Matt Beynon Rees has staked out real estate in the Middle East for his acclaimed CWA Dagger-winning series of crime novels featuring Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef. The books have sold to publishers in 23 countries and earned him the title “the Dashiell Hammett of Palestine” (L’Express).
His newest, The Fourth Assassin, out on February 1, finds Yussef in New York for a UN conference and visiting his son, Ala, who lives in Bay Ridge, a Brooklyn neighborhood with a large Palestinian community. Of course murder and mayhem greet Yussef in New York, just as in Palestine, and he is ultimately forced to investigate in order to clear his son of a murder charge.
Scene of the Crime caught up with Matt in New York, where he is promoting his new book. He was kind enough to take time away from his busy schedule to answer a few questions.
Describe your connection to Jerusalem and Palestine. How did you come to live there or become interested in it?
I arrived in Jerusalem for love. Then we divorced. But I stayed because I felt an instant liking for the openness of Palestinians (and Israelis). When I arrived I had just spent five years as a journalist covering Wall Street. Frankly that exposed me to a far more alien culture than I experienced when I became a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. People in the Middle East are always so eager to tell you how they FEEL; on Wall Street no one ever talked about feelings, just figures. Rotten material for a novel, figures are. I’ve lived now 14 years in Jerusalem.
What things about Palestine make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Palestine is a place we all THINK we know. It’s in the news every day. Yet the longer I’ve been there, the more I understand that the news shows us only the stereotypes of the place. Terrorism, refugees, the vague exoticism of the muezzin’s call to prayer. What better for a novelist than to take something with which people believe themselves to be familiar and to show them how little they really know. To turn their perceptions around. The advantage is that I begin from a point of some familiarity – it isn’t a completely alien location about which readers know nothing. Imagine if I’d set my novels in, say, Tunisia or Bahrain. Not far from where my novels take place, but much more explanation needed because they’re rather a blank. With Palestine, I’m able to manipulate and disturb the existing knowledge of the place we all have.
Did you consciously set out to use Palestine as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I arrived in Jerusalem as a journalist, but I’ve felt that I’m on a vacation every day of those 14 years I’ve lived there. Every minute I spend in a Palestinian town or village, my creative senses are heightened, to the point where it becomes quite exhausting. Part of that is because of the people, the way they speak and feel. But most of it is the experience of place. The light so bright off the limestone. The smells of spices and shit in the markets. The cigarette smoke and damp in the covered alleys. It’s important to note that each Palestinian town is extremely distinctive – which might not be evident from the news. My first novel takes place in the historic town of Bethlehem. The second is in Gaza, which seems like another world. Nablus, where the third book is set is an ancient Roman town, built over by the Turks. …My new novel sees my Palestinian detective Omar Yussef come to Brooklyn. I move him around BECAUSE place is the driver of the novels. The main characters are the same; but I draw something different out of each of them by shifting them to new places.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
The texture of a Palestinian town is so rich, it ends up defining the atmosphere of the novel. With the casbah of Nablus for example: I was stuck in its old alleys during the intifada with gunfire all around, not knowing who or what might be round the next corner, and it seemed so sinister and beautiful at the same time. The locations are more than background. They’re significant because I write about Palestinian culture and society and people, in the context of a mystery. You couldn’t take my mysteries and change the names and put the Golden Gate in the background and say they were set in San Francisco. They’re the books they are because Palestine is as it is.
How does Omar Yussef interact with his surroundings? And conversely, how does the setting affect him?
Omar Yussef, my detective, is based on a friend of mine who lives in Dehaisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. It’s important to me that he should be a Muslim, someone who loves his traditional family life and tribe, someone who belongs very deeply to Bethlehem. That’s because I’m trying to show readers what they’re missing when they see the Palestinians only as stereotypical terrorists or victims. His reaction to the chaos around him is that of an honorable man who finally is driven to stand up against the negative forces at work in his town.
Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do local Palestinian and Israeli reviewers think, for example. Are your books in translation in Palestine, and if so, what reaction have they gotten from reviewers?
Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian peace negotiator and a leading political figure, said of The Collaborator of Bethlehem that “it reflects the reality of life in Bethlehem– unfortunately.” (After all, it’s a crime novel of exceeding chaos.) I get a lot of emails from Arabs noting that I’m showing the reality of their people in a way that isn’t reflected in Arab media – which just blames Israel for everything – or in Western media, where the Palestinians are usually just stereotypes set in opposition to Israel. Translation into Arabic is a slow business – Henning Mankell sold 40 million books before he got an Arab translation last year – but I’m hopeful. Meanwhile the first book was translated into Hebrew and got good reviews. Israelis were very glad to have an opportunity to learn about life beyond the wall that they’ve built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Of the novels you have written set in Palestine, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
In my third novel. The Samaritan’s Secret, there’s a scene in an old palace in the Nablus casbah called the Touqan Palace. This was the real palace I discovered on my first visit to the West Bank (to cover the funeral of a man who’d been tortured to death in the local jail). I finished my reporting and went for a walk about the casbah. I’d heard about the Touqan Palace and a friendly Palestinian helped me find it. We shouldered open the door, climbed through the goat pen inside, and came into a courtyard strung with cheap laundry and with chickens living in the ornate fountain at the center. The wealthy family that built the palace had moved to a new place up the hillside; now the palace was home to poor refugees. It struck me very powerfully as a political irony. But I also loved the stink of the chickens and the way the goats nuzzled at me and the children who lived there came through the dust to chat with me. I tried to get that feeling of a people estranged from their history into the novels through Omar Yussef, who’s a sleuth but also a history teacher. So the scenes in the Touqan Palace are quite pivotal, thematically, for me.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I love Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky, Let it Come Down). He used to travel the Arab world and, each day, would incorporate into his writing something that had happened the previous day as he journeyed. That’s a technique I’ve used. It makes you look sharply at the emotions you experience when you’re in a strange place. In some ways it was most useful when I wrote The Fourth Assassin, which is set in Brooklyn. I know New York very well but I made a great effort to see the place as a new immigrant or a total foreigner might. I discovered that it was daunting and oppressive and crowded and huge and threatening and cold as hell – it actually made me a little depressed. Which was the point of doing my research that way. I think of it as method acting for writers.