24 February 2010 0 Comments

Inventing the Palestinian detective

The dead man’s mother raged and cried as she told me how she’d discovered her son’s body, in the cabbage patch outside her home. She’d gone down on her knees, she said, touched his blood and wiped her fingers on her face and called out that God is most great.

As the winter wind came cold off the Judean Desert, I watched her weep and thought: “I have to write a novel about this.”

Forgive me if that sounds callous, but I’m a writer. Or, I should say, that’s the moment when I became a writer.

I was Time Magazine’s Jerusalem bureau chief, covering the violence of the Palestinian intifada, when I went to that bereaved mother in her village on the edge of Bethlehem in 2002. I had always written fiction, but only published a few short stories. In the midst of the despair that engulfed Israelis and Palestinians, I found the very thing that could make me happy – the material for my series of Palestinian crime novels.

The killing of that woman’s son as he crept home in the dark was the basis for the opening death in my first novel “The Collaborator of Bethlehem.” The book won a Crime Writers Association Dagger. Since then I’ve published two more crime novels set in the Palestinian towns.

They’re a response to the emotional questions that, as a journalist, I was never able to answer. Strangely, fiction proves to be a better way to understand extreme events than journalism.

Since the first time I set foot in the West Bank in 1996, I had grown disillusioned with the ability of journalism to convey the depth of what I learned about the Palestinians. Back then, I visited the family of a Nablus man tortured to death in one of Yasser Arafat’s jails. The news article I wrote was a good one, uncovering the internal Palestinian violence so often overshadowed by the more spectacular conflict with Israel. But my impressions were much deeper.

I was struck by the candor and dignity with which the dead youth’s family spoke to me; the sheer alien nature of the place thrilled me. At the entrance to the family’s house in the casbah, an old oil drum held black flags and palm fronds, symbols of Islamic mourning. Men sat around smoking under a dark awning. I felt a powerful sense of adventure, as though I had uncovered an unknown culture.

The lawlessness of Palestinian life also gave me great characters for my fictionalized good guys. But also the villains. Unfortunately there are many Palestinians who have strong motivations to kill each other. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years with some of these men, trying to learn why they take the path of violence—time that has led to a deeper characterization of the villains in my books.

With my new novel, “The Fourth Assassin,” I brought my sleuth Omar Yussef to New York because I wanted him to confront the most important issue of the last decade – an issue which is crystallized in its most horrifically concrete form in the city of 9/11.

It’s a natural progression for a series that began in the cabbage patch near Bethlehem. When I stood there, it was seven months after the attacks on New York and Washington. The questions posed to anyone thinking about the Middle East had just become so much more complex. Too complex and emotional for journalism to encompass them and, all these years later, for politicians, too.

Whether it’s a single sniper’s bullet cutting through the chest of a man outside his mother’s house or a jetliner bursting through a 110-story building, my novels are aimed at the most explosive points in our recent history. That’s why I simply had to write them.

(I posted this on a joint International Crime Authors blog I write with three other writers. Check it out.)

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