The London-born Alexander McNabb has spent nearly half of his life in the United Arab Emerites. Last month we interviewed him about his series of books on Middle Eastern themes, the first of which, Olives — A Violent Romance, has been sparking some controversy. (“Bring it on!” he told us.) Alexander is back at the Displaced Nation to share some good news: He is giving away several copies of Olives to our readers!! (See details below.) He is also here to discuss: does the book deserve its notoriety?
The Jordanian Web site Albawaba did a lovely interview with me in which they played up the “controversial novelist” angle quite nicely — I am, apparently, “scandalous.” Now, as any fule kno, if you want to sell books a whiff of scandal is quite handy.
That said, I have always shied away from that sales strategy — at least in part born of my dislike of the way the British author Geraldine Bedell’s publisher attempted to hijack the first Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (which I usually attend) to promote her mediocre book, The Gulf Between Us. Penguin claimed the festival organizers had tried to ban the book for its inclusion of a homosexual sheikh. (For more details, go to my post on this story.)
And yet bucketloads of controversy have dogged me since Olives — A Violent Romance was published a year ago. It’s much easier to be a “controversial author” in the Middle East than it is in the West these days.
Where is speech truly free?
We tend to forget how the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) was picketed by Christian groups, and how in 1988 Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, an adaption of a 1953 novel, was picketed and banned in some countries.
Let alone Lady Chatterley’s Lover (an unexpurgated edition could not be published in the UK until 1960), Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their controversial single, “Relax”) or many other shameful bans on music and literature in my own country in my own lifetime.
We think of ourselves as secular, tolerant and free-minded — yet our recent history has been filled with our failing to come to terms with free speech and literature that brings up topics we find uncomfortable.
Imagine how it is, then, in the Middle East, a region not only more sensitive to discussion of religious, cultural and social issues but with many more taboos to play with.
Some inconvenient truths
In Olives, my first book, a Muslim family is depicted drinking alcohol. This caused considerable comment online and from reviewers in the region, some of whom thought this was unnecessary and meretricious. A few tried to portray this scenario as unrealistic, but that didn’t really wash. Alcohol and the Arab world have a fraught — and frequently secretive — relationship.
Even more controversy followed with the fact that a Muslim woman sleeps with a British, Christian, man in the book. This was a humdinger that sparked debate about my motivations, the possibility this could happen and, once again, why I had to include such unsavory behavior.
Talk about inconvenient truth.
But the money shot was my decision to use real names in the book: real Jordanian and Palestinian family names. It wasn’t much of a decision, really, more of a no-brainer — you wouldn’t set a novel in the Highlands of Scotland and call characters MacShuggy or MacSquarepants because you were afraid of the clans, would you? And yet that expectation very much exists in Jordan today!
One member of a family with the same name as the female protagonist, Dajani, posted a comment on the Olives blog on behalf of the whole family demanding that the name be changed:
It would have been entirely feasible for you as an author to have contrived/fabricated a fictional name which does not infringe or violate our good family’s history and reputation and [we] do not believe that you have exercised good judgement in this choice.
The row spilled over to Facebook and other platforms and quickly got out of hand. One commenter on Jordanian blog 7iber (pronounced “hiber”) noted:
…this would be worth some honor killings if these names were abused.
Umm, that’s a death threat. (No matter that it’s probably something silly typed by an anonymous pimply onanist showing off, it does tend to stop one in the old tracks when you first read it.)
Worse, distributors in Jordan had refused to carry the print edition, citing concerns over the book’s use of that prominent Palestinian family name. Olives wasn’t banned in Jordan by government censors — but it was blocked by what a sympathetic commentator quite rightly called “a more insidious form of censorship.”
Fact vs fiction
Why has this been happening — because people in the Middle East can’t separate fact from fiction? Absolutely! It’s a real issue in the region. There is all too little fiction produced in and about the region: people simply don’t read very much in the main. A bestselling Arabic novel might sell a few thousand copies at most — the vast majority of Arabic writers pay to have their books printed.
So quite a few people, not unsurprisingly, find it hard to separate fiction from fact. Strangely enough, another branch of the Dajani family (which is very large and widespread, part of the reason I used the name) is passionately pro Olives — and I have to say the same thing to them: “Guys, it’s fiction!”
But the fact remains, my book set in Jordan can’t be sold in the country it’s set in.
As I said, it’s all too easy to be scandalous in the Middle East. Mind you, wait ‘till they see Beirut – An Explosive Thriller…
* * *
Now it’s time for the freebies! Displaced Nation readers, you can get your very own copy of the book that’s been making waves in my part of the world. Here are 3 ways to do so:
1) For TDN readers with an iPad or ePub compatible reader (Nook, Sony, Kobo, Android etc): Get your copy of Olives — A Violent Romance free of charge (and save $4.99) on Smashwords. But first, you’ll need to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH to get the code (it will come in the issue delivered this Saturday). NOTE: The code is valid until 1st December — and then, pfft, it’ll disappear. Dear readers, you are MORE than welcome to share that code with family, friends, strangers, dogs in the street — even lawyers.
2) For TDN readers with Kindles: Leave a comment on this post with your e-mail, and I will send a Kindle file and instructions how to install it. Best I can do, I’m afraid — Amazon doesn’t let me do freebies! Do remember to use name dot name at domain dot com so the spambots don’t find you! Or you can hit me up directly at @alexandermcnabb on Twitter…
3) For TDN readers who still like shiny PRINT books: If anyone would like to win Olives — A Violent Romance in print, delivered to their doorsteps anywhere in the world, just leave a comment and let us know where, if you could move to live anywhere on earth tomorrow, you’d go — and why!
TO ALL READERS: Olives — A Violent Romance has (wonderfully) met with considerable critical acclaim — if anyone wants to add their voice (whichever way it leans) on Amazon or Goodreads, that’s welcome feedback. The more people know the book exists, the merrier! 🙂
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, the first in a two-part series on an expatriate’s love life.
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Images: All from Alexander McNabb.