What is the right book to read during the celebrations for Israel 60th anniversary? Probably a crime fiction set in Palestine. That is, what Matt Rees’ books are about.
Matt Beynon Rees is (or he might prefer to say was) a journalist from Wales who for over a decade wrote stories from the Middle East for Time, Newsweek and The Scotsman. He says that journalism was the only way to make a living out of what he liked most: writing.
But being a journalist has never been his dream. His dream was to do what he is doing now: writing books. But, even though his dream has finally come true, he has not left the Middle East, which he loves to the point of describing Gaza as "the most beautiful spot imaginable and the place where I feel most alive".
From Jerusalem, he writes his Omar Yussef cycle. Omar Yussef is the main character of his novels, a Palestinian schoolteacher with a lot of doubts but also a few, unweavering certitudes.
How did you go from journalism to fiction ?
I realized that journalism was much too limited. It couldn’t show the emotions that I observed while covering the intifada. I saw people in extreme situations, people whose loved ones had died, and I too experienced the emotions of seeing dead bodies and people in distress. But journalism is only supposed to show objective facts. Fiction has to show the emotions. For that reason, fiction is reality. Journalism is just a formula that approximates to reality.
Why crime fiction?
I’ve always loved crime fiction. The first novel that really showed me something deep about an entire society was The Maltese Falcon, which gives such an amazing picture of actual life in San Francisco.
Crime fiction also has to be based on a really deep and engaging central character — the detective. The detective has to draw us in and show us an entire culture, a society through his eyes. He’s our interpreter. With this kind of character, a writer has to go beyond stereotypes. As I wanted to avoid the stereotypes of the Palestinians — that is, they are either terrorists or victims of the Israelis — then crime fiction was a perfect way to do it.
I also wanted people to have fun reading about the Palestinians, rather than the heavy depressing stuff that they normally see about this people. And people clearly enjoy crime fiction, whereas some types of literature are not designed to be enjoyable in the same way.
Omar Yussef is not a typical detective. Why did you choose a history teacher?
The Palestinians are often trapped in their past. All they can think about is the village inside what is now Israel that they lost. The real man on whom I based Omar Yussef rejects that idea. He wants to focus on the future. I decided Omar Yussef should be a schoolteacher, because teachers focus on children — the future generation. But I also made him a history teacher so that he would understand the story of the Palestinians in depth, not just the banal political platitudes that they hear from politicians and newspapers and tv.
As Omar Yussef investigates, he seems to discover more things about himself rather than about the crimes he’s investigating…
Because he’s an amateur, not a professional detective, he has to overcome his own fears in order to investigate. That shows him a great deal about his own character in The Bethlehem Murders as he concludes that he must make a stand for justice in his hometown.
In A Grave in Gaza he also confronts his own fears, as he finds himself alone in Gaza — a place much more alien to him than he at first realizes.
In both books, the purpose is to show that there are Palestinians who can face their own society and do brave things. It’s also intended to show that these people are often not the professionals and officials with whom our diplomats from the EU or the US and the UN are dealing.
In your first novel, The Bethlehem Murders , you show the relationships between Christian and Muslim Palestinians. Why did you choose to show this not so well known aspect of Palestine?
I started the series in Bethlehem, because we all think we know about this place. Many of us sing Christmas songs about it. But the last 2000 years in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus are a bit of a blank. I wanted to overturn people’s preconceptions about the Palestinians and the best place to start was in the Palestinian town whose name is most familiar to us.
I chose a conflict within Palestinian society, because I didn’t want any of my characters to have the excuse that all the problems in the book were caused simply by the Israelis. My Palestinian friends say: "We know the Israelis are a problem for us, but we can’t change the Israelis. We can change our own society from within."
In the second book, there are no Israelis at all. I focus on the internal battles within the Palestinian security forces, whose leaders are all corrupt and bloodthirsty. There are 12 different security forces in the Palestinian Authority and they’re all battling for power. That has much more of an effect on daily life in the Palestinian towns often than the Israeli occupation.
As the novel unfolds , the reader has the feeling that there is no really positive “side”: neither the Israelis, nor the Palestinians, not even the UN administration. And there is no real hero, in the classical sense: on the whole, Omar Yussef looks more like a naïf idealist than a strong opponent for his enemies (whoever they are), while the Christian people look rather as helpless victims. Why?
I see Omar as a hero because he acknowledges that he must take responsibility for his own society. If no one else will try to save George, he must do it. In any society there is a tendency to blame our problems on some outside force (that’s why dictators always need to have an enemy, like during the Cold War). But Palestinians often blame the Israelis for everything. I wanted to turn that back on them and show, through Omar, that only they can be responsible for their destiny.
I see the positive element of the book as the relationship Omar has with his granddaughter — who, after all, is the future of the Palestinians. She’s lively and interested, and he’s confident about the future and willing to take risks for it, because of her. In the second book she’s an even more important character. And in the third book, which is now edited and will be out next year, she’s a very important figure.
What is the role of the writer? Is he just an entertainer or can he aspire to changing the world? A little bit, at least?
The world can look out for itself. I believe a writer can change individual readers, and in some sense that changes the world. Our views of the Middle East, for example, focus almost entirely on the political portrayal of the region in the newspapers and tv news. I want people who read my book to have an understanding of the emotions experienced by people who live through the events of the Middle East. That will change their perceptions, because whether they consider themselves pro- or anti-Palestinian they’ll respond on a human level.
What was the Israelis’ reaction to your books? And the reaction of Palestinians and of Arabs in general?
The first book came out in Hebrew in December and the second one will be out later this year. The reviews are very good and there was a lot of interest in articles about me. For Israelis, the first book provides a glimpse over the wall they built around Bethlehem. They’re happy the wall was built, because it reduces terrorist attacks, but they want to know more about life in the town that, after all, is right on the border of Jerusalem. So it’s been a very positive response, and i’m happy about that, because generally Israelis hate books about the Middle East written by foreigners.
I get a lot of emails from people in the Arab world — particularly Palestinians in Jordan and Lebanon who read the book in English or French — saying that I’ve written a book that shows the reality as they see it, too. Arabs know that their media doesn’t tell them the truth — either because it’s run by states like Syria, which aren’t free, or because the media likes to sensationalize the suffering of Palestinians and is only interested in them as stereotypes.
There was a review in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam which liked the first book. But most of the review was explaining what a crime novel is in very basic terms. There’s not much tradition of crime novels in the Arab world. I think that’s because it’s a democratic form — a small man tries to uncover something a big power wants to keep secert — something regimes like Syria and Libya and Saudi Arabia wouldn’t appreciate.
Have you ever been tempted by mainstream literature or by other genres?
I certainly don’t see crime fiction as a lower grade of literature than so-called "literary fiction". My favorite writers are Chandler and Hammett in the US, and Graham Greene in the UK. All of them were, to one extent or another, mystery/crime writers. In Italy, I’m a big fan of Camilleri. So crime fiction is good for me.
In the future, in addition to Omar Yussef, I intend to write some historical crime fiction based around my own historical research and interpretation of real events. But that’s as far as I think I’ll stray from crime fiction.
What do you read? Or, if you prefer, what do you like as a reader?
I read a lot of history, particularly about the Mediterranean. I’m very interested in ancient Greece and Rome, and in the classical period of Islam during the great years of Andalus in Spain. I read a lot about those subjects and more recent Italian history — I go to Italy at least twice a year, so I enjoy reading history and visiting places I’ve read about. I spent 10 days in Ferrara a couple of years ago, just because of The Garden of the Finzi Continis.