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Alexander McNabb

About Olives - A Violent Romance

The story of Olives takes place in Jordan during ‘the new peace deal’, which could have been years ago or could be years in the future. There’s always a peace deal, you see. And in over sixty years, they’ve all come to nothing.

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). Using slogans like ‘A land without a people, for a people without a land’, they pressed their case that Palestine’s natural resources were being squandered, that the land was capable of bearing fruit if only it were managed by people who would be willing to work, to bring modern methods to bear and to settle the empty, open spaces of Palestine. The problem with this was, of course, that there was already a people on that land – the Arabic-speaking Palestinian Arabs: Muslims, Christians and Jews who had been living there throughout the Ottoman Empire.

1948 saw some 700,000 Palestinians displaced from their homes and forced out of the country, over 500 villages were destroyed entirely. Fleeing the violence, these families found homes in squalid, teeming refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands remained in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians call this event Al Nakba or the catastrophe.

It forms the background to Olives because it’s the background to the story of the Dajani’s, Aisha’s family.

Aisha slowly twisted her lighter between her thumb and forefinger. ‘My father met my mother in the camps. He was just another urchin in the streets there, but he was smart and started selling fruit on a street corner, grew it into a business by employing other kids so that eventually he could open a shop of sorts in the camp made of cinder blocks. He was a good businessman and soon opened a proper store in Amman. He opened more of them. He started to trade with the Syrians and the Iraqis before he left the Amman business in Ibrahim’s hands and went to the Gulf in the ’70s, to Kuwait, with my mother. The Gulf had oil and needed food, steel, concrete, cars. He did deals with family traders in the Gulf, gained a name for being able to get things nobody else could get, ship things nobody else could ship. Ibrahim found the supplies, my father sold them. My parents moved back here after I was born.’

‘And he met Arafat in Kuwait.’

Aisha’s eyes widened and she took a pull on her cigarette, staring at me, the lighter twisting in her hand, the shaking tip of the cigarette glowing momentarily as she inhaled. ‘Yes, he met Arafat in Kuwait. Through Kaddoumi. And he supplied Arafat. My father believed in Arafat. His family had lost everything, including my grandfather. My father believed that we had to try and fight to return to our country, to our land.’

‘But Arafat was a terrorist.’

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.’

I was watchfully silent. Aisha gestured with a wide sweep of her hand. ‘My people lost everything they had, living in camps with rusty keys and English title deeds that meant nothing. The world stood by and let it happen. Who else offered any hope to the Palestinians except Arafat and the people around him? Who else was helping us?’ Aisha ground her cigarette viciously into the ashtray. ‘My father supported Arafat in the early days, but he turned away from them after the problems in Jordan. He stopped believing in Arafat’s way. Both he and Ibrahim became closer to King Hussein, then the King threw the PLO out of Jordan. We stayed here.’

From Olives - A Violent Romance

Aisha's story

Many Arab readers of Olives have said they felt Aisha’s story was their own, how their family had been through a similar experience to the book's fictional Dajani family. In Aisha’s case, the family were lucky. With an entrepreneurial father (and yes, with links to the PLO in Kuwait), now the Dajanis of Olives live in the wealthy Abdoun area of Amman and collectively help to maintain the farm in Qaffin, in the West Bank, where Aisha’s grandmother still lives.

The farm was kept in the family’s hands because one of Aisha’s grandparents stayed in the new state of Israel and so became an Arab Israeli. A smart lawyer, he managed to keep the farm in the family’s hands (many weren’t so lucky) but even so, the olive groves have been split by the ‘security wall’ built by Israel to isolate Palestine and, it has to be said, to sequester thousands of acres of land and enormous swathes of the region’s scant water resources.

I followed Daoud, hoping my reluctance didn’t show. We stood together on the veranda looking out over the dark garden – a couple of acres of prime Abdoun real estate. He flicked a switch by the kitchen door and I saw part of the garden was laid to lawn, but the hilly rise to one side accommodated a small stand of olive trees.

‘Ibrahim and my father brought these trees from our farm in Qaffin and planted them here over thirty years ago. Back then it looked like we were going to lose everything from over there, so they thought they’d keep at least this much.’ He led the way down the steps to the trees. ‘Smoke?’

‘No thanks, I don’t.’

He grunted, then lit up a Marlboro Light. ‘These trees are everything to the farmers. They are tended like fine grape vines, the olives are pressed like wine. The first cut is virgin, the finest. The olives weep the purest oil when they are first squeezed. We press them until they can weep no more, then we feed the remains back to the land, to the animals. We still press oil over at the farm on the old stone press. It is not much, it is not enough to keep the place running, but we help out, as Ibrahim said. It is the finest oil you will ever taste. It is a symbol for us too, you understand. Of hope.’

I held a bunch of the smooth, silvery-green leaves in my hand. He stood in among the trees, the faint pall of smoke from his cigarette making my nostrils widen. ‘Ibrahim said the security wall cuts the farm in two. Will the peace uphold that?’

‘Yes. The wall is the new border, not what we hoped, the 1967 border. We demonstrated against the wall, like the other farmers. But there was nothing anyone could do. Some of the hot-headed ones got themselves beaten and arrested. The world looked the other way. Always it looks the other way. And so they built settlements, they took land, they burned crops, they inched their way into the water. Now the peace gives us the absolute minimum and gives Israel the absolute maximum. Of our land.’

I didn’t know what to say, surrounded by these trees and the family’s loss. ‘I suppose at least you still have the farm.’

Daoud shook his head. ‘Now, after all these years, they are starting to cut the water to the farmers, both over there and here in Jordan. The olive groves are starting to die. These trees are the heritage we must take with us into the future. My company is investing in the water because we believe it will be critical for the future. Not just for the trees but for our people to live. We are bidding for the privatisation of Jordan’s water resources. You have heard of this?’

‘Yes, the Minister told me about it. Is it really such a problem, the water shortage?’

‘We are already suffering from the lack of water. We will suffer more, our crops will fail and our farmers starve. It is critical to our future to find a better way to share the water. The Israelis steal the water from us every day. I want to steal it back.’

I dropped the bunch of leaves I had been holding onto and glanced across at Daoud, who was looking down to the glowing tip of his cigarette.


I felt his eyes burning in the darkness. I shifted uncomfortably and so did the conversation.

From Olives - A Violent Romance

Much of Jordan is arid desert or hilly land like this. It's in a state of permanent drought.

The Water 

Daoud’s preoccupation with the water shortage is also founded squarely in the story of the regional conflicts born out of 1948 – the Levant (Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Israel, although the term ‘the Levant usually refers to the Arab countries of the Western Mediterranean) is desperately short of water. Israel’s annexation of the Sea of Galilee (known as Lake Tiberius on the Arab side) in the 1967 war (the ‘six day war’) ensured a major source of precious water for Israel – fed by rivers and aquifers from surrounding Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Part of the background to Pauls’ dilemma in Olives is that Daoud Dajani is a wealthy Arab businessman with major business interests and connections across the region who is mounting a bid for the forthcoming privatisation of the Jordanian water network. Daoud’s consortium is being opposed by a British-led consortium which is focusing its bid on conservation and efficient distribution. Daoud’s bid is based on a brilliant and dangerous scheme – to tap the deep seasonal aquifers feeding Lake Tiberius, bringing more water to Jordan at Israel’s expense. Worse, by depleting the fresh water supply into Tiberius, he will ensure the remaining water is more saline – saltier and therefore less suitable for agriculture and drinking water.

Daoud’s bid obviously cannot be tolerated by the Israelis and unites both Israeli and British interests. The question Paul has to resolve is whether Daoud is a businessman acting within the law and meeting unlawful state-sponsored opposition to his brilliant scheme to benefit Jordan or whether he is a fanatic hell-bent on flinging the region into war.

“There can be no peace without resolving water problems and vice versa... it is water that will decide the future of the Occupied Territories and, what is more, whether there is peace or war. If the crisis is not resolved, the result will be a greater probability of conflict between Jordan and Israel, which would certainly involve other Arab countries.”

Jacques Sironneau, quoted in the NATO 2002 Report, ‘Water Resources in the Mediterranean.

The battle to secure supplies of ‘the universal solvent’ in the Eastern Mediterranean is insoluble. There are too many people living off the land, distribution networks are often creaky and wasteful and the struggle to gain control of resources is constant.

The research on the water crisis that forms the backdrop to Olives is solid – there is, indeed, a major humanitarian crisis brewing in the area and Israel has indeed annexed a large number of water sources by constructing its security wall to encompass them, carving strategic tracts of land from the ‘1967 border’. Each twist and turn of the wall is a bargaining chip at best, a fait accompli at worst. Carving farms in half (as, indeed, the Dajani’s farm in Qaffin has been carved), the wall makes the most of the scant water resources in the West Bank.

The source of Lake Tiberias’ wealth (or the Sea of Galilee) is, as outlined in Olives, a mixture of rivers flowing down from Syria and Lebanon and aquifers that rise up into the bed of the lake. According to NATO, 90% of the West Bank’s water is used by Israel and the distribution of water in the area is ‘unfair’ and ‘restrictive’.

Paul's Dilemma

Olives is about a European sensibility being confronted with the realities behind the news reports from the Middle East, about trying to come to terms with being immersed in someone else’s conflict. It’s also about how our views and natural sympathies can be changed by being personally involved in things that we have become used to viewing dispassionately: how the people dying on our screens have just become another drama to us. Paul finds himself drawn into that conflict despite himself, literally and emotionally, and starts to understand that terrorism isn’t really a black and white simplicity – and that the good guys can be as bad, if not worse, than the bad guys.

The animal market, or souq, in Amman

Paul's got a nice English girlfriend back home, Anne Boardman. He's a little OCD at times and he's something of a news fiend - he's always watching the TV news. As events unfold in Olives, he finds those news reports getting a little to real for comfort. At the same time, he's settling into a new life and finding himself quickly settling in - so much so that when Anne comes to visit, Paul finds he's more in sympathy with his new home than he is with Anne.

But things aren't always as simple as they appear. Paul begins to realise that the series of bomb blasts that are threatening to end the 'new peace' are somehow connected to his movements. Blackmailed by Gerald Lynch, unsure whether to trust Aisha's surly brother, Daoud and increasingly bewildered by the turn events are taking, Paul comes to realise he can't trust anyone around him. Particularly himself.

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The thieves' market in Amman. Sadly no longer allowed to take place, this is where you'd go if you'd been robbed, because your stuff would almost invariably end up here on sale. 


The Christian church at the site of Christ's baptism. The Jordanians built the church on the opposite, Israeli, bank of river, too. It was taken in 1967.

The Dead Sea. I once managed to convince a journalist that the smoked salmon starter we were enjoying during a press event at the Movenpick Dead Sea Hotel was Dead Sea Salmon.

This was a PR career high point for me...

Bedouin camped out in the Wadi Mousa. Once you get out of Amman and strike out into the countryside, you get an idea of how rural and poverty-stricken most of the country is. East Amman can also (as Anne found!) be a pretty intense introduction to true impoverishment.