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A conversation with Matt Beynon Rees, novelist

by simone November 02 2008
InterviewPop culture

Matt Rees and fake graffiti

Matt Beynon Rees was born in Newport, Wales in 1967. After studying at Oxford, Rees left the UK to study journalism at the University of Maryland, which eventually led him to New York City. For the next six years, Matt covered the stock market and related money matters for The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and other top financial papers. Matt came to Jerusalem in 1996, and though at first he only planned on staying for a few months, he got the bug and ended up serving as Time magazine's Israel bureau chief. 12 years after arriving, he's still here, creating his unique brand of Palestinian murder-mystery novels.

How did a nice Welsh boy like yourself end up in Jerusalem? I guess you could say I came by accident or for love. I followed my then-fiancée (now ex-wife) here for what I thought would be a few months, and here I still am. When she got a job writing for the Christian Science Monitor in Jerusalem, I thought I'd come with her. I'd been wanting to get out of New York for some time. I was stuck in a job there that I didn't particularly like, but when you're in New York, it's hard to figure out how you're going to escape that life. So this was a great opportunity.

I've always held a great curiosity for this place. I had two great uncles who came here in 1917 with General Allenby. They were both coal miners in South Wales, but they were also in the volunteer cavalry regiment, and since they could ride horses, they were told they could ride camels as well. Matt Rees in Bethlehem They were placed in the Imperial Camel Corps, which helped Allenby capture Jerusalem. One of these uncles was still alive when I was a boy. He had been shot in his backside near Ramallah while trying to prevent the Turks from getting supplies to Jerusalem, and every Christmas he used to drop his trousers to show us his scar. I think that's what initially made me curious about the place.

When I got here I visited all the British war cemeteries, and I saw the graves of all these men who had died here who were from similar backgrounds to my own. It made me grateful that I came here a as journalist and not as a soldier, but it also made me feel more connected to all the people who were willing to die for this place, both Israelis and Palestinians. It also made me feel connected to this place in a deeper way, and not just as a journalist who comes here for a few years and then moves on to somewhere else.

I still frequently visit the British Commonwealth War Cemetery on Mt. Scopus, because there are people there from the regiment my uncles served in. There are a lot of Reeses buried there, because it's a very common Welsh name, and that also makes me feel very connected to this place.

You started your career in journalism writing about the financial markets for Forbes and Bloomberg in New York. How did you make the transition to Middle East correspondent, and when did you first develop an interest in the Middle East? I was trying to escape from financial journalism. I was only in it because I wanted a job in New York. When I first started, it was exciting, but the more I worked on Wall St., the less I liked it. When I first came to Jerusalem and began interviewing people (at the time there were major riots surrounding the opening of the Western Wall Tunnel), they spoke so openly about their feelings. It was such a contrast to Wall St., where people never spoke about their feelings. I felt that I'd finally reached a place where I could feel connected to the people I was interviewing, because they were open to me. 

You've spent most of your professional life writing for mainstream news agencies and publications, culminating with your appointment as Time magazine's Israel bureau chief and the publication of your non-fiction book about the divisions in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. What motivated you to leave the world of journalism and enter the world of fiction? Writing fiction is what I've always wanted to do since I was a very small child, since I was seven or maybe even earlier. I became a journalist because it was a way to make living from writing. I found that being a journalist also takes you to very interesting places and allows you toMatt Rees lookin fly meet people you wouldn’t normally meet.

I realized that over the years I had gathered amazing material here in Jerusalem. I gathered information at times of extreme emotion and I realized that as a writer you want to express the inner life that people have. You can't do that as a journalist. Even if you hear the emotion that people have, you need to write in a very objective way, and for me that meant shutting off a part of myself and not using all I had learned from this place. So for me, fiction was a natural next step.

For a novel to be a good novel, you can't just write about what happened - you must also write about what is going on in the characters' heads. I'd been covering this area for 10 years and I think that as a journalist, I'd sort of had enough - not so much of the violence, but of the feeling that things weren't really going anywhere. At that point, I'd learned Arabic, I no longer needed to take a translator with me when I covered Palestinian areas, but then when the intifada started in 2000, it suddenly became almost like a whole military operation just to go interview somebody in Nablus.

I didn't want to keep going on interviews and listening to people complain. I'd had enough of people complaining - it just drags you down. I wanted to stop informing people about disasters and start giving them something for entertainment. Even though my stories are about tough things, at the end of the day, they're fiction and they're entertainment, and in writing them I felt like I was making the world more enjoyable for people instead of just informing them that the world is going to hell.

Many elements of your stories are based on an understanding of the nuances of life in Palestinian society, nuances which are not played up in the mainstream news media. Does it worry you at all that because they're being marketed as fiction, readers might think your stories have no basis in reality? It's interesting, you know, we published a note at the beginning of the first two books stating that the basis for these books is true. I didn't put a similar note in the third book (to be published in February) because I wanted people to realize that these books are works of fiction and not just facts dressed up as fiction.

On the other hand, I want people to know that these books are about Palestinian life, because in the media all you read about is the peace process and you don't learn anything about Palestinians daily life. I've read in one or two of my readers' blogs that people question whether Palestinian life is really like that. They don't want to believe it's that bad, but it is. It's very, very difficult to be a Palestinian. But I think that most people realize that I am showing a side of Palestinian life that you don’t get in the mainstream media: how Palestinians speak to each other, the kind of food they eat, what life is like in a Palestinian family. The good parts as well as the bad. These are all things you can't get from the media.     

Does Jerusalem serve as a muse to your writing? Can we expect your amateur sleuth Omar Yussef to ever visit? He will eventually. I've kept Jerusalem out of the books so far because I wanted them to just be about Palestinians, and of course if Omar Yussef comes to Jerusalem, there would be Israelis involved, and that would give my Palestinian characters an easy way out. They can say, "It's all happening because of the Israelis," but as my Palestinian friends have made clear to me, it's not all because of the Israelis.

I want my hero, my bad guys all to be Palestinian, because I want to show that they also have a responsibility to fix things - they can't blame all of their problems on Israel. If the story comes to Jerusalem in one of the forthcoming books, which it probably will, I have to figure out a way of handling this issue. I hope that by that stage of the series I will have already established the dynamic that it's about Palestinians taking responsibility for their own situation, and at that point we can let the Israelis in.

Regarding Jerusalem itself, obviously, because I live here, it's much easier for me to wander into the Old City and talk to people, drink tea and eat hummus than to travel to Palestinian towns. Sometimes, if you live in west Jerusalem you can forget that you live in the Middle East. So I go to the Old City very frequently. I also have a number of friends who own shops on Saladin Street, so I go there. I go to a money lender I'm friends with to drink tea, hang out and listen to my friends make fun of my books.

What Jerusalem public spaces and/or haunts are the best spots for sitting and writing fiction and why? Mainly I write at home, but I tend to do a lot of thinking, particularly before I start writing the book. While I'm doing the plotting, I like to got and sit with a coffee at Café Paradiso or Aroma on Emek Refaim. I particularly like Aroma, because you can sit at the bar with a coffee and just think for hours, so that's very helpful to me, because at certain stages at the beginning, it can feel quite isolated to just be just stuck in my room thinking.

I also like to be walk around the Old City or at one of those cafes or at The Jewish National and University Library on Givat Ram. They have a Middle East reading room there where they have rows of books about Palestinians, Lebanese, etc., so I go in there and read, and it gives me a lot of ideas of cultural elements that I want to get into the books. There's a book there that I use quite often called Palestinian Sayings, which has a lot of Arab phrases and so on which give a lot of color. Some of the sayings included in my books are things people have actually said to me, but others I get from this book. It's nice to be at the National Library, because I feel that when you're 18, you're not really ready to go to university, but when you're older you think it would be wonderful to be able to go to university. I also like to walk around in the San Simeon Park because it's so close to me, and they have a little Greek Monastery there. It's very green and a good place to push my son around in his pram while I think.

Photos of Matt Rees next to suspicious looking graffiti bearing his hero's name in English (top), in Bethlehem (top) and in a head shot, courtesy of Rees himself.

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