Omar Yussef, a teacher of history to the unhappy children
of Dehaisha refugee camp, shuffled stiffly up the meandering
road, past the gray, stone homes built in the time of the
Turks on the edge of Beit Jala. He paused in the strong evening
wind, took a comb from the top pocket of his tweed jacket, and
tried to tame the strands of white hair with which he covered
his baldness. He glanced down at his maroon loafers in the
orange flicker of the buzzing street lamp and tutted at the dust
that clung to them as he tripped along the uneven roadside,
away from Bethlehem.
In the darkness at the corner of the next alley, a gunman coughed and expectorated. The gob of sputum landed at the border of the light and the gloom, as though the man intended for Omar Yussef to see it. He resisted the urge to scold the sentry for his vulgarity, as he would have one of his pupils at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency Girls School. The young thug, though obscured by the night, formed an outline clear as the sun to Omar Yussef, who knew that obscenities were this shadows trade. Omar Yussef gave his windblown hair a last hopeless stroke with a slightly shaky hand. Another regretful look at his shoes, and he stepped into the dark.
Where the road reached a small square, Omar Yussef stopped to catch his breath. Across the street was the Greek Orthodox Club. Windows pierced the deep stone walls, tall and mullioned, capped with an arch and carved around with concentric rings receding into the thickness of the wall, just high enough to be impossible to look through, as though the building should double as a fortress. The arch above the door was filled with a tympanum stone. Inside, the restaurant was silent and dim. The scattered wall-lamps diffused their egg-yolk radiance into the high vaults of the ceiling and washed the red checkered tablecloths in a pale honey yellow. There was only one diner, at a corner table below an old portrait of the villages long-dead dignitaries wearing their fezes and staring with the empty eyes of early photography. Omar Yussef nodded to the listless waiterwho half rose from his seatgesturing that he should stay where he was, and headed to the table occupied by George Saba.
Did you have any trouble with the Martyrs Brigades sentries on the way up here, Abu Ramiz? Saba asked. He used the unique mixture of respect and familiarity connoted by calling a man Abufather ofand joining it to the name of his eldest son.
Just one bastard who nearly spat on my shoe, said Omar Yussef. He smiled, grimly. But no one played the big hero with me tonight. In fact, there didnt seem to be many of them around.
Thats bad. It means they expect trouble. George laughed. You know that those great fighters for the freedom of the Palestinian people are always the first to get out of here when the Israelis come.
George Saba was in his mid-thirties. He was as big, unkempt and clumsy as Omar Yussef was small, neat and precise. His thick hair was striped white around the temples and it sprayed above his strong, broad brow like the crest of a stormy wave crashing against a rock. It was cold in the restaurant and he wore a thick plaid shirt and an old blue anorak with its zipper pulled down to his full belly. Omar Yussef took pride in this former pupil, one of the first he had ever taught. Not because George was particularly successful in life, but rather for his honesty and his choice of a career that utilized what he had learned in Omar Yussefs history class: George Saba dealt in antiques. He bought the detritus of a better time, as he saw it, and coaxed Arab and Persian wood back to its original warm gleam, replaced the missing tesserae in Syrian mother-of-pearl designs, and sold them mostly to Israelis passing his shop near the bypass road to the settlements.
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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