Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Matt Beynon Rees, A Crime Novelist Looks at Gaza

I'm very honored today to have Matt Beynon Rees as guest blogger. Rees is the former Jerusalem Time Magazine bureau chief. He is also the award-winning author of the Omar Yussef mystery series, set in Palestine. His comments are timely now, and he's the perfect person to discuss Gaza, as a journalist turned novelist sees it. Thank you, Matt.

From the first time I visited Gaza in 1996 I've been drawn to its breeze-block alleys and dirty beaches. My first visit was during a rainstorm. All the drains in the refugee camps overflowed, so I waded through brown muck to the office of the Hamas man I had gone to interview. "You're British," he laughed. "You brought the rain." But I'd never seen rain like that. It wasn't depressing and grey; it touched Gaza with an exotic magic.

No matter how many Israeli bombs fall, no matter how many rockets Hamas fires, Gaza will never for me be the place we see in the headlines. Visiting every month for a decade, I learned something so much deeper about Gaza than its media portrayal--even in the journalism I used to write for Time Magazine--and I felt readers ought to know. That's why I used it as the setting for the second of my Palestinian detective novels, A Grave in Gaza (Soho Press, 2008).

Even when I decided to get out of journalism and devote myself to my novels, I stayed here. I could've gone to live in Tuscany. I could've read about all the death and destruction that happens in Gaza in the newspaper like everyone else does. I thought that was what I wanted, until actually faced with the opportunity.

But I didn't leave.

The people here gave me such insight into the reality of their lives that I wanted to continue to portray that in my fiction. Ironically, because fiction needs to delve inside the heads and hearts of its characters, it gets much closer than "objective" journalism to the truth that lies there. My detective protagonist is a Palestinian (a schoolteacher in a refugee camp, who's forced to take on cases because law and order has degenerated in towns run by gunmen) because I wanted to show that Palestinians aren't the stereotypical terrorists or victims portrayed in the news. They do take responsibility for their own society. But only when the story (whether it's in the media or my novels) moves beyond the reflex to blame Israel for everything.

Most of all I want my novels to give readers the true emotional experience of being among people who live in extreme situations.

One Gazan mother took me onto her roof to show me the birds her 11-year-old had kept until he was shot and told me that in Arabic the sound of a dove's cooing is a reminder to "remember Allah." Memories such as these are the direct basis for scenes in my crime novels (The doves crop up in A Grave in Gaza). A decade ago, I spent time with the wife of Fathi Suboh, a professor arrested on trumped up charges because he discussed government corruption in class. This case formed the initial spark for the plot of A Grave in Gaza. It isn't that I'm so interested in human-rights--that belongs to the realm of journalism, where one writes about events and statements, exterior things. As a novelist, I remembered the sadness of Suboh's wife as she described her attempts to dissuade him from his protest, to let them have a quiet family life. Her emotion is the heart of the novel.

In A Grave in Gaza (as in my first novel, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, Soho Press, 2007) all the characters are based on real people I encountered during a decade of reporting--the sinister chief of secret police, chainsmoking with one hand while expectorating into a tissue in his other; the gunman who, in the dark of his hideout on Gaza's Egyptian border, allowed me to feel the smoothly burned skin and jagged bones of his fist where a tank shell had smashed it; the flirtatious hotel clerk who joked with me about how many camels I'd have to pay her father to marry her. Sometimes these experiences left me quivering with adrenaline, other times with laughter, but always feeling more alive than I've ever felt at home.

My first trip to the West Bank in 1996 ignited that sense of animation. At the funeral of a Nablus man tortured to death in one of Arafat's jails, I was struck by the candor and dignity with which the dead youth's family spoke. The alien nature of the place thrilled me. An old oil drum held black flags and palm fronds, symbols of Islamic mourning. I felt a powerful sense of adventure, as though I had uncovered an unknown culture. That visit planted the seed for the third of my novels The Samaritan's Secret, which is out Feb. 1 from Soho Press.

I found the Middle East a lot funnier than you might think, too. The first Hamas man I met wasn't a stereotypical bloodthirsty fanatic. He was a comical, tubby man with a grey beard circling his jaw and a clean upper lip. He spoke English like Gielgud and drew his vocabulary from a calendar designed to teach a new word each day. When I first saw him, the word was "fructuary". (It means "one who enjoys the profits of something." In the Middle East, I suppose it applies to those who believe like Hamas that violence leads to the joys of Paradise or, perhaps, those who write crime novels about it).

Such humorous moments have often given me insights as deep as the bloodiest battles of Gaza. Take my friend Zakaria, who lives in the village of Beit Hanoun, a major battleground in the current fighting. Zakaria was for decades Arafat's top intelligence man. He became a good source and a friend. I've seen him during hard times when he expected his home to be stormed by rival Palestinian factions; when he sent armed men to bring me to meet him in secret. But my deepest impression of him came when he jovially served me giant scoops of hummus laced with ground meat and cubes of lamb fat at breakfast. As a foreign correspondent, I've eaten some rough meals (Bedouins once milked a goat's udder directly into a glass and handed me the warm fluid to drink), but try raw lamb fat at 9 a.m. and see how you like it. For Zakaria, the dish was a tremendous delicacy and a demonstration of his hospitality. As a writer, I found the mannerisms with which he served me and his insistence that I eat a second plate just as interesting as his tension during moments of conflict.

The result of all these experiences, I hope, will be to imbue my novels with realistic portrayals of the Palestinians--and my readers will be the fructuaries.

Thank you, Matt, for taking the time to discuss Gaza, and your books, with my readers. I know it helps to bring the people of Gaza to life. And, I have to suggest that interested readers check out Matt's website at Watch the YouTube video. The music, the atmosphere, and Rees himself are very effective.

Matt Beynon Rees is the author of The Samaritan's Secret, to be published in the U.S. on Feb. 1. His first novel, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, also featuring Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef, won the Crime Writers Association New Blood Dagger. His novels have been sold in 22 countries. He was Middle East correspondent for Time Magazine and Newsweek for more than a decade. He lives in Jerusalem. For more:


L.J. Sellers said...

What a fascinating look at a Gaza few of us have ever seen. I'm eager to try one of your mysteries now.

Lesa said...

I'm not Matt, L.J., but I agree with you. It is a fascinating look at an unknown Gaza, isn't it? I'm glad Matt had time to do a guest blog.

Sandra said...

Very interesting. I didn't know about these books. I read only literary fiction and mysteries if they are original in some way. The setting in these certainly would be for me. Thank you for bringing them to our attention.

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Sandra. The setting is original, isn't it? And, thank you for following my blog!

Literary Feline said...

I was so excited to find out Matt Rees would be making an appearance on your blog, Lesa. I was quite taken with A Grave in Gaza and look forward to reading the other books in his series.

What especially drew me to his books in the first place was the setting and the fact that his protagonist was Palestinian. He offered a look into the lives of every day Palestinians, not just those in power or who are fighting for power. I think that's an important portrayal to get out there, especially in today's climate.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Literary Feline! I need to pick up Matt's books. You're right. We Americans are so used to reading about Hamas and terrorists that we ignore the ordinary people living in Palestine.

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