Finding true Mideast reality with kids by Matt Rees

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It’s always encouraging to meet well-adjusted teenagers (mainly because I wasn’t one.) When they’re Middle Eastern teenagers, it’s inspiring.

I met a group of just over a dozen 15-year-olds (some of them may have been older than that, so I hope they aren’t offended when they read this, but when you get as old as me even a 25-year-old is a kid), half of them from a Palestinian school just inside the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City and the other half from an Israeli school on the campus of the Hebrew University. They’ve been coming together for some years at infrequent intervals to discuss books they read in English. This time, they read my Palestinian crime novel THE FOURTH ASSASSIN.

I was happy to be the first author who’d come along to meet the group, and was doubly pleased with the intelligence and perception they showed.

That’s not only because they all seemed to have really liked my book. Though that, of course, does show great perception. Their group aims to go beyond the politics of the region, to find common ground in literature. Even as journalists exult at the political mobilization of the Arab world, they ought to remember that all this political activity is intended to lead not to some goal that can be summed up in a simple nut-graph (which is what journalists call the “here’s what the story’s all about paragraph,” usually the third one in the story). It’s heading toward the personal fulfillment of every Arab in myriad ambitions and desires – something that’s probably beyond the stereotypical charactertizations and analyses of journalism to contend with.

One of the most impressive elements of the long discussion I had with the kids in a restaurant overlooking the walls of the Old City was that politics was entirely absent. It demonstrates, for me, that if Israelis and Palestinians have some other basis on which to meet – rather than the mutual claims of victimization on which their politicians thrive – they find a great deal in common.

Of course, what I’ve aimed for with my four Palestinian crime novels is an approach that transcends the political clichés of the region where I find myself. So I was pleased that the kids picked up on that, too.

One of them won my heart by telling me that when my Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef and other characters spoke she felt she was listening to real Palestinians speak. It’s quite the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me about my books, because I’ve tried to capture the rhythms and formalities of Arab speech in the novels.

Our discussion turned to the events across the region. I pointed out that Omar Yussef was ahead of the game when, in THE FOURTH ASSASSIN, he chided the Arab nations and the US for failing to back Arab democracy.

That was as close to politics as we got. Unlike my meetings with journalists who often want to discuss present Middle Eastern diplomacy with me, rather than my novels, the kids asked fascinating questions about the actual writing of a book, the plotting and characterization. Clearly more than a few of them, Israeli and Palestinian, are budding writers. I look forward to seeing them on the shelves. (Well, they’re young, so maybe I’ll see them on a Kindle…)

Some people see the Middle East only through a political prism filled with simplistic slogans and obstructive literalism. My books defy that. They’re meant to be instructive, but entertaining — they’re crime novels, after all. These kids showed that they — like the characters in my books – don’t want to be defined and stereotyped by their often-devastating politics. They want to be real, too. And they’re smart enough to understand that fiction, strangely, can help lead them there.

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