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Rees Takes Middle East from Fact to Fiction

<em>The Collaborator of Bethlehem</em> is the first novel from journalist Matt Rees.
The Collaborator of Bethlehem is the first novel from journalist Matt Rees.

After a decade as a reporter in the Middle East, Matt Rees found that fiction was a better vehicle to delve into the complex, real-life stories of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

His first book, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, is set against the backdrop of Palestinian society's bitter, internal tensions.

"I wanted to have the novel begin in a place where there was real violence," Rees says. "Not just the violence of a murder in a murder mystery, but real violence that would give the political context for everything that's to come later in the novel."

The book is set in the West Bank, where Rees covered the Second Entifada as Time magazine's bureau chief in 2000.

Rees' fictional characters are all based on people he met or interviewed as a journalist, he says.

But as a reporter, Rees often felt that important nuances and the color of Palestinian life were sliced out of his copy. Writing a novel gave him the freedom to delve deep into a character, he says.

In The Collaborator of Bethlehem, Palestinian protagonist Omar Yussef is a free-thinking history teacher at a high school in a gloomy West Bank refugee camp.

Yussef is an independent thinker ready to challenge orthodoxy in a place where such traits can turn you into an outcast or get you hurt, Rees says.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.