Noir fiction, in shades of gray
'The Palestinian reality is perfect for mystery fiction,' says journalist-turned-author Matt Beynon Rees, who is writing a quartet of thrillers. The first focuses on a Palestinian teacher who becomes an accidental detective.
Several years ago Matt Beynon Rees had occasion to visit a small village near Bethlehem. A day earlier a Fatah activist had been shot and killed there by Israeli forces and Rees, a British journalist, went to cover the funeral. He stood there with the dead man's mother and his widow, both of them weeping bitterly. He recalls that they told him what had happened that night and they spoke in a very deep and emotional way that impressed him very much, but he knew the conversation was just going to become a paragraph of "color" in his report and that the rest would be about how Israel said one thing and the Palestinian Authority said another, and the American administration said please be nice to each other. Rees, however, wanted to write something more profound about the Palestinians, and maybe in general about people in extreme situations, so he kept the story to use in his first novel.
Thus, in that atmosphere, "The Collaborator of Bethlehem" (Soho press, New York) was born. The plot of this thriller takes place in Bethlehem in the days of the second intifada. It is the first in a series of thrillers that Rees is writing; for the most part, they are set in the PA-controlled territories, and are based on his experiences during the period when he was covering the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
The plot of the second book in the series, which he has already completed writing, is set in the Gaza Strip; the third, which Rees is writing now, takes place in Nablus; and the fourth, apparently, will be set in Beirut. The translation rights for the first book have been sold to 14 countries, and it is slated for publication in Hebrew by Keter in a few months.
"The Collaborator of Bethlehem" depicts life behind the separation fence. The protagonist, Omar Yussuf, is a history teacher at a United Nations high school, an educated and enlightened person who becomes a detective despite himself. A former student of his, George Saba, is accused of collaborating with Israel. Yussuf is convinced of Saba's innocence and sets out to look for the real collaborator.
"He becomes a detective because there's no law and order," explains Rees. "I think actually the Palestinian reality is perfect for mystery fiction because you have that situation when an ordinary person is forced to be the law; no one else can be the law. It's very much like the old noir fiction from Los Angeles or San Francisco, where there are gangsters and they are more powerful than the police. Which was the situation in America in the 1920s, '30s and '40s when [Raymond] Chandler and [Dashiell] Hammet were writing."
In the book Rees describes the internal problems of Palestinian society: the corruption of the government, the militia gangs that fill the vacuum that has developed in the leadership, the groups' use of resistance to the occupation for purposes of extortion and bullying, personal vengeance in the guise of informing on collaborators, the restoration of personal honor by setting out on suicide attacks, harassment of minority groups (and especially Arab Christians) - and above all, the suspicion and basic distrust that prevails in the society.
The incident on which the book is based took place in the Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem, where a man was dragged into the street, shot and killed after having been accused of collaborating with Israel. Some time later, Rees met with the head of the Fatah forces in Deheishe and found out that the man who had been shot was not a collaborator at all; the Fatah official told him that he was just a simple man who had no power.
However, says Rees, there really was someone who collaborated with Israel and helped in its assassination activities - but the Palestinian government did not succeed in finding out who he was and had to kill someone to deter all the rest.
An easy excuse
Matt Beynon Rees, 39, was born in Wales. He studied English literature at Oxford and then went to New York, where he lived for six years; he also studied journalism at the University of Maryland. He came to Israel in 1996 after marrying a Jewish woman. Rees began covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and published reports in Forbes, Newsweek and other publications. He worked as a reporter at The Jerusalem Post, and between 2000 and 2006 he was the Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine. He has also published a nonfiction book about the internal problems of Israel's Palestinian society.
How did Rees happen to come to this region and why has he remained here? When he was living in New York he met his first wife and together with her he came to Jerusalem. He remained in Jerusalem even after they divorced, and is now married to Devora, also a Jewish woman from an Orthodox home, who grew up on Long Island. The two are expecting a child in September.
But Rees says that his connection to the place began much earlier. Two of his uncles served in the British army and were here with General Allenby in 1917 when British military rule in Palestine began, he relates, and one of them was still alive when he was a child. On Christmas Eve the uncle would get drunk and start to tell stories, displaying the scars he got from having been shot in Betunia. This uncle died when Rees was seven, but he says that a sense of connection to the place remained with him. In 2002 he was in Damascus and went to interview Ahmed Jibril. Jibril spoke about the British and about 1917, and Rees told him about his two uncles in the British army then. "Oh, it was all your fault," Jibril said. Rees observes that perhaps his life here is his way of rectifying the injustice.
In your book, Israel and the occupation are on the margins, only in the background.
Rees: "I didn't want to write about Israel and Israelis, for several reasons. I wanted to make sure that this book has really no Israelis in it, because that's more the reality of the Palestinians now; they are not allowed to travel around so they don't really see Israelis. Also when I see Palestinians and Israelis in the same story the cliches just up and smack me in the face and I can't stand it. When I read fiction about this place that includes Israelis and Palestinians it drives me crazy, no matter what the writer tries to do - it's just a long series of stereotypes and it draws the writer into somehow making a statement about the conflict - are they right, or are they right? The blue team or the green team? And to me it has never been important.
"There's a very easy way out for Palestinians and Israelis, which is to say every problem we have is because of the other side. I didn't want to give any of my characters that way out. Omar Yussuf won't accept that the reason Muslim gangs are victimizing Palestinians Christians is just because of the Israelis. When you're in Bethlehem the surface answer people give you is: 'It's the occupation.' But the real Omar Yussuf, who is a friend of mine, says: 'Obviously the occupation is effective, but we have to take responsibility.' That is what is lacking among Palestinians and Israelis: an ability to take responsibility, to criticize yourself instead of attacking the other side. This is not just the case with the national conflict, it's also in terms of behavior on the street. There's very little self-criticism and ability to notice what the other side of an argument might be. It's always about 'my' suffering."
Rees has tried to depict the Palestinians differently from they way they are seen in the press, where usually they are either terrorists or victims. "People like Omar Yussuf are obviously concerned about the effect of the occupation, but also more than that, he is concerned about what happens inside his society - the Muslim gangs, his Christian friends being victimized, his family under threat because of the violence of the time - that's the reality."
One issue that comes up in the book is the Palestinians' loss of trust in one another. "One of the problems that Palestinians have is that it's very hard for anyone to trust anyone else. No one knows who is a collaborator. When I go to friends there I ask Mr. A. what do you think about Mr. B. and he says 'he's a collaborator' or 'he's too close to the authorities,' and Mr. B. tells me the same." According to Rees, Palestinian society seems to be waking up from illusions - about the people, the politicians, Hamas, Fatah and the Americans. They no longer believe in anything blindly, he says.
Rees sees the internecine wars in the society in question - since the Oslo agreements - as an almost predictable struggle between the internal leadership in the PA, headed by people like Marwan Barghouti, and the external leadership that came from Tunis. With respect to the conflict he has criticism of both sides: "I see the reality in gray, not in black and white," he says. Hence, too, his scorn for the academic boycott of Israel in Britain, which he sees as a stupid decision that stems from a desire to be fashionable and to be based on a black-and-white view of the world. It is, says Rees, in contradiction to the ideals of academic freedom.
'I feel alive'
Rees lives with his wife in the Old Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. He has organized an office where he can sit in front of the keyboard and look out at the city's landscapes through the window. There is a guitar in the room. He is also a musician and plays bass guitar in an ensemble formed by some of his friends who live in Jewish settlements in the territories.
The first time he was in the West Bank was in 1996, soon after first arriving here, when he went to Nablus to cover the funeral of a Fatah militant, who was tortured to death by Yassir Arafat's police. "When I got to the house of mourning and the family," recalls Rees, "I felt like I'd gone to somewhere no one else had ever been. I was in the casbah - the heat and the smell and the sight of the men sitting around on plastic chairs smoking and drinking coffee. It was amazing. I felt this was the reason for leaving home in the first place.
"After I left Britain I lived in New York for six years and I had a great time, but in the end it didn't fulfill anything deep for me. It wasn't that different from living in Wales. To come here and to experience Palestinian culture is so different. I always wanted to write and that's where I realized that is what I should write about, something that really makes me light up whenever I see it. Even now, if I just go to Bethlehem for a quick lunch with friends there, and for half a day walk around the market and meet people - it feels great, I really feel alive."
He is optimistic about a solution to the conflict. He says that Omar Yussuf in the book becomes a detective because of his granddaughter; he wants to protect her future. According to Rees, in both societies there are people who aspire to a better future, and that is something that will override politics. He observes that it is hard to feel optimistic when you are inside the conflict, but he feels he is outside of it and can see things.
Or perhaps he is able to see things now that he has left journalism and has decided to concentrate on literary writing? He says that ever since he quit being a reporter last year he has stopped reading newspapers and watching television all the time, and that being detached from the news is wonderful. He feels that covering the news simply gave him a headache and som etimes real trauma because he began to feel like the victim of all the problems he was covering. Now that he has disengaged from the news, he has become optimistic.