Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Author Guest Post - Matt Rees

Readers, please join me welcoming Matt Beynon Rees, Author of The Omar Yussef Mysteries, who will be guest blogging here, again, today!

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Fiction more real than journalism
By Matt Beynon Rees

     In a cabbage patch on the edge of Bethlehem, the wife of a Palestinian killed there the previous night described hearing the fatal shot from the rifle of an Israeli sniper. The dead man’s mother raged and told me she had recognized his body in the dark by the denim jacket she recently bought him. I listened and thought: “This is great material. Too good, in fact.” It was 2001 and I was Jerusalem bureau chief for Time Magazine, covering the violence of the intifada. The dramatic story of this family ended up as the kind of colorful lead you read frequently in a newsmagazine, followed by something along the lines of this: “To be sure, the Israelis say this and the State Department says that and the Palestinians--surprise--disagree.” In that cabbage patch, as the winter wind came cold off the Judean Desert, I knew I had to write a novel.

     The opening murder in my crime novel The Collaborator of Bethlehem is based on the death in that cabbage patch. Since the first time I set foot in the West Bank in 1996, I have grown steadily disillusioned with the ability of journalism to convey the depth of what I had learn about the Palestinians. Back then, I visited the family of a Nablus man tortured to death in one of Yasser Arafat’s jails. The news article I wrote was a good one, uncovering the internal Palestinian violence so often overshadowed by the more spectacular conflict with Israel. But my impressions were much deeper. I was struck by the candor and dignity with which the dead youth’s family spoke to me. The sheer alienness of the place thrilled me. At the entrance to the family’s house in the casbah, an old oil drum held black flags and palm fronds, symbols of Islamic mourning. Men sat around smoking under a dark awning. I felt a powerful sense of adventure, as though I had uncovered an unknown culture.

     Fiction is set up to handle gray areas, because unlike journalism it doesn’t depend on what characters say--it gets at what they feel, gets inside their heads. The gray matter in there isn’t subject to self-censorship. It forces a writer to 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 stereotyped journalistic sketch. 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 like Omar even 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 lawlessness of Palestinian life also gave me great material for my villains. 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.

     Of course, I had an advantage over many other journalists in the Middle East--both in reporting and in developing a deep enough knowledge to be able to write fictional Palestinian characters--because I learned the local languages. I considered it important to learn Arabic and Hebrew, because I wanted access to places I’d never have imagined going and people whose perspectives seemed utterly unlike mine. In the Middle East, I realized that at heart I was an anthropologist. Every time I go to a Palestinian town, I feel alive and stimulated.

     That sense of excitement led me as far inside Palestinian society as I could get, listening to ordinary Palestinians, no matter how bloodthirstily and lengthily they spoke to me. I also sought out the Palestinian military leaders who’d been passed over for promotion in favor of Arafat yes-men. They became my best sources about what really happened inside the Palestinian Authority. I was able to write about the way Arafat’s regime of patronage undermined and divided Palestinian society at a time when the stories of most foreign correspondents could have been summarized as “today good/bad for peace process [delete one]”.

     Ultimately it’s the expression of the true feelings of the Palestinians I most admire that, for me, makes fiction a better measure of reality than journalism. They aren’t official spokesmen, they aren’t powerful, they aren’t even quotable because they would be in fear of their lives. But they’ve told me what’s in their hearts, and none of them are the cartoon victims or one-dimensional villains you’d find in the newspapers.

Matt Beynon Rees’s latest Palestinian crime novel The Samaritan’s Secret is published by Soho Press. His website is www.mattbeynonrees.com

Thank you, Matt (and Sarah!) for guest blogging here today! Readers, your thoughts / comments are most welcome.
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