“ME” doesn’t stand for Middle East by Matt Rees

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One of the advantages of being an author in an “exotic” locale is that people visit and want to hear from you as someone who knows the place well. It’s also one of the disadvantages.

Last Friday night, I drove out to Ein Kerem to meet one such group of visitors from Reboot (http://www.rebooters.net/), a U.S. organization that brings together mostly liberal – and certainly not conventional-thinking – Jews to discuss issues related to Judaism and Israel. It turned out to be one of those occasions where I take a certain amount of pleasure in the people I meet, but am also reminded why I chose to spend my days alone with imaginary characters.

Ein Kerem is an old village on the edge of Jerusalem that’s less regimented in its architecture and layout than the neighborhoods of the city built in the last 60 years. John the Baptist was born there. So was my son, because there’s now a hospital overlooking the valley with its collection of churches, convents and restaurants. When arrived, I stood by my car for a few minutes watching a desert fox prowl the street, its brush silhouetted against the lights of the hospital.

The Reboot people had spent the day being spat upon by ultra-Orthodox Jews who objected to their visit to a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem. The previous day a friend of mine who works with asylum seekers had shown them around a Tel Aviv slum where illegal immigrants from Africa and the Far East congregate.

In the private house where Reboot had arranged for the dinner, I went out to the garden with the 15 members of the group. The owner of the house started telling them about the village. She began with the fact that it had been home to Palestinian Arabs. She didn’t mention that in 1948 a massacre in a nearby village lead them to flee. One of the “Rebooters” called her on it: “What happened to the Arabs?”

Nothing wrong with that, except that it wasn’t really a question – he could’ve guessed the answer. There was a tone of self-righteous confrontation to which I’m deeply attuned after 13 years here.

Well, not as deeply attuned as I thought. Because then I made my mistake.

I’d been asked to speak about “Jerusalem and what it means to the Jews.” God knows why. But I never turn down an audience when there’s a chance of plugging my books. My mistake was to say that I’d be prepared to talk about broader political issues than Jerusalem.

I can do that perfectly well. For several hours in fact I discussed the changes – for the worse – in the chances for peace over the years. The growth of Israeli settlements, in the face of agreements to which Israel is a signatory. The sense among senior Palestinian politicians that they can let peace talks languish because time is somehow on their side. Everyone behaving as though the problems they’re prolonging will disappear.

But people don’t know the energy it costs me to discuss this shit. And after 13 years here that’s what it is. Shit.

As the evening drew on, I found myself subject to a familiar feeling. Sapped of energy, tightness at the back of my jaw, wanting to fall off my chair. I’d connected with a few members of the group. But still others wanted answers to questions which have no answer (unless you think, for example, that the world just hates Jews and wants Israel gone, or that Muslims are born crazy.) I suppose I ought to have said that politicians disgust me and let’s quit talking politics… Let’s talk about how you build a sentence. What it’s like to bury yourself in a novel for months at a time. How different a culture looks when you put aside politics and try to imagine the taste of hummus on a tongue that recalls a time when your mother fed it to you as a baby.

It’s not for nothing that the people closest to me at the table were the ones with which I connected and the ones at the farthest end asked questions on an impersonal political level. At the far end of the table I probably seemed like a lecturer, rather than the actual human being visible to those sitting close to me.

I wrote my novels to escape this sort of dialogue. I wanted to show the human concerns of the Palestinians I’d come to know, rather than the stereotypes of their political portrayal.

Why? Because politics in the Middle East goes around in circles. Circles of victimization, everyone competing to show that they’re misunderstood and that they suffer more than the other side of the conflict. Refusing to see the other side as human.

The longer I’m here the less interested I am in exploring that. Palestinians are people to me – not symbols of victimization and oppression. Israelis, too. To a novelist, people can be characters. To a politician, they’re only ever symbols and numbers to be shunted about or used.

When I talked to the Rebooters, I was able to explain this, but only when the conversation turned to my books. It’s fair enough that most of them hadn’t yet read my books and returned to political issues and media coverage of the conflict.

As I drove home through the empty streets of a quiet Jerusalem already six hours into the Jewish Sabbath, I realized that I turned to novels because I’d come to know myself well. I didn’t want to turn my attention outward as a journalist, to record the emotional responses of others. I wanted to take readers into my characters’ heads – and, of course, into mine. Into the extreme experiences and emotions I’d gone through covering the intifada, learning about the real Palestinian culture. I decided that I would no longer speak about political issues, except where they touched upon the content of my Palestinian crime novels.

From now on, the Middle East is me.

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