Matt Beynon Rees is a British-born crime novelist who has won numerous awards for his series of novels about a fictional Palestinian sleuth called Omar Yussef. He initially came to the Middle East as a young journalist, but in time turned his attention to fiction. Eren Güvercin spoke to him about his work and the situation in Palestine.
Your first book, Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide and Fear in the Middle East (2004), examined the internal conflicts facing both Palestinians and Israelis. Why did you turn to fiction for your next book?
Matt Beynon Rees: When I was writing the book of non-fiction, I was trying to make it read like it was a novel because that’s the kind of book people want to read. People don’t want to read dry political science, and I’m not interested in political science. I actually find politics quite repulsive.
And one of the reasons I wanted to escape from journalism first into a non-fiction book and then into fiction is that politics dictates a lot of what journalists can write about. As a journalist, I knew very often that the politicians I was quoting every day were either lying or were saying things that were intended to manipulate people or simply were not true. Because I was a journalist, I was supposed to listen, write it up and send it out as though I have nothing in my head to interpret it.
When I came to write non-fiction, I didn’t want to write just for people who are interested in politics; I wanted to write for people who are interested in the human drama of living your life as an Israeli or a Palestinian in extreme circumstances. While I was doing that, I realised that if I really want to reach people on a human level, fiction is the best way to do it because there is something about fiction that’s more real than journalism and non-fiction. It reaches inside someone’s heart.
With a detective novel in particular, you have to be inside the head of the main character. You can’t just have a flashy plot with lots of exciting things happening. You can’t just write sentences that sound good. You really need the main character to be your translator and guide in this culture that you are entering – whether it is a detective novel about Cologne or Los Angeles or Bethlehem.
There are several different Palestinian stereotypes in the media: they are always either terrorists or victims. Was that another reason why you wanted to turn to fiction?
Rees: Yes, and it’s the reason why I approached the whole series the way I did. I started the series in Bethlehem with The Collaborator of Bethlehem because that’s the Palestinian town that people have heard of and think they know. They know what happened 2,000 years ago, but they don’t really know what has happened since then.
Palestinians in journalism always come out – as you say – as stereotypes, as victims or terrorists. So I want people to look at them again in a different way. The best way to do that was to take the Palestinian town that people think they know and show them that they don’t know it; make them look at the Palestinians they think they see again and again in the news and show them they don’t really know them.
That’s why I’m starting in Bethlehem; and with each book I tried to show a part of the conflict within Palestinian society that people don’t really know about.
So the first one examined what it is like to be a Palestinian Christian living in Bethlehem during the intifada when the majority of Muslims was suspicious of them; they didn’t think they were committed to the resistance. The second book looks at the in-fighting between the security chiefs in Gaza.
Then, of course, the third book looks at what it is like to be a homosexual and also what it’s like to be from the Samaritan minority – just a few hundred of them live on a hilltop overlooking Nablus. With each of these books I’m trying to show something about the Palestinians that makes you think: „you know, I hear about them almost every day of my life when I listen to the news, but I have only heard about them in conflict with Israel. Maybe I have to look again!“ Everyone refuses to see the suffering of the other side. Palestinians and Israelis do that, but then people who support them around the world refuse to acknowledge that there is something very complex going on that journalism and politics fail to acknowledge.
Omar Yussef is a wonderful character, a man of principle who seeks justice against impossible odds. How did he come about?
Rees: Well, he is based on a real friend of mine who is a school teacher in a refugee camp and whom I have known for 12 years now. The great thing about him is that during the intifada, he really did stand up to the gunmen.
But he did it in a very interesting way, which made me think that if I write about the Palestinians, I have to do it in a way that’s culturally accurate because let’s say I decided to write about a traditional western style detective, he would be a loner, he would be isolated, a stranger to most of society. Well, in Palestine, someone would just kill him if he tried to make trouble.
My friend, the real Omar Yussef, went to the gunmen, sat in the hide-out and drank coffee with them before he said „I am the guy that you have been threatening“. Now by that point, culturally he had reached a stage where they couldn’t say „right, now we are going to kill you!“ He had understood that the way to break down the barrier with the gunmen was to go to them, to build a relationship and even understand the culture.
I still realize he did something very brave, but it made me realize that I had to make sure that Omar Yussef would be not the traditional western detective.
In your first novel, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, you highlight the relationships between Christian and Muslim Palestinians. Why did you choose to focus on this little-known aspect of Palestine?
Rees: It is still frosty in Bethlehem. It is not as bad as it was during the intifada. During the intifada it was violent for a couple of reasons. One is that most of the gunmen were Muslims. There was only one Palestinian Christian who was fighting with the gunmen who was killed during the intifada in Bethlehem. And because of their connection through their churches to the West they are also viewed as not really being one of us; as outsiders.
But Bethlehem, which used to be a Christian town, is now at the very most twenty percent – probably more like fifteen percent – Christian because many Christians have left. So it is really a situation in which a town that had a really deep Christian history is becoming a sometimes dangerous but always uncomfortable place to be a Christian. And that struck me very powerfully.I’m not religious. I don’t care about religion, but I got to know a lot of Palestinian Christians and I’ve heard their sense of isolation. The real Omar Yussef told me about an incident that I have included in my book where one of his friends – a Palestinian Christian businessman who refused to give protection money – was shot in the leg by the gunmen.
He was shot in the leg and when the real Omar Yussef went to visit him in hospital, his Christian friend said „You are the only Muslim who’s come to visit me.“ And that really suggested to me how bad things had got, how divided in a time of war.
What has been the Israeli reaction to your books?
Rees: The first of the books about Bethlehem has been translated into Hebrew and I was surprised that it got a very, very good reaction because usually Israelis don’t like foreigners who tell them what’s going on in the Middle East. But this gave them an opportunity to look over the wall into Bethlehem.
Since the intifada, the Israelis have not been allowed by their own government to go into Palestinian towns because they fear kidnapping or lynching. And really the contact between the two people had more or less degenerated to the point where many Israelis would never meet Palestinians. Unless they happened to go into the kitchen of a restaurant and saw the guy chopping the tomatoes, they would never meet a Palestinian.
I don’t have any illusions about making the Israelis love Palestinians; it just shows Palestinians in a human way, which is really what my novels are all about, not stereotypes. For Israelis to see that is very important.
And the Palestinian reaction?
Rees: The reactions I got from Palestinians and people around the Arab world have been very good. I get a lot of e-mails from people saying „we are glad that you are showing the reality of Palestinian life because it doesn’t get into the media.“ For the most part, western correspondents don’t stay long enough to figure out, and the Arab media is only interested in blaming Israel for everything so they don’t tell the real story either. Now the people who are the basis of the characters, the real Omar Yussef, the real Chamis Zaydan, who is the police chief, have read the books and they like them a lot because it is a way for them to express their feelings – something they can’t do politically.
But also they don’t have any political options because Hamas or Fatah don’t represent the Palestinian people. Hamas and Fatah represent two corrupt, violent, military groups who have an interest in the conflict continuing.
Is there a development within Hamas? Are there signs that something is changing? Is it possible that Hamas could abandon terror?
Rees: No, I think actually it would be the other way round. I think the development has been more towards the power of the military wing. It is always hard with Hamas to say who is military and who is not because the Israelis refuse to acknowledge that there might be a difference and they just kill them all.
But I think the power has undoubtedly shifted towards the military wing and that’s why so often, when the political leaders might want to stop firing rockets into Israel, the rockets carry on. It’s actually nothing to do with Israel, nothing to do with the peace process the journalists always write about. It’s to do with the conflict within Hamas to say who’s in power. „You think you can stop me firing rockets? Watch this!“ That’s how it works.
Actually Hamas people are surprisingly very nice. They are really the nicest people I’ve ever met. One of the things that I always felt about my books is that by meeting people from Hamas who’ve done terrible things and also by meeting people from Fatah who’ve done terrible things, by meeting them, looking them in the eye, talking to them and hearing their stories, I feel like I am coming to understand the price they pay as human beings, because I’ve never met one of them who is pure evil; never met one of them who did it for some kind of pleasure.
Interview conducted by Eren Güvercin
© Qantara.de 2010