a stone around here without hitting a site of importance to the revealed religions, because this is the heart and homeland of the people of the book.

Bethany has a strange, mysterious feel to it – the paths through the arches of tamarisk eventually lead to the River Jordan itself, which rather disappoints Paul:

   ‘This,’ said Aisha, dramatically, ‘is the River Jordan.’
I’d expected something big and Cecil B. DeMille, but the river was narrow and a dull green, slow-moving and lifeless.

It’s not a bad description. The Jordan has been depleted massively, its waters have receded to a fragment of former glories (accounts of John’s baptism of Jesus have them wading into the river, but the baptism site itself is now well away from the mean little river that slops into the Dead Sea.

Shops in Jordan sell bottles of Holy Water from the Jordan. We have brought these back for friends and relatives Christening babies , who have to a man been terribly impressed. I suspect the water sold in the shops may not be the ‘real thing’, though, because if you put a baby anywhere near water from that gloopy green ghost of a river it’d probably glow in the dark.

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Thursday, 9 February 2012

Jordan And The Water Wars

   I took notes in shorthand to back up the tape, finishing the sentence before I looked up into Saunders’ blue-eyed, frank stare. ‘What’s the scale of the problem?’ I asked.
   ‘Massive. Jordan has one of the world’s lowest levels of water resources. The country’s supply stands at less than a quarter of the accepted global water poverty level. And a huge amount, something like twenty-five per cent of that water, is currently coming from over-pumping unsustainable resources. Experts are forecasting the water supply will be a potential humanitarian disaster within fifteen years or so. Personally, I think it’ll come sooner.’
   ‘What’s the government doing?’
   Saunders reached behind him and pulled out a thick, spiral bound document. ‘This is the National Water Strategy. It was adopted in the late nineties and outlined any number of approaches to the problem but at the end of the day it didn’t result in concrete action. That’s one of the reasons the Ministry of Natural Resources was formed, to unify the government’s response. And that’s why they’re going into this privatisation process. It’ll likely be the single largest privatisation the country’s ever seen. It’s critical to Jordan’s future.’
   Saunders paused and some journalistic instinct in me sensed the inevitable spiel to come. I wasn’t disappointed. He laid his hands flat on the desk and leaned forwards, brows knit in intense sincerity. ‘And we at Anglo-Jordanian believe we have the solutions Jordan needs.’
Olives, Page 60

Paul’s interview with the manager at the potash extraction works on the Dead Sea, Clive Saunders, is where the water issue starts to become a prominent element of Olives - A Violent Romance. As I pointed out in my last post, water is a very real problem, not only for Jordan but all of the surrounding states – Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and yes, Israel.

The gravest environmental challenge that Jordan faces today is the scarcity of water. Indeed, water is the decisive factor in the population/resources equation.
King Hussein.gov website

It's that equation that's highlighted in Olives, the lack of water resources is actually critical and increasingly so.The Wadi Rumm pipeline will provide much-needed relief for Amman, but Jordan's an agrarian country and its valuable vegetable crops constantly demand irrigation. The massive depletion of the Jordan has meant the level of the Dead Sea has dropped over 150 feet since the 1960s. Jordan is below the water poverty line already - and it's only going to get worse.

The Jordan River, once a major source of water for the kingdom, was diverted after animosity grew between its stakeholders. The dams built by Syria, Israel and Jordan have caused the river to lose 95% of its original flow. This has also been the fate of Jordan’s other significant waterway, the Yarmouk River, which is now reduced to a mere muddy trickle.
It is an oft-repeated adage that the wars of the future will be fought over water – but this is already sad reality in the MENA region.
Bertelsmann Stiftung 'Future Challenges' 

Behind the natural problems of a lack of water resources are the additional problems of fighting off land grabs - the 1967 conflict lost Jordan Lake Tiberias (or the Sea of Galilee, depending on who you're talking to), a major water body that plays a key role in Daoud's water privatisation scheme in Olives. Israel's 'security wall' cuts deeply into the West Bank, scything up to 10% of the land from the '1967 border' defining the West Bank - almost every incursion loops around a water resource.

The conflict made every country do their best to grab as much as they can, and non-cooperation between them is what really affected the area.
Munquth Meyhar
Chairman, Friends Of The Earth Middle East

In the face of the challenge, various NGOs and other bodies have come together to call for 'regional dialogue' and 'regional co-operation', but these well-meaning calls seem to neglect the facts on the ground - the parties around the potential table these people are envisaging have their hands around each others' throats in every way. Co-operation to eke out water resources is hardly an option - everyone's grabbing what they can. And it's far too little. Especially for Jordan.

The report calls for a confidence-building initiative between the heads of water authorities of Israel and Palesinian Authority, with support of political leaders and under observation of representatives of Quartet or major donor countries, to assess the real situation with regards to the state of freshwater resources in the aquifers along with coordinated water management.
The Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water

So what would you do if you could secure the future of your country's water supply with a brilliant scheme that tapped deep-down water resources based on tapping the ancient Roman 'Qanat Romani' aquifers? What if you could solve that problem on your own sovereign territory? Wouldn't you back a scheme like that?

That's what Daoud's bid is based on in Olives. Tapping the deep aquifers to let the water flow, once again, to Jordan.
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Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Dead Sea and the Water Crisis

   We drove along the coast of the Dead Sea.
   ‘What was all the checkpoint stuff about?’
   ‘Security. That’s Palestine over there across the water. And Israel. So Jordanian security here is tighter than usual.’
   ‘I thought you were at peace with the Israelis.’
   She looked askance at me, an eyebrow raised. ‘Jordan is.’
   We passed a tall, square metal tower overlooking the flat expanse of lifeless water. I gestured toward it and asked,  ‘Lifeguard?’
   ‘Gun position. They’re not usually manned these days, but when they are they turn the guns away to face inland. So does the other side. Peace, you see?’
Olives, Page 57

It wasn’t until the ‘noughties’ the gun positions on the Dead Sea were turned to face symbolically away from Israel. These days there aren’t even guns on the towers, but there are still military checkpoints as you drive down to the Sea, the remarkable expanse of super-saline water four hundred metres below sea level.

The Dead Sea is almost miraculous, a great expanse of water so saline you just float around in it, a meniscus of mineral oil floating on the surface. You really don't want to shave just before going in, I can tell you from bitter experience. The Jordanian side of the sea is home to a cluster of resort hotels, my personal favourite being the Movenpick Dead Sea. Further down the coast from Amman, the road snakes back up the escarpment, giving a view of the extensive moonscape created by the potash extraction operation, at one time Jordan's principle source of income - the country has never been a wealthy one. At the top you'll find the town of Kerak, home to a great crusader castle - and one of many places where TE Lawrence reported spirited gun battles with the Turks.

But the Dead Sea is under threat. The constant draining of the Jordan has reduced the river to a fragment of its former self and so the Dead Sea is literally dying, its levels slowly dropping to the point where you can actually see moorings something like thirty feet up in the cliffs around the current sea. There has been extensive discussion of remediation measures, including the 'Red Dead' project which would see Jordanian/Israeli co-operation to pipe salt water from the Red Sea.

A similarly visionary scheme is actually under way, seeing water pipes laid from Wadi Rumm right up through to Amman, one of the measures being taken to try and address the very real water crisis Jordan faces - the very water crisis that forms the backdrop to Olives, in fact. Jordan is actually the world's fourth most water challenged country.

In Olives, Daoud’s preoccupation with the water shortage is founded squarely in the story of the regional conflicts born out of 1948 – the Levant (Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Israel, although the term ‘the Levant usually refers to the Arab countries of the Western Mediterranean) is desperately short of water. Israel’s annexation of the Sea of Galilee (known as Lake Tiberius on the Arab side) in the 1967 war (the ‘six day war’) ensured a major source of precious water for Israel – fed by rivers and aquifers from surrounding Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Part of the background to Pauls’ dilemma in Olives is that the book's Daoud Dajani is a wealthy Arab businessman with major business interests and connections across the region who is mounting a bid for the forthcoming privatisation of the Jordanian water network. Daoud’s consortium is being opposed by a British-led consortium which is focusing its bid on conservation and efficient distribution. Daoud’s bid is based on a brilliant and dangerous scheme – to tap the deep seasonal aquifers feeding Lake Tiberius, bringing more water to Jordan at Israel’s expense. Worse, by depleting the fresh water supply into Tiberius, he will ensure the remaining water is more saline – saltier and therefore less suitable for agriculture and drinking water.

Daoud’s bid obviously cannot be tolerated by the Israelis and unites both Israeli and British interests. The question Paul has to resolve is whether Daoud is a businessman acting within the law and meeting unlawful state-sponsored opposition to his brilliant scheme to benefit Jordan or whether he is a fanatic hell-bent on flinging the region into war.

“There can be no peace without resolving water problems and vice versa... it is water that will decide the future of the Occupied Territories and, what is more, whether there is peace or war. If the crisis is not resolved, the result will be a greater probability of conflict between Jordan and Israel, which would certainly involve other Arab countries.”
Jacques Sironneau, quoted in the NATO 2002 Report, ‘Water Resources in the Mediterranean. 

The battle to secure supplies of ‘the universal solvent’ in the Eastern Mediterranean is insoluble. There are too many people living off the land, distribution networks are often creaky and wasteful and the struggle to gain control of resources is constant.

The research on the water crisis that forms the backdrop to Olives is solid – there is, indeed, a major humanitarian crisis brewing in the area and Israel has indeed annexed a large number of water sources by constructing its security wall to encompass them, carving strategic tracts of land from the ‘1967 border’. Each twist and turn of the wall is a bargaining chip at best, a fait accompli at worst. Carving farms in half (as, indeed, the Dajani’s farm in Qaffin has been carved), the wall makes the most of the scant water resources in the West Bank. The source of Lake Tiberius’ wealth (or the Sea of Galilee) is, as outlined in Olives, a mixture of rivers flowing down from Syria and Lebanon and aquifers that rise up into the bed of the lake. According to NATO, 90% of the West Bank’s water is used by Israel and the distribution of water in the area is ‘unfair’ and ‘restrictive’.
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Tuesday, 7 February 2012


If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears. 
Mahmoud Darwish
   I followed Daoud, hoping my reluctance didn’t show. We stood together on the veranda looking out over the dark garden – a couple of acres of prime Abdoun real estate. He flicked a switch by the kitchen door and I saw part of the garden was laid to lawn, but the hilly rise to one side accommodated a small stand of olive trees.
   ‘Ibrahim and my father brought these trees from our farm in Qaffin and planted them here over thirty years ago. Back then it looked like we were going to lose everything from over there, so they thought they’d keep at least this much.’ He led the way down the steps to the trees. ‘Smoke?’
    ‘No thanks, I don’t.’
   He grunted, then lit up a Marlboro Light. ‘These trees are everything to the farmers. They are tended like fine grape vines, the olives are pressed like wine. The first cut is virgin, the finest. The olives weep the purest oil when they are first squeezed. We press them until they can weep no more, then we feed the remains back to the land, to the animals. We still press oil over at the farm on the old stone press. It is not much, it is not enough to keep the place running, but we help out, as Ibrahim said. It is the finest oil you will ever taste. It is a symbol for us too, you understand. Of hope.’
Olives, Page 46

“The olives weep the purest oil when they are first squeezed. We press them until they can weep no more...” the line about olives weeping was actually part of the first draft of Olives, it was years later I discovered the words of Mahmoud Darwish which are the frontispiece of the book – “If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.”

This, of course, is why the book is called ‘Olives’ or, in Arabic, ‘Zeitoun’ – the symbol of the fictional Dajani family’s identity, the farm in Qaffin maintained by Mariam. One early reviewer, IMHO, nailed it: George Emerson: “The image of the lonely farm, with its olive trees, and a woman who has spent a life of hardship trying to protect it, is the strongest image of hope, but also of volatility of human existence that will be coming back to me long after the last page of the book is turned over.”

There is something fine about the taste of great olive oil and some of the finest I have tasted has come from Palestine and Jordan, a pure flavour that is fresh and somehow ‘green’.The struggle to keep the olive groves alive is a daily one for many Palestinian farmers and the olive trees, some hundreds of years old, are constantly being torn out of the ground by Israeli forces and settlers.

Oxfam used to have an olive tree as part of its rather brilliant gift catalogue, Oxfam Unwrapped. For those of us who have too much, to be able to gift someone else a goat for a village in Africa or an olive tree for a Palestinian farmer is, to me, a really cool way to show that we care without simply wasting money on a gift that nobody really want. I discovered this a couple of years ago and loads of friends and family got olive trees instead of stuff they didn't need.

You can buy aid for Palestinian olive farmers as a gift here.
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Monday, 6 February 2012

The Demon Drink

   The Dajani house was in Abdoun, the wealthy part of West Amman. Aisha stopped the car at the top of the long, sweeping driveway and I tried not to stare at the huge villa with its pillared entranceway and imposing double doors. I felt like a slob.
   A woman stood in the doorway. ‘You must be Paul. Welcome. I’m Nour, Aisha’s mother.’
   She was in her late fifties, slim, elegant and pretty and I liked her instantly. Nour slipped her arm into mine and walked me into the house to meet the family, her manner easy and  intimate. Aisha’s sister Mariam was giggly, just seventeen and studying computer science at a private university. Ibrahim greeted me like the prodigal son and brushed away my attempts to thank him again for his help. He had a nasty Marlboro habit and I quickly discovered he made a natural comedy act with his wife Nancy, a wisecracking lady whose deep-etched laughter lines were somehow at odds with her sad-looking eyes.
   I was mildly surprised to be offered a beer: When Aisha and I had gone to dinner together, we had shared a bottle of red wine. We had been wrapped up in Ministry talk and I hadn’t asked her about when or how she drank. I had assumed her life at home, as a Muslim, would be teetotal.
Olives, Page 40

This aspect of the book has already caused considerable comment – the fictional Dajanis of Olives are 'sophisticated and Westernised'. They speak good English, too - although Ibrahim's is more accented. That's because he's older. And they drink alcohol. How could I have a good Jordanian/Palestinian family drinking alcohol? And why did I choose, one reader asked, to have them be 'non-practising Muslims'?

There are two answers, really. The Arab world’s relationship with alcohol is a complex one, with an enormous variety of attitudes expressed throughout the region. Clearly, the consumption of alcohol is prohibited in Islam and the vast majority of Muslims throughout the Arab World will not take alcohol.

However, some people drink on occasion, others will be tolerant of drinking and being in places like bars but not drink themselves, while (and I emphasise this) the vast majority will actively avoid alcohol and places where it is consumed.  Some people will drink and yet in other ways practice Islam, others will drink only in certain company or places - undercover drinkers. And some, as in other religions, do not practice their religion at all in any formal way and have a more secular outlook. As in so many things, while the most widespread practice of Muslims is not to drink alcohol, the region represents a kaleidoscope of belief and practice.

Attitudes to alcohol tend to soften with youth and sophistication. Many older men who do take drink in the Arab World take it in the form of Johnny Walker, which is to whiskies what Mercedes is to cars in the Levant. And Ibrahim is no exception. Aisha will drink socially on occasion, but she’s not a ‘drinker’ in the way Paul is, for instance. Paul's possibly a little too fond of the sauce. And Lynch, well...

Olives was originally written with a British audience in mind. I wanted to create a sense of empathy with the Dajanis in the book, particularly as we follow Paul’s journey to try and work out whether he believes in them as people, or whether he believes them capable of funding and even actively taking part in terrorism. I certainly wanted to avoid erecting barriers. And I also wanted to portray a sophisticated, wealthy family in West Amman. I have often been a guest in such houses and I have been offered drink. It's important the fictional Dajanis be more secularly minded as otherwise Aisha wouldn't have got within a million miles of Paul.

And so I chose to create an environment where Paul is surprised at the family’s openness and tolerance and at how welcome he feels with them, despite his innate alarm and suspicion at Daoud’s dark manner. It is Daoud who is more conservative and protective.

In doing so, however, I have not been 'untrue' to the spirit of the region or its people. It's not bandied about precisely because of the prohibition, it's not by any means widespread practice, but a number of people in the Levant do drink. And that's not about the British public being shallow, it's about reflecting a reality that was at the same time a narrative convenience to the author.
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