2 April 2010 0 Comments

An Islamic Romeo and Juliet

Since 9/11, journalists and writers have tried to understand the extremists committed to the destruction of the West and, often, that of their own societies in the Middle East. Writers have mostly done this by “going inside” the world of those extremists, giving us the inner life of suicide bombers or of the “American Taliban.”

It’s a worthy premise, because it’s aimed at comprehending people who are frequently written off as bestial, bloodthirsty psychopaths, as though they’d been born that way. As a journalist with 14 years experience in the Middle East, I’ve written such stories often enough. But in my new novel I decided to highlight the desperate world of Arabs who struggle against the extremism that drags them toward their inevitable, tragic end. This is the most profound way of humanizing Arabs, because it shows them clinging to the very things that make them just like us, rather than succumbing to the ugliness of a politics that sets them against us.

That’s why I see my new crime novel, “The Fourth Assassin,” as an Islamic “Romeo and Juliet” set in the context of a political assassination plot in New York. I want to put a human face on Arabs, who’re so often seen as stereotypical terrorists. But I want to focus less on the pain and confusion that leads to hatred, and instead to reveal the love that can provide hope for Arab people in the face of so much destruction and division. To illustrate, for Western readers, what they’re up against, too.

“The Fourth Assassin” begins with Omar Yussef, the hero of my previous three Palestinian crime novels, arriving in New York for a UN conference. He uncovers an assassination conspiracy involving some of his former pupils from back home in Bethlehem. It unfolds in the neighborhood of Brooklyn called Bay Ridge. With its growing Palestinian community, Bay Ridge is in fact becoming known as “v”.

As he delves into the background of the plot, Omar looks for political explanations. That’s what journalists and writers typically do when they examine the Middle East. But gradually Omar sees that there’s a love story behind what’s happening. A love story between a young Sunni Muslim who has been sucked into the assassination plot and a Lebanese Shia girl who wants to enjoy the freedoms of American life.

The book’s a crime novel, so I’m not giving anything away when I say that Omar sees these lovers as tragic, somehow doomed by the politics around them. But he acknowledges – as the lovers do – that their human connection is so important that it’s worth any sacrifice. Just as Romeo does when he rails against the family politics that would deny him his Juliet and designate such divisions as fated. “Then I defy you, stars,” he calls out.

With Romeo and Juliet, the doom that surrounds them isn’t the point of the play. It’s their hope and defiance that draws them to us. If Shakespeare had written a three-hour examination of the political conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets, I don’t expect we’d pay it much attention these days. Neither would we be interested in the play had it focused on Tybalt, Juliet’s hot-headed, murderous cousin, or Mercutio, the pal of Romeo who shouts “a plague on both your houses” as he dies. Yet that’s exactly what journalists and writers give us in their attempts to “explain” the Arab world.

Love is what helps us to understand those who seem otherwise to be set against us. That’s what Omar Yussef learns in “The Fourth Assassin.” I hope the novel will help my readers see that love is as much a part of life for Arabs as the violence that dominates their portrayal in the news pages.

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