Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Book Clubs

I love book clubs. It's daft. They buy your book, invite you along to their meeting, talk to you about your work for three hours and then thank you for coming. It's such a selfish pleasure, it's not true!

Patricia invited me to her book club a while back, the meeting seemed miles away and then suddenly it was upon us, this club meets monthly at each other's houses in rota - the hostess picks the book for the next meeting and Patricia picked Olives. And so I found myself in a taxi in Dubai's Al Safa area trying to find the (rather lovely) villa of a lady called Emma. We were ten in all, I was the only chap - but that's book clubs for you, the pastime seems to be dominated by the fair sex. I can't say that spending an evening eating, drinking and talking about my book to a group of interested ladies is the worst way to pass time.

And so to Olives, which all professed to have enjoyed immensely. The group had read Sarah Abulhawa's 'Mornings in Jenin' previously, which all had also enjoyed, and it came up in the context of books that highlighted the conflicts of Palestine being all too rare and eye-openers, particularly for the European members of the group. Paul was the subject of great debate, his motivations and personality coming under the spotlight, as did Aisha's behaviour and that of her family. Unusually, a great deal more sympathy for Paul was expressed than I usually hear - as well as a deal more cleverness invested in decrypting the names of the characters in the book than ever went into naming them!

As the evening went on we sat around a table in the garden (the weather in Dubai being just about perfect for that kind of thing right now) and talked about the water issues in Jordan and the West bank, publishing and bibliophilia in general. Was the water issue based on research? Could Daoud's scheme be considered realistic? Would Nour really have been so approving of Paul's relationship with Aisha? Why would Anne even bother her head coming out to visit Paul? Is there a 'real' Aisha anywhere? We talked around all of these, as well as morality, alcohol, pre-marital sex and all the other stuff you find to talk about when you're chatting about books.

A truly convivial gathering, in short, with a group of people representing a uniquely Dubai mixture of nationalities and viewpoints.

I love book clubs...

Monday, 23 April 2012


Today, April 24th, Armenians around the world mark the Armenian genocide, still so shamefully unrecognised by the Turkish government. I posted earlier how the Circassian genocide had resulted in Amman's population of people from the North. Similarly, there's a big Armenian community enriching the city.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The BBC and Olives

During the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature I filmed an interview with BBC World's Ben Thompson, intended to be part of a 'package' on self publishing in the Middle East. I'm joined in the piece by various luminaries of the Middle Eastern publishing scene including distribution guru Narain Jashanmal, translator and e-publisher May Habib and author Dania El Kadi, I do an excellent impersonation of a slightly more careworn and dissipated Alistair Campbell.

As you'd expect, I used the opportunity to point out that authors are Doing It For Themselves as publishing houses become ever more risk averse. That's certainly the case for me, saddled with a book that has been thoroughly enjoyed by the hundreds of people who have read it so far and yet which 'traditional' publishing feels is too risky and not a commercial proposition they could invest in.

That book would still just be a load of charged particles on an oxide-coated aluminium platter if I hadn't decided to self publish it. After some 80-odd rejections from agents (and my own agent deciding he couldn't sell it), I am very glad I took the plunge.Olives has given a great deal of enjoyment to many people and every sale, review and Tweet of 'I enjoyed #Olives' adds to my delight and conviction that it was the right decision to take.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

How To Find Your Own Aisha

Today brings that most welcome of things, a guest post. Roba Al Assi is the lady behind popular Jordanian blog And Far Away and someone whose zeal for creativity and ready eye for the unusual and offbeat often provoke a wry smile and have not infrequently led me to explorations of things I would not otherwise have considered...

So, do you have a mini-crush on Aisha Dajani from "Olives"? The news is good. Given Amman's size and societal norms, you can follow these ten easy steps to meet your very own Aisha. The trick is to see how the people of the city are connected to one another, and filtering them out to the Jordanian woman of your dreams. Just make sure that you don't caught up in, ahem, espionage.

1. Spend a lot of time at Turtle Green. After some time, you’ll get to catch all the familiar faces and how each is connected.

2. Catch events at Masrah Al-Balad. Get surprised at how many new faces there are. Learn them.

3. Grab your drinks at La Calle, After Eight, or Negresco. Keep in mind that Books@Cafe, contrary to popular belief, attracts several crowds, some of which an Aisha will not take part in.

4. Befriend some of the Bakaloria crowd. I won’t mention names, but I can say this: they’re usually not to be found in La Calle, After Eight, or Negresco. Go to richer, darker, less fun places to find them.

5. Keep an eye on events happening at Rainbow Theatre, Makan, the Royal Cultural Center, and the RFC. Sometimes, there’s an Aisha-crowd magnet of an event.

6. Don’t be caught dead in a place that serves argeeleh.

7. Take a walk in l’Weibdeh or Abdoun.

8. Become a leftist, and attend leftist activities and events.

9. Have very strong opinions about how Amman is losing its soul to pseudo-modernity.

10. Attend pro-Palestine, anti-nuclear, and anti-corruption demos.

Monday, 16 April 2012

The Jordanian Water Privatisation

Aisha’s soft touch was a little thrill as I helped her off the conference shuttle bus, the exhaust fumes making me squint up at her as the warm light caught her fine features. It was a hot Dead Sea day and I shifted uncomfortably in the unfamiliar confines of a suit. She glanced at me as her high heels hit tarmac, a flash of white teeth at my discomfiture.
   ‘Come on, let’s get you installed in the press office so I can find Harb and Zahlan.’
   We walked into the King Hussein convention centre, more buses pulling up behind us as conference visitors streamed in from the hotels along the Dead Sea coast and from the public car parks down the road. The keynote speaker, Harb Al Hashemi, Jordanian Minister of Natural Resources by the Grace of God, was also, Aisha told me, going to announce the result of the privatisation. The evaluation committee had reviewed the financial offers of both bidders and made its choice. Harb would reveal all.
Olives, Page 243

The privatisation of Jordan's Water Network in Olives is a fiction, although the critical water shortages Jordan is facing is a very well researched reality. The Israeli 'security wall' does, indeed snake around fertile land and springs, deviating significantly from the '1967 border' by kilometres just to snag a juicy well or spring. In a region where water - the stuff of life - is severely scarce, ensuring a steady supply is existential. Even when that supply comes at the expense of your neighbour or, if you prefer, your 'partner in peace'.

Ariel Sharon did indeed threaten to take Israel to war over the damming of the Litani River and Israel did take control of Lake Tiberias in the 1967 war, securing the massive reservoir. There are underground aquifers leading into Tiberias, a number of earthworks exist today that date back to Roman times, the Qanat Romani of Jordan, mostly concentrated in the North of the country.

But the privatisation is makety-uppity - you can blame it on the fact I was working with the Jordanian Ministry of ICT on a number of privatisation projects at the time I was writing Olives, including the privatisation of Jordan's telecoms sector which stands today as the most competitive in the Middle East -  precisely because of that privatisation programme. And the Ministry of Natural Resources is also, sadly, a fiction.- the water issue belongs fairly and squarely to the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation which is embarking on a number of schemes almost as breathtaking in scope as Daoud Dajani's in Olives - including the controversial Disi project, which will pump water hundreds of kilometers from Wadi Rumm up to Amman.
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Saturday, 14 April 2012


My father has slipped from us all, his mind increasingly leached away by dementia. My one enormous regret is that, back when he’d have understood what I was on about, I couldn’t have put this book in his hands and said, ‘Hey, Dad, I’ve written a book.’. This is for him anyway.
The dedication in Olives

I can't really  say when it became obvious my dad was suffering from the slow erosion of memory that is vascular dementia. He had always seemed a little bit mad to me - when I was a kid he used to drive me to embarrassed stage whispers of "Dad, shut up would you?" as he ambled through department stores whistling or singing silly little songs. He would talk to absolute strangers, making quips and generally laughing his way around the place.

I know I inherited his sense of humour and I'm very glad of that. I dread to think what else I've inherited.

He was an inveterate doodler, every birthday card I ever had from my parents featured a version of the wartime cartoon character, Chad cracking a 'Wot - another year?' type gag. Going through his papers, I found a cartoon typical of his style in a letter and was shocked to find it wasn't his - it was my grandfather's, a cartoon to my brother nestled in an impossibly formal letter to my mother sent in the 1950s. The doodle illustrated a brilliant nonsense poem that involved a cassowary and a missionary, a piece of pure Thurber.

It really hit me four years ago. We were walking through Camarthen when he declared to me he could remember when this was all countryside on the outskirts of London. He was back in Linden Avenue, the street in Wembley he was born and grew up in. We walked through the bustling Welsh town centre together and he pointed out landmarks to me from his childhood in another town eighty years ago, back when you'd still see steam-driven traction engines on the streets.

Two weeks ago we flew to the UK, our only purpose to take my father in to a care home.That's why I was going through his papers. We sat in the kitchen together the evening he went, my inconsolable mum weeping as I sorted through bags of his old letters, photos and other stuff.

He wouldn't go the first time around. Confused and disoriented, as he always is when he's woken up from a snooze, he got as far as the front door with me as I lied to him. Opening the door meant a gust of cold air and a sight of the vile weather outside. Declaring 'This isn't me', he insisted on going back inside, dropping down onto his comfy chair in the lounge and refusing to budge, blinking owlishly as he asked where he was and who we were. We tried again the next day, taking him in the car as I dropped my mum to the hairdresser then drove on to the care home. She didn't have the strength to do it, wouldn't lie to him. It was to be a full week before she could even contemplate going to the home to visit him.

I walked him, together with a pretty nurse, through the TV room with its complement of empty-eyed old ladies and then the dining room and into the lift to the first floor. I took him as far as his bedroom and then I couldn't take it any more and fled to fetch his bag of clothes from the car. The long, shuffling walk punctuated by his constant exclamations of 'Oh dear' had taken twenty minutes. Not once had he looked around and stopped to ask where we were.

I was tormented by the thought we'd got it wrong, that I had consigned him to a lonely prison where he'd be locked in a darkened room, helpless and howling for my mother, his companion of sixty two years and latterly his carer - to the point where her own health had suffered.

He didn't miss a beat. He has not the faintest clue where he is or who the people around him are. He's warm, secure and fed and functioning at that basic, animal level. He's able to experience, but has no memory of his experiences. As it shuts down, his mind isn't even able to dredge up the old, embedded memories of his childhood or his wartime in the marines so carefully documented in the schoolbook I found in those dusty plastic bags. He doesn't remember Linden Avenue any more.