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Affable and trim
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Omar Yussef tracks the killer of a member of the ancient sect of Samaritans in the West Bank -- only to uncover a deadly secret from his best friend's past.
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The last couple of articles about me and my books focus on the fact that I'm rather happy. In this month's Hadassah Magazine, I'm "affable and trim." High school friends reading this on Facebook may wonder where the affability was back then...

Profile: Hadassah Magazine October 2009 Matt Beynon Rees By Leora Eren Frucht  
Only gritty, dark crime fiction could evoke the corruption—and hope—in Palestinian society, believes one former foreign correspondent, now a best-selling mystery writer.
The morning sun streams through the windows that frame the Mount of Olives to the east and the hills of Bethlehem to the south. Photographs of a smiling mother and baby flash, one after the other, on a computer screen. The only sign of anything sinister in this cheerful room is the stainless-steel dagger lying in its open, velvet-trimmed case on the desk.

It is here, in this modest fifth-floor apartment in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of San Simon, that plans for diabolical schemes of extortion, brutal torture and gruesome murders have been concocted.

With a swift motion, a tall, fair-skinned man grabs hold of the dagger. His piercing pale blue eyes sparkle with anticipation as he turns the shiny weapon slowly in his hands.

“It really is amazing,” he says with a satisfied grin, then adds, in a faint Welsh accent, “I never imagined that it would all go so well.”

Meet Matt Beynon Rees, winner of the The Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey New Blood Dagger and creator of Omar Yussef, literature’s first (and only) Palestinian detective.

Rees, a Welsh-born journalist, won the prestigious British award—an actual dagger, granted to a first-time crime novelist—for his 2007 The Collaborator of Bethlehem (Mariner), in which Yussef makes his debut.

Since then, the affable and trim Rees has cast the stocky, ex-alcoholic Yussef as the star of two more detective novels set in Gaza and Nablus respectively (A Grave in Gaza, Mariner; and The Samaritan’s Secret, Soho Press), with another—The Fourth Assassin—due out in February. The books have been published in 22 countries, earning lavish praise from critics; French daily L’Express dubbed Rees “The Dashiell Hammett of Palestine.”

The novels are more than just well-crafted whodunits. Rees uses Yussef to shine a light on Palestinian society, exposing the traditions, tensions and ties that determine how people act. The reader is led through the squalid refugee camps of Gaza, opulent palaces of corrupt Palestinian power brokers and the alleyways of Nablus’s casbah, which fill with the aroma of knafeh pastry and cardamom by day and empty out at night, when only gunmen prowl its premises. Rees paints a raw, revealing and, at times, alarming portrait of Palestinian society.

“We all think we know Palestinians, whichever stereotype we choose to ascribe to them—victims or terrorists. I want to show that we don’t know them at all,” says Rees, 42. He is sipping an espresso in the study of the apartment he shares with his American-born wife, Devorah Blachor (currently working on her first mystery novel), and their 2-year-old son, Cai (the name means “rejoice” in Welsh).

Rees grew up in a nonreligious Protestant home in Cardiff, South Wales, and says he never imagined he would end up in Jerusalem, let alone become an award-winning mystery writer and documenter of Palestinian reality. The only connection he had to the region are two great-uncles, both coal miners, who fought in General Edmund Allenby’s Imperial Camel Corps, which arrived in Jerusalem in 1917. “Both were injured,” he says. “One had his finger bitten off by a Turk. The other, whom I recall from my childhood, used to get drunk on Christmas, drop his pants and show us the scar where he got shot, in Betunia, which was near Ramallah. You could say my fascination with the region began there,” quips Rees. He pays homage to them in his second book, in which a British war cemetery in Gaza features prominently.

Like his camel-cavorting ancestors, Rees landed in Israel by chance. After studying English language and literature at Oxford, he completed a degree in journalism at the University of Maryland and covered Wall Street for five years, a period he recalls with little enthusiasm. When his American fiancée got posted as a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem, Rees joined her. The two married and subsequently divorced, with Rees remarrying a few years later. But his path was set. He, too, began working as a Jerusalem-based foreign correspondent, first for The Scotsman, then for Newsweek; in 2000, he became Middle East bureau chief for Time magazine.
 
If Wall Street had dulled his senses, covering the Palestinian beat heightened them: “I felt so alive, everything was so exotic to me—the sights, the sounds. I love the dirt and the dust and the way people speak to each other.”

Rees soon realized that much of what intrigued him about Palestinian society was beyond the scope of traditional journalism. But, he says, “If it didn’t mention the peace process, it wasn’t of interest to my editors.

“Most journalists are really political scientists: They want to write about the peace process and interview the prime minister,” he continues. “I don’t really care about that. I’ve always felt more like an anthropologist. I’m more interested in how people live their lives, what they eat, how their culture shapes them.” To that end, Rees learned basic Hebrew and Arabic.

“Matt has an old-fashioned reporter’s empathy that enables readers to know what his subjects are thinking—without the sheen of postmodern cynicism that characterizes so many foreign correspondents,” says Matthew Kalman, a Jerusalem-based freelance foreign correspondent who has worked with Rees. “[He] realized early on that reporting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is extremely superficial…. Most of the foreign media is only interested in a cowboys and Indians story.”

In 2004, Rees published a highly acclaimed nonfiction account of Israeli and Palestinian society entitled Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East (Free Press), but felt that his effort was not adequate. “I think people want to read about the Middle East, but not in a starchy, nonfiction tone,” he notes.
 
Rees decided to try his hand at a novel. The Collaborator of Bethlehem was inspired by a specific incident: the cold-blooded killing of one Palestinian by another, a militia man, who accused his victim of collaborating with Israel—knowing full well that the man was innocent.

“The dirtiness of the story made me think it’s so complex that only in a novel can you get those shades of gray, in terms of people’s motivations,” says Rees, who had been dabbling in fiction since childhood. “And it had to be a crime novel because it’s a real gangster reality—not a place for a romance novel.” So, in 2006, after selling the rights to the book, Rees quit Time to write fiction full-time.

Fiction, that is, to a point. The mystery series is based, in part, on actual events and people, including Yussef, a 56-year-old history teacher at a United Nations-administered girls’ school in the Dehaisha refugee camp south of Bethlehem. The pudgy, often breathless grandfather (whose favorite granddaughter builds him a Web site for The Palestine Agency for Detection) is no suave sleuth, but a kind of accidental hero. Driven by a deep sense of integrity, he seeks the truth and tries to fight growing corruption and violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—often at considerable personal risk.

“Yussef is based on a friend who lives in Dehaisha refugee camp whom I have known for over 10 years,” says Rees. “He is very much like the character in the book—quite acerbic and very intelligent. He gets very frustrated seeing how corruption and criminality are destroying a society that he loves very much.”

Are there many Omar Yussefs in Palestinian society?

“There are many who have the same basic discontents about the corruption and violence,” he says, “but there are not that many who take action because most feel trapped.” In a telling example of this, in one novel, a man who protests the use of his rooftop to shoot at Israelis meets an untimely fate. “But there are Palestinians who are trying to change things in very small ways,” Rees continues, adding a note of optimism: “I made Omar a teacher because he represents the possibility that the next generation will be different.”

Jamil Hamad, Time’s veteran Palestinian correspondent, says that several Palestinians have shared with him their respect for Rees’s depiction of their society. “I have received calls from other Palestinians here,” Hamad says, “and from Arabs in Jordan, Syria, Egypt and North Africa who say they are very grateful to him for painting a realistic portrait of Palestinians and are proud of the books.”

Yussef’s adversaries—ruthless heads of militias and security forces, weapons smugglers and crooked politicians—make for a colorful cast of bad guys based on real people whom Rees got to know while researching his novels and during his journalistic days. Military Intelligence Chief General Husseini, a character in A Grave in Gaza, is renowned for his particular method of torture: slicing off the tips of prisoners’ fingers. The person and method are real, though the name given to the style of torture—a Husseini manicure—is Rees’s invention.

In researching the novels, Rees spent entire days and nights hanging out with gunmen, most of whom have since been killed—either by Israeli forces or by other Palestinians. Nearly all of them lived with the knowledge that a violent death was imminent.

“It is almost as though they are ghosts when they are alive,” he says. “It feels eerie to have met someone who was as good as dead anyway.”

And because his sinister types are based on portraits of real individuals, he believes that he is able to present complex, nuanced antagonists, rather than cartoon “bad guys.”

“I feel like if you’re a writer and you can ‘know the minds of many men,’ you can tell their story as though it was emerging from your own emotions,” explains Rees, quoting The Odyssey.

“When I was in a refugee camp in the middle of the night, talking to people from Hamas and Fatah who expected to die at any moment, I think I got some insight into the minds of many men,” concludes Rees, whose neutral foreign looks and identity helped him gain access to his subjects and win their trust.

“I think through these novels he is reporting the conflict in a different and exceptional way,” says Hamad. “He’s not just writing a novel—he’s reporting the story. Matt is one of the few journalists I work with who is always capable of ‘digesting’ it properly, meaning he has no illusions.”

Rees’s literary heroes are the classic detective writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. “I love the gritty realism, but I also love the way in which Chandler writes,” he says. “I think he is the greatest stylist of American literature.”

That gritty realism is a hallmark of the Omar Yussef series, which is littered with corpses but also boasts more subtle touches like a swarm of flies that follows the protagonist throughout his sojourn through the filth—both material and moral—of Gaza.

Rees’s own life is a sharp contrast from that of his characters. Every morning, he does a few yoga stretches and writes standing up for several hours at his raised computer terminal. He swims, works out, does Pilates and meditation. He also plays bass in a local band and delights in his toddler son. “I feel younger all the time,” he says happily. He is currently learning piano as part of the research for his new historical novel that evolves around the musical scene in 19th-century Vienna. “I needed a short break from Omar Yussef to refresh myself,” he says.

In The Fourth Assassin (Soho Press), Rees set the action in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, an area with a growing expatriate Palestinian community, to help American readers “understand the reality of the Muslim minorities living among them.”

A fifth novel will probably unfold in the Old City of Jerusalem and will be the first to include Israeli characters. Rees purposely kept Israelis out of the previous books in which the numerous instances of kidnapping, extortion and murder are almost all committed by Palestinians against other Palestinians. “Part of my goal is to show it is not enough for the Palestinians to say ‘We’re the victims,’” he says. “Palestinians have to take some responsibility. That is what Omar Yussef stands for. When the police won’t solve a murder, Yussef feels he has to do it.”

How long can the series go on? “As long as the publishers want more,” he says, smiling hopefully. “I would like to take Omar throughout the Arab world.

“It’s not difficult to come up with the stories,” he continues. “Palestinians keep giving me material by killing each other and by moving from one disaster to another,” he adds, sounding much like his ever-acerbic but still optimistic Omar Yussef.