The murder of a leader of the Palestinian Martyrs Brigade leads to the arrest of George Saba, a Palestinian Christian accused of collaborating with the Israelis. Omar Yussef, a modest history teacher at a United Nations school in the West Bank, is impelled to investigate the murder to exonerate his former pupil, who he knows is innocent. As he struggles to save George, Omar Yussef is drawn into a complex plot where it is impossible to tell friend from enemy.
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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 shadow’s 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 village’s long- dead dignitaries wearing their fezes and staring with the empty eyes of early photography. Omar Yussef nodded to the listless waiter—who half rose from his seat— gesturing 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 Abu—father of—and 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 didn’t seem to be many of them around.” “That’s 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 Yussef ’s 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.
“I was reading a little today in that lovely old Bible you gave me, Abu Ramiz,” George Saba said.
“Ah, it’s 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 Frcres 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 Yussef’s 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 Yussef ’s 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 Jerusaalem 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 SSSSSaba, Muslims and Christians lived more separately, and a little hatefully.
Now, it was even worse.
“It’s 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, let’s say, Baghdad instead of Bethlehem, life would be much brighter here,” Saba said. “It’s 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 George’s 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 country’s 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 Dad’s wedding dresses. The rentals in the living room and those for sale in his bedroom, all wrapped in plastic,” George Saba said. “But now they’re almost crowded out by my antique sideboards from Syria and elaborate old mirrors that don’t seem to sell.” “Mirrors? Are you surprised that no one should be able to look themselves in the eye these days?” Omar Yussef sat forward in his chair and gave his choking, cynical laugh. “They lead us further into corruption and violence every day, and no one can do anything about it. The town is run by a shitty tribe of uneducated bastards who’ve got the police scared of them.” George Saba spoke quietly. “You know, I’ve been thinking about that. The Martyrs Brigades, they come up here and shoot across the valley at Gilo, and the Israelis fire back and then come in with their tanks. My house has been hit a few times, when the bastards did their shooting from my roof and drew the Israeli fire. I found a bullet in my kitchen wall that came in the salon window, went through a thick wooden door and traveled down a hallway, before it made a big hole in my refrigerator.” He looked down and Omar Yussef saw his jaw stiffen. “I won’t let them do it again.” “Be careful, George.” Omar Yussef put his hand on the knuckles of George Saba’s thick fingers. “I can say what I feel about the Martyrs Brigades, because I have a big clan here. They wouldn’t threaten me, unless they were prepared to face the anger of half of Dehaisha. But you, George, you’re a Christian.You don’t have the same protection.” “Maybe I’ve lived too long away from here to accept things.” He glanced up at Omar Yussef. There was a raw intensity in his blue eyes. “Perhaps I just can’t forget what you taught me about living a principled life.” Omar Yussef was silent. He finished his coffee.
“You know who else has returned to Bethlehem from our old crowd?” George Saba’s voice sounded tight, straining to lighten the tone of the conversation. “Elias Bishara.” “Really?” Omar Yussef smiled.
“You haven’t seen him yet? Well, he’s only been back a week. I’m sure he’ll stop by your house once he’s settled in.”
New York Times
All it takes is one good man — a detective, of course — to humanize events that confound understanding. In THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM, an astonishing first novel by Matt Beynon Rees, the former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine, that honorable man is Omar Yussef, a middle-aged history teacher at a United Nations-run school for Palestinian children outside Bethlehem. When a Christian friend is unjustly accused of collaborating in the Israeli assassination of a local resistance fighter, this mild-mannered schoolteacher finds the courage to stand up to a milita outfit, the Martyrs Brigades, while conducting his own clandestine search for the real killer. Setting a mystery in the epicenter of a war zone challenges the genre conventions, but it doesn't change the rules. In fact, it clarifies the role of the detective as the voice of reason, crying to be heard above the cacophony of gun-barrel politics. Watching friends die and neighbors turn on one another, Omar Yussef decides that "it's time for me to scream." In a world where civilization has broken down into "ignorant, simple-minded, violent politics," this decent man commits the ultimate act of heroism — keeping an open mind.
The Washington Post
The journalist Matt Beynon Rees begins his first novel by introducing us to two Palestinian friends, Omar Yussef and George Saba, as they talk in their West Bank village near Bethlehem. Yussef is 56 and teaches hisory in a refugee camp sponsored by the United Nations. Saba, Yussef's former student, is an antiques dealer in his mid-30s. Neither man has much use for religion or for the so-called Martyrs Brigade, a militia that controls their village. Of religion, Saba comments, "God knows, if there were no Bible and no Koran, how much happier would our troubled little town be?" Of the Martyrs Brigade, Yussef declares: "They lead us further into corruption and violence every day, and no one can do anything about it. This town is run by a [expletive] tribe of uneducated bastards who've got the police scared of them."
Their talk is interrupted by gunfire. The brigade is exchanging shots with Israelis troops just across the valley. Worse, they are firing from the roof of Saba's home. The scene ends with him racing into the night to protect his family.
Rees has little use for the Palestinian bombers and gunmen, and his impression of them only grows darker as the novel progresses. He paints them as trigger-happy teenagers armed with automatic weapons and led by psychopaths who are more interested in extorting money from businessmen than in confronting the Israelis. Throughout the novel, the Israelis are a not-too-distant presence -- their helicopters fly over, their tanks rumble by -- but the real conflict is between the decent Palestinians, embodied by Yussef and Saba, and the gangsters with guns, who are said to have ties to the Palestinian Authority. The Wales-born, Oxford-educated Rees has grounds for his views: He has covered the Middle East for a decade, most recently as Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine, and in 2004 he published a nonfiction book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
After a young member of the militia is assassinated, Saba is accused of leading an Israeli hit team to him. Yussef sets out to prove his friend's innocence and soon comes into conflict with leaders of the Martyrs Brigade who carried out the crime and blamed Saba, who is a Christian and therefore an outsider.
Quite a few people die in this novel -- I lost count after six or so -- but it is primarily a portrait of Yussef, a good man, idealistic and naive, living in a society that frustrates him at every turn. He was a child when the Israeli army drove his family and many others from their village, and they settled in a camp near Bethlehem. They are part of the large and influential Sirhan clan, but by the time these events unfold, Yussef can no longer count on his relatives to protect him from the Martyrs Brigade.
Yussef is one of those teachers who dream of leaving behind a legacy in the young minds they have molded, the high ideals they have imparted to the next generation. But he is growing disillusioned: "No matter how he tried to liberate the minds of [his students], there were always many others working still more diligently to enslave them." He is a truth-seeker who fears that his quest for the truth could destroy himself and his family. He sees himself as being "as close to pure as it seemed to him a man in control of his senses might be."
His frustrations are reflected in an exchange with a cynical lawyer who won't help Saba and insists: "It's the same everywhere in Palestine. It's too big to fight."
Yussef replies, "Then we all have the same problem. It should unite us. We have a common cause, all Palestinians against these gunmen."
The lawyer says, "It's only in the most superficial way that we Palestinians manage to be united even against the Israelis. Do you think we're capable of unity at all?"
Rees tells this grim story with skill, specificity and richly detailed descriptions of people and places. Here, for example, is the terrified judge who presides over Saba's sham trial: "He was a portly man with skin the color and softness of coffee cake and gray hair that puffed high and back like a French crooner. His mouth was set and angry, but his eyes shifted with fear."
"The Collaborator of Bethlehem" is readable and literate, and offers a vivid portrait of Palestinian life today. If the novel has a fault, it is inherent in its premise: that as mild-mannered a man as Yussef could challenge violent gunmen in a lawless society and stay alive. It takes a miracle or two to keep him alive in this novel and, as it ends, he is planning to change his profession from teacher to detective -- and the author is planning a series. May the miracles continue; Yussef will need them.
Rees gives three-dimensional life to all his characters, from would-be terrorists to the Western officials running the UN school to Omar's family. His wife, Maryam, is an especially intriguing figure: clearly rooted in tradition as a wife and mother but also an enigma to the reader and to Omar. Giving voice to the gender divide, Omar understands that a man's feelings for his wife are very complex, but "it's a shame our women can't acknowledge that their relationships to their men are not so simple, either. It would be a better thing." Such observations add a welcome layer to an already standout effort made so by Rees' ability to flesh out core truths and stick to them where other, less assured writers may have been tempted by trickery or more grandiose aims. "The Collaborator of Bethlehem" may not seem like a life-changing novel, but its quiet voice masks deceptively larger themes which, from the vantage point of Omar Yussef, make the wait that much more impatient for future volumes.
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