Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A "Violent Romance" for your enjoyment: "Olives" by Alexandre McNabb

I’ve been craving good novels that are based in the Middle East. I like to think that mine, Summer Blast, is one of those ;) and I’ve just finished reading Olives by Alexander McNabb which definitely fits into this category.

This thriller, or “violent romance” as the book cover puts it, is set in Jordan. Paul Stokes, a British journalist comes to Jordan on a corporate publishing contract for the Ministry of Natural Resources. He gets in trouble with the law as soon as he touches down in Amman by picking a drunken fight with a policeman, which lands him in a court case. But this is not the only of Paul’s challenges, the boring job he thought he’d signed up for, is spiced up by the attractive ministry employee, Aisha Dajani, who’s assigned to take care of him, helping him settle into Amman and get the work done. Add an unsavory spy-like character from the British embassy, a colorful Swedish neighbor, an annoying boss and the many skeletons that seem to populate Aisha’s closet and you have a recipe for a read that will have you turning the pages (or swiping them since the book is also available in e-format).

Narrated in the first person, the tone is informal and the humor often British. The concept is clear: yes, the Middle East is not what westerners imagine, people are more “normal” and the women more modern than what most would expect. But the issues that we are all aware of remain at the heart of daily life: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also the less publicized yet equally - if not more - political issue of water shortage.

As Paul falls for Aisha, sacrificing his existing relationship in the process, he learns that she comes from a family who was displaced when Israel occupied Palestine, they are now Jordanian but all yearn for their homeland and the olive farm that they have managed to hold on to, but is at threat inside Israel. Aisha’s father was killed in an Israeli raid and her brother committed a suicide bombing in retaliation. Now Paul suspects she could be supporting more acts of violence.

Poor Paul also finds himself in the middle of a high-stake bid for the privatization of water resources. The UK government wants him to spy on the ministry as well as Aisha’s older brother, favorite to win against the British proposal.

Throughout the book, Paul evolves from average expat to unwilling spy and potential pawn for Palestinian activists. As he becomes more deeply informed about conflicts of the Middle East, so does the reader, but in a seamless way, which is one of my favorite aspects of the book.

The story is largely based in Amman, with several trips to other parts of Jordan and references to countries in the region. Of course, what Paul experiences as an expat in affluent West Amman is not representative of the entire Kingdom, but it felt genuine to me, having visited Jordan on business many times, often with British colleagues. McNabb doesn't overbear us with details or fall into the cliché of trying to make a country “exotic”.

I really enjoyed Olives. It’s a fast moving thriller, set in a region that a lot has been written about, but in a fresh perspective and without patronizing, judgment or stereotyping. Get it in bookstores in the Middle East, or on Kindle, iBooks or other e-book formats.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Beirut and what its culture can do in the 21st century

Here are some pictures from my session on March 9 with fellow writers Hani Soubra and Wafa Tarnowska at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature.

As mentioned in a previous post, the session was titled "Beirut and its culture in the 21st century" and of course, we soon found ourselves talking about the unfortunate effect of politics on the country and how that's stopping us from moving forwards and building on our cultural richness.

Hani Soubra and I are quite different writers: his book is a collection of essays where he tries to explain to this daughters and their generation the facts about political developments in Lebanon and mine is light toned women's fiction where personal stories take the forefront while a war rages on in the background.

Yet, we agreed on the same thing: Lebanese need to take their own destiny into their hands and not blindly follow politicians and clerics whom we know are corrupt and have their own interests in mind with little regard for their constituents or the country. We also agreed on the dangers of radicalization in the region and how it's a threat to our advancement and culture.

Later on, I got to talk in depth to several audience members, and what hit me the most was that many foreigners who know Lebanese people in Dubai are surprised that, although we come across as united and proud of our country, we're still suffering from age old divisions... I only wish I had an answer to that....

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Join us this evening in Dubai to talk " Beirut and its culture in the 21st century"

There’s so much to say about Beirut and its culture in the 21st century that I’m trying to keep my thoughts organized for my session this evening with Hani Soubra, author of the book “Letters to Dalia: Reflections on Lebanon and the Middle East,” which takes as its starting point the civil war in Lebanon and is a fascinating commentary on the machinations of political groups in the region, exploring what Hani calls ‘the abuse of religion and ideology’. The session will be moderated by Wafa Tarnowska, CSR lady extraordinaire and bestselling children’s book author.

As we prepared for the session yesterday the three of us (as most Lebanese often do) found ourselves in passionate discussion in the green room of the Emirates Airlines Festival Of Literature where the session will take place at 7:30 p.m this evening.

How should we look at Beirut’s culture in this day and time? We wondered. Should we all be negative because so many of the 20th century problems that we all know and hate still dominate our cultural, social, economic and political landscape or should we celebrate the traits that make Beirut such an endearing and fascinating city: its undefeated spirit, the will to survive and its love of arts and letters.

I guess we’ll find out this evening in what I know will be a very interesting debate. If you’re in town and want to participate, please drop by the Intercontinental Hotel Dubai Festival City, Al Khaimah Room, 7:30 p.m. Or let me know your thoughts before that so I can bring them up in the discussion.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

In Rolling Stone Magazine

Lill' old me in Rolling Stone magazine (Middle East Edition). Makes me feel Rock & Roll ;)