Telling It Like It Is

In his Omar Yussef series, Matt Rees goes beyond the detective novel to hold up a scathing mirror to Palestinian society

26rees88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Article in Issue 26, April 13, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. It is not unknown for the crime novel to be used as a vehicle for social and political comment. I recently read Robert Harris's 1992 detective thriller "Fatherland," which doubles as alternate history, and uses a stunning plot line to reveal the up-to-then suppressed crime of the millennium, the Holocaust of the Jews, while describing the triumphant Nazi Third Reich in 1964. In the 70s, Stockholm's fictional Chief Inspector Martin Beck had to deal with corruption and political mismanagement at the highest levels of the Swedish police, which reflected a disintegrating welfare state. Contemporary superstar cops John Rebus of Edinburgh and Hieronymus Bosch of Los Angeles contend with backstabbing bosses and the consequences of how harshly the West deals with its underclasses. However, the creator of one of the more unusual sleuths in detective fiction has taken social and political comment to new lengths. At times it seems that Matt Beynon Rees, author of the Omar Yussef series, featuring Palestine's first fictional detective, is at least as concerned with describing the ills of Palestinian society as with crafting a coherent crime yarn. In fact, Rees steers almost completely clear of Israeli soldiers and settlers, and however dominant they may be in the political background of Palestinian life, they make almost no appearance in his books. "My books portray the reality of Palestinian life. They show Palestinians as real people, not as stereotypical terrorists or victims as they usually appear in the media," Rees, a former top-ranking print journalist for Time magazine, among other publications, asserts in an interview with The Jerusalem Report. He explains that his main characters are based on real people who he says are happy about the way they are portrayed. "In a way it's their revenge on the people who've destroyed much of what they loved about the Palestinian world, through the violence and corruption of the intifada and the continued fraternal conflict between Gaza and the West Bank with all its gang killings and torture." Rees believes that his novels go deeper than media reports. "I do believe I've exposed the flaw in our perception of the Palestinians, which is based on their portrayal in the news media. People see that this perception is superficial and they want to understand the reality of Palestinian life, society and beliefs. "I think my books provide a service there, because if we in the West don't try to understand the problems of the Muslim world, those problems will come to us, as they did on 9/11 or in London and Madrid. Hopefully, people will also be entertained by the books," he tells The Report. "The Samaritan's Secret," the third in a series describing the exploits of Omar Yussef Sirhan, takes place this time in Nablus, the main city in the northern part of the West Bank. Omar Yussef, the principal of a United Nations school for refugees, who has acquired a reputation as an amateur detective, has ventured out of his native Bethlehem, to attend the wedding in Nablus of his friend Sami Jaffari, an officer in the Palestinian police. But, as we have seen in his previous exploits in Bethlehem and Gaza, wherever Omar Yussef goes, trouble is not far behind. The aging, balding O.Y. (the real Omar Yussef told Rees that he thought he had more hair and less paunch than his fictional counterpart) is invited by the prospective bridegroom to help him investigate the theft of the Samaritan community's most precious treasure - the Abisha Scroll. The Samaritans, a tiny ancient offshoot of Judaism, number about 700. Half of them live on Mt. Gerizim, overlooking Nablus, and the other half in Holon, Israel. They believe the Abisha Scroll to be the oldest book in the world. O.Y. and Jaffari arrive at the Samaritans' ancient synagogue to find that the scroll has mysteriously been returned, but then stumble on the body of a young Samaritan who has been murdered. The plot thickens when it's discovered that the victim had been the money man for the "Old Man." While he is never named, the "Old Man" character is clearly based on Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian president. It emerges that there has been high-level pilfering of the Palestinian Authority coffers and several hundred million dollars of aid money are missing. The World Bank is threatening to cut off further funding. O.Y. is determined to ensure that the aid is not lost. He enlists his friend Khamis Zeydan, the police chief of Bethlehem, to help track down the missing millions. On the way they get mixed up in deadly and dirty internecine warfare between the secular Fatah and the fundamentalist Hamas factions in Nablus. A secret file containing a dark secret about the "Old Man" and other corrupt officials becomes part of the plot and O.Y.'s life is threatened. He flees an assassin in a headlong chase through the murky alleys of the casbah as the body toll begins to mount. Eventually Omar Yussef sorts it all out, and there's a lively wedding celebration at the close. Apart from presenting a searing indictment of corruption in Palestinian society, Rees sketches a panorama of the sights, sounds and smells of Palestine - delving into the depths of the Nablus casbah and painting an intriguing portrait of the fascinating and secretive Samaritan community. A lithe former cricketer, the fortysomething Welsh-born Rees is constantly out in the field, keeping his finger on the pulse of the people as he researches his novels. For relaxation he plays a mean bass guitar as part of the five-man Dolly Weinstein rock group. You can catch him at his regular gig in a Jerusalem cellar bar. A resident of Jerusalem, he is married to his American-born Jewish wife Barbara and they have an infant son Cai. The Report interviewed Rees soon after "The Samaritan's Secret" came out in February. The Jerusalem Report: Still no backlash from Palestinian/Arab readers in reaction to the scathing criticism of the ills of Palestinian society in your novels? Matt Rees: "I get quite a few e-mails from Arabs, mainly Palestinians in Jordan or in Germany, who admire the books. They tell me I'm reflecting their reality in a way that the Western media can't (because its correspondents don't know enough about the Arab world) and Arab media won't (because for the most part it is restricted by governments)." Are any of the novels being translated into Arabic? "No. But I'm now being published in my first Muslim country. "A Grave in Gaza" is coming out in Indonesia. I think the books have reached a foreign-language reading elite [in the Palestinian areas] and people living in the Palestinian diaspora. [Former Palestinian Authority education minister] Hanan Ashrawi, for example, was on German TV a while back, saying that my first crime novel, "The Collaborator of Bethlehem" reflected the reality of Christian Arabs in Bethlehem. Then she added, "Unfortunately." Can you estimate the impact that your novels have had on how people in the West relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? "People who've read the books write to me in great numbers to tell me how I've changed their perspective on this conflict. In European countries that are traditionally pro-Palestinian, such as Norway and Spain, I anticipated that people might be upset because I examined only Palestinian society and didn't show much of Israel's role in the conflict. But in fact on my visits to such countries, I've been impressed by the open response the books promote. How does this compare to the impact of your work as a journalist? "These books will be on people's shelves for years and other people will pick them up to read them. I've written them in such a way that they aren't obsolete within days, as most journalism inevitably is. That's because news reporters are forced to focus on the latest blip in current events, as though it were the most important thing that's ever happened. The lives of ordinary Palestinians go on around those events; their aspirations remain the same, even if news reports would suggest that something earthshaking is going on. Most of all, the journalism that I've done and continue to do can't get to the core of how people perceive the Palestinians. A novel simply has to have emotional depth, and therefore it brings you inside the head and heart of the characters. Journalism hardly even tries to do that." How do the real-life Omar Yussef and Khamis Zeydan react to how they are portrayed in the novels? Is Sami Jaffari based on a real person? What is his reaction to the portrayal of Jaffari in the novels? "The real Omar and Khamis are happy that I'm expressing something about their lives that is otherwise hidden from the world. The real Sami Jaffari is one fellow who doesn't know that he's in the books. I based him, too, on someone I'm very close to - in fact I'm related to him by marriage. But I judge whether to tell someone that they're the basis for someone in the book according to my assessment of their personality. The real Omar and the real Khamis are big, talkative types, who're glad that, in a backdoor way, they're able to stick it to 'The Man' by appearing in my books. The real Sami is a very quiet fellow and I think he'd be amused but also a little disconcerted to see himself portrayed in my novel. But I'm not worried - if he ever finds out, he'll see that he's a good guy in the novels, just as he is in life." Into how many languages have your novels been translated? "The books are sold in 22 countries and will soon be out in Greek and Japanese, among other languages. In Germany, "A Grave in Gaza" came out during the recent fighting in Gaza and was second on the Die Welt-Arte crime novels list behind John Le Carre's latest. Sales presumably are good because in a number of countries the fourth book in the series has already been sold, and in a couple of places the fifth, too. That fourth book is already finished. It'll be out in a year, titled "The Fourth Assassin," and is based around Omar's visit to that famous Palestinian town - Brooklyn. "The Collaborator of Bethlehem" won the U.K. Crime Writers Association's New Blood Dagger, a prestigious award for a first novel."• Article in Issue 26, April 13, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.