Jordan, described as a new “emerging market” with “high human development”, is a forward thinking, predominantly Muslim state. It has signed an array of treaties and is the beneficiary of millions of dollars of foreign aid, as well as military equipment. It finds itself at the heart of the ongoing Middle East conflict, as a handful of Palestinians and Israelis continue to negotiate and play with the lives of millions.
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.
The novel focuses on a British publisher and would-be journalist, Paul Stokes, who is sent to Jordan to help the newly established Ministry of Natural Resources design and publish its monthly magazine. Stokes is forced to leave his mundane British life by his egotistical boss and is almost immediately thrown into a world of espionage, a tug-of-war over water resources between Israel and Jordan, and a romance destined to end in tragedy.
Stokes falls for Ayesha Dajani, a colleague at the Ministry and a member of the powerful Palestinian Dajani clan, which is suspected of carrying out terror attacks across Israel. He soon finds himself entangled in their lives and at the centre of a privatisation bid for Jordan’s access to water resources. To make things worse, British intelligence is following his every move, and soon the Israelis are threatening and attacking his loved ones.
As with most novices to the conflict, Stokes tries to make sense of it, trying to be the voice of reason taking the middle ground. 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, or when Paul jumps to the defence of an Israeli soldier: “All this bullshit about the brutal Israelis, the humiliation. They just did their jobs… they’re just men, soldiers, the same as the Jordanians, the same as you [Palestinians]…” (p. 160). However, for those un-schooled amongst us, it provides an introduction to the diverse narratives emanating from the region today. At times, the reader is left unsure whether to feel empathy or nausea at Stokes’s constant battle with tears and emotions, and this makes it harder for us to relate to him. But this in itself allows for the other characters to take centre stage, with the Dajani family and their efforts to keep their family interests alive in the face of British and Israeli interference being at the very centre of the plot. The issue around which the story is built is Jordan’s effort to provide water for its people; water shortages and access to clean water is a very real and highly contentious matter. Wars have been fought, land stolen and resources cut off from those who own it. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel occupied the West Bank of the River Jordan and gained, alongside Syria and Jordan, access to fresh water supplies therefrom; the River Jordan happens to be the State of Jordan’s primary source of fresh water. Over the decades, though, dams have been built by the Israelis, water has been diverted, and droughts have afflicted the region; all have led to Jordan’s water supply being depleted by almost 95 per cent.
“Right now the country’s in a state of drought. Water has to be taken into Amman by tankers, there’s little piped water infrastructure and it’s mostly ancient. Jordanian farmers are suffering from very severe restrictions because there’s simply not enough water to go around. The Yarmouk River’s being depleted left, right and centre, the Jordan River’s going brackish and the Israelis are holding back on the volume they’re meant to be providing from Lake Tiberius. The country’s damn close to crisis…”(p.59).
The book sees the Jordanian-led Consortium, vis-à-vis the Dajani-owned Jerusalem Holdings, go head-to-head with the British-led Petra-Jordanian Consortium, in a bid to win Jordan’s water privatisation contract, highly profitable for both parties. So much so, that British intelligence blackmails Stokes into spying in an effort to outbid their opponents; as Israel gets wind that the Dajanis’ bid to “steal” the water back may be successful, events begin to unravel quickly; lives are lost and Stokes is caught in the middle of it all.
The imagery of olives is scattered throughout the novel; McNabb quotes Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s lines: “If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears”. For Palestinians, the olive tree is significant on many levels. With its sheer beauty, historical presence and economic importance, the olive tree also carries symbolic prominence in the Palestinian struggle. It is seen as a symbol of life, of the Palestinian legacy and a symbol of remaining steadfast on and to the land. McNabb is successful in blending fiction with real life; the main protagonist comes face to face with the realities of the apartheid wall, for example; and we see the effect on Palestinians, after more than 60 years, of being driven out of their homeland, separating brother from brother, mother from child and husband from wife. Daoud Dajani, Ayesha’s only surviving brother, describes their struggle thus: “The Israelis have taken everything from us Paul. Our land, our dignity. They took my father, too. My brother. Now they’re taking the water. We’ve lost too much… I won’t let the olives die… I’ll get you a bottle of our oil. At least when the olives weep, we are enriched.” (p. 48). This is surely a description that most Palestinians will relate to. McNabb uses the family’s olive grove subtly to reflect the Dajani family’s struggle in the face of persecution, being driven out of their land in the West Bank and then returning to rebuild their lives. The matriarch of the family, Mariam Dajani, remains in Palestine with her one son, as her other family members stay in Jordan to build a successful business empire. However, over the years, they are tested with suspicious deaths in the family, assassinations and accusations of terrorism from the Israeli and foreign intelligence services; the story ends with… OK, I won’t spoil it for you, but there is much symbolism in the destruction of the olive trees.
McNabb has a blog to explore further the themes and characters from the book. He explains that the reason he chose to portray a less conservative Muslim family was to appeal to a British audience. Personally I don’t think British readers are that shallow; they would not turn away from the book just because the main characters were conservative Muslims. Once they’d picked up the book’s exploration of themes from the Middle East, I’m sure they would have been committed readers, even if there was less alcohol consumption or promiscuity between the main characters.
It is interesting to note that distributors in Jordan have refused to sell the book; one wrote, “The family name Dajani is a real name used all over the Middle East. They are of Jerusalemite origin, and quite [influential]”. McNabb insists that the name was chosen to provide a sense of realism to his characters but the stories and characters portrayed are purely fictional. Dajani is indeed the name of a very prominent Palestinian family originating from Jerusalem, including one Ahmed Sidqui Al-Dajani who was one of the founding members of the PLO and a member of the PNC. Whatever McNabb’s real reason for choosing the Dajani family name, in essence the characters mirror real Palestinians who have had to go through the same turmoil as he depicts in the book; the same struggle to rebuild their lives in a foreign land; the same anguish at losing it all again.