Omar Yussef is a West Bank history professor turned reluctant detective, a middle-aged Palestinian everyman who holds Palestinian and Jewish extremists in equal disdain. He is the brainchild of Matt Beynon Rees, a Welshman and former Time Jerusalem bureau chief who has published four mystery novels featuring Yussef. In the first, The Collaborator of Bethlehem (2007), Yussef is drawn into the dangerous world of sleuthing when his favorite student, a Palestinian Christian, is implicated in the murder of a Palestinian Muslim. He faces down new challenges in A Grave in Gaza (2008) and The Samaritan's Secret (2009), then ends up in New York in Rees' latest novel, The Fourth Assassin, investigating a case in which his own son is the murder suspect. Paul M. Foer interviews Rees at his home in the San Simon neighborhood of Jerusalem where the author resides with his American wife Devorah and their young son.
After covering the Middle East for 13 years as a journalist, why did you leave the news business to become a novelist?
Journalism is focused on the worst elements of life. It turns everything-into a stereotype, which you can then write in shorthand: "Here is the Palestinian terrorist" or "here is the Palestinian victim" instead of "here is a real person."
So fiction frees you?
When people read the news they think it must be so depressing to be a Palestinian--they are so oppressed, there is so much violence, their society is so messed up. In my novels, there are actual Palestinians who are living the way Palestinians live. Some of them are irritable and some of them are likable, but they all have some reason for going on with their lives. Yussef knows that the politics of the Palestinians is bloody, ridiculous, flawed and corrupt. He doesn't need to read an article every day about what a mess it is. He needs to make some sense of his own life. Journalism, at least as foreign correspondents do it, is political science. This is something that happened. Is it good or is it bad for the peace process? What do the Americans think about it, what do the Israelis or the Palestinians think about it? Who cares? No one does. Editors are now saying, "Readers are tired of the Middle East." They are not. They are just tired of the way it appears in journalism. Fiction is a kind of anthropology where you have the time to review the society and try to understand the people in it. Fiction answers the questions that journalism is supposed to be answering because it answers them on a human level.
Who was the inspiration for Yussef?
The basis for Yussef is a friend in the Da-haisha Refugee Camp. He is not a teacher, but I disguised his identity just in case. He is a guy I admire for being very vocal and critical even when it is dangerous to step out of line. He says that our society is falling around us, and we can't just blame Israel for everything.
Is Yussef like you in any way?
There is a lot of him that is me. As I was writing the second book, A Grave in Gaza, I would quite often be crying. I eventually realized I had experienced certain traumatic events as a journalist. I had seen dead bodies or bits of bodies. I had been shot at. I had been threatened. I had been stoned.
By both sides?
Mainly by Palestinians, but I had Israeli soldiers point their weapons at me. There was a tank that turned its barrel around on my car once. Lots of foreign correspondents have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have journalist friends who cry without knowing why, who have nightmares. I used to get them. I used to get sudden rages. And I realized that my traumas were coming out onto the page into the head of Yussef. There are times in the book where things happen that if I hadn't experienced those traumas, I would have described them much differently. For example, at one point in the second book …