The best thing about moving from journalism to fiction writing is that people show you more respect.
As a journalist covering a contentious issue like the Israel-Palestinian conflict, I was often subject to rather nasty verbal attacks during public speaking engagements. For a partisan of either side, I seemed a fine target for their generalized contempt—they thought journalists were all against them and here was a live reporter on whom they could vent their spleen.
Thankfully that doesn’t happen now that I’m the author of a series of Palestinian crime novels. I wasn’t sure that it would be different, but it turns out that there’s a big change in the way people behave toward me.
Here are two examples from the last week alone.
In Cologne, Germany, last week, I talked in a bookstore at the invitation of the Cologne-Bethlehem Association. Much of the audience was made up of middle-aged and older Germans who visit Bethlehem frequently and have made strong ties with the people there.
One older gentleman suggested that, because my first novel THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM shows the corruption and extortion carried out by the gunmen of the town during the intifada, my book “tended toward Israeli propaganda.”
But the old fellow was very respectful and as I answered him I could tell he was listening. (My response, of course, is along the lines of “No, actually the book doesn’t even address whether or not it’s right to shoot at Israelis; the book concerns itself with the negative effect those gunmen had WITHIN Palestinian society.”) Listening’s something that was often evidently not happening when, as a journalist, I would talk to audiences.
Then this week I went to the Israeli settlement of Efrat in the West Bank. I’ve visited many times before to write news reports about the confiscation of land or the endless pressure from Washington to stop building in the settlements. This time I was invited by the Gush Etzion Book Group, a few dozen women who live in the local settlements.
There had been quite some fiery debate within the group about whether to have me come and speak to them. Indeed, someone hinted that certain members of the group had stayed away.
But I was glad to be there. After all, much of THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM takes place in the village of Artas and the Dehaisha Refugee Camp, which abut the northern reaches of Efrat. I want very much to talk about my books with people who have a stake in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Provided they’re willing to listen respectfully, to examine what I’m actually saying and not what they think I’m saying (or what they wish I’d say.)
The evening in Efrat went well and, in fact, much of what we talked about was how little I’m interested in politics—despite the apparently political subject-matter of my novels. What interests me is “the life that remains when politics is sluiced away like the filth a stray dog leaves in the street” (that’s a line from my sleuth Omar Yussef in THE FOURTH ASSASSIN, the next of my novels, which will be published Feb. 1).
Such respectful treatment is a big contrast to situations I encountered as a journalist. Then I would look out over audiences which seemed to be entirely red-faced and with arms crossed across every chest. The hostlie body language didn’t change, even though I was essentially saying the same things I’m saying now. Partisans hate journalists and, I believe, many of them used somehow to detest that I had found a kind of personal peace in covering the very conflict that stirs them up and stresses them so.
In Cologne and Efrat, I believe people heard what I had to say and understood that I’m pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. Politics makes people choose sides, and I want no part of that.
I also think choosing sides makes for rather bad novels. It’s in the shades of gray, where decisions are so difficult or even impossible to make, that a novel becomes truly compelling. Think of Graham Greene’s best novels. Political journalism on the other hand is, to say the least, dreary. Think of the glib rubbish turned out by columnists who have to fill three op-ed spaces each week.
Who would you respect more—Graham Greene or G. Gordon Liddy? See what I mean?
So I’ll continue to talk about my books to anyone who’ll take the time to read them, because that in itself is a sign of respect and openness. Those, after all, are the qualities most needed by both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if they’re ever to find peace.