Nour pushed back her chair, taking Mariam’s plate and beckoning for Aisha’s. ‘Yes, go on. We’ll clear up the table. Aisha, give me a hand in the kitchen.’
He led the way and I reluctantly followed. We stood together on the veranda looking out over the dark garden - a couple of acres of prime Abdoun real estate. He flicked a switch by the kitchen door and I saw that part of the garden was laid to lawn, but the hilly part to the side accommodated a small stand of olive trees.
‘Ibrahim and my father brought these trees from our farm in Qaffin and planted them here over thirty years ago. At that time it looked like we were going to lose everything from over there, so they thought they’d keep at least this much.’ He led the way down the steps to the trees. ‘Smoke?’
‘No thanks, I don’t.’
He grunted, then lit up a Marlboro Light. ‘These trees are everything to the farmers. They are tended like fine grape vines, the olives are pressed like wine. The first cut is virgin, the finest. The olives weep the purest oil when they are first squeezed. We still press it over at the farm on the old stone press. It is not much, it is not enough to keep the place running, but we help out, as Ibrahim said. It is the finest oil you will ever taste. It is a symbol for us too, you understand. Of peace and hope.’
I held a bunch of the smooth, silvery-green leaves in my hand. I didn’t know what to say to him. He stood in among the trees, the faint pall of smoke from his cigarette making my nostrils widen.
‘Ibrahim said the security wall cut the farm in two.’
‘We demonstrated, like the other farmers. But there was nothing anyone could do. Some of the hot headed ones got themselves beaten up, arrested. The world looked the other way.’
I didn’t know what to say, surrounded by these trees and the family’s loss. ‘At least you still have the farm.’
Daoud shook his head. ‘Now, after all these years, they are starting to cut the water to the farmers, both there and here in Jordan. The olive groves are starting to die. These trees are the heritage we must take with us into the future. My company is investing in the water because we believe it will be critical for the future. Not just for the trees but for our people to live. We are bidding for the privatisation of Jordan’s water resources. You have heard of this?’
‘Yes, the Minister told me about it. Is it really such a problem, the water shortage?’
‘We are already suffering from the lack of water. We will suffer more, our crops will fail and our farmers starve. It is critical to our future to find a better way to share the water. The Israelis steal the water from us every day. I want to steal it back.’
I dropped the bunch of leaves I had been holding and glanced across at Daoud, who was looking down to the glowing tip of his cigarette.
He looked up and I could feel the intense physicality of the man, feel his eyes burning in the darkness. I shifted uncomfortably and so did the conversation.
‘You like Aisha?’
I tried not to react to the abrupt question, taking my time and listening to the faint traffic noise carried on the cold night air. I replied cautiously. ‘She’s been great to me, Daoud. The Ministry’s lucky to have her. I couldn’t have settled in the way I have without her. She’s a smart girl.’
A crowd cheered in my mind. Just right. My breath was coming out in misty puffs.
‘She was my father’s favourite.’
The cheering died down. ‘She’s a very fine artist. You must be proud of her.’
‘Yes. Yes I am. I would not like anything to happen to her. She took his death badly, as I suppose we all did. She is still perhaps,’ he searched for the word, ‘vulnerable.’
Fucking hell. Enough already. I kept the smile going, but it was getting hard to maintain. My cheeks hurt from the effort. ‘Jordan is a beautiful country, Daoud. I’m glad I came here. I’m sure my girlfriend will like it here, too. She’s a lawyer. She practises international contract law, actually.’
Not strictly true, the line about Anne liking it in Jordan. I hardly expected her to turn up. Workaholic Anne never took leave and we didn’t anticipate seeing each other until I went home for Christmas.
Daoud seemed lost in thought, leaning against the trunk of an olive tree and drawing on his cigarette. Finally he spoke.
‘The Israelis have taken everything from us, Paul. Our land, our dignity. They took my father, too. Now they’re taking the water. We’ve lost too much.’
He pushed the cigarette butt into the sandy soil with his heel, then put his hand on my shoulder, a quick squeeze and a pat, a very Arab gesture of finality and yet, somehow, accepting. ‘I won’t let the olives die. Come on, let’s get back inside. I’ll get you a bottle of our oil. At least when the olives weep, we are enriched.’
And so Paul Stokes embarks on his betrayals, betraying Aisha's brother Daoud even as he suspects Daoud of betraying human decency. Olives is prefaced with a quote from Mahmoud Darwish: "If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears."
In unrelated news, the reason I'm here - The MENA ICT Forum - is a triumph of an event, it's been marvellous meeting so many old friends and catching up with new faces. The quality of debate and feedback has been excellent. The King spoke brilliantly and his support for this industry clearly continues to be extraordinary. It's good to see Jordan once again striding strongly on its road to building a truly great ICT industry.