Embroiled in Gaza

A detective thriller takes a long hard look at the corruption and chaos plaguing Gaza

04grave88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
If you're a detective-thriller fan and you're interested in the Middle East, then you've come to the right book. In his second novel on the seamy side of Palestinian reality, Matt Rees, a top journalist turned novelist, provides a first-class yarn and a unique insight into what really happens in Gaza. The Gaza Strip is a familiar name to consumers of world news media. But the consumer is fed a one-dimensional diet. The 1.4 million Gazans, penned up in 360 square kilometers, are not a homogeneous mass of suffering humanity driven to starvation as the Israeli army attempts to batter them into submission. A more accurate picture, deftly painted by Rees, is one of powerful Palestinian factions determined, by fair means or foul, to grab their share of the pork barrel (well, maybe not pork), and Citizen Ahmad be damned. Rees, who in his former career covered, among other topics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says in an interview with The Jerusalem Report that as a novelist he is "influencing people's perspectives on the Palestinian issue much more than I ever did as a journalist, because I can write what I really feel now" and that when people read novels, they "are more open to different ideas and less inclined to follow a political line blindly. When they read journalism about the Middle East, people's backs are up before they get past the first sentence." Rees's unlikely hero is a middle-aged Bethlehem history teacher, Omar Yussef Sirhan, who in "A Grave in Gaza" (published as "The Saladin Murders" in the U.K.), is thrust willy-nilly into the Gaza maelstrom while accompanying his U.N. boss on a routine schools inspection tour. We previously encountered Omar Yussef in Rees's debut novel, "The Collaborator of Bethlehem," when he attempted to rescue a friend on trial for his life. Now promoted to principal of the U.N. girls' school in the Dehaishe refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem, he becomes involved in trying to rescue Eyad Masharawi, a teacher who has run afoul of the powerful head of the Gaza's Al-Azhar University Prof. Adnan Maki, an ally of the sinister Col. al-Fara, head of the Preventive Security force. Masharawi has been thrown into jail and accused of espionage after discovering that the university was selling degrees to Preventive Security officers. The plot thickens. O.Y. is viciously assaulted while trying to prevent the kidnapping of his boss, Magnus Wallender, of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency by one of the warring factions plaguing the Strip. Then the hapless teacher is caught up in the firefight between Al-Fara's forces and the troops of the venal General Moussa Husseini, head of Military Intelligence, who appears to have been modeled on Yasser Arafat's cousin, security chief Major General Moussa Arafat. (In actuality in September 2005, dozens of heavily-armed masked gunmen stormed Arafat's home in Gaza. After overcoming his guards, the gunmen dragged Arafat outside and shot him dead.) The fictional Moussa meets a similarly violent end. Significantly, Rees writes a note at the beginning of the book: "The crimes in this book are based on real events in Gaza. Though identities and circumstances have been changed, the killers really killed this way, and those who died are dead just the same." As the intrepid O.Y. attempts to free Wallender and Masharawi, the bodies begin to proliferate. But Omar, the one honest man in Gaza, will not be deterred in his search for the truth. He has a powerful friend and protector from his university days in Damascus, Brigadier Khamis Zeydan, the hard-bitten Bethlehem police chief, to help him gain access to information. Zeydan, in Gaza for a meeting of the high-level Palestinian Revolutionary Council, warns Omar Yussef that he cannot solve all the crimes in Gaza: "Perhaps I can solve this crime," the stalwart O.Y declares. "There is no single isolated crime in Gaza. Each one is linked to many others," his friend warns. Zeydan has no illusions: "Gaza is so broken that it ought to be pulled out into the Mediterranean and sunk, along with the gunmen and corrupt ministers who run it." The cynical Zeydan had earlier attempted to unravel for Wallender the differences between the Preventive Security and Military Intelligence forces: "Imagine you wanted to set up a police state, Magnus. You'd need a uniformed force to do the day-to-day brutalizing and intimidation - that's Military Intelligence. Then you'd have your secret police, plainclothesmen who'd be involved in sinister, shady operations - that's Preventive Security. "'Gaza is a police state?' Wallender frowned. "'It was meant to be a police state, but it ended up more of a banana republic,' Zeydan laughed... "'Don't worry about the different names of these organizations, Magnus,' Khamis Zeydan continued. 'The only thing a foreigner like you needs to remember is that they're all bastards and nothing they do is in the interests of ordinary Palestinians.'" The Israelis hardly figure in the drama. Indeed, Israel is just an amorphous presence looming in the background, divorced from the main narrative in Rees's novels. The Gazans have created their own purgatory. As Zeydan describes the Revolutionary Council meeting: "This place is at war. Not with the Israelis - the only people fighting them any more are the Islamists. We're at war with ourselves. The meeting is a hopeless attempt to stop us all from killing each other." I ask Matt Rees in an e-mail interview if Palestinians in private really voice scathing criticism of their own society, such as he places in the mouth of someone like Khamis Zeydan. "Blaming the Israelis is what they do in public," Rees replies. "In private, my Palestinian friends are very conscious of the role played by Palestinians - politicians, journalists, gunmen - in destroying their society during the intifada. They're not letting Israel off the hook. Rather they're acknowledging that if they want to influence the Israelis, the best way is to end the finger pointing and examine their own actions. "The people on whom my characters are based have often said to me that they can express themselves much more freely when they talk to me than when they speak to other Palestinians, because they aren't worried about being judged. The lack of trust in the novel is evident, I hope, in the sinister atmosphere of Gaza. Khamis Zeydan talks the way he does because he has absolute trust in Omar Yussef. That's rare in Palestinian society, because you never know who might be close to Hamas or Fatah or in the pay of the Shin Bet. Omar Yussef is particularly special, because he doesn't care who knows what he thinks." Rees has an eye for detail and atmosphere. The oppressive human geography is reflected in the oppressive weather. A pervasive, dusty, choking hamsin wind blows in from the desert, turning the sky yellow. Omar Yussef is enchanted with the shimmering surf that he sees from his hotel window and becomes emotional as he looks at the Gaza shore and reflects that it had been a long time since he had seen the Mediterranean from the coast of Palestine. But he is not blind to the trash on the beach, the burned-out oil drums and the protruding plastic bottles. Rees has won high praise from the critics for both his novels. A blurb on the U.K. edition of his new book quotes the Observer as saying, "Morse, Rebus... and Yussef," and Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter is quoted as saying, "Omar Yussef is a splendid creation." I agree with Dexter, but the comparison with Ian Rankin's Rebus and Morse is a bit belabored. Morse's major societal concern (before he died) was how to get someone else to pay for his pint at an Oxford pub. Rebus is sometimes concerned with Edinburgh's oppressed underclasses and corrupt politicians, but both are professional officers carrying out regular police duties in relatively sedate societies. O.Y. is an amateur, but the real difference is his uncompromising stand against the evil forces that corrupt his society. In this he is closer to Algerian author Yasmina Khadra's Superintendent Llob, the Algiers policeman who battles terror, corruption and the endless power struggles of the elites. I ask Rees, who lives in Jeru- salem with his wife and child, if the violent takeover of Hamas from the Fatah security forces in Gaza would have affected the story, had he written "A Grave in Gaza" later. Matt Rees: I'd have changed a few surface elements. But it wouldn't have altered the fundamental plot or the theme - how corruption drives a society into civil war and crime. Part of Hamas's problem has been that the Fatah gunmen in Rafah still operate, as do the corrupt security chiefs - except now they try to pull the strings in Gaza from the safety of Ramallah. Your second novel is even more of a hard-hitting critique of corruption in Palestinian society than the first. It also provides a devastating portrait of the security agencies and armed gangs that terrorize their own citizens. Given Muslim/Arab sensitivities, do you not fear a backlash against your work and against you personally? Judging by the reaction to my books (including among Palestinians and people elsewhere in the Arab world who've written me e-mails after they read it), my books actually create an openness in people's attitudes. Readers who'd ordinarily be either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli find that I've created a kind of third way of looking at the situation. In its examination of the human side of Palestinian society, I believe these novels transcend the usual ways of looking at the Palestinians. Certainly I've never cared in the least about a backlash. Anyone who'd respond aggressively to my books would clearly be so angrily committed to a harsh pro-Palestinian political perspective that no amount of compromise on my part would ever be enough for them. As for any personal attacks, Eleanor Roosevelt said that no one can make you feel bad except yourself - and no one, believe me, can make me feel bad about my books. You are now a full-time novelist. Still no regrets about giving up journalism? I feel better than ever about my decision. When I see my book in a bookshop, I have such a deep sense of satisfaction. Even though I was Jerusalem bureau chief for the biggest magazine in the world, Time, I never received as many e-mails as I do these days (through my website www.mattbeynonrees.com). Can you give figures about the success of your first novel "The Bethlehem Murders" - copies sold, translations etc., and for the second one so far. I don't have royalty statements yet, so I don't know exact figures. My publishers all seem to be happy. The paperback rights for the first two books were sold to Houghton Mifflin in the U.S., and they brought "The Collaborator of Bethlehem" out in paperback two months ago, so I imagine sales will be higher this year [than sales for the hardcover last year]. The books have sold in 19 countries, including such unlikely spots as Iceland, Brazil and, of course, Israel, where Keter published the first one and has bought the second one. The reviews are uniformly great. A French TV book program recently called me "the new star of the mystery novel." When is your next novel, set in Nablus, due to be published? "The Samaritan's Secret" will be out in the U.S./U.K. in February next year. I'm now starting to work on Omar's fourth mystery, which will surprise many readers by being set in that famous Arab capital - Brooklyn! •