Tuesday, February 05, 2008

An interview with Matt Rees

Matt Rees spent a decade as a reporter in the Palestinian territories and wrote a nonfiction book, Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East, before deciding he needed another, richer way to tell the stories he found there. His two crime novels, The Collaborator of Bethlehem (The Bethlehem Murders in the U.K.) and A Grave in Gaza (a.k.a. The Saladin Murders) portray a harsh world, populated by villains as callous, venal and brutal as any in crime fiction. But Rees finds beauty in that world, too. He wrote last year in Mystery Readers Journal that:

"By learning [Arabic], I was able to give my characters some of the formalized greetings and blessings that are an important part of Palestinian speech. I translated them, rather than just putting the original Arabic phrase in italics, because I wanted readers to get the poetry of everyday speech. For example, to wish someone good morning my characters say `Morning of joy,' and the response is `Morning of light.' When someone gives them a cup of coffee, they tell them `May Allah bless your hands.' Isn't that beautiful?"
In a new interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Rees talks about his immensely appealing protagonist, Omar Yussef; the models for his characters and stories; and his own favorite crime-fiction writers. One of the latter may surprise you. He also offers good news about the third Omar Yussef mystery. If you're within travelling distance of New York, you can hear Matt Rees read and discuss A Grave in Gaza on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers in Greenwich Village.

Omar Yussef is a high school history teacher. Why a teacher? And why history?

People are always suggesting to me that Palestinians are stuck in the past. Of course many are, but I've found a lot of Palestinians to be far more forward-looking than that. I wanted Omar Yussef to be a Palestinian who understood the past – a historian – but whose focus was on the future, the next generation – a teacher.

You write that the crimes in your novels are based on real events. What event or events made you decide, "Aha, I'm going to write a novel"?

When I was Time magazine's Jerusalem bureau chief, I was in a cabbage field near Bethlehem in 2003, interviewing the mother and wife of a Palestinian gunman who'd been killed by Israeli snipers as he crept home to break the Ramadan fast with his family. They talked about discovering his body in the moonlight and touching his blood to their faces, but they also told me in very profound emotional terms what it had been like to go through such an extreme experience. I remember thinking: "This is too good for Time magazine." That death formed the basis for the first killing in The Collaborator of Bethlehem, the first of my novels.

Why are the Palestinian territories, Bethlehem in the first book, Gaza in the second, ripe settings for crime stories?

Particularly during the intifada, there was no law and order for Palestinians. Gunmen ruled the towns and refugee camps as gangsters. If they occasionally shot at an Israeli, they could operate their rackets freely, and of course Palestinians were the victims. In the lawlessness and the corruption of the police force – which is often involved with the gangs – I see many parallels with the San Francisco and Los Angeles of Hammett and Chandler. Unfortunately for the Palestinians they have very real bad guys, too, many of whom I've met.

In your first novel, Omar Yussef uncovers truth but does not achieve justice. What does this say about life in the territories? About your own conception of what a crime story can and should do?

Mainly it says that I'm not an idealist, but that I am an optimist.

What is your take on the breach of the Rafah border crossing? Hamas emerges having appeared to face down both Israel and Egypt. Will this enhance its standing among ordinary Palestinians, or will people regard it as a cynical power play against Fatah? More to the point, how might it influence your planning for possible future Omar Yussef stories?

Ordinary Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, are sick of Hamas. They elected them to punish Fatah, which was corrupt. They didn't elect them because they believe in an Islamic state. They expected Hamas to negotiate with Israel, but to do so more toughly than Fatah. Instead Hamas allowed itself to be pushed into a corner and continued to behave like an opposition militia. Palestinians want Hamas to behave like a government, and governments don't blow up border fences. As for how this affects Omar Yussef, the book I'm finishing now, in which Omar goes to Nablus, involves Hamas and the kind of tribal/neighborhood conflict that never seems to make it into the newspapers.

The character Khamis Zeydan is a police officer with a dangerous past, yet one who knows his way around the hazards of the territories and is conscious of the corruption around him. How typical a figure is he? What role do men like him play in the territories today? What role will they play in any future Palestinian government?

He's typical of high-level Palestinian military men – though not those with the absolute top jobs. Most of them are very disillusioned. They thought they'd come back from exile to be policemen, and suddenly young gunmen took over the streets and they weren't allowed to do anything about it. Khamis Zeydan is based on a friend of mine who introduced me to many of his colleagues in this discontented echelon of the Palestinian military.

One reviewer invoked Batya Gur's name in discussing your first novel, but I'd call your work a distant cousin of Yasmina Khadra's Brahim Llob novels as well. His writing is far bleaker than yours, but the two of you share the theme that when factions fight, ordinary people get it in the neck. Have you read his work? What crime novelists have made a particularly strong impression on you?

I'm glad you find him bleaker than me, because one American journalist said my books were the bleakest mysteries she'd ever read. I told her I thought they were quite optimistic. I don't know Khadra's books, though I shall pick them up. My primary interests in specifically detective writers are Chandler and Hammett, while I love all of Graham Greene's books, including his mysteries. I'm also a fan of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano, which proves that I'm not bleak and am in fact rather a breezy sort of guy. Well, maybe not – I also love Inspector Morse.

In the video you made to promote your second novel, you fling aside a copy of Time magazine. Was that just a bit of whimsy at a former employer's expense, or are you commenting on the inability of media accounts to portray the reality of life in the territories?

We originally intended to have a voice-over for the video where I would, at that point, say "You won't find the reality of Palestine in a newspaper or a magazine. For that, you have to read my books and imagine you're looking down the barrel of one of these." Then I lift a gun to the camera. In the end, we liked the music so much that we kept the talking to an absolute minimum, but you can see why I tossed Time. Of course it was also a bit of revenge for all those nights I had to watch my stories being gutted.

A piece in a French newspaper said your work had a "typically colonialist perspective." The writer cited your caustic comments in the first book about the Arab revolts of 1936. How do you answer such criticism? More broadly, what does it feel like to be a crime novelist who is probably questioned more often about politics than about crime writing?

The comments you're referring to were that during the Arab Revolt the "freedom fighters" degenerated quickly into gangs and ended up killing more Arabs than British soldiers or Jewish immigrants. So I would answer that particular French journalist by saying that (a) the numbers don't lie and (b) that's also what Palestinian historians of the period say. And (c) I'd say that if a character says something in a novel that sounds colonialist, that makes that character a colonialist (maybe), but not necessarily the author. Which leads me to the next part of your question: essentially that people look at my novels as non-fiction dressed up as fiction. I wrote these novels to escape politics. When people ask me about politics, I use it as an opportunity to demonstrate that my novels aren't actually political and that the realms of Middle Eastern diplomacy and politics are far closer to fantasy than the fiction I write.

Early in the second novel, after Omar has arrived in Gaza, he asks Khamis Zeydan: "Why are you killing each other?" Is there some significance to that you? Does the Bethlehemite Omar Yussef regard Gaza and Gazans as a place and people apart?

No, he means the senior Fatah people like Khamis Zeydan are killing each other. As they indeed continue to do rather spectacularly throughout the novel. The infighting among the people who were supposed to govern the Palestinians and lead them toward statehood and peace with Israel is one of the main subjects of A Grave in Gaza, my second novel.

Can readers look forward to future Omar Yussef novels?

In a year, Omar Yussef Book III will be out. It's being edited now. It'll be called The Samaritan's Secret and its set in Nablus, mainly in the old casbah.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Great stuff Peter, you are definitely the Emperor of Interviews.

February 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. So, what did you think of Rees' taste in crime writers?

February 05, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

It made me want to buy his books. Hammett, Chandler and Camilleri show he has pretty good taste for a start.
The Palestinian territories described in the interview seem have much in common with Hammett's "Poisonville" in Red Harvest.
The similarities in Palestine and Northern Ireland are uncanny with ordinary people suffering while their "leaders" struggle among themsleves for power, and kill each other more frequently than they kill their avowed enemy the British or Israeli.

February 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The books are well worth reading. Bethlehem is no vacation resort in the first novel, and Rees more than once has characters in the second book remark that Gaza is far worse. At least Poisonville is fictional. (By the way, if you have a hankering for places made hellish by war, I'll put in another recommendation for Yasmina Khadra.)

Hmm, was there lots of killing among Catholic factions in Northern Ireland, too? There are several chilling and off-hand remarks in A Grave in Gaza about the cynicism of the factions in Gaza, with talk of a given group threatening to attack Israel not to strike a blow against the enemy, but rather with the express intent of inciting retaliation -- and thereby discrediting rival Gazan groups for their supposed inability to stave off attack.

With respect to your first comment, perhaps Emir of Interviews would be more appropriate, context considered.

February 06, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats on a damn good interview!
Now we just have to find out about the "pants" reference when Matt visits New York...
(And I know you won't forget to ask the question.)

February 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Note to self: Don't forget pants.

February 06, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice interview indeed. I have been meaning to read this fellow.

March 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I have a certain sympathy with anyone who grows frustrated with journalism. And, as you can see, he has a sense of humor as well as good taste in crime fiction.

March 29, 2009  

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