Our Man in Bethlehem
Matt Beynon Rees creates a new kind of sleuth
Matt Beynon Rees in Bethlehem
Born in Wales and educated at Oxford University, Matt Beynon Rees cut his teeth as a journalist in New York City. In 1996 he moved to Jerusalem, where he worked as a correspondent for Newsweek, Time, and other publications, and wrote Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East (Free Press, 2004), an account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that focuses not on international military or geopolitical questions but on the internal conflicts among Israelis and Palestinians. More recently, Rees has turned to fiction. The Collaborator of Bethlehem (Soho Crime), the first in a series of mysteries set in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was published in February. Its hero is Omar Yussef, a history teacher turned unlikely sleuth. The book is noteworthy not simply for its realistic portrayal of Palestinians’ lives, but for the way Rees uses the situation in Gaza and the West Bank as a dramatic backdrop. Inspired by Rees’ previous nonfiction work, the tension that drives this fast-paced human story derives not from conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians—but from the struggles among Palestinians.
How did you wind up coming from Wales to New York City in the early 90s?
I left Britain a year after graduation from Oxford and did an MA at the University of Maryland. In 1991, I moved to New York to work for Dow Jones covering the bond market, and from there to Forbes and then Bloomberg, where I covered derivatives and decided I didn’t much like Wall Street.
How did you get to Jerusalem?
I came expecting to stay a few months. I’ve been here almost 11 years. I met a woman in New York who was moving to Israel to work as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. So I quit my job and followed her. We married—I converted to Judaism so her rabbi could officiate—and then divorced in 1999, but it got me out of financial journalism and into working as a foreign correspondent. I started stringing for The Scotsman a month after I arrived, and that eventually became a staff position. Every day took me to a different place in the West Bank to meet people I’d never have expected to meet, to observe their lives and to learn about how they felt about their lives. By 1997, I was on contract for Newsweek, where I was the first foreign correspondent to write a big story about the Palestinian Authority’s corruption. It was headlined “Mafia State” and one of Arafat’s top military people later told me that Arafat had told him to arrest me next time I came to Gaza. Fortunately he was talked out of it.
In mid-2000, I was hired by Time to be Jerusalem bureau chief. Ehud Barak was prime minister and he was going to make peace. Everything looked so good that Time actually thought I was going to spend more time covering Israeli high-tech companies than West Bank violence. The intifada broke out two months later.
Given your background, name, and accent, presumably most of the people you interviewed in the West Bank thought you were not Jewish. Was your background ever an issue?
I’m a little over six feet tall with light brown hair and blue eyes. While some correspondents I’ve known who happened not to be Jewish but were somewhat shorter and darker were frequently asked by Palestinians if they were “one of the cousins,” it hasn’t ever happened to me. I’ve never felt under the slightest obligation to enlighten any Palestinian about that, except for a few I came to know very well. When I’m inside the Palestinian towns, it’s a matter of personal safety that I should seem as foreign as I possibly can.
Much of your writing has focused on internal conflicts in Israeli and Palestinian society, rather than exclusively focusing on the broader conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that gets the most media attention. What was a defining episode that you now see as having helped you form your perspective?
The first time I went to the West Bank was to cover the death of a young Fatah Hawk tortured to death in Arafat’s jail in Nablus. It wasn’t an Israeli-Palestinian fight. It was an internal Palestinian issue. It was an amazing experience. I arrived at the home of the man’s family. The dead man’s brother showed me photos of the body. He spoke to me candidly and articulately—something which in years covering Wall Street I could only have dreamed about. That started me to think about the brother-versus-brother theme.
What specific experience alerted you to the existence of internal Israeli tensions?
My Israeli stringer at Time came to me to tell of volunteer work his Holocaust survivor parents did with mentally ill survivors at a hospital near their home. He told me of the terrible conditions those survivors had lived under for decades. At first I thought it couldn’t be true—to me Israel existed because of the Holocaust, as a place where Jews would always be able to find refuge from persecution. As I went deeper, I discovered a history of neglect and misdiagnosis of mentally ill survivors. I then looked at the situation of survivors in general in Israel and found that they had been given short shrift by a series of governments. I was shocked. I spent a lot of time with the old people at a psycho-geriatric ward in Bat Yam at a time when my own grandmother had recently passed away. I shared the bitterness of their doctors, who were forced to make do with inadequate budgets, and I read up on derogatory comments about survivors by Israeli politicians over the years. I knew already about some of the other internal conflicts within Israeli society, but this remains the one which shocks me the most and it tipped me off to the depth of antagonism that sometimes occurs in all the other conflicts (religious-secular, for example).
As someone who had converted to Judaism, did you feel that you had a personal stake in the conflict? Or, conversely, did you feel not personally invested because of your background?
As a journalist, I never felt the least bit connected to the cause of one side or the other in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I wanted a better life for people who had become my friends, but that wasn’t a matter of identifying with a side. Furthermore, the more I watched the political cultures of both sides, the less I felt that there would have been anything to identify with in any case. They’re both a terrible mess. I live here, and in living in a place its symbolism and its political struggles can fade into the background. It becomes ordinary, even though around the world people see it as a great center of momentous conflict. Frankly I get more exercised about the fact that Israelis speed through crosswalks than I do about their politics.
You eventually wrote a book that encompassed both rifts among different groups within Palestinian society and divisions between Israeli citizens (including the Arab minority). What was the (excuse the pun) genesis of Cain’s Field?
I was in the basement of Ahmed Jibril’s headquarters in Damascus in 2000, and spent much of the night interviewing the chief of the PFLP General Command, who many blame for the bombing of the Pan Am jet above Lockerbie. He told me that all the problems of the Palestinians began in 1917, with the arrival of the British to “liberate” the Holy Land. I had two great uncles who fought in the British Imperial Camel Corps in Palestine in 1917. It led me to think that, while those two brothers had fought for a single cause in a disciplined way, Palestinians and Zionists (later Israelis) rarely exhibited such togetherness. It struck me that the core of the conflict wasn’t only the violence between the two sides, but rather the inability of either society to unify and to present a single set of criteria for peace.
Your new novel deals with internal conflicts among Palestinians on the West Bank. When and why did you decide to write fiction?
In late 2003, I was standing in a cabbage patch in a village near Bethlehem, interviewing a woman and her parents-in-law. The previous night, her husband, a Fatah man wanted by the Israelis, had been killed by a sniper as he sneaked home through the cabbage patch for iftar (the evening breakfast taken during Ramadan). The mother described how she had heard the shot and rushed into the twilight to find her son among the cabbages. I knew that it’d be no more than a good color lead for my Time story. But as I stood there I realized that I was learning so much about how Palestinians live, how they react to extreme situations. And I wanted to be able to convey to readers the knowledge I had gleaned.
And that’s how The Collaborator of Bethlehem starts, with a dead body in a cabbage patch. Why mysteries?
Because of that genre’s focus on the character of the detective. I wanted to draw a character, Omar Yussef, who would be as “real” as I could make him.
Is he a real person?
I can’t say who Omar Yussef is based on, because I believe that would endanger him. But it’s someone I know very well in Bethlehem.
Where in Jerusalem do you live?
I live, fittingly enough for someone who writes fiction, on Shai Agnon Boulevard.
Unlike most foreign correspondents, you’ve stayed there for quite awhile, you seem rooted there, comfortable with both sides. How has your ability to cross borders—or to remain unsettled–in the Middle East influenced the type of books you’re writing now?
As a teenager, I felt as though I’d rather be anywhere else in the world than where I was. At Oxford, I felt like lower-class scum among upper-class snobs. I went to America, but I never really felt American. Finally, in Jerusalem, I found a degree of peace with myself, because I was so much of an outsider that nobody even expected me to fit in. We have a kosher kitchen, because that’s what my second wife, who grew up Orthodox, wants. But I have no intention of becoming Israeli. That external perspective meant that I didn’t get sucked into “the issues” on both sides of the conflict and didn’t become emotional about the politics. I cared only about the individuals I met, listening to them and trying to feel what they felt. For that reason it was inevitable that I should write fiction.
When you say you have no intention of becoming Israeli, do you mean the mechanics—not getting an Israeli passport, serving in the army, etc? Or something more existential—making an effort not to think, act, behave like an Israeli?
I’m referring to the Israeli mindset. I maintain a very critical perspective on the way Israelis think and behave. That’s not just an issue of politics and citizenship. More important to me is the lack of respect for rules and law. This filters down from the top, where political leaders often seem to consider themselves above the law. There are many aspects of Israeli life that I do value and I’m very happy here with my lifestyle, my friends, my position in the local literary world. But it’s not for nothing that most of my friends would be considered fairly peripheral to the Israeli mainstream—Russians, writers, immigrants, musicians. The people I spend my days and nights with are mostly Israeli and I’m happy when I’m with them.
Which fiction-writing journalists do you admire?
I like writers who base their fiction in real “political” events or contexts, like Graham Greene. For these writers, I sense there was a slowly permeating journalistic research process, as opposed to the highly focused way in which journalists actually report. Journalists aren’t looking for the inner essence of the people they write about, which is why so much journalism treats its subjects as caricatures. I’ve always known that my work as a journalist in the Middle East was really research for a novel.