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As a young child born in the city of Jerusalem Nevien Shaabneh’s dreamt of nothing else but writing; reciting her stories out loud where passers-by used to pat her on the head once they heard her narrate her thoughts. At the mere age of five years-old Shaabneh regarded writing as serious work spending hours filling notebook after notebook with precious words which paved the way for her journey to start in becoming an author. Soon after she immigrated with her family to Chicago, USA where these notebooks grew and matured with her and over the years stacked up her room. But they were put aside as Shaabneh became focused on gaining an education.

Achieving a bachelor’s in English Education from UIC and Masters in Arts from Saint Xavier, distracted Shaabneh further from pursuing her dream of writing which then became a distant memory as marriage, children and work took over. She teaches high school children American Literature and Contemporary Literature.

But one day the longing for her childhood dream and the nostalgia of the past became stronger and so she brushed the dust off one of her manuscripts and decided not to put it away and so last summer  ‘Secrets Under the Olive Tree’ was finally published as Shaabneh’s first ever novel.

Shaabneh ’s earliest writings were in Palestine and technically as she puts it “I began writing before I was able to write. I sat for hours and wrote stories and letters to relatives that I would hand deliver.”  Surrounded by pomegranates, grape vines, olive trees, a breeze that carried with it the indulgent scent of warm bread, mint tea, and a friendly hello was how Shaabneh recalls Palestine the place that inspired her passion for writing and naturally it is the focus of her novel.

Secrets Under the Olive Tree’ chronicles the life of a young Palestinian girl, Layla, and her family. According to Shaabneh the “characters are not meant to represent the typical Palestinian family nor are they meant to represent Muslims. The characters in the novel have their demons and flaws.”

It is in Layla’s young adulthood, that she is forced to confront her cultural limitations while trying to navigate through life’s complexities. Ultimately, these decisions shape her future and affect all those around her.  Stripped down to its core, it is a story about humans, because the point that Shaabneh wants to convey is that “we are all equally human. We all have our own stories to tell.”

Olive trees are such an integral aspect of Palestinian culture and economy that it made perfect sense to invoke them into the book’s title. The parts of the book about Palestine, the uprooting of the olive trees and the representation of the apartheid system that currently exists, are all based on the unfortunate reality in the region. However, Shaabneh insists that “Layla and all of the characters in the book are just that-characters. They are figments of my very active imagination.”

The book portrays a dark and unfavourable image of Arab men with the exception of two characters, yet Shaabneh stresses that this is “a book about human struggle and not letting the struggles we have define who we are and that Layla’s life does not define Arabs and Muslims for there is a danger in telling a single story.”

Shaabneh goes on to elaborate that growing up, she read many books that enriched her understanding of American culture, but quickly came to realise that the fabric of American culture “did not include people like me. I did not read books in which the characters were Arab and Muslim. And post 9/11, Arab and Muslim lives were only talked about in the contexts of oppression and terrorism.”  This convinced her further that Arabs and Muslims lived diverse, complex lives that depended on the same factors that impacted non-Arabs and non-Muslims: education, socioeconomic status, upbringing, and family. She knew that just as there is not one Christian or Caucasian community, there is not one Arab or Muslim community.  There are communities of Muslims and communities of Arabs. Religion and culture are only one factor of what influences their behaviours. Shaabneh knew this and  knew the danger in generalisations as she witnessed it first hand; the sting of discrimination.

Some readers were worried that people may mistake the villainous men in the book as typical of Arab males thus perpetuating a stereotype. Shaabneh acknowledges that “unfortunately, Arab males are some of the most demonised men in the world. It saddens me to think that some people may judge a nationality or ethnicity based on the characters’ actions. As a writer, I cannot limit my story telling because some people will stereotype. We cannot let others’ ignorance dictate our lives and our art.”

In the book Layla experiences discrimination as a foreigner and Muslim in the US and oppression as a woman in an Arab society yet Shaabneh has mixed views about the struggles that women endure. “The oppression that Layla faces in the U.S. due to being a Muslim and Arab woman is very real. Islamophobia affects more women who wear hijab than women who do not because discrimination depends on the perceived outward appearance of the “other.” Shaabneh herself has experienced several forms of discrimination due to being Muslim and wearing hijab. However, Shaabneh is adamant that Layla’s oppression is not due to her being Arab or Muslim. The character ‘Baba’ in the book is an alcoholic and abusive father. Layla is a victim of domestic violence. This is the main reason for her oppression. “Her culture does present her with some double standards in the treatment of men and women; however, these double standards are prevalent in many different cultures as well and arguably are more connected to her gender versus culture and religion.”

Rape in the book go unpunished which leaves some readers  wondering if this is the reality of the Arab world and in particular Palestine which Shaabneh again sees as a universal issue rather than a specified region. “I think rape going unpunished is a reality around the world. Here in the U.S. rape is a drastically underreported crime.  Many women (regardless of culture or religion) do not report rape in fear of being stigmatised or due to feelings of shame and embarrassment.” It just happens by coincident that Layla is an Arab.

Shaabneh has just completed her second novel, And The Stars Are Fire which is a multigenerational novel told from the perspectives of three Middle Eastern women. Set in Egypt, a forbidden love affair creates ripples for generations to come. During a turbulent period of civil unrest, a couple take the ultimate risk by falling in love. The result is a blaze that burns for decades. The lovers are killed in a fire while their only surviving daughter, Amira, is badly scarred. She spends her life seeking revenge for her parents’ murder, unable to recognizs love when it crosses her path.  Decades later in New York, Lana Salem suffers the loss of her beloved family. Unmoored and searching for answers, Lana returns to Egypt, where she uncovers the heartbreaking role her grandmother played in determining the course of both Lana’s life and Amira’s.

Shaabneh envisions herself as a storyteller who will continue to tell the stories others won’t tell; giving voice to the voiceless.  She sees a future in Palestinian fiction because “story-telling is a powerful tool for change; Middle Easterners and Muslims are not tied to one set identity or one set course.  Our story could not be told in one book, because we do not share one chapter. We are a collection of stories.”  Stories are able to build bridges between people from different backgrounds.

Shaabneh was taught by her grandmother and mother that anything could be talked over a cup of tea. “Before a conversation ensued or the crux of the conversation started, a cup of hot steaming tea had to be on the table. A green mint leaf bobbed to the top of a delicate cup making a peace offering of sorts.” A gesture of communication and open-mindedness.

by Raya Al Jadir