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.