28 February 2009 0 Comments

Memories of blood and corpses

A foreign correspondent builds memories out of blood and corpses. Often they turn to nightmares.

While working on my second Palestinian crime novel, A Grave in Gaza, I sometimes wept as I wrote. I used to think that meant I was a damned good writer. Now I know it was my trauma, collected over a decade of monthly visits to Gaza, seeping onto the page.

I hope that makes it a better novel. I know it saved me from the creeping depression and sudden fear that sometimes gripped me when my mind would return to memories of burned bodies, scattered body parts, angry people who wanted to hurt me, the sound of bullets nearby from an unseen gun. It helped me understand what kind of man I really was.

Journalism can’t do that. It plunges you into other people’s traumas and, through the constant repetition of 24-hour cable news, seems to make those horrors part of our own lives. It pushes us to blame someone, to rage against them. To lash out, like traumatized people. To feel depressed.

I know. I’ve been a journalist based in Jerusalem for 13 years.

As the latest violence unfolded in Gaza, I wondered what keeps me here. When I largely quit journalism to write my novels three years ago, I could’ve gone to Tuscany, as I had always thought I would to do. I no longer needed the journalist’s daily proximity to the conflict. Even though for a decade previously I’d been as committed as any other journalist to learning every nuance of the conflict, I’ve since been weeks at a time without turning on the local news.

That’s why I’m still here.

News blots out real life. It makes Israelis and Palestinians seem like incomprehensible, bloodthirsty lunatics, ripping each other apart without cease. Living amongst them makes it clear that it’s the news that’s unreal, fashioned to quicken the pulse and shoot you up with adrenaline. By staying here, living a happy life among normal Palestinians and Israelis, I’ve beaten the bad dreams and the sudden rages. They exist only in a decade of dog-eared notebooks on my bottom shelf.

I’ve developed relationships over the years with people who’ve opened up their cultures to me, shown me a perspective on Gaza that’s beyond what you’d ever see in the newspaper.

Take my friend Zakaria, who lives in the northern Gaza Strip village of Beit Hanoun, a major battleground in the current fighting. Zakaria was for decades Arafat’s top intelligence man. I’ve seen him during hard times when he expected his home to be stormed by rival Palestinian factions; when he sent armed men to bring me to meet him in secret; when Israeli tanks took up positions at the edge of his olive grove. Times worthy of headlines.

But my deepest impression of him came when he jovially served me giant scoops of hummus laced with ground meat and cubes of lamb fat at breakfast. As a foreign correspondent, I’ve downed some rough meals (Bedouins once milked a goat’s udder directly into a glass and handed me the warm fluid to drink), but try raw lamb fat at 9 a.m. and see how you like it.

For Zakaria, the dish was a tremendous delicacy and a demonstration of his hospitality. The writer in me found the mannerisms with which he served me and his insistence that I eat a second plate just as revealing as his tension during moments of conflict.

Fiction is able to put across the true characteristics of my Palestinian friends–like Zakaria’s courtly hospitality–in a way that’s largely beyond journalism, with its headline focus on the literally explosive. I’ve filled my novels with those characteristics, because they remind me that the times when I felt threatened by violence were unnatural. They belong only to nightmares and they aren’t real any more.

I want to give my readers the true emotional experience of being among people who live in extreme situations, with all its traumas, but mostly its pleasures. For entertainment–sure, these are novels, not non-fiction tomes to be crammed down like cod-liver oil because they’re good for you. But also because if there’s a point to knowing about the world beyond our borders, it’s to see into the minds of other men and thus to better understand ourselves. Sometimes it might even save us from ourselves.

Matt Beynon Rees is the author of a series of Palestinian crime novels. The latest novel, The Samaritan’s Secret, was published in February (Soho Press).

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