LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
After a decade as a reporter in the Middle East, writer Matt Rees has found that the mystery novel is a better vehicle to delve into the complex real-life stories of Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Rees' just-published first novel, "The Collaborator of Bethlehem," sets the mystery genre against the backdrop of Palestinian society's bitter internal divisions and tensions.
NPR's Eric Westervelt talked with the author in the West Bank.
ERIC WESTERVELT: At the start of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising in 2000, this residential hilltop in Beit Jalla, just outside Bethlehem, was one of the most violent spots in the West Bank. From here, in this mainly Christian Arab village, Palestinian militants, some from outside the area, would fire at Israelis in the settlement of Gilo just across the dried-up riverbed. Israeli infantry and at times tanks would fire back.
Mr. MATT REES (Author, "The Collaborator of Bethlehem"): And up here, we can see the bullet holes because as well as coming and firing across the valley, eventually the Israelis came into Beit Jalla. They brought tanks right in here. I remember being just down the hill there and looking out...
WESTERVELT: Former reporter Matt Rees covered the violence for Time magazine, and it's in Beit Jalla where his new novel, "The Collaborator of Bethlehem," takes off.
Mr. REES: I began the novel here because it seemed to me to be a great way of focusing on the problems of the Christian population here in Bethlehem. And I wanted to have the novel begin in a place where there was real violence - not just the violence of a murder in a murder mystery, but real violence that would give the political context for everything that's to come later in the novel.
WESTERVELT: The fictional violence that comes later is rooted in Rees' reporting on the politics, life and the often violent tensions within Palestinian society. On Rees' first reporting trip into the West Bank more than a decade ago, he started to look into a recent Israeli-Palestinian clash. But he says he ended up covering the story of a young Palestinian militant who'd been tortured and killed by Yasser Arafat's policemen in an internal conflict over money, power and influence.
Rees says his fictional characters, the seedy and the clueless, the earnest and the ruthless, are all based on people he met or interviewed as a journalist. But Rees says, as a reporter, he often felt that important texture and nuance, as well as the color and rhythms of Palestinian life, were left out or sliced out of his copy.
Mr. REES: Almost never was I able to really get to the heart of what I have learned about the Palestinians in stories that I did for Time magazine. Partially that's because of the formulas of journalism, but mainly, it has to do with the ability that a novel gives you to really delve deep into a character, to really get inside someone's head.
WESTERVELT: Rees argues that divisions within each society sustain and drive the Arab-Israeli conflict as much as the obvious fight over land and borders. It's a thesis partly borne out by the mini civil war in Gaza over the last year and continued clashes between rivals Fatah and Hamas, despite a new unity government agreement.
In parts of the territories, heavily armed clans still hold more sway than the dozen or so branches of the dysfunctional Palestinian security forces.
In "The Collaborator," Rees' Palestinian protagonist is a freethinking history teacher at a U.N.-run high school in a gloomy West Bank refugee camp. He reluctantly turns detective when a Christian-Arab friend is framed by militants and accused of collaborating with Israel. Rees called the central character an independent thinker ready to challenge orthodoxy in a place where such traits can turn you into an outcast or get you hurt.
Mr. REES: What Omar Yussef is doing, the reason he's a detective, is because there's something wrong in his society that needs to be fixed. And a comment that he makes in this book is that detection is not all about catching the bad guy and putting him out of the way; it's actually about protecting the future.
WESTERVELT: "The Collaborator of Bethlehem" has just been published in the United States. It comes out in France, Italy, the U.K., Israel and other countries later this spring. So far, there's been little interest from any Arabic language publishers. The next installment of Rees' Omar Yussef mystery series will be called "A Grave in Gaza."
With novelist Matt Rees, Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Beit Jalla, in the West Bank.
HANSEN: And there's more on the book including pictures and a reading at npr.org.
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