Often a novelist can humanize foreign affairs in ways a journalist can't.
To mark publication today of my new Palestinian crime novel The Fourth Assassin, I posted this for my regular column on GlobalPost.

Though it's convenient to do so, we ignore overseas events at our peril. We flip past the international pages of the newspaper. We might not even obtain a passport or travel further than Florida for vacation.

But if we ignore the world beyond our borders, one day that world will come to remind us that it’s there. That’s what happened on 9/11 and in the terror attacks in Madrid and London.

And it's why I decided to bring my fictional Palestinian detective Omar Yussef to the U.S. in my new novel, which is set in Brooklyn. To remind American readers that the Muslim world exists, and that Westerners need to understand how Muslims think. The politics of the Muslim world isn’t just restricted to the Middle East and Asia; it’s in our own towns.

In “The Fourth Assassin,” Omar Yussef comes to New York for a U.N. conference. He visits the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, which these days is becoming known as “Little Palestine” because of the steady influx of immigrants from the West Bank.

Little Palestine isn’t a community of Palestinian intellectual emigres of the kind that emerged in most major Western capitals during the 1970s. It’s a new wave of mostly young men who come to drive taxis and work several jobs, until they can afford to bring their families over to join them. Theirs is the typical American immigrant story, in fact. Except for the FBI investigations.

After 9/11, the FBI cottoned to the fact that there were Palestinians in Bay Ridge. According to community leaders and Brooklyn media, agents went into Little Palestine, recruiting their own operatives and coming away with alleged links between prominent local Palestinians and violent groups back home, such as Hamas.

The Bureau didn’t uncover any broad conspiracy in Little Palestine. But its actions added to the tension between New Yorkers and local Arabs after the attack on the Twin Towers. That’s the situation into which I wanted to place Omar Yussef, a Muslim with an often unconventional political take. Mutual distrust makes for a good crime novel. It also happens to be real.

The conflict between the West and the Muslim world today is much like the Cold War of decades past. I’d wager that few people read the nonfiction written about the confrontation with the Soviet Union any more. But some of the best fiction about that time, say John Le Carre’s Smiley novels or books like Martin Cruz Smith’s “Gorky Park” which went deep into Russian society during those years, still speak to us even though that battle is long finished.

That’s because those books examine a time of conflict in a timeless way. By humanizing all the participants in the conflict, those novels go beyond nonfiction and give us a window into the minds of those people who’d otherwise seem to us inhuman enemies. I hope “The Fourth Assassin” does that, too.

When Omar arrives in Bay Ridge, he finds a headless body in his son’s bed. The gruesome discovery leads him to uncover a suicidal assassination plot that seems to involve some of his former pupils in his school in Bethlehem. One of the suspects: his own son.

Much of what goes on in the novel stays within the Palestinian community, most of which came from the village of Beit Hanina on the border between Jerusalem and Ramallah. These immigrants fled the violence of the intifada and, over the last decade, moved into a neighborhood that had traditionally been Norwegian and Irish.

These days Little Palestine is dotted with basement mosques, Arab restaurants and boutiques selling slinky headscarves for religious Muslim women who want to observe the signs of their faith while also highlighting their beauty.

But the novel also takes Omar to Atlantic Avenue and Coney Island — iconic areas of Brooklyn we might be more accustomed to seeing in traditional thrillers, though they now have strong Arab presences. I put those locations into my novel so that readers would understand that the politics of the Middle East can’t be isolated. You can take the N train from Times Square and get off in Palestine.

I hope “The Fourth Assassin” will help readers understand that.

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Comment by B.R.Stateham on February 2, 2010 at 3:29am
Yeah but. . . in reality Matt, for all that has happened concerning the conflicts the US has with certain fanatical groups within the Muslim world, the reactions the average American has responded to since 9ll and other threats exposed, has been quite measured and remarkably restrained.

I think there are many Americans like me who know not all Muslims are radicals and wild-eyed killers. And god knows not all Christians are mild, meek, and passive. Many of us worry about the radicalism of both faiths. Radicalism of any kind, for that matter.

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