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Let alone Lady Chatterley’s Lover (an unexpurgated edition could not be published in the UK until 1960), Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their controversial single, “Relax”) or many other shameful bans on music and literature in my own country in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.
Great post! I especially like the idea that when people don’t generally read fiction it’s hard for them to separate it from fact. Brilliant insight! And something I’ve never considered before, so I appreciate the food for thought.
I’d love to win a print version of your book! If I could pack up and go anywhere tomorrow I’ve got two choices. Savannah, Georgia has been calling me for years, and not just because one of my alter egos is called Savannah and hails from Valdosta, Georgia. It’s one of the few historic cities still existing in the US and I think it would be like living in another world…inside America. Surreal and dreamy. Addis Ababa would also be amazing. Ethiopian cuisine is my favorite in the whole world and I’ve found Ethiopians be such lovely people. Plus, I’d like to try my had at finding the Holy Grail that’s supposedly hidden there.
Thanks again for this fascinating post! And stay safe in the meantime.
Great post but I have to say terribly unfair question – just one place I would pack up and go to in a heartbeat, can I please have at least two? Can you tell my feet are itching to be on the move again? They have been static far, far too long and it looks as if they will continue to be for the next few years at least. I am living vicariously through others – that would encompass anyone not living in Houston, Texas!
Okay – have lived in 12 countries all over the world but I have somehow missed the middle and would love to live in Oman, as it seems to be one the few places where it is still possible to get at least a feel for the Middle East. I think I would have rather enjoyed the Emirates in the early days but not so much now I feel.
On the other end of the spectrum, and bearing in mind I loathe being cold, I would very much enjoy a few years in Russia.
Both cultures are so utterly different to any I have lived in, and are so old and venerable, that I think I would find them fascinating. Do prefer Middle Eastern cuisine to borscht though!
Congratulations on the book,
You left a comment on my Displaced Nation guest post and consequently have won a copy of Olives – A Violent Romance.
Can you email me your postal address? You can catch me at @alexandermcnabb or my first name at my whole name dot com.
I packed up and went to a little village on the Aegean coast; where I have fallen in love with the food, the clear warm sea, the friendliness of the people, the history. I started in Canada, left for a month in the UK that turned into 37 years, now Turkey.
I would love to read your book. I have kindle software on my PC.
I read it. I loved it. Great word-picture settings, dramatic plot, superb characterizations. I will read it again, probably many times.
Great post – and I’m sure a very interesting read. I’ve love to read it in Kindle format – any book that is getting this amount of backlash is okay in my books!
Great to see those destinations – some surprises for me in there, too!
Emails coming to you kindle folk! 🙂
Wow – some surprises in the amazing destinations already!
Kindle folk – mails on the way! 🙂
Argh! This is Alexander – I’ve got a WordPress password/ID/spacetime continuum thing happening!
Hi Jennifer – your email’s bouncing! Any alternative?
Great article, thanks for sharing. Of love to win a print copy of your book please. There are so many places I dream of going to but, if I had to pick one, right now it would be Sri Lanka. The friendliest people, the delightful food and the most beautiful landscapes and coastlines. As a frustrated artist, it always inspires me.
Thanks again for sharing the post and congratulations on what you’ve achieved so far.
Right now, I’d move to Panama, the land of my ancestors. I don’t know why, but recently I’ve felt a strong pull to move there next. It’s near enough to the land of my birth, yet far enough to be away from nonsense whenever necessary (coming & going as I please). The ties to my ancestral land and the weather are also good personal reasons.
Interesting post. Thanks for sharing.
Apparently the tailors there are good! Golly, but Panama would never have come to mind as a dream destination! Gotta do some Googling… 🙂
It’s slowly but surely becoming an expatriate destination. I’m not too happy about that, but I can’t stop that. I still think that’s where my next stop will be, though.
(Sorry for the late reply; no home internet access for a week and a half until now.)
Hi, I would love a kindle copy. I can be reached at knelson at rossmed DOT edu DOT dm
Kindle copy in your inbox, Kelly! 🙂
I’m a little late to the party, but would love a Kindle copy of your book. (You had me at ‘Olives’.) Jordan has been on my top ten list for quite some time (I can hear Petra calling, and want to explore other areas as well) so I can only hope that I get there eventually. Sounds as though you’ve been ruffling some feathers there with Olives, which makes me want to read it even more! Thank you: linda at adventuresinexpatland dot com
Better late than never, Linda! Sent!