Set in Bethlehem in the early 2000s, Matt
Beynon Rees's first novel depicts a city under siege by the
Israelis and torn from within by gun-wielding gangs that extort
money from businesses and control local politics. Set against
the backdrop of real events and inspired by real people, the
story hinges on Omar Yussef, a 56-year old Palestinian teacher
from a well respected but not particularly wealthy or
influential clan. Yussef is an honorable man who questions the
way society is deteriorating around him and maintains his
intelligence and decency even when others around him descend
Yussef used to teach history at an international school but now teaches at the U.N. girls school in the squalid Dheisheh refugee camp. Long ago, he dreamed of leaving a legacy behind him in the form of the young minds he has had a hand in molding, but daily he becomes more disillusioned as he encounters the anger and resentment of a new generation of children. Despite having reason to be resentful, Yussef does not harbor resentment. He is also quite happy minding his own business and staying out of local politics, until a close Christian friend and former pupil is framed by powerful and well connected local thugs who accuse him of collaborating with the Israelis. Shortly after, when a beloved former student is murdered, Yussef finds himself compelled to confront the dark forces at work in the city he calls home, even at great risk to his family.
Patently unsuited to be a gumshoe and fully realizing that the efforts of one old man are likely futile ("What an old fool you are, scrambling about in a battle zone in your nice shoes") he perseveres; and the plot unfolds with the tragic inevitability of the real world.
The Collaborator of Bethlehem (UK title: The Bethlehem Murders) is an exceptionally powerful and highly readable mystery that opens a window into the soul-destroying conditions experienced by people living on the West Bank. Omar Yussef is a welcome addition to the world of fictional detectives - and we'll be hearing from him again very soon because Rees plans seven books about Omar that will explore the full scope of how Palestinians live today. A Grave in Gaza will be published in the USA in February 2008 (and in the UK as The Saladin Murders); a third book, set in Nablus, is in the works.
Welsh-born Journalist and author
Matt Beynon Rees has covered the Middle East for over a
decade from his home in Jerusalem, following six years as a
financial journalist in New York. The Collaborator of
Bethlehem is his first novel following Cain's Field:
Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East (2004).
Rees arrived in Jerusalem at a time of relative peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and was therefore able to focus his reporting on the internal conflicts within the two societies. He points out that, "Dissatisfaction with the way their society is run is very much how ordinary Palestinians feel. They don't always express it to foreign correspondents, because they're eager to vent their frustrations about Israel and the journalists are usually keener to hear that (because their stories are usually about Israel versus the Palestinians, rather than looking at what goes on within the society)."
By turning to fiction Rees counters this simplistic journalistic approach by effectively excluding Israel from his novel. Obviously the Israelis are a presence but they are peripheral to the main story which focuses on the internal conflicts within Palestinian society. Rees's style of writing, reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, lends itself well to exploring Palestinian society, which is in dire need of a decent, honorable man to put things right. Secondly, as Rees puts it, "the form lends itself to the very nuanced way in which Palestinian gunmen and corrupt politicians work: it takes a lot of knowledge about the place to know who's lying or who's really a killer."
Rees turned to fiction after despairing of finding a compelling way to express the true-life stories he had covered as a journalist. He says, "I see [the Palestinians] as being ambivalent characters. What they do is often bad, but I see where their motivations come from. It was very hard to get that into journalism." His solution was to quit his job as Time magazine's bureau chief in Jerusalem and turn his hand to fiction, which allows him to depict the everyday life of Palestinians and explore the gray areas that are often difficult to convey in nonfiction.
A note on the sidebar: All information at BookBrowse is presented with the intent of being both factually correct, unbiased and brief! However, sometimes achieving all three objectives is difficult - a quick glance around the web or at the bookshelves in store will show you that there is no such thing as a "brief" history of the area historically known as Palestine, and events are always open to interpretation. Sources consulted include: United Nations, BBC.co.uk, PalestineHistory & MidEastWeb.
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This review was originally published in April 2007, and has been updated for the January 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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