Alexander McNabb

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The World of 'Olives - A Violent Romance'

Olives - A Violent Romance is set in Jordan, one of the so-called ‘frontline states’ so tied up with the years of conflict and suffering caused by the creation of the State of Israel and Arab opposition to that event. And yet Jordan is an incredibly peaceful country, the people are hospitable and welcoming and it is an incredible place to go for a holiday. Jordan is steeped in thousands of years of history, with important and breathtaking ruins dating back to the Nabatean city of Petra, through the Romans and biblical Middle East and the conquest of Islam right the way through to the tracks of the railway that TE Lawrence spent so much time trying to blow up.

Paul visits many of the places, although by no means all, I have admired in my many trips to Jordan. Each location provides a backdrop to a major event in the book, with the final scenes playing out at a water conference held at the King Hussein Conference Centre and the Movenpick Hotel, both on the shores of the Dead Sea.

THE BAPTISM SITE AT BETHANY

Bethany, the place where Jesus was baptised by John is a neat little tourist site with a slightly abandoned air to the buildings around the gravel car park. It has a beautiful little Orthodox chapel by the covered wooden steps leading down to the River Jordan, reached by a path through arching tamarisks. Across the Jordan lies the town of Jericho. As you drive down to the River Jordan from the tourism centre, you pass an unprepossessing hump.

This is where the Prophet Elijah is said to have ascended to heaven in his chariot. It's a reminder that this place, the lowest on earth, is core to biblical history and the homeland of the three great 'revealed religions'.

Aisha reached out a hand to brush against one of the pale green spiky-leafed branches. ‘This is tamarisk. It thrives on the salty ground here. This path was the one Jesus took.’

I was surprised. ‘You believe in him?’

‘We believe he was a prophet. He’s revered in Islam. The Prophet Mohammed took the last word of God from Gabriel, but we believe in the same one God. Many of our names come from the Bible. Daoud is David, Issa is Jesus, Sara is Sarah and so on.’

‘What’s Aisha?’

She grinned at me.

From Olives - A Violent Romance

THE DEAD SEA

The Dead Sea is almost miraculous, a great expanse of water so saline you just float around in it, a meniscus of mineral oil floating on the surface. You really don't want to shave just before going in, I can tell you from bitter experience. The Jordanian side of the sea is home to a cluster of resort hotels, my personal favourite being the Movenpick Dead Sea.

Further down the coast from Amman, the road snakes back up the escarpment, giving a view of the extensive moonscape created by the potash extraction operation, at one time Jordan's principle source of income - the country has never been a wealthy one. At the top you'll find the town of Kerak, home to a great crusader castle - and one of many places where TE Lawrence reported spirited gun battles with the Turks.

But the Dead Sea is under threat. The constant draining of the Jordan has reduced the river to a fragment of its former self and so the Dead Sea is literally dying, its levels slowly dropping to the point where you can actually see moorings something like thirty feet up in the cliffs around the current sea. There has been extensive discussion of remediation measures, including the 'Red Dead' project which was to have seen Jordanian/Israeli co-operation to pipe salt water from the Red Sea.

A similarly visionary scheme is seeing water pipes laid from Wadi Rumm right up through to Amman, one of the measures being taken to try and address the very real water crisis Jordan faces - the water crisis that forms the backdrop to Olives.

The road from Amman to the Dead Sea drops down from the city, twisting through villages and farmhouses clinging in ones and twos to the steep hillsides as the road descends to the lowest point on earth. Driving, I found it hard to focus on the twisting road and the scenery at the same time. We saw the sparkling expanse of water slide into view below us, the misty blue shores of Palestine and Israel framing the far side of the immobile expanse of water. The road straightened out into the plains around the sea and we reached a checkpoint, the soldiers examining my passport and Aisha’s ID card. She chatted them up in Arabic, laughing with them, her eyes flashing and teasing.

From Olives - A Violent Romance

THE CITADEL, AMMAN

Built on seven hills, Amman's central hill is capped by the Citadel, a remarkable collection of ruins spanning the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic eras. Standing on the ruins on a late autumn afternoon, you can watch Amman slowly turn rose red in the sunset. It's a magical moment.

A popular tourist spot, Amman's Citadel is an archaeological marvel, much of the work having been undertaken with Spanish funding.

We walked up the hill until it flattened out onto the top of the Citadel, stopping by the Roman columns that overlook East Amman in its blue, hilly haze. The Roman amphitheatre was below us, the colourful shops and tenements of the Eastern city spread out crazily around it, stretching up into the hills beyond. We stood together in the warm breeze.

Lynch lit a cigarette. ‘You been here before?’

'No. Never got around to it.’

He puffed out smoke. ‘They’ve done a good job here. They excavated it in layers, preserving the best of each age. Roman, Byzantine, Muslim. It’s all here. Thousands of years of history on a single hilltop.’

‘Can we get down to brass tacks?’

Lynch turned to me, his eyebrow raised. ‘Sure, Paul. I’m just after some information in return for helping you out with this court case you’ve landed for yourself. Simple as that.’

‘Bollocks, Gerry. You’re beyond information. You’re playing War Against Terror with all the other little spies and I really don’t want to get involved with any of you, if that’s all the same to you, thank you.’

I wanted him to react, to try to defend himself, but Lynch wasn’t going to give me the pleasure. His accent seemed stronger, an image of the murals on the Falls Road popping incongruously into my mind as he faced me.

'That’s Gerald, if you don’t mind, Paul. I’ve been twenty years getting away from Gerry Lynch.’

From Olives - A Violent Romance

THE ROMAN AMPHITHEATRE, AMMAN

The Roman amphitheatre in Amman is a remarkable piece of engineering. Jordan has a rich Roman history and the country is dotted with ampitheatres - there's a stunning example in Jerash ('The city of a thousand pillars', Jerash was rediscovered by a goatherd who stubbed his toe on a stone - the whole city was buried and was excavated in a massive operation that has revealed, literally, a whole Roman city. It's well worth the visit!) and another in Petra.

To the right hand side of the amphitheatre as you stand on the stage and look up to the tiered stone seating, there is a tiny jewel of a place many people overlook - a museum of Bedouin art and folklore. Do go there. It's a testament to the richness of the culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, with displays of weaving, bedouin jewellery and other handcraft.

I stood centre stage in Amman’s Roman amphitheatre feeling the pressure of my own voice reverberating from the stone seating circled around me. I watched Anne as she walked in the flat arena, called out to her. ‘Come up here and try it. It’s so acoustically perfect you can hear a man talking in a normal voice even if you’re sitting all the way up at the back.’

She looked up at me and smiled. ‘I’ll take your word for it. What’s the equipment behind you? Do they still have concerts here?’

I surveyed the stage behind me. Beyond the speaker stacks I could see the shabby Eastern city climbing up the hill towards the Citadel, straight stairways set into the tightly packed buildings, reaching towards the cloudy sky. ‘Yes. A big Lebanese singer played here over the weekend. Not bad to be using a venue after two thousand years, is it?’

From Olives - A Violent Romance

THE ROMAN RUINS, UMM QEIS

To the North of Jordan, Umm Qeis (or Umm Queis, Umm Qais or however you want to spell it in English) overlooks Israel and Syria, the road snaking down from the hilly ruins to the Israeli border in the valley below before the land rises once again to the Golan Heights. Umm Qeis is an extensive Roman city, made from the black stone which is ubiquitous in the north.

The little Lebanese café in Olives is real, tucked away out of sight on the Golan side of the ruined city, and is worth a stop for lunch.

We picked through the ruins of the Roman City at Umm Qeis and gazed out at the green swell of one of the world’s bloodiest and most hotly contested pieces of land, and I was humbled into silence as Anne stood next to me, her jacket collar turned up and her hair whipping her face. It was a day of clear, cool sunshine. The clouds were starting to gather, drifting across the rich blue sky and casting jagged shadows across the ruins and the hump of the Golan beyond. I heard the shouts of the tamar man selling his date juice in the ruins behind me and turned to see him lugging the huge, brass pot on his back, bright ribbons and pompoms decorating it.

Lars spoke to Anne, raising his voice against the breeze blowing across the black stone skeleton of the city Rome had left behind. The wind gusted through the centuries and across into Israel. ‘The Israelis took it from Syria in ’67,’ said Lars, shouting against the wind. ‘You could stand here at the time, apparently, and watch the MIGs dancing in the air as the land shook with the bombs. I know a guy who was here. He was crazy to have been close to it as like this. He said it looked beautiful, the explosions and smoke. The border’s down there, in the valley. The Syrians used to launching the rocket attacks from the heights down onto the Israelis. Gave them more range.’

Anne shuddered. ‘I think it’s horrible. Why can’t they just live together?’

‘That is a long story, Anne,’ said Lars. I could imagine him thinking ‘stupid cow’ as he smiled at her because, to be honest, I was thinking something like it myself.

From Olives - A Violent Romance

THE DAJANI FARM, QAFFIN

The only part of Olives not set in Jordan ‘proper’, the Dajani family farm is on the border near Qaffin, north of Nablus in Palestine. The farm is cut in two by the Israeli security wall, a wall that corrals water resources and shuns millennia of human land development and which has bisected so many others like it.

She gestured across the land. ‘There’s a gate a few kilometres to the left of here, a bigger one past Kirbat Al Aqaba, the village over there to the right. We’re lucky to have two so close, the gates are few and far between. Some families have to travel a long way to get to the rest of their land, when they’re allowed through of course. It’s not always as easy to get through it. The olives don’t do well over there, Hamad can’t get to them often enough. And the crossings are always shut when they need to harvest. Always. The fruit often just rots on the trees. There is a stream on the other side. It comes from a spring, but we can’t get to that, either. Water’s scarce this side. The wall always follows the water.’

A perverse desire to get closer to it seized me, compelled me to walk down the hill towards the wall until it blocked out the land beyond, capped with the last of the blue sky and tendrils of dark cloud reaching across from behind me. Aisha was behind me, calling my name, telling me to stop. I saw the cameras on top of it, heard the whine of motors as they moved to focus on me, the afternoon sunlight glinting off their white casings. I stood there staring up at it, now scared to go too close. It blotted out everything, a surreal barrier above and to either side of me, a show of power, of absolute will made of concrete. I stood, overwhelmed by the frustration and humiliation of that barrier, locking these people from their land, from the water they needed to irrigate their crops. I turned, shaking my head and walked back uphill towards Aisha.

She smiled bitterly as she saw my expression. ‘Ah, now you understand.’

From Olives - A Violent Romance

THE KING HUSSEIN CONVENTION CENTRE

The purpose built convention centre is just a stone's throw from the spa hotels clustered on the shoreline. A lot of major conferences and events take place there, including the World Economic Forum. So it was just the right place to host a key international water conference!

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 had 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.

From Olives - A Violent Romance