In a cabbage patch on the edge of Bethlehem, the wife of a Palestinian killed there the previous night described hearing the fatal shot from the rifle of an Israeli sniper. The dead man's mother raged and told me she had recognized his body in the dark by the denim jacket she recently bought him. I listened and thought: "This is great material—too good, in fact."
It was 2001, and I was Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine, covering the violence of the intifada. The dramatic story of this family ended up as the kind of colorful lead you read frequently in a newsmagazine, followed by something along the lines of this: "To be sure, the Israelis say this and the State Department says that and the Palestinians—surprise—disagree."
As the winter wind came cold off the Judean Desert, I knew that with the insights I had gathered there I had to go beyond journalism. As it turns out, I based the opening murder in my mystery novel, "The Collaborator of Bethlehem," on this death.
Since the first time I set foot in the West Bank in 1996, I had grown steadily disillusioned with the ability of journalism to convey the depth of what I had learned about the Palestinians. Back then, I visited the family of a Nablus man tortured to death in one of Yasir Arafat's jails. The news article I wrote was a good one, uncovering the internal Palestinian violence so often overshadowed by the more spectacular conflict with Israel. But my impressions were much deeper. I was struck by the candor and dignity with which the dead youth's family spoke to me; the sheer alien nature of this place thrilled me. At the entrance to the family's house in the casbah, an old oil drum held black flags and palm fronds, symbols of Islamic mourning. Men sat around smoking under a dark awning. I felt a powerful sense of adventure, as though I had uncovered an unknown culture.
Seeing the Middle East in Shades of Gray
I sometimes joke that I developed an early interest in the Middle East because my great-uncle had ridden with the British Imperial Camel Corps during World War I, been shot in the backside near Ramallah, and used to get drunk and drop his pants to show us the scar when I was a kid. But aside from those geriatric moments, I grew up in Wales with no more concern for the Middle East than any other educated person. Then I fell in love, quit my job in New York, where I covered Wall Street, and joined my fiancŽe when she went to the Holy Land with The Christian Science Monitor. My fascination for her sadly faded and we divorced, but I remained rapt by this place and increasingly drawn to its ambiguity.
I'm frequently asked—both by journalists and others—what I "think" about the wall Israel built near the Green Line to separate itself from the Palestinians. People hold their heads slightly to the side when they ask this question. It's a posture of judgment: Is this guy on the right side? Well, the wall is gray, quite literally, because it's made of concrete. It has prevented Palestinian suicide bombers killing Israelis, but it also has deprived some Palestinian farmers of their land. It's gray because of what it's made of, and I can handle that. But journalism can't.
In news reports the wall comes out a muted shade of gray not because of its color but because journalists don't want to offend those who see the wall as black or white. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, journalists have swapped objectivity for inoffensiveness. Editors are keen not to offend the zealots on both sides—a waste of time, since such readers are affronted by any hint of balance. In journalism, the color gray too often comes out a muddy brown.
Fiction is set up to handle gray areas because, unlike journalism, it doesn't depend on what characters say—it gets inside their heads. The gray matter in there isn't subject to self-censorship. It forces a writer to build a character who will seem real, for example a detective, whose every thought and concern marks him out as belonging to his own society, not a stereotyped journalistic sketch. I came across the man who would be the basis of my sleuth, Omar Yussef, in Bethlehem. This man, whom I don't name because it might endanger him, is an independent thinker in a world of fearful groupthink, an honorable man in a dark reality. I believe readers will like Omar even at his most irascible, because they'll understand how frustrating it would be for a man of such integrity to face his dreadful, corrupt world—that's why I was drawn to the real Omar through the years.
The lawlessness of Palestinian life also gave me great characters for my fictionalized villains. Unfortunately there are many Palestinians who have strong motivations to kill each other. I've spent a lot of time over the years with some of these men, trying to learn why they take the path of violence—time that has led to a deeper characterization of the villains in my books.
Hearing the Voices, Knowing the Words
Of course, because I learned the local languages, I had an advantage over many other journalists in the Middle East—both in reporting and in developing a deep enough knowledge to be able to write fictional Palestinian characters. The role of language is an oddity among Middle East reporters. Correspondents in Moscow, for example, seem uniformly to learn Russian and be rather proud of it. But few here learn Arabic. I speak Arabic, and it's a difficult language, but I don't imagine it's so much harder than Russian. I also speak Hebrew, but I've noticed that correspondents who do so are often seen as somewhat suspect, as though it makes one pro-Israeli—a taint of bias that adheres to Arabic speakers only if they speak the language particularly well.
I've always viewed language as a tool that carries with it no sense of commitment to the cause of the people who speak that language (I speak French, but that doesn't mean I think Britain should swap sterling for the Euro). I considered it important to learn Arabic and Hebrew, because I wanted access to places I'd never have imagined going and people whose perspectives seemed utterly unlike mine.
In the Middle East, I realized that at heart I was an anthropologist—whereas editors expect a correspondent to be a political scientist manqué. Every time I go to a Palestinian town, I feel alive and stimulated. And that sense of excitement led me as far inside Palestinian society as I could get, listening to ordinary Palestinians, no matter how bloodthirstily and lengthily they spoke to me. I also sought out the Palestinian military leaders who'd been passed over for promotion in favor of Arafat yes-men. They became my best sources about what really happened inside the Palestinian Authority.
I was able to write about the ways in which Arafat's regime of patronage undermined and divided Palestinian society at a time when the stories of most foreign correspondents could have been summarized as "today good/bad (delete one) for peace process." Looking askance at Arafat was seen as implying a pro-Israeli position back then. Most reporters continued to write their peace-process stories—and my editors persisted in asking for them, because they were still appearing in The New York Times, which was setting their agenda—when long months of intifada had clearly buried any notion of peace in a deluge of death.
Ultimately it's the expression of the true feelings of the Palestinians I most admire that, for me, makes fiction a better measure of reality than journalism. They aren't official spokesmen; they aren't powerful, and they aren't even quotable because they would be in fear of their lives. But they've told me what's in their hearts, and none of them are the cartoon victims or one-dimensional villains found on the pages of newspapers.
Matt Beynon Rees is the author of "The Collaborator of Bethlehem," the first in a series of novels about Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef. Rees was Jerusalem bureau chief for Time from 2000 to 2006 and previously was based in the Middle East for Newsweek and The Scotsman. He is a contributor to Time, blogs at www.mattbeynonrees.com, and lives in Jerusalem.