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Opinion: Bringing the Mideast to America

Often a novelist can humanize foreign affairs in ways a journalist can't.

Palestinian villagers collect sea water from the Mediterranean on a central Gaza beach, Jan. 24, 2010. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

JERUSALEM, Israel — Though we do so at our peril, overseas events are easy to ignore. We flip past the foreign 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.

Readers of GlobalPost by definition understand this — it’s why they’ve come to a site which now covers the globe as almost no other U.S. news organization does. Many readers, however, don’t know what important world news they’re missing.

That’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.