Matt Beynon Rees is the author of The Collaborator of Bethlehem, the first in a series of novels about Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef. A former Mideast correspondent for Time, Newsweek and The Scotsman, Rees
In a cabbage patch on the edge of a village south of Bethlehem, I stood with the parents and wife of a Palestinian man who had been killed on that spot the night before by an Israeli sniper. As his wife tearfully described hearing the shot and his mother raged as she told me how she had recognized her son's body in the dark by the denim jacket she had bought for him, I thought: "This is great material. Too good, in fact." I was Jerusalem bureau chief for Time Magazine, covering the violence of the Palestinian intifada, which erupted in 2000. The dramatic story of this family ended up as a colorful paragraph at the top of the kind of story you might read frequently -- followed by lots of "To be sure, the Israelis say this and the State Department says that and the Palestinians, surprise, disagree." Even as I was speaking to that family, another man was being dragged into a Bethlehem street and shot dead because gunmen accused him of guiding the Israeli snipers to their target. It was there in that cabbage patch, as the wind came cold off the Judean Desert, that I knew I had to write The Collaborator of Bethlehem. (The death in the cabbage patch, indeed, is the basis of the first death in that novel.)
In some ways I had known it since the first time I set foot in a Palestinian town. In 1996, when I came to Jerusalem to work for a British newspaper, I traveled to Nablus to visit the family of a man who had been tortured to death in one of Yasser Arafat's jails. The news article I wrote was a good one, uncovering the internal Palestinian violence that was so often forgotten because of the more spectacular conflict between them and the Israelis. What struck me more powerfully that day was the candor and dignity with which the dead youth's family spoke to me. More than that, the sheer alienness of the place thrilled me. At the entrance to the family's house in the Nablus Casbah, an old oil drum held black flags and palm fronds, symbols of Islamic mourning. Men sat around smoking under a black awning. I felt a powerful sense of adventure, as though I had uncovered an unknown culture. The same was true a week later when I first went to Gaza and lost myself in its refugee camps and slums.
I sometimes joke that I developed an early interest in the Middle East, because my great-uncle had ridden a camel here during World War I, been shot in the backside, and used to get drunk and drop his pants to show us the scar when I was a kid. But actually I had grown up in Wales with no more concern for the Middle East than any other educated person who read the newspapers. But in 1996 I fell in love, quit my job in New York where I covered Wall Street (which was an alien culture/ without the culture), and joined my fiancŽe in the Holy Land. We divorced soon enough, but it worked out for me, because I fell in love with the land and the people here, instead.
I knew that I wanted to make fiction out of the place. I've wanted to write novels since I was seven years old, when my teacher put a poem I'd written on the wall of the classroom. I only became a journalist because I wanted to use my talent for writing (as opposed to some journalists who are covert political scientists and others who like to drink on expenses). When I came to the Middle East, I discovered that journalism could take me to places I'd never have imagined going and enabled me to meet people whose perspectives seemed utterly unlike mine. I realized that at heart I was an anthropologist. Perhaps it's because I wasn't happy growing up and felt alienated from the place where I should've felt at home, but when I become accustomed to things around me it's as though I no longer see them. When something is strange to me, I look deep and probe until I can understand it. That's why every time I go to a Palestinian town, I feel so alive and stimulated.
To feel "alive" in a place so filled with death is something I wouldn't have admitted during my decade as a journalist. I was restricted in expressing myself, because there were many thousands of people poised to write letters to the Editor at Time. But that sense of being alive led me inside Palestinian society in a way in which most foreign correspondents never achieve. I listened to ordinary Palestinians, no matter how bloodthirstily they spoke to me, whereas most journalists are just looking for a quote to fit into their formulaic story. I studied Arabic and that, too, has helped me to build relationships, to understand the culture. Palestinians are deeply hospitable, and when they discovered I had learned their rather difficult language they were impressed and flattered. (By learning the language, I was able to give my characters some of the formalized greetings and blessings that are an important part of Palestinian speech. I translated them, rather than just putting the original Arabic phrase in italics, because I want readers to get the poetry of everyday speech. For example, to wish someone good morning my characters say "Morning of joy" and the response is "Morning of light." When someone gives them a cup of coffee, they tell them "May Allah bless your hands." Isn't that beautiful?)
This was the most important stage in creating an "Ethnic detective"--understanding the people well enough that I could build a character who'll seem real, a detective whose every thought and concern marks him out as belonging to his own society, not a caricature of an Arab. I came across the man who would be the basis of my sleuth, Omar Yussef, in Bethlehem. This man, whom I don't name because it might endanger him, is an independent thinker in a world of fearful groupthink, an honorable man in a dark reality. I believe readers will still like Omar even when he's at his most irascible, because they'll understand how frustrating it would be for a man of such integrity to face his dreadful, corrupt world--that's why I was drawn to the real Omar over the years.
The reality of Palestinian life, I concluded, is badly portrayed in journalism, with all its limitations and formulas. I decided that fiction would get me closer to that reality, to the expression of what I had learned about the Palestinians during a decade among them.
I turned to the mystery genre because I wanted to build characters--most importantly my detective Omar Yussef--who would really breathe. I studied literature at Oxford University, so I've plowed through plenty of so-called literary fiction over the years and ultimately found it to be full of linguistic fireworks but with very little insight into why we behave as we do. Its characters are often empty. A mystery series gives me an opportunity to build Omar's character and to put life into the minor characters around him. They're all based on real Palestinians I've met, too, and none of them are the cartoon victims or one-dimensional villains you'd expect from reading the newspapers.
The lawlessness of Palestinian life also gave me great material for my villains. If I read a mystery novel I don't like, usually it's because the villain is weak, with little motivation for his crime. Unfortunately there are many Palestinians who have strong motivations to kill each other. I've spent a lot of time over the years with some of these men, trying to learn why they take the path of violence. I think it makes for a deeper characterization of the villains in my books. Some might say that detective fiction is contrived, because the villain always gets his comeuppance in the end, but many of the gunmen I've interviewed--and many Palestinians I've met who weren't gunmen--are dead now, almost always violently. That's something Palestinians would rather their culture didn't offer me, but sadly they have villains in spades and death comes tragically as often not. Murder isn't a contrived concept among the Palestinians. It's not a literary device. Reality, for them, is full of murder. I only have to supply the mystery.