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.
Enhanced by Zemanta

1 comment:

  1. Hah hah... this is quite true, Alexander.

    We are a rather prominent Palestinian family, and at my brother's wedding in Amman, the reception was physically split down the middle, with one side restricted to the tables at which alcohol would be served, and the other side reserved for teetotalers who would be offended if alcohol were served at their table.

    Culturally, we have a strange 'nudge nudge wink wink' relationship with booze.