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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!

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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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Getting carried away with author Lisa Egle on a magic carpet, or is it a chicken bus? (Win a copy of her travel memoirs!)

Lisa E Collage for TNBack in the days when my nieces were small—and I’d just repatriated to the United States after quite a few years abroad—I got to know them again through long bouts of playing make-believe at my mother’s (their grandmother’s) house.

We particularly enjoyed Magic Carpet. We had our own home-made version. Adorning ourselves in Grandma’s silk scarves, we would plonk down on her quilted bedspread for a flight of fancy, à la Arabian Nights (not for us the Disney version!):

Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon other site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place nearhand or distant many a day’s journey and difficult to reach.

I trust this anecdote will explain why I’m so excited about hosting new author Lisa Egle today. It’s Magic Carpet time again, and this time I get to be the kid, listening to Egle tell of the off-the-beaten-track adventures that are captured in her travel memoirs, Magic Carpet Seduction.

Hey, we even have prizes! Two of our readers will be the lucky recipients of a copy of Egle’s book (see giveaway details below). The giveaway is now over! 😦

Hmmm… The only thing is, I suspect that before we board the Magic Carpet, Egle will ask us to ride on a chicken bus. (Leave the silk scarves at home, girls!)

* * *

MagicCarpetSeduction_cover_pmHi, Lisa! I won’t need too much persuasion to be seduced by your writing. I’m already a follower of your travel blog, ChickyBus. And I know you’re an American like me, living in New Jersey. Why made you decide to travel in the first place?
After taking short solo trips in the U.S. back in the 1990s, I went on a two-week group tour of Egypt and thought it was the most exciting thing I’d ever done. I then went on another tour, of Ecuador, which turned out to be a life-changing experience (for many reasons, including the fact that I moved there a few months later). While living in Ecuador, I began to travel independently and realized how much I enjoyed it. From that point on, I entered the ranks of “travel addicts.”

How many countries have you been to at this point?
In total, I’ve been to 36 countries, on five continents. I was an expat twice: in Ecuador for a year and half and in Spain for a year. Recently, I spent two months in Indonesia.

And home is now New Jersey?
Yes. I’m a full-time ESL professor at a two-year college in Bloomfield.

I don’t get it. Is a “chicken bus” magical?

Where does the epithet “Chicky Bus” come from?
“Chicky Bus” is the name of one of the stories in my book. It’s about a quirky 12-hour “chicken bus” ride I took in Central America that led me to have epiphanies about living in the moment. When I started my blog, I thought “ChickyBus” would be a cool domain name—one that related to travel and one that people would remember. I also liked it as a blog concept. I’m the “driver” taking readers—”passengers”—on “rides” with me, allowing them to experience the same random moments and unexpected journeys that I do.

There’s also a deeper meaning, however. “Chicky bus” is a metaphor for my unique style of travel—being in the moment while venturing off the beaten path and taking risks (nothing too crazy, of course). It refers to that place of magic and self-discovery that I find wherever I go.

Why did you decide to publish some of your travel stories as a book?
Years ago, while blogging about general topics on a site called, I began sharing travel tales. The feedback was incredibly positive; people were inspired and entertained by what I wrote and said they felt like they were right there with me. After a while, I decided to go all the way with it, to write more stories and to compile them into a book—four major “rides” to different regions of the world (and a total of 9 countries: China, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon).

Are any of your chapters based on blog posts?
Interestingly, none of the stories are based on blog posts. I wrote most of the book before I started ChickyBus. There are, however, a few stories (simplified versions) on the blog that came from the book.

Mostly magical connections

We like to talk about “displaced moments” on the Displaced Nation. We can see you’ve experienced your fair share: from close encounters with Carpet Casanovas in Turkey, to meeting with a hermit in the Lebanese mountains, to experiencing political intrigue in a Chinese classroom, to receiving a marriage proposal on that infamous chicken bus in Nicaragua. But we still have to ask you: which is the MOST displaced moment that you’ve included in this book?
The moments you mention were truly unique ones and—believe it or not—I didn’t feel as displaced as one might think. Because I was in the moment and going with the flow, I felt quite comfortable and that I was where I needed to be.

There were a few instances, however, in which I did have that “displaced” feeling—the most extreme of which occurred in China.

It was 1999 and I was teaching English at a university in Changsha in Hunan Province, which was definitely considered off the beaten path back then. For most of my time there, I was in a deep state of culture shock. I struggled with many things, from freedom of speech issues to getting to know my students. There were many “displaced moments”—and even days. Fortunately, after a while, things leveled out and went more smoothly.

So from what you’ve just said, I guess there is a lot of competition for your LEAST displaced moment, when you felt you actually belonged with all of these characters you discovered off the beaten track?
One of my least displaced moments (and possibly favorite) was when a friend and I ended up spending the night with a Mexican family we barely knew. They’d invited us over for lunch. We were planning to take a bus to another city that night because we had to fly home from there the next day. It got later and later and because we were so comfortable, we didn’t want to leave. We ended up staying (and sleeping in two very tiny beds, slightly larger than coffins) and having a wonderful time being part of the family.

P.S. A little Boone’s Farm wine went a long way in helping make us even more comfortable…

Don’t exit until the rug has made a complete stop!

Okay, time to get off that chicken bus and onto that magic carpet. On your post announcing the book’s publication, you say:

So imagine that my book is the equivalent of an invitation to a Bedouin lounge of sorts. If you decide to join me, we’ll get comfy on the cushions and share some tea (or coffee or whichever beverage you like). When you’re ready, I’ll start telling you my favorite travel tales—and together, we’ll take a magic carpet ride.

Why did you choose this metaphor, and indeed use “magic carpet” in your title?
When I was a kid, my friends and brother and I used to sit on the front porch and listen to my mother telling us stories. Years later, I found myself doing the same thing with friends and later, on a blog. Then, I spent time with the Bedouins in Wadi Rum, Jordan. We told our own stories while sharing tea and sitting on the sand under a tent or on a cushion inside a house. In retrospect, I believe that the “invitation” into the Bedouin lounge has something do with each of these experiences.

Re: the title, when people see the words “magic carpet,” the freedom to travel anywhere, magically, usually comes to mind. Also, “Magic Carpet Seduction” is the name of one of the stories in the book. It’s about two men, seemingly different, trying to sell me a carpet and what happens I see through their each one’s sales pitch/ploy.

Also in your blog post announcing the book’s publication, you confess to being exhausted. (I confess to having had similar feelings after long games of Magic Carpet with my nieces!) What was the most challenging part of the writing process?
Mostly, it was finishing the book, editing it and formatting it while maintaining my blog and my full-time teaching job, and being on social media. At times, it was difficult to prioritize and I often felt burnt out.

Overall, however, I would say that editing took a lot out of me. There were a few times when I thought I was finished with a certain stage of the process; then, I’d realize that I wasn’t. Having said this, that is where I learned the most and what helped me become a better writer. So, in the end, it was a positive experience.

Capturing the magic of self-publishing

Why did you self-publish the book?
I took this route mostly because I wanted creative control; I believe the book is unique and slightly nichey. Also, I didn’t want to have to spend a lot of time pursuing an agent and traditional publisher. Mostly, I wanted to get the book done my own way and on my own schedule.

Can you offer any tips for others who are contemplating going down this path?
My best tips for anyone who’d like to self-publish are:

• Hire a professional editor and a proofreader—two (even three) people. Also, get a critique done before you pass the manuscript on to an editor. It’s important because each editor has his/her own specialty and will probably catch something another didn’t.

• Have a cover professionally designed. I know there are ways to do this cheaply or yourself, but it’s worth spending money to do this right since the cover is first thing that people see when searching for a book.

• Have your blog (and social media accounts) set up/established before you publish the book. I’ve seen many people do it the other way around. They finish and publish their book, then set up a blog and join Twitter. Many aren’t sure what to do—they just tweet about their book and don’t interact with others. This tends to hurt them more than help them.

• Don’t give up. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I wanted to quit just because of the sheer amount of work (blog, social media, the book itself, etc.) You can burn out very easily and, if you’re not careful, your health can suffer. Keep going, though, and you’ll cross that finish line!

What audience did you have in mind when writing the book?
I’ve always envisioned the audience as:

  • armchair travelers and those who take tours and fantasize about breaking away
  • other independent travelers/expats
  • non-travelers with an interest in countries often in the news
  • anyone curious about the cultural perspective/insights of a female American traveler.

Is it reaching those readers?
I don’t know the customer demographics yet, but I know that a few men have written reviews on Amazon—and that makes me happy. As is the case with ChickyBus, the book is for people of all ages and both genders. It’s definitely not just for women.

I see you’ve opened your own publishing company and are working on some more ambitious travel-cum-writing projects. Can you tell us some more about that?
I set up a small publishing company for a number of reasons, including accounting and taxes. More than that, I thought it made sense because I will be publishing more books and hopefully, a collection of travel tales written by others. This is a longer-term goal, but definitely something I’m considering for the future.

Are you already working on your next book?
I’m currently working on a trilogy about Native American-style healing journeys in the U.S. (in the Northeast and the Southwest). After that, I’ll hopefully wrap up the rough draft of a book about life-changing experiences I had in Ecuador. That, like the trilogy, would fall under a “spiritual travel” genre.

10 Questions for Lisa

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: Grey Wolves and White Doves, by John Balian
2. Favorite literary genre: Political thrillers; travel literature.
3. Reading habits on a plane: (what kinds of things do you tend to read and by what means?) Now, because I own a Kindle, this is much easier. I usually have several books to choose from: one I’m sure I’ll love and lose myself in and—a few that I’m curious about. One thing I love to do on a plane (and during my trip) is keep a journal. During my return flight, I re-read the journal and re-experience the trip. I almost always do that and love it!
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: Hmmm. That’s a tough question. Maybe my book? I’d want him to see that there are Americans who embrace the rest of the world, despite the media’s distortions of it. Also, I think my book would show him how travel, the way I approach it—focusing mostly on meeting the locals—can help people to connect in a very real way and to overcome cultural misconceptions, ultimately helping make world peace more attainable. Another reason I’d want him to read it is because I think it would provide good escapism since it’s quite humorous. He’s got a tough job and might enjoy it for the entertainment value alone.
5. Favorite books as a child: The Outsiders, a coming-of-age novel by S.E. Hinton; and Go Ask Alice, by Beatrice Sparks.
6. The writer, you’d most like to meet, who is no longer living: Aldous Huxley
7. The writer, you’d most like to meet, who is still alive today: Daniel Keyes
8. Your reading habits: I have a pretty short attention span, so there are many books that I start to read that I don’t finish. However, if a book really gets my attention, then I can’t stop. It becomes something I look forward to and put aside other things to do. Unfortunately, since I started my blog a few years ago, I’ve been reading less than previously. I spend more time reading other blogs and articles than reading actual books. When I seem to read the most is when I’m traveling and find myself without Internet. I end up loving it, too.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: A cyber suspense I’ve written about two women who “meet” on the Internet and what happens when the bond they’ve formed takes a dysfunctional and frightening turn. It’s now in rough draft form (about 15,000 words), but I’m hoping to publish it on Amazon (just for Kindle) in a few months.
10. The book you plan to read next: Actually, there’s a book I’m itching to finish reading—and that’s Shantaram. I always start it and then get interrupted. It’s a very long book (over 900 pages). I think Gregory David Roberts is an awesome writer. His storytelling ability—the way he writes dialogue, how he describes characters, settings and situations, and the way he uses metaphor—makes his experiences incredibly real to me.

* * *

Thanks so much, Lisa! That was absolutely magical, a carpet ride to write home (to my nieces) about! And that chicken bus? It wasn’t half bad! 🙂

What about you, readers? Has she seduced you?

Lisa Egle writes a blog, Chicky Bus, the concept of which is “finding yourself off the beaten path.” Over the past three years, it has been recognized on two “Top 100” lists of independent travel blogs. Egle is also Assistant Professor of ESL at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey, where she teaches students from all over the world, especially Latin America and the Middle East. She holds a BA in Social Sciences from New York University and an MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Lisa recently published a humorous piece in OH SANDY! An Anthology of Humor for a Serious Purpose (sales of which help victims of Hurricane Sandy), and an article on one of her quirkier adventures in Indonesia in LifeLift, the blog. She received an honorable mention in the 77th Annual Writer’s Digest Contest, in the Inspirational category.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, by guest blogger Elizabeth Liang, who will be updating us on her one-woman play about the TCK life, Alien Citizen.

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Images (clockwise, starting top left): Lisa at the home of her Cirassian-Jordanian friend, Souzan, with whom she was staying before the latter’s move to New Jersey(!) [this photo is in the book]; Lisa at a wedding in a Minangkabau village in Sumatra (hey, you can’t attend without posing with the bride and groom); Lisa camping in San Blas, Panama, during rainy season and a full moon (a displaced moment, to be sure, as the local Kuna indigenous believe that a full moon equals a curse); and Lisa after being recruited to be on a famous TV show in Damascus, which aired during Ramadan afforded an opportunity to meet one of the most famous actors in Syria—Qusai Khouli (she is wearing a late 1800s outfit, in case you were wondering). The painting in the center is “The Flying Carpet,” by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880), courtesy Wikipedia.

An expat author on what it’s like to write “controversial” books — and your chance to win one!

The London-born Alexander McNabb has spent nearly half of his life in the United Arab Emerites. Last month we interviewed him about his series of books on Middle Eastern themes, the first of which, Olives — A Violent Romance, has been sparking some controversy. (“Bring it on!” he told us.) Alexander is back at the Displaced Nation to share some good news: He is giving away several copies of Olives to our readers!! (See details below.) He is also here to discuss: does the book deserve its notoriety?

The Jordanian Web site Albawaba did a lovely interview with me in which they played up the “controversial novelist” angle quite nicely — I am, apparently, “scandalous.” Now, as any fule kno, if you want to sell books a whiff of scandal is quite handy.

That said, I have always shied away from that sales strategy — at least in part born of my dislike of the way the British author Geraldine Bedell’s publisher attempted to hijack the first Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (which I usually attend) to promote her mediocre book, The Gulf Between Us. Penguin claimed the festival organizers had tried to ban the book for its inclusion of a homosexual sheikh. (For more details, go to my post on this story.)

And yet bucketloads of controversy have dogged me since Olives — A Violent Romance was published a year ago. It’s much easier to be a “controversial author” in the Middle East than it is in the West these days.

Where is speech truly free?

We tend to forget how the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) was picketed by Christian groups, and how in 1988 Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ an adaption of a 1953 novel, was picketed and banned in some countries.

Let alone Lady Chatterley’s Lover (an unexpurgated edition could not be published in the UK until 1960), Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their controversial single, “Relax”) or many other shameful bans on music and literature in my own country in my own lifetime.

We think of ourselves as secular, tolerant and free-minded — yet our recent history has been filled with our failing to come to terms with free speech and literature that brings up topics we find uncomfortable.

Imagine how it is, then, in the Middle East, a region not only more sensitive to discussion of religious, cultural and social issues but with many more taboos to play with.

Some inconvenient truths

In Olives, my first book, a Muslim family is depicted drinking alcohol. This caused considerable comment online and from reviewers in the region, some of whom thought this was unnecessary and meretricious. A few tried to portray this scenario as unrealistic, but that didn’t really wash. Alcohol and the Arab world have a fraught — and frequently secretive — relationship.

Even more controversy followed with the fact that a Muslim woman sleeps with a British, Christian, man in the book. This was a humdinger that sparked debate about my motivations, the possibility this could happen and, once again, why I had to include such unsavory behavior.

Talk about inconvenient truth.

But the money shot was my decision to use real names in the book: real Jordanian and Palestinian family names. It wasn’t much of a decision, really, more of a no-brainer — you wouldn’t set a novel in the Highlands of Scotland and call characters MacShuggy or MacSquarepants because you were afraid of the clans, would you? And yet that expectation very much exists in Jordan today!

One member of a family with the same name as the female protagonist, Dajani, posted a comment on the Olives blog on behalf of the whole family demanding that the name be changed:

It would have been entirely feasible for you as an author to have contrived/fabricated a fictional name which does not infringe or violate our good family’s history and reputation and [we] do not believe that you have exercised good judgement in this choice.

The row spilled over to Facebook and other platforms and quickly got out of hand. One commenter on Jordanian blog 7iber (pronounced “hiber”) noted:

…this would be worth some honor killings if these names were abused.

Umm, that’s a death threat. (No matter that it’s probably something silly typed by an anonymous pimply onanist showing off, it does tend to stop one in the old tracks when you first read it.)

Worse, distributors in Jordan had refused to carry the print edition, citing concerns over the book’s use of that prominent Palestinian family name. Olives wasn’t banned in Jordan by government censors — but it was blocked by what a sympathetic commentator quite rightly called “a more insidious form of censorship.”

Fact vs fiction

Why has this been happening — because people in the Middle East can’t separate fact from fiction? Absolutely! It’s a real issue in the region. There is all too little fiction produced in and about the region: people simply don’t read very much in the main. A bestselling Arabic novel might sell a few thousand copies at most — the vast majority of Arabic writers pay to have their books printed.

So quite a few people, not unsurprisingly, find it hard to separate fiction from fact. Strangely enough, another branch of the Dajani family (which is very large and widespread, part of the reason I used the name) is passionately pro Olives — and I have to say the same thing to them: “Guys, it’s fiction!”

But the fact remains, my book set in Jordan can’t be sold in the country it’s set in.

As I said, it’s all too easy to be scandalous in the Middle East. Mind you, wait ‘till they see Beirut – An Explosive Thriller

*  *  *

Now it’s time for the freebies! Displaced Nation readers, you can get your very own copy of the book that’s been making waves in my part of the world. Here are 3 ways to do so:

1) For TDN readers with an iPad or ePub compatible reader (Nook, Sony, Kobo, Android etc): Get your copy of Olives — A Violent Romance free of charge (and save $4.99) on Smashwords. But first, you’ll need to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH to get the code (it will come in the issue delivered this Saturday). NOTE: The code is valid until 1st December — and then, pfft, it’ll disappear. Dear readers, you are MORE than welcome to share that code with family, friends, strangers, dogs in the street — even lawyers.

2) For TDN readers with Kindles: Leave a comment on this post with your e-mail, and I will send a Kindle file and instructions how to install it. Best I can do, I’m afraid — Amazon doesn’t let me do freebies! Do remember to use name dot name at domain dot com so the spambots don’t find you! Or you can hit me up directly at @alexandermcnabb on Twitter…

3) For TDN readers who still like shiny PRINT books: If anyone would like to win Olives — A Violent Romance in print, delivered to their doorsteps anywhere in the world, just leave a comment and let us know where, if you could move to live anywhere on earth tomorrow, you’d go — and why!

TO ALL READERS: Olives — A Violent Romance has (wonderfully) met with considerable critical acclaim — if anyone wants to add their voice (whichever way it leans) on Amazon or Goodreads, that’s welcome feedback. The more people know the book exists, the merrier! 🙂

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, the first in a two-part series on an expatriate’s love life.

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: All from Alexander McNabb.

THE DISPLACED Q: On your travels … have you ever seen a ghost?

Tony+ScaryBoy_collageOn your travels, have you ever seen a ghost?

And if you have — who ya gonna call?

I know, I know, you saw that one coming!

Seriously, though, for today’s Displaced Q, I’m asking about your supernatural experiences. Between all of us, we’ve been to a lot of places. So if there’s any truth in spooks and spirits, some of us are bound to have seen them, right?

Getting into the spirit of things

Well, I’ve never seen a ghost; but that could well be because I’m about as psychic as a cheese. Seriously — I’m not what you’d call particularly sensitive. Even to the physical world around me, as my body can attest; it’s constantly covered in bruises from walking into walls, chairs, doors — anything that regular people have sufficient grace to avoid.

But I digress. Our topic today is ghosts, and I’m a big believer in them. Why is that, you may wonder — given that I haven’t had a particularly spooky encounter of my own? I’ve visited (allegedly) haunted pubs, and creepy castles by the bucketload (being a Brit has its advantages in this regard).

I’ve also been in tombs of many different kinds — from the long barrows of the old Celtic peoples to the chiseled-out mausoleums of Petra in Jordan, to the pyramids and underground catacombs of Egypt.

And … not a sausage!

You wouldn’t believe…

Yes, I’ve had those strange, hard-to-explain occurrences that I think everyone has at some point or other: doors opening on their own, things moving from one place to another; one time I was looking right at a mirror when it fell off the wall and smashed to pieces, after over a decade of hanging there unmoving!

More recently at my wedding, there were two important guests who were no longer with us. We invited them anyway, with our hearts and minds. Both were ladies who shared an obsession with butterflies, so we felt blessed by their presence when a pair of butterflies danced over our heads all the way through the ceremony!

And yet, I know such experiences are easy to explain. Maybe I want them to be paranormal in origin, but the logical part of my brain is too active. It soon rationalizes these kind of happenings until I feel foolish even mentioning them … so, generally, I don’t. (Unless of course, the Displaced Nation is doing a series of ghostie posties.)

The multilingual (and TCK) actor Robert Stack served as host of the TV program Unsolved Mysteries. As he once said:

I don’t mind UFOs and ghost stories, it’s just that I tend to give value to the storyteller rather than to the story itself.

Do ghosts escape from dreams?

But I do have dreams. Sometimes, when things happen, I swear I’ve already dreamt about them at least once. And then, just occasionally, I have dreams when I’m visited by the spirits of people I’ve lost.

Earlier this year I had to make that journey every expat dreads — back to my home country of England, all the way from Australia, to help look after a dying relative. It was my granddad, and we weren’t sure he was dying at the time, but whilst keeping vigil with him I had a dream that rang with prophecy. His wife — my grandmother — who had passed on almost ten years earlier, showed up in my dream, wandering about his house and looking under things. When I asked her what she was looking for, she replied that she was here to find her other half, and that it was somewhere in the room.

It was a curious dream, and a thought-provoking one, but not unpleasant. I had the presence of mind to tell my family about it as we prepared for another day caring for Gramp.

The doctors at the time were discussing weeks versus months, but he clearly had received his marching orders. He died that evening.

This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this, although I hope it will be the last; at least for a while. To have dreams of lost ones you first have to lose someone — and I’ve lost enough people this year to last me a lifetime.

That being said, I don’t think ghosts are evil, or vengeful spirits: just souls left behind, looking for something — or someone — they needed or cared for in life.

* * *

What do you think? Am I crazy?

To think that after all of my world travels, the most ghostly encounters I’ve had anywhere occurred back in my childhood home, in my bed.

Now that IS spooky!

So what about you folks? I’d love to hear your tales of what goes bump in the night. We’re coming up on Halloween, after all! In your travels, have you ever come across any restless spirits? Or had any experiences which made you think twice about them? Let me know in the comments!

Alternatively you can hit me up on Twitter: @TonyJamesSlater +/or @displacednation. I look forward to hearing from you!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with a Random Nomad who writes books about dead bodies!

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Image: Tony (L) and  Scary boy from MorgueFile (R)

THE DISPLACED Q: On your world travels, have you ever downright refused to try a new food?

Well, I’ve developed a reputation for having a cast-iron stomach as I’ve traveled around. I’ve never been shy to try new things, even though my own taste in food is pretty poor.

I ate a peculiar insect dipped in soy sauce in Thailand — mostly because I’d just finished telling my friends about this cast-iron stomach of mine, and they felt inclined to put me to the test.

On this occasion I passed — despite the stall holder who’d sold me the thing waiting until I’d taken a good healthy bite before pointing out that I wasn’t supposed to eat the wings and carapace. So why did he leave them on? Sadist. They tasted — and felt — like eating fingernails. Dipped in soy sauce, of course.

But I survived, and since then have graciously accepted all manner of disgusting foods — most notably, vegetables of all kinds, including (horror of horrors!) Brussels sprouts and broccoli. Blech!

I personally feel that there needs to be a very good reason before I refuse to at least try something. What would be cause for turning a food down? I’ll go with Woody Allen’s principle:

I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead — not sick, not wounded — dead.

Known for my stomach of iron…

In many cultures, especially those found in Africa and Asia, refusing food (or drink) is considered to be an insult to the host. Well, I’m never one to insult my host — at least, not intentionally. What comes out of my mouth does enough damage by accident without me refusing to shove something into it.

Generally, I don’t refuse food.

I didn’t even refuse mansaf. At least, not the first time.

I was in Jordan with my wife, doing the touristy thing, seeing the sights. It seemed appropriate to try the local cuisine, especially as I’m all about embracing new experiences whilst traveling. Jordan was the first country I visited in the Middle East, and it promised to be something entirely different from what I was used to.

So we found a nice local restaurant, all tricked out with low benches and huge long tables for communal eating. The proprietor was waiting on us himself because it was a small, family-run establishment. I liked that — made me feel comfortable and safe.

He asked what we wanted to eat, and I told him I’d like to try something traditional, something that the local people ate. The menu was in English, but mostly featured Western food like burgers and pizza. I figured since I was in an authentic setting, I should try some authentic grub. The owner was more than happy to suggest something, and ordered me mansaf.

When it arrived, I caught a slight snigger from my wife, who had just been served her pancakes. In truth, it looked utterly revolting. But I had every confidence my iron stomach would prevail, and I’d soon be one cultural notch up on her and ready to boast about it!

…until it broke down!

The lamb (or possibly goat), still on the bone, was stringy and gelatinous. It had the consistency of those bits you cut off and throw away, the ones you can’t even bring yourself to feed to the dog because the very thought of them being eaten turns your stomach. It was a like a large knuckle joint, all sinew and cartilage and tendons… I had a feeling I’d been given a leg — Which, if you’ve seen a sheep lately, doesn’t do much to whet the appetite. But I ate as much of it as I could ferret off the bone, and then started in on the sauce.

The sauce was made of rancid yogurt. I’m serious – it said “rancid yogurt sauce” on the English menu, although I’m sure it translates into something less off-putting in Arabic. I didn’t want to think about how it was made, or about how impossible it would be to concoct something along these lines whilst adhering to any sort of health-and-safety principles. I just ate the stuff — or, as much of it as I could get down.

That night, my wife mocked me through the door to our en-suite bathroom as I locked myself in for the long-haul. I’d barely made it back to our hotel in time for the first heave.

Whatever it was I’d put into my body, it didn’t appreciate it and was doing it’s best to get rid of it; I spent the rest of the night kneeling on the bathroom tiles — you can get the picture.

Was the mansaf cooked right? Who knows? Was it poisonous? Well, my body seemed to think so. Will I try it again…?


A few nights later, mansaf became the only food I have ever officially refused, on the grounds that there is no fun at all in projectile vomiting for several hours straight.


So! I’ve shown you mine, now show me yours! Do you have any qualms about refusing the foods offered to you on your travels? Have you ever done so? Or were you too much of a good sport so didn’t refuse — and regretted it later? (And what happened? Apart from, you know, the obvious…) Let me know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with a Random Nomad who doesn’t eat to travel but travels to eat!

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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