Pat Lancaster talked to the actress and international best selling author, Carol Drinkwater
Carol Drinkwater developed a passion for olive trees after she and her French husband, film producer Michel Noll, bought a large, dilapidated house in the hills of Provence, just above Cannes.
They discovered the land surrounding their new home, which had stood empty for years, was a neglected olive grove. As they began to restore their home to its former glory, they also embarked on a programme to nurture the long abandoned trees and to plant new ones. Based on their experiences Carol has written a series of six books. Two of them, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, took her on an extended 17-month trip around the Mediterranean, taking in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Carol transfers some of her own experiences in Palestine to the pages of her new book, The Lost Girl.
Your new book, The Lost Girl, covers some of the events of 13 November 2015, when there were a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. Where were you when you learned about what had happened?
“I was here, in Cannes, with my Mother. We watched the whole thing unfold on television together, from the time that the first announcement came through from the football stadium about 9.20pm.
“There was the first attack at the football stadium; then came the news of the Bataclan, where there was a concert going on, and although there were three sets of killings reported at different restaurants within a small area just east of Bastille the authorities did not collate the incidents or the deaths until later. In the end there were six attacks on that night.
“Everything was understandably confused, very confused.”
When did the idea to feature those events in a book first come to you?
“Immediately. I was working on a different book but I put that to one side and started on what was to become The Lost Girl. Not long after I had started work, my mother died. My own personal grief and a sense of outrage about what had happened in France – the country I now call home – just came together and drove me forward. The book almost wrote itself. It’s the first time I have ever known that happen but I really don’t have any memory of going through the process of writing it.”
Not for the first time in your writing, you have brought events in the Middle East into your fictional narrative. Can you tell me how that came about?
“My last book, The Forgotten Summer, includes events that took place in Algeria during the war of independence and the end of colonial rule but that was the first time I had used the region when writing fiction. When I travelled around the Mediterranean researching The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, I visited Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya and returned to Palestine several times. I drew from my personal experiences there to create a dramatic thread for The Lost Girl.
“Some time earlier I had been commissioned to write a travel article about Israel; that was my first visit to the country and until that point I was rather naive, I admit. I didn’t understand the political situation there; I didn’t know anything about it. When I returned home I contacted the people who commissioned me to write the story and said that I would not be able to do it. After what I had seen, I didn’t want to have my name associated with anything that supported the idea of Israel as a holiday destination.
“On my travels for The Olive Route, I visited Israel and Palestine on a number of occasions. On one visit, I was in Tel Aviv with Michel, my husband, and we decided to go to Jerusalem. But driving between the two places was a nightmare. We were surprised and confused to see all the security that was in place, with armed soldiers and barbed wire everywhere – we just didn’t understand what was happening. It seemed as if none of the roads linked directly to Arab East Jerusalem; all of them approached the city from the Israeli side.
“I was terribly ignorant when I think about it now but I suppose no more so than most people who don’t know about and don’t condemn the situation there. I like to see myself as a sort of marker these days, as someone coming from absolute unawareness to someone who is prepared to speak out about the situation, after going there and seeing things for myself.
“I remember saying to Michel, ‘why can’t we just drive from Tel Aviv to East Jerusalem, what’s the problem’? Of course, as time went on, things became much clearer. Everything is structured for the convenience of the Israeli population, nothing is done to aid the Arabs.
Sadly, I don’t think most people really know how Palestinians are being persecuted. I have actually seen what happens. I always say to people that if you haven’t been there, it’s almost impossible to imagine what goes on.”
“Some time later, I went to the Palestinian Territories with a group of Israeli peace activists; we went together to plant olive trees and that was when I finally grasped the structure of how things operated, how everything was skewed to facilitate the Jewish population.
“We planted olive trees in a village where the existing, Palestinian owned, trees had been bulldozed; the olive groves were totally devastated. I was enormously affected by what I saw, terribly, terribly shocked. I was seeing first hand, the tremendous cruelty suffered by the Palestinians and the massive deprivation of their human rights.
“It was a memorable day. A day of coming together. Arabs and Jews uniting to plant trees for the purpose of furthering peace between the two peoples. In the speeches that were given after we had all planted our sapling olives – all paid for by Israelis as a gesture of reconciliation – I listened to a very moving speech from a director of a kibbutz, neighbouring the groves we were replanting. He and the residents of his kibbutz cared for the trees of those Arabs who were forbidden to cross the Wall to work in their own groves. He assured us they would continue to work on behalf of the Arabs until they were free to farm their own lands. It was very moving and gave me some hope in a region where there can be so little.”
Like so many of us, Carol Drinkwater sympathises with the historic plight of the Jews over generations but is deeply saddened by the fact that many of the people who have suffered so much themselves are now complicit in the brutality meted out to the indigenous Arab population of the illegally occupied territories of Palestine.
“I am not unsympathetic to the Jewish situation, not at all. Some years ago I published a book about the plight of a young Polish girl being forced to flee her homeland because of Nazi persecution. I think the Jewish people have suffered enormously but I have seen what is happening in Palestine and I cannot condone it; it is wrong”.
Carol recalls another book she wrote some years ago, Crossing the Line, which looked at the subject of young women in prison. “I found that most of them had been victims of abuse and, it was shown, that their abusers had also mostly been victims of similar treatment. It’s one of those things that damaged people sometimes do – perpetuate the harm. It’s an extraordinary thing and I wonder if it might be the experiences and horrors suffered by the Jews of the holocaust that have somehow been passed down to contribute to the desensitisation of present day Israeli society.”
At one point in The Lost Girl, we see through the eyes of one of your main protagonists, photographer Kurtis, a savage attack, by Israeli settlers, on a young Palestinian boy. Did you personally witness settler violence?
“I didn’t personally see anybody killed or maimed but yes, I saw where settlers had ripped up trees and land and devastated olive groves and I met a boy who had been so brutally beaten by settlers that he had sustained life threatening kidney damage as a result. I was also told about one of the local village children who had been shot by settlers.
“I stayed in a small village where floodlights from the settlement in the hills above shone down – with an intense light – on the village throughout the night.
Even those lights were a form of violence. During the time I was there, I realised the threat is all pervading. It’s a sad situation and its getting worse, I think.”
While Carol’s sympathies are with the Palestinians, her stance is based on experiences that are far from one-sided.
In the process of her research for a film, produced by husband Michel Noll, in which she directed several important scenes, she has also met with many Israelis and with settlers.
“I feel very privileged to have seen both sides of the divide. During the course of filming The Olive Route, I interviewed members of one particular settler family – a couple and their six children – many times and spent days in their company.
“Of course, I completely disagree with their beliefs, but they clearly felt that they have a religious duty to uphold. They saw themselves as custodians of the land they believe is rightly the property of the Jews.
“I didn’t like their politics but I did quite like them as people, although I believe they are misguided. I disagree with what they stand for. They were extreme in their views and, in the making of the film, they would frequently refuse point blank to answer some of my questions, or tell the camera man to stop filming.
Even before we started they said they would not speak about the Wall, the Palestinians or answer any questions they regarded as political, but I began to see it was part of the whole settler arrangement; to have the story told - not necessarily as it is – but in the way they feel it must be passed on.
On the other hand, I worked with, and spent time with a very inspiring Rabbi, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who is one of the founders of the organisation Rabbis for Human Rights. What a brave and visionary man he is.
With a wide spectrum of international readers, are you concerned that this book might upset certain people, that you might get a bad press for your support of the Palestinians?
I am concerned that I might upset certain Jewish readers, yes. I don’t want that. I have many Jewish friends and, as I said, I have been greatly inspired by those Israelis who are swimming against the tide in the fight for the recognition of Palestine and its people. But if you always play safe, what are you going to write about? I believe as a writer it is important to look at things from all sides.”
Although a Palestinian sympathiser, Carol insists that The Lost Girl is not her way of spreading a personal message. I wondered if, given her experiences, she felt she had to speak out about the Palestinian plight.
“No, quite the reverse. I needed within this novel to find an experience that would take one of my main characters, Kurtis, out of her own life. Something so powerful she would, for a time, lose touch with her family and her basic realities. I shuffled through my own experiences and being in Palestine - which has remained with me so keenly and for so long - seemed the obvious choice.
Carol agrees that most people remain unaware of what the real situation of what is going on in the Israeli Occupied Territories or the horrendous oppression that Palestinians there suffer on a daily basis. However, she is insistent that that “spreading the word” is not her job.
“I’m rather with Hemingway on that”, she says with a smile. He said: ‘If you want to be a politician, don’t be a writer’. No, I don’t think it’s my duty, I think it’s a good story. I like to think I am a storyteller, both as an actress and as a writer. But a storyteller with integrity.”
See Mosaic for review of The Lost Girl, published by Penguin 29th June 2017