25 June 2009 0 Comments

Stranger than zinc bars and literary fiction

Foreign correspondents are always more enthusiastic about Beirut than about Amman. Just like critics prefer “literary” fiction to crime novels.

It seems to me they’re both wrong, and for the same reasons.

Visiting reporters always rave about Beirut. Mainly because there’s a very un-Middle Eastern nightlife there. Zinc bars. Beautiful girls in spaghetti-strap tops beside the zinc bars. Booze, dance clubs, DJs.

They’re not really interested in the broken-down refugee camps or the ride up into the Shouf Mountains or the remnants of wars, bulletholes dug into the walls of buildings both inhabited and abandoned. It’s the zinc bars, that’s all. The things that are just like home.

But Amman. It’s “boring,” because despite its size it’s somehow still a big Bedouin encampment. Slow and formal.

Foreign, in fact.

Turns out, foreign correspondents aren’t so interested in “foreign” places. That’s why they like the bars, zinc or otherwise, at their hotels.

Amman has an astonishing history. It was one of the 10 Roman cities of the region – the original Philadelphia, according to its ancient name. The oldest parts of town down in the valley between the hills where the wealthier people live aren’t picturesque in the way central Damascus is. But they’re teeming with life and with conflicts and with striving – Palestinian refugees, Iraqi refugees, Syrian migrant workers.

No nightlife, though. When old King Hussein was dieing, hundreds of foreign correspondents were forced to endure nights at the Hard Rock Café (since closed) where the highlight was the Village People’s “YMCA”, danced by a staff which was not always familiar with the moves. Probably they didn’t read the Western alphabet, so they had no idea why two arms in the air had to go along with “Y” or why you had to dip to the side to make a “C.”

Having lived away from the country of my birth my entire adult life, I don’t see how anyone can say that any foreign city is boring. The culture will always be different to the one you’re familiar with. Understanding how people think in a world different to your own is the most fascinating thing.

But people prefer the zinc bar, and that’s often true of books, too.

Some genre fiction is not “foreign” enough. I don’t mean that the location has to be overseas, as in my Palestinian crime series. I mean that the subject it tackles or the way of examining the actions of the characters needs to have the challenging, uncomfortable quality of an alien culture.

A book ought to be like a visit to a foreign place, even if it’s set in your own town. Genre doesn’t matter. The way a writer answers this challenge is what makes a book good or bad.

There are cheap ways of engaging readers on this level, and then there are genuine ways.

You might think at first that so-called “genre” fiction would be less foreign, because of the apparent comfort of formula. (For a “formula is cosy and therefore any idiot can read it” appraisal, see The New Yorker’s article this week on Nora Roberts.) But it’s not so.

Take my Palestinian crime novels. Everything that’s written about Palestinians makes me cringe or toss it aside in boredom. Because “literary” authors like Robert Stone (“Damascus Gate”) find themselves writing about a false construct, an image of the Palestinians or of Jerusalem. They see the people and places of the region only in ways that others have seen them before.

I took the real Palestinians and stories I’d covered as a journalist, shook them out of the stable formula in which they usually appeared in the newspapers, and made them strange, which in turn made them visible in a new way. (For those lit. crit. fans out there, I cite Viktor Shklovsky, Russian formalist, “ostranenie,” art brings about the perception of a thing, rather than creating the thing itself.)

So visit Amman, instead of Beirut. And on the way over, read my Palestinian novels.

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