I was reading a little today in that lovely old Bible you gave me, Abu Ramiz, George Saba said.
Ah, its a beautiful book, Omar Yussef said.
They shared a smile. Before Omar Yussef moved to the UN school, he had taught at the academy run by the Frères of St. John de la Salle in Bethlehem. It was there that George Saba had been one of his finest pupils. When he passed his baccalaureate, Omar Yussef had given him a Bible bound in dimpled black leather. It had been a gift to Omar Yussefs dear father from a priest in Jerusalem back in the time of the Ottoman Empire. The Bible, which was in an Arabic translation, was old even then. Omar Yussefs father had befriended the priest one day at the home of a Turkish bey. At that time, there was nothing strange or blameworthy in a close acquaintance between a Roman Catholic priest from the patriarchate near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem and the Muslim mukhtar of a village surrounded by olive groves south of the city. By the time Omar Yussef gave the Bible to George Saba, Muslims and Christians lived more separately, and a little hatefully. Now, it was even worse.
Its not the religious message, you see. God knows, if there were no Bible and no Koran, how much happier would our troubled little town be? If the famous star had shone for the wise men above, lets say, Baghdad instead of Bethlehem, life would be much brighter here, Saba said. Its only that this Bible in particular makes me think of all that you did for me. Omar Yussef poured himself some mineral water from a tall plastic bottle. His dark brown eyes were glassy with sudden emotion. The past came upon him and touched him deeply: this aged Bible and the learned hands that left the grease and sweat and reverence of their fingertips on the thin paper of its dignified pages; the memory of his own dear father who was thirty years gone; and this boy whom he had helped shape into the man before him. He looked up fondly and, as George Saba ordered a mezze of salads and a mixed grill, he surreptitiously wiped his eyes with a fingertip.
They ate in quiet companionship until the meat was gone and a plate of baklava finished. The waiter brought tea for George and a small cup of coffee, bitter and thick, for Omar. When I emigrated to Chile, I kept the Bible you gave me close always, George said.
The Christians of Georges village, Beit Jala, had followed an early set of emigrants to Chile and built a large community. The comfort in which their relatives in Santiago lived, worshipping as part of the majority religion, was an ever-increasing draw to those left behind, sensing the growing detestation among Muslims for their faith.
In Santiago, George had sold furniture that he imported from a cousin who owned a workshop by the Bab Touma in Damascus: ingeniously compact games tables with boards for backgammon and chess, and a green baize for cards; great inlaid writing desks for the countrys new wine moguls; and plaques decorated with the Arabic and Spanish words for peace. In Chile, he married Sofia, daughter of another Palestinian Christian. She was happy there, but George missed his old father, Habib, and gradually he persuaded Sofia that now there was peace in Beit Jala and they could return. He admitted that he was wrong about the peace, but was glad to be back anyway. He had seen Omar Yussef here and there since he had brought his family home, but this was their first chance to sit alone and talk.
The old house is the same as ever, filled with racks of Dads wedding dresses. The rentals in the living room and those for sale in his bedroom, all wrapped in plastic, George Saba said. But now theyre almost crowded out by my antique sideboards from Syria and elaborate old mirrors that dont seem to sell.
Excerpted from The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Beynon Rees © 2007 by Matt Beynon Rees. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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