The Displaced Nation

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: For acclaimed British novelist Simon Mawer, not feeling at home anywhere fires creativity

Tracey Warr is here with the extraordinary Simon Mawer, whose work is on a par with Australian-born, U.S.-based Peter Carey and Sri Lankan-born Canadian Michael Ondaatje. Like them, he has used his displacement to produce an award-winning body of fiction.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is world-class novelist Simon Mawer.

As ML implied, Mawer is a natural fit for the Displaced Nation. Though British, he has lived in Italy for many years and to this day finds his imagination fired by the extraordinary and the unfamiliar.

He also had a peripatetic upbringing. His father served in the Royal Air Force, and his family spent three years on the island of Cyprus—an experience that informed his novel Swimming to Ithaca (2006)—and a total of five years in Malta.

About his childhood spent in other cultures, Mawer has this to say:

These experiences planted in me a love of the Mediterranean world which has lasted my whole life. They also gave me a taste for exile which I have never lost. When people ask me where I come from I am still unable to reply. I have lived in Italy for more than three decades, but Italy is not home. Home is where the mind is, perhaps.

Returning to the UK for boarding school, Mawer attended Oxford University where he earned a degree in zoology. He spent three years teaching biology at the secondary-school level in the Channel Islands, two years in Scotland, and two in Malta, before moving to Rome where he has lived ever since, teaching biology for over thirty years at St George’s British International School in Rome (he retired in 2010). Because teaching took up so much of his time, he didn’t publish his first novel, Chimera, until age 40, when he sold it to Hamish Hamilton.

Mawer’s ten novels are imbued with a compelling sense of time and place. His characters grapple with their own fraught and hybrid identities. The Bitter Cross (1992) is the only one set in the distant past: taking place in the 16th-century Mediterranean, it explores the theme of exile and belonging through the eyes of one of the last of the English knights, from the vantage point of retirement on the fortress island of Malta.

But the rest of Mawer’s novels take place in the early 20th century, with settings ranging through 1930s Czechoslovakia, 1940s occupied France, wartime Rome, 1950s London during the Cold War, Cyprus, Israel and Palestine.

The following six have won high accolades:

  • Mawer’s first novel, the aforementioned Chimera (1989), tells the story of a part-Italian, part-English archeologist who is haunted by his own past. On an archeological dig in central Italy, he recalls being parachuted into wartime Italy as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent. It won the McKitterick Prize for First Novels.
  • Mendel’s Dwarf (1997), described by the New Yorker as “furious, tender and wittily erudite,” blends fact and fiction by telling the story of the fictional Benedict Lambert, a distant descendant of real-life founder of the modern science of genetics, Gregor Mendel. Like Mendel, Lambert struggles to unlock the secrets of heredity and genetic determinism. However, Benedict’s mission is particularly urgent—he was born a dwarf. The book reached the last ten of the Booker Prize and was a New York Times “Book to Remember”.
  • Set partly in wartime Britain and partly in the anarchic world of British rock-climbing in the early seventies, The Fall (2003) is about many kinds of falling: off mountains, into love, out of love, from grace. It was the winner of the 2003 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature.
  • The Glass Room (2009) centers on a couple who who live in a modernist house that resembles the real-life Villa Tugendhat, which the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed for a wealthy Jewish man and his gentile wife in Brno (now in the Czech Republic). But then the storm clouds of World War II gather and the family flees through Switzerland to the United States. This work was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the Wingate Prize, and was a bestseller in the US and the UK. The Guardian described it as “a thing of extraordinary beauty and symmetry,” and the Washington Post found it “eerily erotic and tremendously exciting.” The Glass Room was adapted for the stage from the book’s Czech translation for a performance in the city of Brno (which, incidentally, is the seat of the priory where Mendel performed his experiments).
  • Mawer’s ninth novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze in the US) (2012) was described by the Daily Telegraph as “an absorbing novel full of treachery, twilight and terror.” Set during World War II, the novel follows the path of the half-English half-French diplomat’s daughter Marian Sutro. Her hybrid status is an advantage in wartime, and she ends up serving as an agent in occupied Europe. The Guardian once described Sutro as “perhaps the closest thing to a female James Bond in English literature.”
  • Mawer must have enjoyed the company of this complex female protagonist as Marian Sutro returns again in his most recent novel, Tightrope (2015), a cold war thriller set in 1950s London. One of a handful of surviving agents of the Special Operations Executive, Sutro tries to cast off her identity as heroine of the resistance, but the memories of torture, heartbreak and betrayal won’t leave her—nor will the longing for adventure. Tightrope was described by the Sunday Times as “a sophisticated, deviously constructed story,” and by the Mail on Sunday as “gripping stuff, with a sinuous plot and some haunting bedroom scenes.” It won the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and was Waterstones Novel of the Month (March 2016).

Mawer has also written two nonfiction books:

* * *

Welcome, Simon, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

This very much depends on the book. Most begin with an idea—for example my last pair of novels, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze, in the US) and Tightrope, began with the idea of a young woman—a mere 19 years old—being recruited into a clandestine warfare outfit in the middle of the Second World War. Everything else followed from that. Similarly The Fall began with a literal fall, in this case the fall of a climber from a mountain wall. But once I’d got a mountain involved it was pretty obvious that location was going to become important. Indeed the Sunday Times reviewer drew attention to precisely this:

“What makes The Fall truly valuable, and truly unusual is its sense of landscape. Much British writing these days seems to be self-consciously urban. Mawer’s novel, distinguished by its keen descriptive sense of rock-face, crag, lake, snow and stone, bucks that trend beautifully.”

However, two novels later The Glass Room most definitely began with a location—the mesmerising Tugendhat House in the Czech Republic that I first visited in 1994. Standing in rooms that seemed to have barely changed from the 1930s, in a building that to this day remains a touchstone for modernist design, it was obvious for me to think, “There’s a story here.” I’m a writer of fiction so the subsequent story had to be my own creation rather than the true story of the family that built the house; but there is no doubt that location came first.


What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of the various places where you’ve set your four novels?

If there were only one technique it would be easy (and dull). There are many techniques but for me underlying everything is the idea that the reader must do some work. The writer’s task is to stir the imagination not replace it. So you evoke place with small hints, little details, small observations, and you rely on the intelligence of the reader to create the whole picture in his or her head. Don’t underestimate the literary intelligence of the reader—the ones without it are probably watching TV anyway. At best they’ll only be reading Dan Brown.

Which particular features create a sense of location: landscape, culture, food?

It depends on the location. For landscape one tends to resort to descriptive devices, leavened with metaphor of course. But it’s important not to overdo it and to restrain yourself from indulging in purple prose. Description should be brushed into the narrative with rapid, impressionist strokes. Urban locations, on the other hand, lend themselves to cultural references (see the example below).

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

How about Paris immediately after the war, as described in Tightrope:

Her first visit to the city since the war. Paris with a superficial gloss to it, like a piece of silver plate that has been polished up but is still worn away in places to show the base metal beneath: the drab buildings in need of cleaning, the broken pavements, the impoverished shops. But Paris with a strange, febrile vitality, Paris that was home to the theatre of the absurd and was itself a kind of theatre with people performing on its various stages, writers in the cafés of the Left Bank, politicians treading the boards of the National Assembly or berating crowds in place de la Bastille, black jazzmen from America sounding off in basements and cellars, models strutting on catwalks wearing clothes that outraged the poor of Saint-Denis and Belleville, tarts and pimps on the pavements of Pigalle. Paris canaille.

Paris canaille? Coarse, tawdry, crooked Paris. It’s the title of a song of the time written by Léo Ferré and first made popular by Catherine Sauvage. If the readers get that, great. If not, it doesn’t matter. But give them the opportunity to find out if they want to. You’ll find it here.

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

It is possible to know a place too well. I have lived in Italy for about 40 years and have written very little that is set in this country. It is too familiar to me (yes, Italy can become too familiar!). What fires my imagination is the extraordinary and the unfamiliar—so I’ve set novels in Israel/Palestine, Czechoslovakia, World War II London, Cyprus, 16th-century Malta. Of course once your imagination has been lit, then it is necessary to get to know the place sufficiently to write about it with conviction without ever losing the sense of newness and discovery.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Perhaps one writer above all: Graham Greene. He was a master at location, so much so that critics even bestowed his name on the world that his characters inhabit: Greeneland. You know it. It’s hot, arid, run down, plagued with dust and corruption and lost faith. That’s the ultimate achievement, to create a world so vivid that it transcends any real location and instead belongs entirely to you, the creator.

So true! I should tell you that my last guest, the novelist Dinah Jefferies, chose one of your books—The Girl Who Fell from the Sky—in answer to this question.

Thanks so much, Simon, for joining us. It’s been a pleasure, as always.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Simon? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Simon Mawer and his novels, I suggest you visit his author site. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Simon! I have to say I’m particularly intrigued by Simon’s statement that he’s written very little in Italy despite (because of?) having lived 40 years in the country. That suggests that we international creatives should get started sooner rather than later if we decide to write about our adopted homes! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She recently published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her latest medieval novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th-century Wales and England, came out in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, supplied; Roman scene via Pixabay; Cyprus. Nicosia 1969 – 70, by Brian Harrington Spier via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Street and Glastonbury Tor taken from Walton Hill, by Edwin Graham via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
“Glass Room” visual: (top) Mies van Der Rohe- Tugendhat House, 1930, by Rory Hyde via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (bottom left) The Glass Room on stage at the City Theatre, Brn (Pavla Vitázková as Liesel, Svetlana Jantová as Kata), supplied; and Simon Mawer relaxing in the living room of the Tugendhat House, with the director of the house, Iveta Černá looking on, supplied.
“Paris as theatre” visual: (clockwise from top left): Acetate fabrics by Robert Perrier, 1951 Autumn-Winter via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); Screenshot from Catherine Sauvage “Paris Canaille” (live official), Archive INA; Waiting for Godot (cover detail) via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0); and Zsa Zsa Gabor playing Jane Avril in the film Moulin Rouge (1952) via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain 1.0).

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, know when to put a clamp on your native mannerisms, and remember: patience works

This month our transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol has found a remarkable polyglot (not unlike herself?) and multi-country expat to quiz for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Buongiorno, Displaced Nationers!

How have you been? This month, I’m introducing you to the lovely Claudia Landini. She is the founder of, a treasure trove of resources for expat families, provided in several languages.

A native Italian, Claudia speaks Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and (what she remembers of) Portuguese, and thrives on coming up with creative ways to communicate in languages she hasn’t yet mastered. She has lived all over the world and has had some pretty intense experiences that have taught her many things about culture shock, which she has kindly agreed to share with us today. Along the way, she learned to dance salsa and to cook Balinese fish, among many other skills. She is most proud of her two sons, whom she sees as living proof that “growing up changing countries, languages and homes is absolutely beneficial to the person and to the world at large.”

Like many of us, Claudia is often glued to her computer, which she says she loves almost as much as her sons. She manages four websites, including a blog and a platform for her online courses. When not staring at the screen, she might be found with her nose in a book. Like me, she is a bookworm and prefers reading paperbacks.

And Displaced Nationers should note that she’s keen to encourage creativity. In fact her latest article for Expatclic, written in French, is about a Frenchwoman in Indonesia who has mastered the art of batik. It’s called Créativité sans frontières.

Now let’s talk to Claudia about the difficulty of overcoming one’s own, deeply ingrained cultural habits, the possibility of having one’s native mannerisms misinterpreted, and the importance of developing meaningful personal projects to help ease the trauma of moving from one country to the next.

* * *

Hi, Claudia, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. I understand you’ve lived abroad for over twenty years. Which countries have you lived in and for how long?

The short answer is that I’ve lived in four African countries, two Latin American ones, Israel (Jerusalem), and am presently in Jakarta. The long answer: Indonesia, where I am at the moment, for 1½ years; Jerusalem, 4½ years; Peru, 6 years; Honduras, 4 years; and Africa, 7 years: Congo (Brazzaville) 2½, Guinea-Bissau 2½, Angola 1 year, Sudan 1 year. When I was very young, before meeting my husband, with whom I lived in all the above-mentioned countries, I spent one year in London to improve my English.

In the course of so many cultural transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

You know, as much as I strive to remember, I can’t seem to come up with anything really interesting, which is surprising given the sheer number of foreign cultures I’ve come in contact with. Like anyone else, I have the typical stories of cross-cultural misunderstandings when greeting people (such as offering hands to men in Sudan and Palestine, to be met with cold stares or looks of pity). In general I’ve had to control my overly expansive Italian manners, which are not always interpreted in the right way by other cultures. I have to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame. Sometimes I am too open and warm with people who perceive this as a violation of their privacy. Sometimes I talk too much, when the local norm would require discretion and silence.

Recently, and despite all my cross-cultural experience and my work as an intercultural trainer, I rushed to kiss my Indonesian maid good-bye. She was so shocked I thought she would resign. Indonesians do not appreciate close physical contact and intimacy, especially in a well-defined hierarchical situation.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now? What are the tools that you think are most useful for adapting to this kind of scenario?

Well, I have learned that when you do something that clearly violates local cultural rules, and you realize the extent of the offense you may have committed, it’s sometimes worse to try to take out that toolbox right away and try to mend the situation. In the case of my maid, I simply turned around and went away, knowing she would soon regain her composure (as a matter of fact, when I came back from Italy to Jakarta, she was the one who kissed me!).

Other tools I use to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame, include counting to three before I speak, and observing myself from the outside before acting. These techniques help me quite a lot.

In other words, there may be times when we expats and international travelers might need some light-duty clamps to keep us from saying or doing the wrong thing. So can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I don’t know if we can call this finesse, but all the times I left from the Tel Aviv airport, I lied with embarrassing nonchalance… Israeli authorities are hard on people who admit to living in occupied Eastern Jerusalem and to having Palestinian friends. After a few months, my ideals gave way to the fear of being searched and interrogated in isolation by the airport authorities, so I lied about where I lived and who my friends were. I had gained quite an insight on Israeli culture and understood what was okay to say and what wasn’t. I even had a list of Israeli names I used as my dear friends, and I was so convinced when I recited them, that sometimes I even felt a rush of affection for these people who did not exist…

That’s quite a story! If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Patience. It takes time to get to know a culture and to feel confident enough to move around in it. It takes moments of loneliness, confusion and isolation. Of course, if you can give it that time, it pays back in the end. Be patient and know that the moment will come when you’ll feel familiar with what is going on around you, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy it because you no longer have to worry about getting things wrong, or will know how to fix things when you do. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone instead of pulling out our tools and trying to fix things right away.

And since you are also familiar with reverse culture shock, can I ask: Do any experiences stand out for you?

When we had to leave Congo in ’97 because the civil war suddenly broke out, I spent two years in Italy waiting for the next mission abroad. It was awful. Not only had all those years of living in Africa changed me a lot, but I also had the traumatic experience of having to say good-bye to country and friends in a matter of hours, knowing I was leaving them behind in a horrifying situation. People in Milan tried to be sympathetic but simply could not understand the magnitude of what I was going through. I felt very isolated. Besides, after having had such powerful experiences (not only the war, but also all the other amazing things I had gone through in Africa), life back in Italy seemed sort of dull. I did not want to offend anyone, so I kept that to myself. It was a pretty rough time.

What tools have helped you to cope with reverse culture shock?

Three things helped me a lot:

  1. Realizing that if I was going through such a terrible time “back home,” it was because my experience in Africa had really touched my deepest core. That made me proud and gave a lot of value to my life abroad. It reinforced my conviction that living outside my passport country was a strong and valuable experience, and that it was okay to pursue it again.
  2. Being able to identify a few people who showed interest in my stories and with whom I felt I got along well. It was clear I should invest in those relationships.
  3. Hanging onto projects I had started back in Africa that were meaningful to me. Being able to continue gave me a sense of structure, and helped me through some very confused times.


Thank you so much, Claudia, for giving us the bonus of your repatriate advice! I can relate to that sense of isolation you describe when you returned to Italy. And I like the idea of building meaningful personal projects with the tools you’ve picked up in a new country. Those are the kinds of activities that can sustain you during the transition back home, or when moving on to the next culture.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you ever have to clamp down on some of your “natural” traits for fear you may offend others, and do you know when to leave well enough alone? Do tell!

And if you want to learn more about what Claudia Landini has to say, I recommend you check out:

You can also check out her blog and her online courses, and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: All photos supplied by Claudia Landini or else from Pixabay, with the exception of the two women greeting each other in the second collage, which is from Flickr: TED Fellows – The arrival[], by afromusing (CC BY 2.0).

For this dreamer of dreams, artist at heart, and American Russophile, a picture says…

Steve Hague Collage

Canon zoom lens, photo credit: Morguefiles; Steve Hague and his Russian bride at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Kazan, Russia, on their wedding day. The ceremony was followed by a reception where the happy couple danced, ate, laughed, toasted, and kissed—every time the guests shouted “Gorko, Gorko, Gorko!” (Kiss the bride!).

Writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King is back with his ever-popular “A picture says…” column. Born in England, James is now semi-retired in Thailand. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My February guest is 58-year-old American national Steve Hague, who a few years ago left everything behind to start up a new life in Kazan, Russia.

Steve says that although he is American in the mind he is Russian in the heart. He keeps a fascinating blog, Life in Russia, which is aptly subtitled “The bridge between two countries”. Steve has put a lot of time, research and energy into bringing us information, both written and visual, about his adopted homeland, in an enthusiastic way.

He also belongs to the ranks of what the Displaced Nation calls “international creatives.” Besides being an avid photographer, he is currently writing a novelette called Under the Blood Moon.

Today I hope he will convey some of the enthusiasm he has about his new life and pursuits, along with sharing a selection of his photos.

* * *

Hi, Steve. We have been following each other’s blogs for a while now, and I am very pleased that we have the opportunity to meet in this interview. Let’s start with some background on you, shall we—beginning with where you were born and when you spread your wings to start travelling.
Well, the hospital where I was born almost refused my mother admittance because she had high cheek bones and dark skin, like a Native American Indian. My father managed to convince the staff she was white, and my arrival into the world occurred in Grand Junction Hospital, Colorado. Because my father worked for the government, my family moved every four years or so. I think we moved back and forth between Colorado and Maryland six times. Eventually, my mother put her foot down and we all graduated from high school in Boulder City, Nevada. But my father had itchy feet, and I appear to have followed in his footsteps, so to speak.

And in your adulthood you’ve become quite an experienced traveller. Tell me more.
I’d love to say I’ve traveled the world but it just isn’t so. I’ve traveled a lot within the United States. Thanks to my family, I’ve seen nearly every major national park in the United States, and in my early adulthood I did a lot of traveling on the West Coast. This stone finally stopped rolling in Portland, Oregon. Exploring the great Northwest was a wonderful experience.

But you didn’t venture outside the country?
Like every brave American I visited Canada several times. My best trip was to Prince George in British Columbia in the dead of winter. I guess I was preparing for exploits outside of the States without knowing it. And there were a couple of forays into Mexico when I was younger, before it became Gangland Я Us.

What about your working life—how did that evolve?
I started my career as an architect, back in the 1970s. That evolved into studying naturopathic medicine, which lasted approximately ten years until I founded the precious metals business, which I turned over to my partners before coming to Russia. Here in Kazan I found my niche in teaching English. Honestly, I never thought there was much value to being a native speaker; that only came after escaping America. Today along with teaching I write, which has been in my heart since childhood. It find it adds balance to my life.

Что ни город, то и норов (Another city—another temper). —Russian proverb

So Russia was your first time out of the United States? That was quite a leap! What led you there, and how did you cope with the cultural and language differences?
Yes, I met my wife through a dating website, and now Russia is my home (until I get itchy feet again). Some people may have thought I was crazy but with her by my side I felt more secure about living somewhere else. And what an experience it’s been! It’s truly opened my eyes to what it means to be a global citizen. In fact, where we live we resembles any major city in America minus one thing: the sidewalks are terrible here. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same—malls, grocery stores, McDonald’s, the movies, it’s all here. There’s one oddity though. I see a greater variety of cars here than I ever saw in the States.

You have also really embraced Russia itself.
I believe I can trace my first love of Russia back to my childhood. My father brought home a record, How to Learn Russian Easy—I was probably only 11 years old at the time. The only word I learned was здравствуйте (hello). Later in high school I wanted to learn the language, but the choice was either French or Spanish. I chose French but never went to the class.

I know from my experiences in Thailand how valuable having a local partner or wife is. However, it can make you a little lazy on the language front and ultimately more dependent. But I’m sure that’s not the case with you, Steve! How often do you travel out of Russia to explore other places?
My wife and I love travel, and since moving here I’ve had the opportunity to visit Cyprus and Israel, both fascinating countries with incredible beauty and charm. I’m sure I will get to other places as well, eventually. Right now we have a couple of trips planned, one to the Altai Mountains, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together, and the other, hopefully, to Europe. If anyone out there is into adventure travel, we’ve invited a small group to join us on the Altai trip. There’s still space.

Now let’s see some photos that capture a few of your favourite memories.
This first photo shows the canals of St. Petersburg. I took it during the blue hour of the summer solstice, close to midnight:

The next photo is of the ancient town of Bolgar, which is located on the Volga about 75 miles away from Kazan—for me, it captures the essence of the place (which I found hard to do!):

For the next one, I happened to be walking by the lake near my home when the fog started to lift. I saw the stump sticking up out of the water, the fog in the background, and the changing colors of the leaves. I knew this was one of those moments I would never see again. More than any other photo it changed how I viewed my photography:
SH_near home in Russia

The last one is indeed a lovely capture and I agree such moments aren’t ten a penny. Now I’m keen to see some of your favorite places for photography and hear about why you found them so inspirational. Let’s have a look.
The next photo shows the type of scene I love to capture. I was in Suzdal and just happened to be standing on a bridge looking over the river, towards one of the many churches within this small, historic town:

While in Israel we traveled all over, from Haifa to the Sea of Galilee. We got to see Nazareth (which I didn’t like), Tel Aviv (much like any big city), and then Jerusalem, a fascinating city of culture, history, religion, and much more. We even made it to Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, which is a beautiful in its own right. I took many pictures of scenery, but here is a view of Haifa:

Also in Israel, I snapped a few photos of people. One that stands out to me is this one, of a homeless man. I captured it on the sly and unfortunately came out blurred but it still speaks volumes to me:
I can understand why this one is special. It’s that beady eye watching your every move. I can forgive the blur when it has so much meaning for you.
Another photo that stands out for me is this one of a Druze woman. She was preparing food for us in an outdoor oven in what felt like the middle of nowhere, on Mount Carmel:

It’s a lovely, natural picture. Tell me something, do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so, and do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs?
I will look at them and try to understand their mood. If I can see a smile, I’ll just go ahead and take a picture; if not, I’ll ask permission. Then at other times if I can’t detect a mood, I’ll ask permission or try to take a picture without attracting attention. Sometimes it works; other times it doesn’t.

Всяк глядит, да не всяк видит. (Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it.) —Russian proverb

From your descriptions, it sounds as though photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique, which will never be seen again, is a powerful force for you.
Photography and art have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. There have been times when I dreamed of becoming a professional artist or photographer. Then I came to understand that the reason I love photography so much is the freedom I feel when I manage to capture that special moment or scene. I wait for my eye to tell me: here it is, your model or subject. Relying on my inner instincts brings a sense of wonder and happiness to my soul. Being a professional would rob me of that freedom. And this way I am also free to share my photos with others.

That’s an interesting, and unselfish, perspective. From a technical point of view, some readers will want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use.
All my images so far have come from my Canon EOS 10D, I use long-range and mid-range lenses and occasionally a fish-eye lens when I feel it will capture what I’m looking for. There’s nothing really special. The post processing software I use is Picasa since it’s free and does most everything I need to do.

So all in all, it’s a simple and uncluttered approach that works for you. Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Enjoy where you’re at, don’t worry about the subject matter (each one is a lesson), and don’t let anybody tell you to take lots and lots of pictures.

I must say I agree with what you just said, assuming you mean taking loads of shots randomly in the hope that you might get a good one. That’s a lazy approach that seldom works. It’s not a good way to learn the art, and it also means you have a lot of sorting and deletions to do. I only take a lot of shots when I’m doing blurs. Sorry, I interrupted. You were saying?
Explore different angles, walk around your subject looking for the right look, imagine it, see it in your mind, then shoot. A camera isn’t a shotgun; it’s a finely tuned instrument ready to capture whatever you want. A camera is nothing more than a fancy paintbrush. You the photographer are free to decide the final look and feel. The world is your subject and the photo your canvas. Good luck!

Sound advice, Steve. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell the story of your exciting journey and for sharing so much interesting and useful information in this interview.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Steve’s experiences? If you have any questions for him on his travels and/or photos, please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Steve and his work better, I suggest you visit his blog (which you can read snippets from his novelette, Under the Blood Moon), follow him on twitter and/or friend him on Facebook.

(If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 2014–2015 books recommended by expats & other international creatives (1/2)

Global Bookshelf Part OneHello Displaced Nationers! Looking back at the our popular series Best of 2014 in expat books, published at the end of last year, I decided we should continue the fun at the start of the year—and managed to convince our redoubtable editor, ML Awanohara, that the pair of us should canvass our “displaced” contacts to see what they’d enjoyed reading from last year’s crop of new books, as well as books they’re looking forward to reading in 2015.

A “best reads” roundtable, if you will.

In Part One, which appears below, several of my bookworm friends from a previous blog, Novel Adventurers, along with ML and JJ Marsh (JJ writes the Location, Locution column for Displaced Nation), discuss their favorite 2014 reads.

In Part Two, a similar group of us will talk about releases we’re hotly anticipating this year.

Having already shared my 2014 faves in last year’s series, I’ll concede the floor to others, beginning with ML.

—Beth Green

* * *

ML AWANOHARA: Thanks, Beth. These days, I seem to be more of a collector than a reader (I simply can’t keep up with all the titles I hear about!). If you’ll allow me to bend the rules, I’d like to highlight five more 2014 books I’ve discovered since our Best of 2014 in expat books went live. While I can’t personally recommend any of these titles, I feel justified in presenting them as an addendum to our series.

I’ll start with these four “displaced” novels, listed from most to least recent:

IHaveLivedToday_cover_300x200I Have Lived Today (October 2014)
Author: Steven Moore
Synopsis: Having barely survived his Dickensian childhood in 1960s Britain, Tristan Nancarrow sets out on a journey that will take him through the alleys of London and New York, to the rocky shores of ancient islands, and on pub crawls in dark and gloomy ports. The book is a classic coming-of-age adventure.
Expat creds: Originally from England, Moore is a writer, photographer, traveler and part-time ESL teacher who splits his time between Mexico, Korea and the world.
How we learned about: From his blog, Twenty-first Century Nomad.

SleepwalkersGuide_cover_300x200The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Random House, July 2014)
Author: Mira Jacob
Synopsis: This debut novel takes us on a journey that ranges from 1970s India to suburban 1980s New Mexico to Seattle during the boom. It follows the fortunes of the Eapens, an Indian American family dealing with tragedy and loss. Alternating between past and present, it shows the family’s transition from India to the United States. As one Indian critic writes, the story is “firmly rooted in an immigrant home, its peculiar methods and madness.”
Expat creds: Jacob is an Adult Third Culture Kid, whose Syrian Christian parents came over from Kerala, India, to New Mexico, in the 1960s. She now lives in Brooklyn with her Jewish American husband and son.
How we found out about: Recommended by Condé Nast Traveler as a book to read on a plane.

SummerattheLake_cover_300x200Summer at the Lake (Orion, June 2014)
Author: Erica James
Synopsis: An Oxford Tour guide, Floriana, a property developer, Adam, and Esme, an elderly woman who lives next door to a recent purchase by Adam, meet by chance and develop a lovely friendship, which takes them from the glittering spires of Oxford to the balmy shores of Lake Como. The story blends the tale of an old romance with a modern love affair.
Expat creds: James divides her time between living in Cheshire, UK, in a small rural hamlet and Lake Como, Italy, giving her plenty to draw upon in her books.
How we heard about: Pinterest.

TheBalladofaSmallPlayer_cover_300x200The Ballad of a Small Player: A Novel (Deckle Edge, April 2014)
Author: Lawrence Osborne
Synopsis: Lord Doyle decamps from the stuffy legal courtrooms of London to the smoky back-alley casinos of Macau, where he tries to capitalize on the ill-gotten gains that forced his flight from his homeland. But can he game the system at the island’s glitzy baccarat tables? With its expat angst and debauched air of moral ambiguity set amid the sinister demimonde of the Far East’s corrupt gambling dens, the book is an introspective study of decline and decay.
Expat creds: Lawrence Osborne was born in England and lives in New York City. A widely published and widely traveled journalist, he has lived a nomadic life in Mexico, Italy, France, Morocco, Cambodia and Thailand, places that he draws on in his fiction and non-fiction. His first novel was The Forgiven, which Beth Green reviewed for the Displaced Nation last year.
How we learned about: From Amazon.

Lastly, I have another expat memoir that was issued in 2014 and I think deserves a spot on our shelves:

FallinginHoney_cover_300x200Falling in Honey: How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart (Sourcebooks, March 2014)
Author: Jennifer Barclay
Synopsis: Barclay first visited the tiny Greek island of Tilos, in the south Aegean, with friends, including a lover with promising prospects. In her mid-thirties when those prospects fell apart, she decides to reconnect with herself by returning to Tilos for a month and immersing herself in Greek culture, food, language, and dance. Emotionally healed and recharged, she returns to England, where she meets a man who wants what she wants, only to discover… (I won’t ruin it for you.)
Expat creds: Born in Manchester, UK, Barclay subsequently grew up on the edge of the Pennines—but has lived in Greece, Canada and France, with longish stays in Guyana and South Korea. She now lives mostly on Tilos. Notably, she previously produced a memoir about life in South Korea, amusingly titled Meeting Mr. Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi.
How we learned about: Barclay’s “Gathering Road” podcast interview with Elaine Masters.

TheShadowoftheWind_coverJJ MARSH, crime series author and Displaced Nation columnist (Location, Locution): My best book of 2014 is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Luis Záfon. All booklovers will fall hopelessly in love with this tale of a boy and a book he swears to protect after he is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his bookseller father. Which of us could resist doing the same? Readers know how a story can act as a portal to otherwhere. This is the most perfect example, not to mention illuminating Barcelona in addition to the Franco dictatorship, love, loyalty and growth.

TheLie_coverHEIDI NOROOZY, adult TCK, translator and author (@heidinoroozy): One of the most remarkable and memorable books I’ve read recently is The Lie, by Hesh Kestin. Set in Israel, it features a Jewish human rights lawyer whose commitment to her principles is put to the test when her soldier son is kidnapped by Arab militants and whisked over the border to Lebanon. I love stories that explore the human spirit and are set against a backdrop of real-life events. The heart of this novel is the question of how far a mother is willing to go to save her child. Very chilling at times, heartbreaking at others and masterfully told overall.

PointofDirection_cover_300x200KELLY RAFTERY, translator and writer: In 2014, I loved Point of Direction, by Rachel Weaver. A starkly beautiful tale set in the Alaskan outback, it reads like a cross-cultural adventure. Most expats will recognize the feelings of culture shock, disorientation and unreality that haunt Anna, a woman on the run from her own ghosts. The sharp writing style perfectly mirrors the jagged mountains and rough seas that inhabit the novel as surely as another character.

SUPRIYA SAVKOOR, editor and mystery writer: I haven’t read many memoirs, but in recent months, I read two that blew me away. The first, Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming, is a must-read, even if celebrity memoirs aren’t your thing or you don’t know much about this Scottish actor, now a dual American-British citizen based in New York City. NotMyFathersSon_cover_300x200Cumming, it turns out, is a genius storyteller, and he takes us on an extraordinary journey through two juicy family mysteries across four countries and three time periods. It is, in turns, emotional, tragic, exciting, suspenseful, and funny. The colorful cast of characters, with names like Tommy Darling and Sue Gorgeous, are real people. Along the way, you’ll learn all kinds of fascinating little tidbits, much of it cross-cultural, about genealogy, history, pop culture, language, psychology. Even Cumming’s anecdotes about his life as a TV and film star are surprisingly interesting, largely because of the author’s clear-eyed, honest wisdom. (I also highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Cumming himself. Alongwayhome_cover_300x200 His lovely Scottish accent and intonations are an additional treat.)

A Long Way Home: A Memoir, by Saroo Brierley, is another great read. The story is simple but powerful: a five-year-old boy in rural India gets lost, is ultimately adopted to a family in Australia, then, as an adult, tracks down his birth family and reunites with them. How he pieces together his past and finds his roots is one of several beautiful mysteries in this small book. Loss and identity are obvious themes, but not just for the author. A truly unique story. (Side note: Modern technology is one of this book’s heroes.)

ASuitableBoy_coverALLI SINCLAIR, world traveler and novelist ( I recently re-read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. It was released way back in 1993 and caused quite a stir in the literary world as it was one of the longest novels ever to be published in English (1,349 pages hardcover). I first read it then, and, while it’s highly unusual for me to give a book a second or third read, every few years I return to this wonderful novel rich with Indian history, family saga, and a heartbreaking romance. It’s set in post-partition India and explores the political issues at the time (1950s), along with the Hindu-Muslim issues and the caste system. It’s quite an undertaking to read this book but I enjoy revisiting the characters I love. I am very fond of stories written by Indian authors as there is a beautiful style and interesting points of view I find appealing. There’s a sequel in 2016—I can’t wait!

* * *

Thank you, ML, JJ and guests! Readers, have you read any of the above or do you have further 2014 recommendations? Please leave a comment below. And stay tuned for Part Two of this post, books to look forward to in 2015!

Finally, please be sure to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has a Recommended Read every week. You can also follow the Displaced Nation’s DISPLACED READS Pinterest board.

STAY TUNED for PART 2 of this post: 2015 reads!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Never fear, Santa McNabb is here, with a sack full of Middle Eastern spy thrillers!


Expat author Alexander McNabb (his own photo)

I’ve always thought of international creative Alexander McNabb as a person who wears many hats, including (but hardly limited to) those of software package salesman, magazine publisher, journalist, radio commentator, literary conference chair, digital communications strategist, and writer of international thrillers. Wait, I almost forgot: talented chef. (In fact, I first discovered him through his now-defunct collective foodie blog, The Fat Expat. Note: The recipes are still available.)

And to this lengthy list I must now add a fur-trimmed Santa hat.* As faithful readers may recall, Alexander visited the Displaced Nation around this time last year, bearing gifts consisting of his first two Middle Eastern spy thrillers: Olives: A Violent Romance and Beirut: An Explosive Thriller.

And here we are again, mid-December, and there he is trudging towards us with a huge sack full of shiny new toys, consisting of the third and final book in what he has branded as his Levant Cycle: Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy.

What is more, he’ll be GIVING AWAY ONE COPY to the reader who makes the best comment below, as well as DISCOUNTING ALL THREE BOOKS on December 21 and 22 (code available only to Dispatch subscribers).

Readers, I have just finished reading Shemlan, and I can heartily endorse it as a PERFECT READ for the holidays: well written, well paced, and as one of his readers put it in her Amazon review “so very le Carré.” And if you’re a person who loves international travel, you will find yourself learning quite a lot about a part of the world that for many remains a black box.

But enough of the hype. The time has come to welcome the Wise Man and let him do the honors of presenting his latest offerings.

* Alexander, if you don’t like what I’ve done to this photo, I’ll remove the beard, but the hat stays!

* * *

McNabb Giveaway CollageTwo olives, and some extra-dry wit

Hello again, Alexander. First I want to congratulate you on producing three thrillers on the Middle East in relatively rapid succession: Olives, Beirut and now Shemlan. When you first started writing Olives, did you have any idea that two more books would follow?
No idea at all.

Can you remind us of the Olives plot?
Olives centers on a character called Paul Stokes, a young British journalist who travels to Jordan to work on a contract magazine project for the Jordanian Ministry of Natural Resources, which is working on privatizing Jordan’s water network. He falls in love with Aisha, his “minder” from the Ministry. Her brother is bidding against the British for the privatization. Gerald Lynch, a British Secret Intelligence Service officer, turns up and blackmails Paul into spying on Aisha’s family.

As I began to envision a second book, I had in mind a sort of interlinear gloss to Olives, which I was going to call (don’t ask me why!) The Olive Line, showing Lynch’s side of the story. In Olives we always see Lynch through Paul’s very jaded eye (rarely do we like those blackmailing us), while there is a whole other story in there of Lynch negotiating with the Israelis and Jordanian intelligence and figuring out how all three intelligence agencies with vested interests in the water resource issue (the Israeli, British and Jordanians) can work on this together.

But then Beirut happened, almost by accident. All my books have started with dreams, which is sort of cool.

Hmmm… I rather like the idea of The Olive Line.
I’m messing around with a screenplay of Olives, which incorporates some of that material, but it’s on the back burner ‘cos I’ve started writing another book. I can’t stop, it’s like a bad habit.

Somehow that doesn’t surprise me! So tell me: has writing three books based around the Middle East, where you’ve lived for 25 years, helped you to process your own experiences in the region, or is it complete escapism?
I’m sure a lot of my experiences have filtered in there in one way or another, but it’s really about escapism. I’ve stolen people, situations, scenery and feelings of course. It’s true that writing makes thieves of us. But I’ve never been shot at or killed any Albanian hookers, let alone slept with gorgeous madams from Rue Monot [a nightlife street in Beirut]. The world is probably a safer place now I’ve got all that stuff out of my system, but there’s more in there pounding on the gates to get out.

Yes, I can definitely sense that writing has brought out your suppressed desires, especially when it comes to the character of Gerald Lynch, that gritty British spy who appears in all three books and has some definite Bond-like traits. For example, he appears to enjoy women, food and drink, and never meets a firearm he doesn’t excel at using.
Bond? Nah. My British spy in Olives was originally a Terry-Thomas kind of character called Nigel Soames, a sort of gingery spook. He’s got a cameo in Shemlan. This character wasn’t working for me, and I had a business meeting with a big Irish businessman from a rural background in Dubai called Gerald who, during the meeting, uttered the immortal line: “I don’t like being called Gerry. I’ve been twenty years escaping Gerry blablabla” (I can’t tell you his surname). I left the meeting punching the air—Gerald Lynch had just come into being. He’s the anti-Bond. He never uses gadgets, and his idea of sophistication is a servee [shared taxi] and a beer in a shady bar… And he has got SUCH a big authority problem…


James Nesbitt. Photo credit: Richard Redshaw, Wikimedia Commons.

You said you’re writing a screenplay for Olives: have you got anyone in mind to play Lynch?
I played a game of “Which film stars would play your protagonists?” with some writer friends a couple of years ago and it was then I realized the only person who could play Lynch would be Irish actor James Nesbitt. Nesbitt is very good at portraying the dark, violent side of characters, and since we played that damn game, he and Lynch have morphed.

Gold, frankincense—and now myrhh

Moving on to Shemlan, which I’ve just finished and very much enjoyed: did you find it any easier to write than the other two books? Did you learn things that you were able to apply?
Oh, yes, you learn. When Olives was published, I was forced to come to the realization that not only was there a third person suddenly involved with my relationship with my books, but that I wasn’t actually welcome in the room anymore!

It’s about you—the reader—and the book, if it works, should never reveal any mark of my passing. It’s like hotel rooms. Every day someone is living in that room, frequently someone new each day—but you never, ever want to see any trace of the others. That hair in the bath, that stain on the sheets. Revolting. Books are the same deal—if you ever catch sight of me, I’ve failed—and you’ve been rudely yanked out of the misty springtime mountainside above Beirut back to wherever you are sitting and wanting not to be…

I’ve been amazed at how much people question books as well—I’d never been conscious of it myself, despite being a lifelong bookworm—but people ask me questions like “Why did Lynch do this?” or “How did Paul do that?” or “Why did you kill so and so?” and you realize they have immersed themselves, invested of themselves, in the world you made up. That’s pretty humbling, to tell the truth.

I’ve also learned loads from my editors. You get to come to terms with your quirks and bad habits and eradicate them. I have a list of lazy words and silly phrases I use too much and I do a search for them and find better ways of putting it.

Let’s talk about Shemlan the place, “a Christian village in a Druze area” as you explain in the book. Can you translate that for the uninitiated?
Shemlan is a village in the Chouf mountains above Beirut. Like many other villages in this area, it is inhabited by Druze families, which is a form of Islam that diverged from the mainstream centuries ago, but also Christian families and perhaps Sunni Muslims. Lebanon is a patchwork of faiths and sectarianism is really part of the national DNA—to the point where even the roles of the national leadership are assigned on sectarian lines.

Why did you name the novel after that place?
Purely because the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies (MECAS) was there—the “British spy school.” It really existed! (I was originally going to call the book “Hartmoor”, but heard of Sarah Ferguson’s plan to release a novel of that name and thought I’d be best getting out of her way.) It’s also the only one of the three novels with decent search engine results built in—I own “Shemlan” on Amazon, for instance, when you search for it. Crespo owns “olives”—I’ll never forgive them for it!

In the latter part of the book, we travel with Lynch to Estonia.
Estonia sort of just happened because of the man Lynch is chasing: Dmitri, a Russian military intelligence operative turned modern-day hood. I made him Estonian, and then I went there on holiday and fell in love, love, love. Tallinn is magnificent, fun, sexy and gloriously historic.

A window on the Middle East

The events you portray in Shemlan are extremely violent. The Middle East is of course known for its violence, and it’s said that all major Western empires have become unraveled there. Why do you think the area brings out the worst in everyone so to speak?
It’s Lebanon’s tragedy to possess remarkable beauty and wealth and constantly squander both. The wealth is agricultural as well as creative and intellectual. I think it’s the washing up of the world’s revealed religions, the clash of interests over resources such as water and, of course, the thorny issue of Israel (and the side effects of America’s involvement in that country and the region as a whole). Add corrupt, lazy governance, some good old-fashioned despotism and a legacy of home-made post-colonial lines slashed on a map and you’ve got yourself a nice potboiler! I’m amazed I seem to be one of very few people setting novels in an area as fascinating, complex and just plain screwed up, to be honest!

Your readers who are based in the Middle East, including some natives, have praised your novels for getting the political details right. Did you do a lot of research?
There’s a lot of research there, but not so much into the politics, which is something that’s just a part of everyday life and conversation in these parts, but certainly into whizzbangs [firearms]. The water crisis that drives Olives is very real, for instance—as are the Oka missile warheads in Beirut—the Soviets actually “lost” 180-odd of the blasted things—and so is MECAS (the “spy school” in Shemlan). You can land a helicopter with no engine, kill someone using champagne and drive a two-tonne truck across the Baltic Sea—all of these are true and the result of quite a bit of research. I do try hard not to let that show too much—I’ve always hated books where the hero hefts his 8.2 calibre Poon and Nargle semi-automatic gas-powered carbine with the double hefted shoulder randomizers—you know, where the research is paraded with a pub bore’s infinite, dreary precision.

Leaving aside the whizzbangs for a moment (I’m way out of my depth), I’d like to move on to the love affair between the British diplomat, Jason Hartmoor, and a Lebanese woman from Shemlan, Mai. When Jason leaves Beirut because of the Civil War, he also leaves Mai, to his everlasting regret. He writes her letters, in which he pours out his heart out, including all his work frustrations. Believable?
There are two romances in the books, that between Paul and Aisha and then that between Jason and Mai. In Jason’s case, it’s as much about frustration with his subsequent marriage to a fellow Brit, Lesley, which is just horrible. And it’s about his yearning, his sense of loss at having left Beirut and being in the situation where he can’t go back. Mai understands him, is sympathetic and an intelligent correspondent who is easy to talk to, where Jason’s own wife is contemptuous of him. But —of course—as we find out, things are never quite as simple as they seem…

Words to the wise on self-publishing

I noticed on your blog that you decided to end your relationship with your agent because of his feedback on this book (or the lack). Can you say a little more about that?
He didn’t feel he could “shop” the book to publishers and I thought that was pretty useless. I mean, not even trying. What’s the point of having an agent who basically says he can’t be bothered to try and sell your book? If he doesn’t feel he can sell a thriller set in the Middle East, then we’re never really going to get on, are we?

I know you worked in editing. What is your editorial process?
I always do a number of edits, both by myself and in response to beta readers and then, of course, it goes for professional editing. In the case of Shemlan, Gary Smailes at Bubblecow did the edit and a fine job he did, too. He also cut 30,000 words from the manuscript, which left some reconstruction work to do, but he had made a valid structural point and I accepted that yes, I had to rebuild the West Wing if the house was going to work. My best beta reader (now everyone else is going to hate me) is a chap called Bob Studholme, who is actually an English lecturer in a university here. He’s very good at “yep, that works; nope, that doesn’t gel” feedback, which is what you really want. And Katie Stine proofread the edited MS and found no less than 230 flubs still in there. She’s a fantastic proofreader. And, yes, it takes all that to polish a manuscript if you’re going to take publishing seriously!

Now that you’ve finished The Levant Cycle, what’s next? And can we look forward to your return here next December?
I’ve just started on a new book that’s set in the UK, about a woman who can’t remember what happened to her when she was working as a teacher in Iraq (that might change to Southern Lebanon). She comes back to the UK to teach here in an institute for talented kids and finds her life starts to unravel as the amnesia fades. Her friend is a journalist who sets out to find out what happened to her before she loses her mind completely. I might junk it after a few chapters and move on to something else, but that’s the current plan and I’m enjoying writing it so far!

10 Questions for Alexander McNabb

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: I’ve just finished re-reading The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson. Oh me oh my but that book is glorious. Stark, brooding and oppressive—but glorious!
2. Favorite literary genre: I don’t really have one. I’ll read almost anything – except dystopian paranormal chick lit with vampires. I avoid that.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I tend to watch films on the plane and never at any other time. 99% of my reading now is on my Kindle.
4. The one book you’d require PM Cameron to read, and why: Ulysses by James Joyce. Because it would cause him great pain and therefore gladden me.
5. Favorite books as a child: Oh dear. Confesses. I loved Enid Blyton‘s Famous Five books. By the time I was eight I’d moved on to The Bridge over The River Kwai. I was a terrible bookworm. I once got a detention for reading Scottish author Alister Maclean‘s The Way to Dusty Death during an English class. It had a lurid cover and I hadn’t even bothered to cover it in brown paper. I recently re-read the book, incidentally, and was angered at how utterly crap it was. Awful, awful stuff. Proper shocked at just how bad a piece of writing had become a big bestseller back then.
6. Favorite heroine/hero: I always liked Smilla in the Danish novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, and Kristen Scott Thomas in the film version of The English Patient… For heroes: Bertie Wooster.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Lawrence Durrell. He was an atrocious human but a writer of genius. And an expat, though he preferred to be thought of as cosmopolitan.
8. Your reading habits: Kindle all the way. Capricious. I’ll read a good book anywhere. Waiting rooms, toilets, bed, hanging upside down from a tree, I don’t care.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Olives, without a doubt! As mentioned, I’m working on it…
10. The book you plan to read next: There are several lined up on my Kindle and it could be any one of them—or something I stumble across on Amazon. That’s the wonderful thing about Kindles—the next book is just a click away!

* * *

Thanks so much, Santa McNabb. Does anyone have any COMMENTS for this right jolly old elf? Hurry, before these special offers go up the chimney! The winner of Shemlan (for best comment) will be announced in our January 3rd Displaced Dispatch. And the CODE FOR ALL THREE BOOKS will be in the Dispatch published this weekend, on Saturday the 21st, GOOD FOR JUST TWO DAYS: DEC 21 & 22!!!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, some last-minute suggestions for expat and international travel e-books to buy for the holidays, including, of course, this one!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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And the September 2013 Alices go to … these 4 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Used under license

© Iamezan |
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not (and why aren’t you? off with your head!), listen up. Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present an “Alice Award” to a writer or other kind of creative person who we think has a special handle on the curious and unreal, who knows what it means to be truly displaced as a global resident or voyager. Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement to their advantage, as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post honors September’s four Alice recipients.

Starting with the most recent, and this time with annotations, they are (drumroll…):

1) SHERRY OTT, travel photographer and blogger

Source: Photographing Vietnam’s Rainy Season,” on Everything Everywhere
Posted on: 20 September 2013

From a cultural experience and photography standpoint, inclement weather seasons are a wonderful opportunity to see how the locals really live in situations that we would deem less desirable. You get a true feel for the country and local culture and traditions through the “tough” times. On top of it you get introduced to a number of new products that are used in that inclement weather season that you probably never even dreamed of…

Citation: Sherry, we have to stop you there. Right now we are picturing Alice sloshing through her own tears:

As she said these words her foot slipped, and in another moment, splash! she was up to her chin in salt water. Her first idea was that she had somehow fallen into the sea, “and in that case I can go back by railway,” she said to herself.

But what interests us about you, Sherry—what’s curiouser and curiouser, as Alice might put it—is that, unlike her, you were not having a pool-of-tears moment. As you set foot in Saigon at the height of the monsoon season, your first thought was, my, how lucky I am to see “the skies open up and pour down their wrath on city streets.” And you know what, Sherry? We agree with you. Unlike Alice, who had no means of transport except possibly the train, you had your own motorbike. Also unlike her, you were privy to some unusual sights: double-headed ponchos and ponchos with headlight windows! Poor Alice, on the other hand, when she heard something splashing about in a pool a little ways off, thought she might encounter a walrus or hippopotamus, only to find … a mouse.

2) ALYSSA JAMES Canadian blogger, journalist, traveler

Source: How fast can you slow travel?” on Matador Network
Posted on: 13 September 2013

Because of regulations on how long a truck driver is allowed to be on the road in a day, I was able to explore the city [of Chicago] for exactly 1 hour and 19 minutes.

In those 79 minutes, I was still able to slow travel. I visited the sculpture and centerpiece of Millennium Park known as the Bean (actually called Cloud Gate) and went to the Art Institute. More importantly, I talked with people who lived there. I received interesting insights about the place I wouldn’t have gathered otherwise, like where to get the most delicious Chicago-style pizza ever (Giordano’s deep-dish, double-crusted and stuffed deliciousness).

Citation: Alyssa, we appreciate that you were able to plumb the depths of the Windy City, the largest city in the Midwest, America’s third largest, in just over an hour (hey, that’s no mean feat given how deep the pizza is!). And all this without the benefit of the Queen’s insights in Through the Looking Glass:

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Our only question is, had you followed the Queen’s advice and run twice as fast, do you think you might have at least sampled the stuffed pizza? And of course, had you run twice as fast, you could have sampled it guilt-free! That’s a thought. Next time, perhaps?

3)  ANNE COPELAND, founder and Executive Director of The Interchange Institute

Source: “Tiger Moms, Bébés, and Warm Eskimos” on FIGT blog
Posted on: 1 September 2013

[A]s an interculturalist, I’m at once fascinated, excited … and disappointed by these accounts of parenting in other cultures…. In each case, the message is roughly, “Here’s a new and superior way to raise your children; the result is better than what you’re doing; try it, you’ll like it.” But nowhere do they describe the deep values underlying the parenting choices, the ultimate goals for the kind of adult parents are trying to raise, or the cultural milieu into which the children will be expected to grow.

Citation: Anne, we feel certain that Alice could relate to your woes. She was, after all, rather discombobulated by what she saw of the Duchess’s parenting style. To quote from her account:

While the Duchess sang the second verse of the song, she kept tossing the baby violently up and down, and the poor little thing howled so, that Alice could hardly hear the words:—
“I speak severely to my boy,
I beat him when he sneezes;
For he can thoroughly enjoy
The pepper when he pleases!”

Just imagine, a child that enjoys unlimited amounts of pepper thanks to harsh parenting. It totally makes sense in the Wonderland context. Except…achoo! or should we say: hach-chu (Bengali), hāt-chī (Cantonese), atsjú (Hungarian), aatsjoo (Norwegian), or atchoum (French)? In any case, some sort of onomatopoeia must be required. Parenting may vary from place to place, but not sneezing! But wait, the Japanese say hakushon. Are they trying to stifle the sneeze while frantically searching for a face mask? (Anne, please tell us: will intercultural wonders ever cease?)

4)  NIKKI HODGSON, blogger & traveler

Source: “What is lost (and gained) when the traveler settles down” on Matador Network
Posted on: 16 August 2013

“…Every day that passes separates me from the places I used to belong to, the places I learned to belong to. As I dig my roots deeper into the rocky Colorado soil, I must relinquish my grasp of the banks of the Neckar where I first studied abroad, the mountains of Grenoble that stood guard over me as I fell apart, the dusty hills of Bethlehem where I put myself back together.

And I know that I will never belong to these places the way I once did.”

Citation: Nikki, you put us in mind of Alice’s sister, who like you after your travels, was old and wise enough to know that Wonderland wouldn’t, couldn’t last. Here is the relevant passage:

So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality—the grass would be only rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds…

Crazy Wonderland or dull reality? Or, in your case: dusty hills or rocky soil? That is THE expat question… Not much of a choice, is it?

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award?  We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on these weekly sources of inspiration. Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for our next post!

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance whether you’re one of our Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Entrepreneur Daniel Abrahams: From London to Israel, start-up nation of the world

Daniel Abrahams CollageToday we welcome Suzi Dixon to the Displaced Nation. Though it is her first time guest posting for us, Suzi is well known among expats and other internationals for her articles and blogs in The Telegraph and Huffington Post. Here she tells the story of British entrepreneur Daniel Abrahams, who decided to move his Internet start-up from London to Tel Aviv. Suzi has also kindly agreed to allow us to pose a few questions of our own to Daniel, from our “displaced” perspective.

Kate Allison & ML Awanohara

Brits looking to move abroad face a decisiondo they look for work or start their own business? But what if you’ve already got a business back home in Blighty? Times are tough globally and, particularly for those with a business still in the start-up stage, a move throws up all sort of added pressure.

I spoke to Daniel Abrahams, co-founder of, who recently relocated this thriving internet start-up from the Google @ Campus in London to TechLoft in Tel Aviv.

Their business is expanding rapidly. and its sister site,, have already helped more than 1.2 million visitors find a fairer and cheaper deal on both travel money and international payments.

However, the opportunity to move their headquarters to Israel, known as the “start-up nation,” for three months was hard to resist.

“We want to be immersed in one of the most dynamic and successful startup hubs in the world,” Daniel said. “During our stay in Tel Aviv, we will meet face-to face with other high impact startups, entrepreneurs, and investors. In the first week of being here, we’ve spontaneously met literally dozens of high impact, high potential companies that are only too happy to knowledge share.”

When it came to making the decision, Daniel turned to a good old-fashioned list of pros and cons. The pros won out and, now, he wants to inspire other Brits with a business big or small to take the plunge.

“You’ve got to focus on the pros,” he said. “Think of the Serendipity Factorif the opportunity arises to move overseas, perhaps that’s happened for a reason? It’s an opportunity to build your company culture and widen your network. And, with advances in technology, there’s no reason why you can’t have your PR firm, accountant and admin in London while you relocate. That’s where cloud computing excels!”

Moving also keeps you on your toes. “Getting too comfortable in one environment can be your own worst enemy,” Daniel said. “I want to see the world and new business environments. There’s also a good chance that you may be able to find and nurture local talent you might not otherwise come across.”

*  *  *

Thanks, Suzi! And now, our curiosity aroused, we have some questions of our own for Daniel.

Daniel, thank you so much for joining us! As we’re not all finance types here, can you please explain in a nutshell what your business is all about?
Launched in September 2010, and are award-winning comparison Web sites for foreign exchange. Every day, we help thousands of expats, overseas property buyers, students, businesses and holidaymakers find a fairer deal on travel money and international payments.

How does your startup compare to businesses offering similar services?
We help our visitors access the sharpest currency rates on the market via our proprietary comparison platform. The rates quoted are wholesale exchange rates provided by FCA-regulated currency companies. We’re trying to make awesome currency deals accessible to the everyday consumers and not just reserved for big institutions transacting in the billions.

How did you get the idea for the business?
My co-founder, Stevan Litobac, and I launched the business after being ripped off on foreign exchange. I was travelling in Australia, and Stevan was holidaying around Europe. We couldn’t believe the somewhat ludicrous exchange rate markups banks and airport bureaus were adding to the “real” rate of exchange. After doing some research, we found this was a $400 billion dollar per year market that was in desperate need of innovation.

Our USP is the custom-built technology that our tech teams have built. We are neither a bank nor a broker, and can therefore be truly independent and impartial when finding our visitors the best-value currency deals.

At the moment, our business has eight staff members, pretty much split down the middle between tech and marketing talent.

You say that the opportunity to move your headquarters to Israel, known as the start-up nation, for three months was “hard to resist.” Can you say a little more about that: did you seek out the opportunity, or did it come your way?
Absolutely. Israel has the largest proportion of startups per capita in the world. It is a thriving country that is home of some of the most exciting technological innovation the world has seen. In Tel Aviv, there are thousands of startups and many accelerators. Every day there is another type of meetup happening, from marketing to development. The buzz was a great draw for us.

We did seek out the opportunity. We saw some other startups do similar temporary HQ relocations and this inspired us. Israel is also a great fit in terms of location, being only five hours from London and not too far at all from our partners.

In making your decision, you made a list of pros and cons. What were the main items on each list, and how close was the contest?
Here’s the very shorthand version of the list:


  • Amazing tech community
  • Great startup ecosystem
  • Only 5 hours from London, and much closer than the Silicon Valley (another strong contender)
  • Great for team bonding
  • Good place to freshen up the working environment to stimulate creativity (serendipity factor, experience of living in another country, minor time difference, stunning weather, beach).
  • Other startups have succeeded in doing similar relocations.


  • Leaving parts of the team back home.
  • Uncertainty about how our partners would react to the move.
  • Delay in taking new office space.
  • Slowdown in growing the team back in London.

With such a big move, we obviously took a long time to consider whether to do it. I think the biggest “pro” that swung our decision was the sheer excitement at immersing ourselves in such a dynamic “startup nation.” We’re so glad we did it. In our first month of being in Israel, we celebrated a record month revenue wise. This was definitely validation we’d made the right choice!

Now that you’re settled in Tel Aviv, what would you say are the main differences between working at Google @ Campus in London to TechLoft in Tel Aviv? Are there any similarities?
TechLoft is a much smaller co-working space than Campus. However, they share the same principles. There is lots of collaboration between the companies during and after work hours. I’d say there are definitely more on-site events at Google Campus whereas in Tel Aviv you normally need to travel to the relevant meetups. Also, the more intimate size at Techloft means you really get to know everyone on the floor, whereas at Campus you are constantly meeting new people.

What do you love the most about living and working in Israel?
First of all, I love being able to wake up, put a pair of shorts on and run on the beach or ride my bike on the promenade before work. It’s such an incredible feeling living in a city that has such an outdoor culture! The food is sensational and the people are nothing but warm, charming and friendly.

The tech community here is so switched on, and the entrepreneurs are a lot more mature than those back in the UK. As most have already been through their military service plus graduated from uni, would-be entrepreneurs can often be starting their careers in their late twenties. Every day, we’re meeting fascinating potential service providers or being introduced to relevant people who can help us build our business. I love the “culture of introductions” out here, with entrepreneurs and investors willing to open up their Rolodex.

Do you ever feel “displaced” in Tel Avivwishing you were in London instead?
Great question! There are definitely cross-cultural differences between London and Tel Aviv. In Israel, we have a saying about people talking dugriwhich means no holds barred, to the point, straight. The culture is FAR more direct, and people are pretty aggressive when airing their thoughts. This shouldn’t be mistaken for being rude. Israelis call a spade a spade!

In both a business and social settings in London, it seems people are far more formal and polite compared to Israel. Meetings are actually held on time (something we miss), and there is a lot more structure to the meetings themselves.

Still, I have never really felt displaced. My co-founder Stevan and I, together with the wider team, have quickly adapted to the pace of life in Tel Aviv, and the community has welcomed us with open arms.

Can you give us a concrete example of how your business has been enriched by taking it abroad, and would you say that working abroad has made you more creative?
By taking MyCurrencyTransfer and MyTravelMoney away from the safe harbours of home, we’ve become travellers ourselves, and as such have started experiencing a lot of what we previously only half absent-mindedly tweeted, retweeted, liked, blogged or quoted on our social channels. Travel challenges and settling-in challenges have taken us out of our comfort zones, whereas before we were taking the tube to work and back mindlessly. We’ve also started using our own personal travel pictures and journals as inspiration for our community discussions, so we’re way more authentic as a brand now, I believe.

Another way that it has made us creative is in search of local experts. Israel has some of the smartest tech and marketing people in the world, and we feel a sense of urgency in meeting them before our time here runs out! We have identified two or three key individuals whom we’ll be hiring in Israel to assist with our digital marketing activity across both MyTravelMoney and MyCurrencyTransfer. They are experienced hires and will have a direct impact on the growth of our business. Having two thriving offices in both London and Tel Aviv is a medium to long-term goal of ours.

It was always important for us to establish a legacy, and not just simply be here for three months, go back to London and not leave anything behind in Tel Aviv. The talent here is too rich to waste.

You say that “getting too comfortable in one environment can be your own worst enemy.” Are you definitely going back to Britain? Where else would you like to go?
Staying in an all too comfortable place might not be your worst enemy, but it certainly limits your experience and potential for serendipity. As they say: to be lucky, you need to go outside. And outside can mean going to a new meet-up or going to an altogether new country. We will be back in Britain, we see it as our base, as a lot of our target market are based there, so having a stable office there for the business makes sense for us. Where next? Who knows! We like Israel for its people, warm weather, nearby beaches and its rich history. San Francisco might not be so dissimilar to that perhaps?

With the knowledge of hindsight, would you do anything differently? What were your biggest challenges?
I don’t think we would have done much differently to be honest. We organised all of the logistics before leaving the UK, which also happens to have been our biggest challenge: office and apartment rental, things like that. Once we arrived here, however, it really wasn’t too far apart from what we were used to back at home. There are slight differentiating nuances between Britain and Israel. For example, there aren’t such huge supermarkets here, and there’s no chip and pin, just sign the receipt (if they even ask for that!)—all the little things that are fun to learn about a new place!

What piece of advice would can give someone who’s thinking of moving to Israel and starting up (or relocating) a business abroad?
If you have the desire to do it, I’m sure you will find a way. If you’re not sure or a bit “iffy” about it, then chances are you won’t regret doing it at the end of the day, so skip all the thinking and start planning. The only disclaimer I’d put here is that we were quite mobile before we even moved; we’re essentially three guys with three laptops, and you could put us anywhere with a WiFi connection. If we had an expensive office lease, then we may have weighed up the pros and cons of the costs of keeping the lease/cancelling it early, but that’s about it. We’re a much bigger company now in terms of staffso we’ll give some tips next time around when planning a bigger company relocation!

* * *

Thank you, Daniel! Readers, what about you? Do you have any more questions for Daniel Abrahams? And how do you think you’d feel about being a “trailing entrepreneur”?

STAY TUNED for some more great posts next week!

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Images (clockwise from top left): View of London and the Thames (morguefiles); ice cream bicycle, Google London campus, courtesy Clive Darra on Flickr; presentation on Israel’s start up culture, courtesy Frank Boyd on Flickr; view of Tel Aviv from Old Jaffa (morguefiles); Stevan Litobac (L) and Daniel Abrahams (R).

Oblivious to controversy, this expat author stirs up tales of violence, romance and tragedy in the Middle East

Alexander McNabb isn’t afraid of ghoulies, ghosties, long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night — which, as Kate Allison announced the week before last, is this month’s theme at the Displaced Nation.

How do I know he isn’t afraid? Because he is too busy tuning into other sources of thrills, chills and excitement for his books — namely, Middle Eastern politics and intrigue.

Though he doesn’t seek controversy, he doesn’t shy away from it either. His books are violent, explosive, and deadly. One has actually been banned in Jordan.

I now have the pleasure of giving Mr McNabb the floor to tell us more about his affinity for such dastardly topics. Don’t worry, he doesn’t have fangs but is a gentle sort with a great sense of humo(u)r… He is also a lively conversationalist, with his own radio show in Dubai, and a cook.

Welcome, Alexander. Shall we start out with what should be a basic question (though it rarely is for us displaced types): where are you from?
I was born in London, in Edgware General Hospital, which they have since knocked down, presumably to stop lightning striking twice. I grew up in various countryside areas north of London and was unwillingly educated at The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Elstree.

When did you first go to the Middle East?
In 1986. I was selling an insanely visionary software package put together by a directory publisher that had the wonderful idea of selling its information as an integrated database. I presented this to a number of puzzled Saudis who lost no time in introducing me to their most junior members of staff and leaving me there. It taught me an important lesson — Gulf Arabs never say “no,” it’s considered rude. And “not no” doesn’t mean “yes”!

How did you end up living in Dubai?
When that project and, ultimately, the company failed I got involved in the publishing side of things. And so in 1993 I moved out to Dubai to start a subsidiary of the publishing company I worked for. And got myself shut down by the Ministry of Information. But that’s another story…

We will talk about your trio of books set in the Middle East shortly. But first: do you have any other published works?
The first book I wrote was a spoof of international spy thrillers, called just Space. I re-read the manuscript a couple of months ago and it made me laugh a lot, so I published that as a $2.99 Kindle-only book. I worked for ten years as an editor and publisher and for longer than that as a writer and journalist, so there are millions of my words out there — lost and crying out plaintively…

No need for them to mourn as you’ve just now published Beirut — An Explosive Thriller, which is the second in three books you are writing that are set in the Middle East, called The Levant Cycle. The first was Olives — A Violent Romance and the third will be Shemlan — A Deadly Tragedy. Could you say a little more about the Levant Cycle?
The Levant Cycle was never meant to be — the three books just happen to be set in the same region, contain some of the same characters and be roughly contiguous. But they are very different. Olives is really a novel — the story follows young British journalist, Paul Stokes as he arrives in Jordan and quickly falls afoul of the law — while Beirut is a hardcore international spy thriller. And they’re independent works in themselves. I had always thought of a book that would form an interlinear to Olives, a telling of that story from another perspective, possibly that of Gerald Lynch, the British Secret Intelligence Service officer that Paul encounters. Beirut wasn’t meant to follow on from Olives and then it just did, sort of taking up from when Paul moves to Beirut. And of course Beirut shows a very different Gerald Lynch, because in Olives you only see Lynch from Paul’s somewhat jaundiced perspective. So the books can be grouped, but I didn’t want a trilogy — a cycle seemed more appropriate.

Are you now working on the third book?
Yes, I’m about halfway through Shemlan and loving it. It’s a great deal darker than the other two books. It’s about a retired diplomat who’s dying of cancer going back to his past and finding that past is likely to kill him before the disease does.

What does “shemlan” mean?
Shemlan is a tiny village high in the hills above Beirut. It’s a little-known fact that Shemlan was for many years home to the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, where the British government taught its diplomats — and its spies — Arabic. A lot of my research for the book has consisted of taking friends and colleagues up there for lunch at Al Sakhra (The Cliff House), the lovely Arabic restaurant in the village. I know, it’s hard…

What made you decide to center the action of your books around the politics of the Middle East?
No one else was writing fiction centered on this region. There hasn’t been an interesting Middle Eastern spy thriller since Eric Ambler’s The Levanter. Olives was intended to introduce a Western audience that doesn’t care very much to some of the more complicated aspects of life in that part of the world — to some of the human issues that lie behind the glib headlines.

I presume you aren’t afraid of controversy?
Bring it on! Actually, I was amazed at the “controversy” that Olives provoked because of my having depicted Muslims drinking alcohol and Arab women having sex with foreigners. These things never happen in the Arab World! And then the Great Naming Scandal, when my use of a real Palestinian name (Dajani, for the Palestinian family Paul gets involved with) was deemed by distributors in Jordan to make the book too hot for them to handle. It still can’t be sold there!

How about Beirut?
I was truly blown away when the UAE’s National Media Council granted the necessary “Permission to Print” for Beirut. I’m sure someone, somewhere will find some aspect of the book controversial, but I think that’s more a product of the lack of narrative literature in the region than it is any quest for controversy on my part. And yes, you do actually have to get permission to print a book here — and government clearance to import books into any country in the region.

What audience did you have in mind for Olives?
Olives was written for a British audience but has appealed broadly across Europe and the US as well as in the Arab World. I’ve been more than pleased at Western readers who have enjoyed Olives and said, “I didn’t know about all that stuff.” And, because I thought I might lose Arab friends, I have been truly overjoyed that so many Palestinian and Arab readers have loved it.

At one point in Olives, Paul, the British journalist, becomes romantically involved with his Palestinian coworker, Aisha Dajani. Do you think Westerners can have successful relationships with Arabs and live happily ever after?
I really don’t see it as a “Westerner/Arab” thing at all – it’s an awful cliché, but love transcends nationality, culture and, yes, religion. I have seen relationships founder on that particular rock, where the partners can’t clear the hurdle of converting to or from Islam, but I have also seen couples deal with that. And, of course, there are still a great number of Christians in the Arab world and Muslims in the West. East and West doesn’t have to be about Islam, even if it often is.

Did you base the hero, Paul, on anyone in particular?
Paul Stokes is modeled on a number of callow Brits I have encountered arriving in the Middle East over the years, most of them journalists. You get a lot of credit in the Arab World for having tried to understand things, for actually bothering to learn something about the region and its people before you go leaping in blindly, as Paul does. I have often been highly amused at the way Arab friends have reacted to the behavior of British people new to the region — funny little things like different approaches to generosity, family, children and manners. I remember once walking into the office to be met by horrified glares from the girls, all trying to catch my attention and draw it to the new Brit who was happily — and loudly — clipping his nails at his desk. Or the British staffer who labelled her things in the office fridge. To the Arabs, you just share and if we’re out of something, you get it — someone labeling a bottle of milk was a source of appalled amusement.

Paul becomes “localized,” even becomes a smoker, which is why he is so torn between “home,” represented by his girlfriend Anne, and “away,” which of course is Aisha. And she, of course, is the hero of the book. You’re not actually supposed to like Paul, really. Perhaps sympathize with him…

You characterize Olives as a “violent romance.” What does that mean exactly?
The book’s working title for years was just “Olives.” The problem with that is that when you google “Olives,” you get Crespo, cookbooks or restaurants. So I decided on a defining subtitle — and nothing else seemed to suit other than “violent romance.” Olives is both a romance and a spy thriller. Thriller readers would find it too slow or romantic, romance readers would find it a little rough was the general concern. I hate how publishing brackets and pigeonholes us like that. The love story part of it has been popular, for sure — but a lot of people didn’t know about the region’s water crisis and learned about it from Olives, which has been cool.

Will Beirut attract the same readers?
Beirut is a totally different book and I was perhaps a little gleeful at how Olives readers would react to its much more hardcore spy thriller nature, particularly female readers. I was also a little scared, because I was setting out to kill what little fan base Olives has won for me. Readers, including females, have loved Beirut so far, which has me slack-jawed to be honest. But then it shows how wrong those traditional publishing preconceptions are — women actually reading a thriller? Oh, the shock of it all!

Is that why you are self-publishing The Levant Cycle — because the books do not fit in traditional publishing categories? I ask because quite a few expat authors we’ve featured on The Displaced Nation have self-published their works.
Let’s start with 250 rejections from agents for, respectively, Space, Olives and Beirut. When London agent Robin Wade signed me, it was for Beirut. I thought I was made, I really did. 250 rejections — and then an agent comes along and makes like a scrooch owl! Robin shopped Beirut around to 14 top publishers (there’s an image of the list I had of them, one after another struck off as the news came in, posted up on the Beirut site) and they, to a man, rejected it.

Why do you think that happened?
The ignorance about the Middle East from agents and editors alike has been shocking: “We have terrorism here at home, I don’t think people want to read about that” and “This novel, set in war-torn city Beirut” were two low points. But the worst was the editor who praised Beirut’s pace, setting, style and dialogue, compared it to Le Carré — but said he didn’t think it would fly in supermarkets. After that, I decided to see what readers thought without waiting for the gatekeepers. I am so glad I did.

Funnily enough, I discovered your books last month, when the Displaced Nation was dedicating itself to a series of food posts and I happened upon your collective blog about food, The Fat Expat.
Blogging became an outlet for me between frustrated bouts of writing. My partner in foodie crime, Simon “HalfManHalfBeer” McCrum, and I tried bringing others on board — but in the end The Fat Expat was doomed to tempus fugit failure. Still, I loved it while it lasted. I used to run a food magazine so am quite experienced in food preparation, photography and so on — and I love cooking.

Last month we were asking all of our interviewees: would you travel for food?
Damn right I would! Sweden this year, stunning food at stunningly high prices but you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten sour cream and crayfish on toast for breakfast. Estonia last year, a gorgeous holiday of art, museums and culture interspersed with the world’s largest, cheapest Martinis and top class cuisine — pelmeni in chicken stock, venison in red wine! But you want to really eat? There are stunning restaurants in Jordan — puffed up flatbreads fresh from the brick oven, potato pan-fried with egg and Mediterranean herbs. And, of course, Beirut — French food that makes Parisians blush alongside mountains of mezze, splashes of Armenian spice and of course Lebanese wines. I had to edit out my descriptions of Château Musar from Beirut because they crossed that threshold between what matters in a book and what readers need to know. But Musar is one of the world’s great wines. And the rosé from Château Ksara? Barmy, quite barmy. Do not, if you have the chance, neglect Massaya — a lovely wine from the achingly beautiful Bekaa Valley.

Next month’s Displaced Nation theme will be expats and politics — in honor of the U.S. elections. Do you have a horse in that particular race?
Obama. I don’t think anyone should forget that the people behind Romney are the people who took America to war against Iraq for no reason other than profit and dominance. There were never any WMDs and there was no link whatever between the murderously secular Saddam and the New Caliphate of Al Qaeda. Over a million people have died, the Middle East is lurching from crisis to crisis — and those old men are still doing three-martini lunches and planning their next move to make the world a safer place. At least Obama represents a hope of inclusion and reason.

Do you think expats should stay in touch with their home country’s politics? Do you?
Living in the Middle East, US politics are something you tend to follow because it pretty much shapes the region. I follow British politics to a degree, but it’s hard to be passionate about a system that has become so centrist and messaged. It’s something of a sitcom really.

What’s next, after the Cycle is finished?
I can’t even begin to think about what’s next, but there are plenty of contenders for next project, including a book set in Ireland and one about a traumatized teacher coming back from Iraq. Neither feature Mr. Lynch.

Readers, why not give those witches, ghosts, zombies, werewolves and vampires of yours a break and try Alexander McNabb’s wonderful cocktails of romance, intrigue, and high-stakes international politics instead?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images: Alexander McNabb author image and book covers.

Travel yarn: The Holy Land, transformative art — and Michael Jackson?!

We welcome Joanna Liss to the Displaced Nation as a guest blogger. A veteran of volunteering overseas, she recently went to Israel with the voluntourism group GoEcoon a quest that can best be described as quasi-spiritual.

I must confess I do not consider myself a particularly spiritual person. I have been on what would qualify as a spiritual retreat only once — about 40 years ago, when spending a weekend at a Zen center in the mountains of New Mexico. I was a student at the University of New Mexico at the time, with a religious studies minor (though a non-religious person, I was fascinated by religion’s folkloric aspects).

We were assigned to our dorm accommodations, given sparse meals of miso soup and bread, spent many hours sitting still and meditating — interspersed with breaks of walking and meditating — and were instructed not to talk, at all, all weekend.

My major memory of that experience was a dorm companion gesturing, rather frantically, and graphically, in a charade that I finally interpreted as a request for a tampax. I had a hard time stifling giggles for the rest of the weekend.

An unholy visit to the Holy Land

I have traveled to many places but never, until recently, to Israel. I never, honestly, had much of a desire to go — perhaps ironically, because my heritage is Jewish. It is difficult for me to sit through a Bat or Bar Mitzvah service, and my religion-related endeavors consist mostly of cooking potato latkes and matzoh brei.

I also admit that my politics do not necessarily align with those of the Israeli government. I wasn’t interested in religious travel, and there were too many other places that called to me more.

What finally prompted my visit to the Holy Land was an online listing for a volunteer project in a gallery of Arab art in Umm el-Fahem, an Arab city in Israel. I was ignorant enough to not have realized, beforehand, that there were Arab cities in Israel, or that a full 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arab. I had thought of the Israel-Arab conflict as between Israelis and Palestinians, complicated enough, without knowing that it was made even more complex by the situation of Arab Israelis. (I asked around and was somewhat comforted, perhaps wrongly, to learn that most of my friends, even those who are Israeli Jews, were not aware of the Arab Israeli situation.)

And so, I set off for what would be a rather unorthodox Israeli experience, as a Jewish woman living, for six weeks, in an art gallery in an Israeli city where I was the only Jewish person.

Yes, I not only worked in the gallery but actually lived in an apartment on the rooftop third floor, surrounded by the whimsical sculptures on the rooftop patio outside my apartment. This living space afforded a spectacular view of the city, and several times daily the steep hills of the city echoed with the sounds of the muezzin calling out their amplified prayers.

If I were to call an experience spiritual, I suppose this would be one, especially when the amplified voices of the muezzin blended and harmonized, intentionally or coincidentally, I couldn’t say. It would probably have been a less moving experience for me, though, if I had been able to understand the words.

Travel as a source of personal renewal

I’ve heard, often enough, a person say she or he wasn’t religious, but spiritual. But what exactly is spirituality, especially of the secular kind? According to my prime informational source, Wikipedia, secular spirituality can be experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life, without necessarily accepting belief in a divine being. It can encompass compassion, patience, tolerance, contentment, responsibility, forgiveness, and concern for others.

In that sense, all my travels can be considered spiritual experiences, at least in secular terms. So maybe I am more spiritual than I thought?

Still, for me renewal comes not from retreat but from immersion in a new experience — be it a hot spring in the snow, watching the Eiffel Tower’s midnight light show from my garret apartment, or enjoying a leisurely breakfast at home of my favorite cereal with plump fresh blueberries and the sun shining in through the window.

Travel renews me, certainly — when I’m viewing an architectural or natural wonder, a work of art and, most of all, when I’m interacting with interesting people I might not otherwise have encountered.

The mystery of the falling headscarf

Back to Israel: I had many experiences in Umm el-Fahem that might fit the spiritual bill. Let me relate a couple. An artist on exhibit while I was there was Fatima Abu Rumi, whose meticulously detailed paintings deal with issues of self-identity. She paints herself repeatedly, totally veiled, with hijab (head scarf) hiding her hair but not her face, with the same scarf around her neck in quite a modern style, without any scarf at all.

Almost every school day, groups of young local children visited the gallery with their teachers and some mothers, the women all wearing the hijab. After some discussion Halima, the gallery educator, would bring out a basket of scarves, and all the children, boys and girls, helped by the adults, would don scarves, on their heads, over their faces, over their shoulders, as they chose.

Morning after morning, I descended from my apartment and watched, mesmerized. Some children were shy, some posed for my camera. I was as fascinated by the positive reactions of the adults as by the children. I only wish I could have understood what Halima had told them.

In a small niche hung a headscarf, black and white, identical to the one Fatima had repeatedly painted herself wearing. One morning, before my eyes, the hanging scarf suddenly fell off its hook on the wall. There had been no draft of air. I debated whether to pick it up or leave it. Later that month, when we delivered one of Fatima’s paintings to a prominent Jewish art collector, I noticed that the scarf had been tucked into the back of the frame, and told him the story.

Transformative art

Another significant moment came at the Haifa Museum of Art. We had gone to watch another Umm el-Fahem artist, Farid abu Shakra, do a performance piece. Farid is the younger brother of Said abu Shakra, the founding director of the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery. An artist and an art teacher, Farid also curates some of the gallery’s exhibits.

At the end of the piece, Farid took two pieces of cloth that were hanging on the museum wall, a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and a keffiyah (the black and white cloth worn as a head covering by some Arab men). He tied them together. The message was clear. No words were necessary — and no religious belief — to feel the power of the moment, as well as to demonstrate the power of art to transform people, a major goal of the gallery.

(Amusingly, when I later showed my photo of the connected cloths to Farid, he commented, “very powerful image” — as if he were complimenting me, when the image was his.)

Farid also shared with me a series of maxims he had written in English. Here is my favorite:

He said to me, are you happy with your life? And I said to him, first explain the meaning of happiness, and then I tell you my reply.

Further mysterious sightings

On my next to last day in Umm el-Fahem, I visited the nearby ruins of Tel Megiddo, aka Armaggedon. It was just after a certain American minister had re-predicted the coming of the end of the world, realizing he had miscalculated the first time around. The site, and the world, were still intact when I visited. The ruins were interesting, and peaceful, aside from the surly saleswoman in the gift shop. We walked through the ancient stables and down into a huge stone lined cistern. I do feel a heightened intensity of place where historical events have occurred, and Tel Megiddo has had its share of events and battles over the millennia. The now quiet ruins actually might not be a bad place to spend the world’s final days.

Israel, of course, is replete with places of intense spirituality, to folks of many different beliefs, and it impossible not to feel the significance, historically and religiously, particularly in places like Jerusalem and Nazareth. Although I was not there for spiritual reasons, there are, wherever you turn, places of extreme importance to many. One encounters ultra-religious Jews in their dark clothes, side curls on the men and boys, head scarves on the women, Christians walking the literal stations of the Cross shouldering large wooden crosses, Muslim houses painted with what looks like graffiti but is actually a mark that the owner has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

I went to the Western Wall on the day before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, along with thousands of others. It was crowded, of course, but, surprisingly, not very difficult to make one’s way, after security, to the wall itself. I did make the mistake, at first, of heading toward the men’s side, and was kindly directed to the other side. There were women of all ages and kinds, some with strollers, some with canes, most praying, some just being tourists like me.

I walked up to the wall and touched my hand to it briefly; it seemed like the right thing to do. I did not write a prayer on paper and stick it in a crevice the way most people were doing, although it was tempting. I do like rituals at times, and mysterious things.

Here is the biggest mystery of my Israeli sojourn. On the women’s side of the wall was a woman (man?) who was a dead ringer for Michael Jackson. No kidding. I have the photo to prove it. S/he was standing next to more normal looking women, complete with quasi-military jacket, brass buttons and epaulets. There are many mysteries in the world that may never be solved. But please, is there someone who can explain this to me? I am hoping, and praying, that someone will.

Readers, can you relate to Joanna’s description of her secular spiritual travels — or do we need to come up with another term for it?

Joanna Liss has been traveling from the time she was a child in the Bronx, first to exotic destinations such as Brooklyn and Manhattan, later on family car trips up and down the East Coast, to places including Maine, Delaware, Montreal, and Miami, through all of which she professed that she could never live anyplace but New York. That all changed when she moved to Paris after high school. She has been traveling ever since. Her trip to Israel with GoEco marked her eighth adventure volunteering overseas; the other seven were with Volunteers for Peace. You can follow Liss’s adventures at her blog: Joanna’s Journey. Next stop: Havana.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, an interview with Dave Prager, author of Delirious Delhi, on our list of 2011 books for, by and about expats.

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Images (top to bottom): The view from the rooftop of Liss’s apartment in Umm el-Fahem, Israel; the artist Fatima Abu Rumi (note the Hello Kitty tee shirt) with one of her paintings; the keffiyah and tallit tied together at the Haifa Museum; and the Michael Jackson lookalike Liss spotted at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (women’s side).

12 NOMADS OF CHRISTMAS: Matthew Chozick, American expat in Japan (9/12)

Current home: Tokyo, Japan
Cyberspace coordinates: Matthew Chozick, Tokyo-based American writer and translator (writer site) and @mashu_desu (Twitter handle)
Recent article: “Thanksgiving: food, family, but hold the ‘chong chew’ turkey,” in the Japan Times (29 November 2011)

Where are you spending the holidays this year?
I’ll fly out of Tokyo to be in New England with family and loved ones. On the way back to Japan I’ll stop off in Israel to cheer on a Japanese contemporary dancer friend, as she’s doing a six-hour performance art piece. We will then take a quick trip to Jordan to see the ancient Nabataean capital Petra.

What will you do when you first arrive in New England?
I’ll check my email! I must do the final round of design checks on Tokyo Verb Studio, a contemporary art and literary anthology I’m editing with Keisuke Tsubono and Midori Ohmuro. The anthology, published by Awai Books, will be released early in the new year.

What do you most like doing during the holidays?
For the past several years I’ve spent New Years in Japan, where I like to eat my share of rice cakes (mochi) and sweetened black beans (kuromame). I also usually watch the first sunrise of the year at a Shinto shrine and help a friend or two wash off their ancestral gravestones (known as hakamairi).

Are you sending any cards?
In Japan it is customary to send New Year’s cards (nengajō), timed to arrive on the first of January. For traditionalist non-tech savvy acquaintances I’ll hand-write nengajō in Japanese with a calligraphy marker, but for younger friends I will send cellphone messages with the cutest animation I can find, likely containing kittens and balloons.

What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
An ocean of hummus in Tel Aviv! I’ve never been to Israel, and though I’m not much of a foodie, I hear it’s a gastronomical paradise.

Can you recommend any good books other expats or “internationals” might enjoy?
I loved the novel I Am a Japanese Writer, by Dany Laferrière. While it’s about a Montreal-based Haitian writer who becomes big in Japan, the plot doesn’t matter as much as its digressions and keen observations. There are few authors with as much wit, humor, and enthusiasm for parsing the ball of contradictions we call the human condition.

This year I also really enjoyed Chuck Klosterman’s novel The Visible Man, as well as all the new issues of the magazine N+1, Simon Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography, a book touching on the Fukushima nuclear disaster by Hideo Furukawa (only in Japanese), and M.A. Aldrich’s The Search for a Vanishing Beijing: A Guide to China’s Capital Through the Ages.

How do you feel when the holidays are over?

On the first day of Christmas, my true love said to me:

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s featured nomad (10/12) in our 12 Nomads of Christmas series.

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