One on One: Novel approach to the Mideast mind-set

Author Matt Beynon Rees tells the Palestinian story through fiction.

rees 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
rees 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Matt Beynon (pronounced buy-non) Rees says he'd rather not talk about his background. Well, religious and ethnic, that is. The 41-year-old journalist-turned-crime novelist was born in Wales and lives in Jerusalem with his Jewish (originally American) wife and baby son, Cai. That much he doesn't mind discussing. But, he says, the rest is for "labeling," which - in the case of a former Time bureau chief in Israel, who reported on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than a decade - can be and often is problematic in terms of how his work is viewed by members of either side of the divide. Equally problematic for the author of Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide and Fear in the Middle East, a non-fiction account, published in 2004, of the internal strife within Israeli and Palestinian societies, has been his own sense that journalism doesn't get at the heart of a story. It is for this reason, he explains, that he switched genres. Fiction, funnily enough, he claims, is a much better way of delving into the mind-set of the Mideast characters he has covered in the past and is now "uncovering." The literary device he has employed to achieve his aim of "telling the real story behind the news" is a detective series (published by Soho Press), whose protagonist, a middle-aged history teacher in Bethlehem named Omar Yussef, solves mysteries. On the eve of publication of the third book in the series, The Samaritan's Secret - that happens to coincide with Operation Cast Lead - Rees (who is "fairly fluent" in both Arabic and Hebrew) talks about his take on Gaza, where he has spent much time over the years, and how it served as an inspiration to his novels. The hero of your series is a history teacher turned detective. Is this some kind of metaphor for what a journalist is - part historian, part detective? Yes, but what I'm trying to record through these books is the things that were missing from my journalism. And what were those things that were missing from your journalism? For example, I would go to Gaza and understand a certain aspect of what was happening there. But then I would have to filter it down so that I could pitch a story to my editors. My editors would then take the pitch and twist it around to fit what they wanted for that week. Then I'd have to write something that seemed to make sense of what they were looking for. But that meant that a lot of what I knew about what was going on there was left out. Historians looking back at events might read journalists' accounts and ask what is missing from them. Because journalists are manipulated by politicians, who send up trial balloons and often lie. In Gaza, you're manipulated by all kinds of people with different agendas. So the things that journalists write are very much like what you would see if something blew up behind you. You would turn around and point at it, and then turn away again. In other words, you would see an explosion and report on it. And your report would be true. On the other hand, you wouldn't know what had caused the explosion, and you wouldn't know what was going on after it. You'd just have that one blink. Are you saying that it is the human context that is being left out? Yes. And the human stories are the most important thing, because what happens inside someone's head - whether it's someone at the top of the political echelon or a refugee at the bottom - is what really dictates the events. Saying this many people were killed, this many tanks were involved and this many missiles were fired is what journalism does. That's its failing. That's why, to many people who aren't directly involved - who aren't sitting here in Israel or in Gaza - the news of the Middle East seems really flat. In reality, what happens here is so much more vivid. A novel, strangely, is a better way of getting at that deeper reality. You have to go inside someone's mind for him to be a character in a novel. So, whereas journalism has to rest on the surface, a novel has to go very deep. Why did you write your series from the Arab point of view? Why not an Israeli detective? For me, the Palestinians are simply more extraordinary. I live in Israel which, despite its weirdnesses and crankinesses, is basically a Western country, and the people living in it - or at least the ones I know - are basically Western people. When I go to the Palestinian towns, on the other hand, I'm not in the West, by any stretch of the imagination. I am among people whose minds work in a different direction, among buildings that look like nowhere I've ever lived, and I'm smelling and tasting things that my mother didn't cook for me when I was growing up. So I feel more a spark of creativity when I'm among the Palestinians. Moreover, I feel like it's the harder story to tell. It's much easier to tell the story of the Israelis - so easy, in fact, that I would feel I was drawn much more toward cliché than I am when writing about the Palestinians. Now, that's because I approach them the way I do. Most people who approach the Palestinians see them as a cliché - as either terrorists or victims. A lot of the journalists I've worked with over the years go in to Gaza and argue with the person they're interviewing. They'll try to convince a Hamas guy that suicide bombings are wrong. And while they feel that in so doing, they're prompting something deeper, I feel that they're simply not listening. I'm a very good listener. I don't try to convince them of anything. I try to learn what's in their heads and hearts, so that I can explain it to readers. When faced with Israel's incursion into Gaza, is it your gut reaction to identify with the residents of Gaza, because of your familiarity with them? No. Actually, I don't identify with anyone in this conflict. One of the things that years as a journalist in this region convinced me is that politicians are just the most disgusting people on earth, and would do anything to enhance their power. That applies to the Israeli defense minister and the Hamas prime minister. They just disgust me. Does it apply to [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen? I think Abu Mazen's problem is that he's a little bit too human. If he were more of a bastard, frankly, I think he would have changed the situation within a year of his becoming president. I did the first interview with him then, and it was clear to me that he had the opportunity, but might be a little bit too weak. What was needed at that point was for him to clamp down on any kind of violence from all the different groups of gunmen who had been operating under [Yasser] Arafat's umbrella during the intifada, and what he did was kind of half-and-half. He cut off the money that Arafat had been giving the Saladin Brigades and so on, but he didn't really impose his will. So, while I think he has a lot of the flaws of politicians, he doesn't have the inhuman callousness that is necessary. You say that he doesn't have the power to rein in whom you call "gunmen" - and others call "terrorists" - but isn't it possible he doesn't really want to? The reason I call them gunmen is that sometimes they might be terrorists, but other times their role is to be gunmen within their own society, as opposed to terrorizing Israelis. So they have this dual role. Abu Mazen doesn't seem to be able to come to grips with their role as gunmen within their own society. He has allowed himself to slip further and further away from a position in which he could do anything. Speaking of which, what distinction would you make between Fatah and Hamas, if any? Well, the distinction used to be that Fatah was corrupt, but now Hamas is fairly corrupt, as well. It's certainly become morally corrupt - since taking absolute power in Gaza. It has a lot of blood on its hands. Hamas has become morally corrupt? Wasn't it always? I mean as concerns other Palestinians - leaving aside the sending of people to blow themselves up. Terrorism is morally corrupt. But, as an organization, Hamas used to have a moral basis, running clinics, mosques, youth clubs and so on. But that has been overwhelmed, essentially, by a blood lust that extends to its own people. And you think Fatah does not share that blood lust? I think that Fatah can be bought, that's all. And though Fatah uses violence, it's more likely to have an achievable political aim than Hamas. Do you see Gaza and the West Bank as part of a larger global struggle on the part of radical Islamists - or do you see it as a regional conflict that could be settled if Israel were to withdraw from more territory? I think it's increasingly becoming part of a larger struggle. One of the reasons I am expanding the scope of my series beyond the Palestinian territories is because of that fact. The fourth novel in the series, which will be out in a year, is set in Brooklyn. I wanted to look at the experience of Palestinians or Muslims outside their immediate context, and in places where they might be seen with suspicion. If you see the conflict as increasingly part of a larger struggle, do you support or oppose the current operation in Gaza? On the one hand, I understand completely why it's being done. On the other hand, I always, at least vaguely, mistrust the motives of someone like [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak. You mistrust his motives as they relate to the upcoming elections? I would mistrust his motives anyway, but certainly, during the pre-election period, there's a lot of winking and nodding. Yet the public has been begging the government and defense establishment to do something about the rocket threat. Isn't it possible that the operation was launched to provide an answer to residents of the South? But everyone knows that Israeli troops won't remain in Gaza. They can force Hamas to accept some kind of agreement, but ultimately there'll be more missiles - until there's a political agreement. Now, it's possible that even if there is a political agreement, there will be missiles. It's possible that nothing will ever be resolved in Gaza. But I don't see this operation resolving anything. I don't know how well the Israeli defense establishment really understands Hamas. According to polls, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu is likely to be forming the next government. Do you think that the way he is perceived by the Palestinians could serve as a deterrent? I don't know how clear a picture the Palestinians have of Netanyahu; it's been so long since they've actually had to deal with him. He now maintains he's completely different to what he was then - a man who ended up telling everyone what they wanted to hear, and who, the last time I interviewed him at the end of his tenure as prime minister, couldn't even look at me in the eye. He kept looking at this little stub of a cigar he was playing with. It's not that he was having a breakdown or anything like that, but he was certainly a man who couldn't communicate in some way, or who didn't want to have to connect with anyone in some sense. In the years since then, he's been very confident, both as a public speaker, of course, but also in private, when he brings out the cigars. He maintains that he's changed completely. But I don't think the Palestinians have a clear idea of what that change has brought. They see him, perhaps, as a bit of a cartoon figure, left over from that time in the 1990s, where they thought there were the "good" Israelis in the Labor Party and the "bad" ones in Likud. When the intifada started [in 2000], that division between good and bad Israelis disappeared among Palestinians. However, I think they have a fairly clear idea of Barak as being a bit ignorant about the Arabs, which was shown around the time of Camp David. Is there anybody in the Israeli political system who, in your view, does have an understanding of the Arabs? Yes, and unfortunately he's in a coma. Speaking of Ariel Sharon, he was working toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. Given your experience, do you believe the Palestinians actually want a state, or are they more focused on destroying Israel than on building their own institutions? I don't think they're as focused on destroying Israel as it might seem. There will always be a percentage of them who want to destroy Israel and a percentage who think they can't destroy Israel, even though they'd like to. But the majority of them, particularly after the intifada, said, "Sod it; let's move on." Were you surprised, after the disengagement from Gaza, that, instead of using the greenhouses there for agricultural purposes, and the homes to house the people, they used the whole area for missile buildup and launching? No, because it all has to do with internal Palestinian power struggles. But the reality for most Palestinians is that they want to have jobs. If this is true of the majority, can't they overthrow the rulers who are preventing them from leading normal lives? That's precisely their problem. They now have this very entrenched pair of political parties, neither of which represents what the people want, and both of which are backed, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, by external forces. So ordinary Palestinians don't have the power to do anything. What if they were helped along by outside forces? The Iraqi people threw flowers at the American soldiers for rescuing them from Saddam Hussein, after all. No, I don't think the Palestinians would want their leaders overthrown - certainly not by a military operation - because those who replaced the leadership would be seen as "collaborators." One of things I do in my novels is focus on those individuals who are prepared to stand up and take risks - albeit small by our standards, but enormous by theirs. It's not that at the end, some grandiose peace is achieved. The scale is much smaller - more like episodes in the larger scheme of things, which get resolved.