The company you keep can put the culture around you in a new light, let you see it as you haven’t before.
That’s true when I travel to different countries and discover that readers in Germany have a particular take on my Palestinian crime novels which differs from the way they look to Americans, for example.
I got to thinking about this when I was wandering the Nablus casbah this week with two German friends. An enthusiastic Palestinian fellow asked me to explain to them how much he appreciated Hitler, and as an afterthought he noted that all his people’s problems are caused by me and my compatriots from the British Isles.
I had just climbed up the old Turkish clocktower in Manara Square at the heart of the casbah with one of the Germans. I’d never seen the door at the bottom open before, but there was a policeman inside on this occasion and he generously allowed us to go up the ladder. On the first balcony, I stepped through more pigeon feces than I’d have thought could possibly gather in one place. It was crusty for an inch or two, then a little slushy beneath. I had a grin all over my face of the kind that tends to appear there when I discover a new corner in a place I’ve often been – and loved being there – before.
Above us swung the two weathered lead weights of the clock, there since the Ottomans built the tower 150 years ago. I leaned on the thin columns and Arabesqued stonework and looked out over the small square where I set an important scene in the third of my novels, THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET, in which my sleuth Omar Yussef attends a massed wedding organized by Hamas at the foot of the beautiful old clocktower.
When we descended, the policeman had been joined by two friends. One of them, a gregarious fellow in a red polo shirt, inquired in Arabic as to our origins. That my friends were from Germany excited him considerably. He told me that Germany was great and he very much liked — then he used a word which I couldn’t place. It sounded like the Arabic word for “releasing,” which seemed to make little sense. Was it some kind of sexual joke? I thought it unlikely, given that one of the Germans is a woman. That’d be implausibly crude for a Palestinian.
When he repeated the phrase, I saw what he was getting at. I tried a strained grin. After all I always try to be nice, no matter what opinions are expressed to me in Palestinian towns.
“What did he say?” one of my German friends asked.
“He says Germany is great and, uh, he likes Hitler.”
The red-shirted fellow backed up my translation with a flamboyant Nazisalute.
“Shame on you,” said my friend, who’s from Berlin.
The other fellow in front of the policeman’s desk read her demeanor and asked me, “She doesn’t like Hitler? Why not?”
“Germans are ashamed of what he did,” I told him.
He nodded his head, accepting that idea. The policeman tried to quiet the red-shirted fellow. “We Palestinians like Germany, because Germany supports the Palestinian people,” he said. “But we don’t like Hitler.”
“Yes, we do. For sure. Ask anyone.” The man in the red shirt showed me his signet ring. It bore the seal of Abdel Hamid, the Ottoman sultan who oversaw the decline of the empire and was deposed by the Young Turks in 1918. “Abdel Hamid was great. The British came here in 1917. They made all our problems.”
My reading of Turkish history suggests that while Abdel Hamid made his own furniture for his palace, he was also paranoid and perhaps a little nuts. (For a fictionalized version of his story, I recommend “The Rage of the Vulture” by the wonderful Barry Unsworth.) On the other hand, I had two great-uncles who fought with Britain’s Imperial Camel Corps in Palestine in 1917. Everyone from Damascus-based terror chiefs to Bethlehem refugees have been both disapproving and amused by this fact. I chose not to enter into an appraisal of British involvement in the Near East with the Hitler fan.
There’s an old Bedouin phrase (though some people say the Chinese thought of it first): The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Well, one can assume that Hitler wouldn’t have been a big supporter of Israel, had he been around to see it. So the pro-Hitler statements of some Palestinians when confronted with a living German are a measure of their hatred for Israel more than anything else.
(I have an idea for a future Omar Yussef novel which will take place in Jerusalem, but will also involve some action from Berlin during the war years. Yes, there were Palestinians over there at that time…But I’m not going to give away the plot.)
As we walked on into the casbah, my German friend sighed. “Welcome to my world,” she said. “I get that all over the Arab world. But from Palestinians in particular. It’s the same for all the German correspondents.”
When I travel through the Palestinian towns, I hear all kinds of complaints about the West. Many assume I’m American, so they ask me to deliver an offensive message to George W. Bush, which I happily promise to do so if I ever bump into him. If it registers that I’m British they request that I let Tony Blair know he’d better not come to their refugee camp or they’ll make big trouble for him. I spend a lot of time in Tuscany, so it’s conceivable I might one day be at the next table to the orange-tanned former Prime Minister, and I’ll certainly inform him that he isn’t flavor of the month in Dehaisha Camp.
Among Palestinians, I like to emphasize that I’m Welsh. That usually leads to a brief pause and a change of subject. I’ve never been asked to pass on the anger of the Palestinian people to the head of the Welsh Assembly, or the Bishop of Llandaff, or Tom Jones.
But touring with a couple of German journalists gave me a new perspective on the places I’d been visiting for so long and what it’s like for others to go here. Next time some Palestinian bitches at me about my old pal David Cameron, I think I’ll be rather relieved. www.mattbeynonrees.com