As soon as you see an Israeli and a Palestinian on the same page… you’re assaulted by clichés.If you’ve ever thought that conventional journalism failed to portray the realities of Israel and the Palestinians accurately, you’ll know why I decided to quit magazines and write a mystery novel instead.
For 10 years, I covered the Middle East, including six years as Time magazine’s Jerusalem bureau chief. Eventually I grew frustrated with the limitations of journalistic formula and wrote The Collaborator of Bethlehem, a murder mystery set in the dark days of the intifada.
The novel is entirely about the Palestinians. There are no Israelis in it whatsoever. Partially that’s because as soon as you see an Israeli and a Palestinian on the same page – whether it be of a magazine, a newspaper or a novel – you’re instantly assaulted by clichés.
But mainly it was because telling the real story of the Palestinians was the best way to set things right about Israel. And fiction, of course, is a much more ‘real’ way to tell a story than journalism with all its fictional pretensions to objectivity.
Journalism is written in a straight-jacket of ‘balance’ – as if everything had two equal sides, both as worthy of recognition and understanding as the other. If I ever again start a paragraph with the deadly words “To be sure…” I want you to know I’ll be screaming with pain as I write them. Because the more I covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the more I realized that many things didn’t have two equally legitimate sides. I was covering a conflict, not writing a sports report, and in conflicts things are done which are unjustifiable and wrong.
I also discovered that the most important Palestinian stories were nothing to do with Israel. They were about what goes on within their society. The Collaborator of Bethlehem, for example, is about the gunmen who run wild in Bethlehem and their violent exploitation of the Christian community there. The second novel in the series, which is to be built around the same detective character, will examine the infighting among top Palestinian military chiefs in Gaza. Book Three aims to detail the corruption of the Palestinian government.
My detective character is an amateur sleuth named Omar Yussef. A schoolteacher in Dehaisha refugee camp, he’s forced to turn detective when one of his former pupils is accused of collaborating in the death of a gunman. There’s no law and order, so only Omar Yussef is prepared to risk the wrath of the gangsters in the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and try to clear his former pupil.
Just as in many of the stories I covered, Palestinian characters in the novel blame Israel for something that was really the result of internal Palestinian strife. Omar Yussef sets out to highlight that evasion of responsibility.
I occasionally dealt with sectarian violence, corruption and infighting among Palestinians in my journalism. But mostly editors wanted me to write about the long-defunct ‘peace process’.
It seemed to me a fundamental misconception. I’d often think of those generators from back in high-school physics, where a spark would jump between the electrodes. I’d imagine those electrodes as Israeli and Palestinian society.
All my editors used to see was the spark leaping between the two, but they ignored the cables tracing back from each electrode into the machine, which caused the spark in the first place. It’s that machinery writers ought to focus on, not the spark.
So long as editors – and readers – don’t see the internal issues disturbing Palestinian society, they’ll have an equivalent misunderstanding of why Israel isn’t at peace.
That’s one mystery I hope Omar Yussef can help solve.