We talked about England and Iraq, about Jordan and the punishing Royal travel schedule and, of course, about the peace.
It was like a mantra, everywhere I went. Eventually all conversations turned to it—the peace, the peace, the peace. The new deal the Americans had finally brokered between a reluctant, right-wing Israeli government and the tired, broken down remnants of the Palestinian administration had at least brought the hope this would, against all the odds, be the one peace. The deal to lead to the long-awaited ‘two-state solution,’ the first hope since the disastrous collapse of the jury-rigged Heath Robinson compromise of Oslo.
The conversation turned to Palestine in the past, to al nakba, ‘the catastrophe’, the formation of Israel in 1948 and the end of the British Mandate in Palestine. When I asked Ibrahim whether he had ever gone back there, his bushy eyebrows shot up in astonishment.
Olives - Page 43
The story of Olives takes place in Jordan during ‘the new peace deal’, which could have been years ago or could be years in the future. There’s always a peace deal, you see. And in over sixty years, they’ve all come to nothing.
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).
Using slogans like ‘A land without a people, for a people without a land’, they pressed their case that Palestine’s natural resources were being squandered, that the land was capable of bearing fruit if only it were managed by people who would be willing to work, to bring modern methods to bear and to settle the empty, open spaces of Palestine. The problem with this was, of course, that there was already a people on that land – the Arabic-speaking Palestinian Arabs: Muslims, Christians and Jews who had been living there throughout the Ottoman Empire.
1948 saw some 700,000 Palestinians displaced from their homes and forced out of the country, over 500 villages were destroyed. Fleeing the violence, these families found homes in squalid, teeming refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands remained in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians call this event ‘Al Nakba’ or the catastrophe. It forms the background to Olives because it’s the background to the story of Aisha's (fictitious, Jordan!) family, the Dajanis.
Aisha slowly twisted her lighter between her thumb and forefinger. ‘My father met my mother in the camps. He was just another urchin in the streets there, but he was smart and started selling fruit on a street corner, grew it into a business by employing other kids so that eventually he could open a shop of sorts in the camp made of cinder blocks. He was a good businessman and soon opened a proper store in Amman. He opened more of them. He started to trade with the Syrians and the Iraqis before he left the Amman business in Ibrahim’s hands and went to the Gulf in the ’70s, to Kuwait, with my mother. The Gulf had oil and needed food, steel, concrete, cars. He did deals with family traders in the Gulf, gained a name for being able to get things nobody else could get, ship things nobody else could ship. Ibrahim found the supplies, my father sold them. My parents moved back here after I was born.’
‘And he met Arafat in Kuwait.’
Aisha’s eyes widened and she took a pull on her cigarette, staring at me, the lighter twisting in her hand, the shaking tip of the cigarette glowing momentarily as she inhaled. ‘Yes, he met Arafat in Kuwait. Through Kaddoumi. And he supplied Arafat. My father believed in Arafat. His family had lost everything, including my grandfather. My father believed that we had to try and fight to return to our country, to our land.’
‘But Arafat was a terrorist.’
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.’
I was watchfully silent. Aisha gestured with a wide sweep of her hand. ‘My people lost everything they had, living in camps with rusty keys and English title deeds that meant nothing. The world stood by and let it happen. Who else offered any hope to the Palestinians except Arafat and the people around him? Who else was helping us?’
Aisha ground her cigarette viciously into the ashtray. ‘My father supported Arafat in the early days, but he turned away from them after the problems in Jordan. He stopped believing in Arafat’s way. Both he and Ibrahim became closer to King Hussein, then the King threw the PLO out of Jordan. We stayed here.’
Olives, Page 83
In Aisha’s case, the family were lucky. With an entrepreneurial father (and yes, with links to the PLO in Kuwait), now the Dajanis live in the wealthy Abdoun area of Amman and collectively help to maintain the farm in Qaffin, in the West Bank, where Aisha’s grandmother still lives. The farm stayed in the family’s hands because one of Aisha’s grandparents stayed in the new state of Israel and so became an Arab Israeli. A smart lawyer, he managed to keep the farm in the family’s hands (many weren’t so lucky) but even so, the olive groves have been split by the ‘security wall’ built by Israel to isolate Palestine and, it has to be said, to sequester thousands of acres of land and enormous swathes of the region’s scant water resources.
That wall, which cuts something like 10% of the West Bank beyond the 1967 border, is thought to be where Israel will place its border in negotiations.