Just as most science fiction authors have never been to outer space, most writers of espionage novels have never done any spying. Well, except maybe on their older siblings. But that’s not the case with Howard Kaplan, who’s not only the author of the recently rereleased ’80s spy novel Bullets Of Palestine (paperback, digital), but he also, as he puts it, “smuggled manuscripts out of the Soviet Union.” With Bullets Of Palestine newly back in print, I spoke to Agent Kaplan about its plot, the upcoming movie of his previously rereleased spy novel The Damascus Cover, and what else he has planned for his “Jerusalem Spy” series.
First off, what is the story you’re telling in Bullets Of Palestine?
Bullets Of Palestine is a story about hope and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. I find most political writing about the region is about self-justification and blame. Fiction has the ability to look at people, who they are, how they live, the future they want, and even how to get there. I’ve spent a lot of time in both the Jewish and Palestinian areas, and felt through a suspense novel I could both tell and exciting story and reach more people. It seems reconciliation is a theme that endures.
How does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the first book in your “Jerusalem Spy” series, The Damascus Cover?
The direct link between The Damascus Cover and Bullets Of Palestine is the head of the Israeli Secret Service, the Colonel. Though he’s been pushed out and is in retirement now, he has the vast power of a network of friends and he is the driving force behind the plot. In The Damascus Cover, the ultimate goal was for the Israel Secret Service to do what the politicians would not: work with their counterparts in Syria to their mutual interests without giving up their own needs. And I employed the same idea in Bullets Of Palestine by having the secret services of these nation states working together, and with individual Israeli and Palestinian agents finding common ground and an attempt at real friendship.
When, in relation to writing The Damascus Cover, did you come up with the idea for Bullets Of Palestine?
Bullets Of Palestine was both written and takes places ten years after The Damascus Cover. During this time, the Colonel’s a bit potty, loses track of small things, yet has the will and clarity to mount a complex operation unknown to those above him who have pushed him out. I don’t know, maybe it casts a ray of hope about aging. The last large scale war between Israel and the Arab states was the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I think what’s happened in the region in those ten years is that the threat of another war between Israel and it’s neighbors — Syria, Jordan, and Egypt — has been supplanted by treaties and the realization by those Arab counties that they cannot push Israel into the sea. So by the 1980s it’s clear the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is, as Graham Greene would say, “the heart of the matter,” so that’s where Bullets Of Palestine is set, as well as during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon at that time in an attempt to clear the border. Which ultimately and miserably failed. It’s not the direction that will solve this conflict.
One of the reviews of Bullets Of Palestine was from Al Fajr of the Jerusalem Palestinian Weekly, who said, “In a conflict where both sides have tended to dehumanize the other, Kaplan has created two extremely human characters: one Palestinian, the other Israeli.” Given how easy it would’ve been to dehumanize one of the characters or the other, why did you decide to be fair?
My mother is a Holocaust survivor, was in Auschwitz for a year, is eighty-eight now, has dementia and cries often about the war. Most children of survivors have come out hawkish, right wing, and often see first and foremost the danger to Israel. They want to rely solely on might which, as in Lebanon, is a losing strategy. My Polish born father lost his entire family during the War. To flee from the mentality of my family, which was dark, I found I could only do so by finding empathy for the downtrodden. So rather than seeing Palestinians as “the other” in the way the Jews had been seen throughout history, I met them in East Jerusalem and then was taken to their villages and homes, talked and ate with them as I already had earlier with Israelis during my junior year abroad from Berkeley at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. So for me it was never about political correctness but about hope and finding solutions.
The main character in Bullets Of Palestine, Ramzy Awwad, is a writer and a spy. You’re a writer and, at one point, did some spy stuff. How close is Ramzy to you? Obviously, he’s got more training in espionage, but what about his personality, physical appearance, and so on?
You have it exactly right in that he’s a long standing professional who has made a journey from attacking an Israeli Embassy in South America and killing both men and women inside to now working and befriending Israelis. But he’s not based on me at all but on a real life Palestinian novelist and terrorist named Ghassan Kanafani. He’s not much known in the West, though his novels and short stories have been translated to English. His most famous work, Men In The Sun, was made into a well known Arabic film. Though he was the propaganda head for George Habash’s extremist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, his fiction was searingly balanced and fair. For example, while many Iranian leaders declare the Holocaust never happened, Kanafani wrote a novella about a Palestinian family who goes back to Haifa to see their old home. They find Holocaust survivors in it, and the narrator has great empathy for their suffering. He believes they deserve a home, but not his home. So I took Kanafani, stripped him of his radical associations, and made Ramzy a mainstream PLO agent what today would be Mohammad Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
So I really never had the idea to model Ramzy after me. I smuggled manuscripts out of the Soviet Union on microfilm, but have never shot a gun. Wouldn’t have worked. I needed Ramzy to be credible, to be someone in the heart of fray to be a hero to his people.
At the time you wrote Bullets Of Palestine, was there anything that you wished you had done differently in The Damascus Cover? Y’know, like maybe set it in somewhere easier to get to so you could research easier, like Disneyland?
I’m not sure. I like the way it’s turned out. Though they are changing things in the movie version of The Damascus Cover, and I like what they did.
But I’m glad the book was set in Damascus, as I actually did travel there, and the novel has rich detail of what the city was like before this maddening war which has destroyed so much. So by chance the novel is like an artifact that preserves what was, at least in a small way.
Bullets Of Palestine originally came out in the 1980s. Did you add or change anything in this new edition of it, or did you leave it as is?
What I’ve decided to do in republishing this “Jerusalem Spy” series is to leave the books exactly as they were, but add a new foreword.
I’m now working on a novel called To Destroy Jerusalem, which I began in 1990 but never finished for as variety of reasons, and it’s a direct sequel to Bullets Of Palestine. It also deals with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as well as a nuclear threat.
But Bullets Of Palestine was not your second novel, right?
My second novel, both written and published, was The Chopin Express. It was actually my first attempt at a novel, then rewritten and brought out the year following The Damascus Cover‘s original publication and success. It’s more autobiographical and deals with an American student, a.k.a. me, getting arrested in the Soviet Union. So what I’ve decided to do is get out these three Middle East novels together as a series, and then go back and think about bringing Chopin out again.
When we last did this interview thing, The Damascus Cover was being made into a movie with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Abigail Spencer, and Jurgen Prochnow. What is the status of that movie now?
There was a change in the cast of the film of The Damascus Cover, which actually worked out remarkably well. The film was scheduled to be shot in October of 2014, but two weeks before shooting, Jonathan Rhys Meyers sliced a tendon in his pinkie finger in a kitchen accident, which required surgery. So the film had to be pushed to February of 2015, and they were able to hold all the cast except for Abigail Spencer, who was hired to work on True Detective. But we managed to get Olivia Thirlby, who’s best known for playing the sister in Juno. Navid Negahban, who played Abu Wazir in Homeland, is also in the film, and was at my house this past Sunday for a BBQ, and talked to me about how terrific Thirlby is in their scenes and throughout.
Also, they got John Hurt to play the Colonel. Principle photography concluded the end of March in Morocco, and they’re shooting a few days in Jerusalem this week. Casablanca worked wonderfully as a stand in for Damascus, but Jerusalem is built entirely of limestone, so they decided to go back and gain a bit more authenticity by actually shooting there. Though the bulk of the film, as in the novel, is set in Syria. I expect the film to be released in early 2016.
Are the people who produced that movie thinking that, if it does well, they’d like to make a movie out of Bullets Of Palestine?
Well, both the producer and director of the film asked to read Bullets Of Palestine, so I gave them have a copy, but for now everybody’s thinking let’s get this film done first.
Finally, has all this reissuing of your older novels and finishing To Destroy Jerusalem made you want to write something completely new? Like maybe The Iranian Switch or The Disneyland Shuffle?
As I’ve been working on To Destroy Jerusalem, I do ask myself what’s next. As problems go this seems not a terrible one to have.