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The Collaborator of Bethlehem
By Matt Beynon Rees
264 pages; $22
If the closest you've ever come to reading a detective novel is a Kinky Friedman mystery, then fear not. For all that Matt Beynon Rees's The Collaborator of Bethlehem touts itself as a sleuth's tale, the book's best feature is its stunning portrayal of life on the other side of the security fence. Politics aside, there is an aspect to the novel that ought to appeal to any Israeli, Palestinian or other person with an interest in the sociological side of the conflict. This is the first work of fiction by Rees, and is also the first in the series of Omar Yussef Mysteries, which has been sold to publishers around the world.
The story centers around Omar Yussef, a teacher in a UN school who is also something of a dissident, and his quest to save a former pupil - George Saba - from trumped-up charges of collaboration with the Israelis. Rees, a former Jerusalem Post copy editor and the Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine between 2000 and 2006, is probably guilty of sentimental bias when it comes to Saba's innocence. Saba is a Christian, and his plight is portrayed as symbolic of the perceived suffering of Christian Palestinians ever since the rise of Islamism in Palestinian society.
Through the voice of Yussef, Rees expresses sadness and regret at the status quo of the Christian populace: "He rarely came to the church now. The Christians had been driven almost underground. They went to Chile... or hid themselves behind the fortress walls of the church... It seemed appropriate that the church where Christianity was born should be shrouded in 5 a.m. darkness, cold and barren, as he found it now." It is left to the reader to interpret the author's evident discomfort at the turn of events that led to this situation.
The book implicitly calls to account everyone from the recently elected Hamas government to the lawless militias controlling the towns and cities.
However, the political thrust does not detract in any way from what is an eye-opening, breathtaking foray into life in Bethlehem. The story incorporates the violence and aggression that dominates day-to-day affairs, and conjures up the hopelessness and helplessness of decent, upstanding Palestinians when faced with the thuggish gunmen who rule the towns with an iron fist. The book's bad guys all come from the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, but could just as easily be Hamas or Fatah gunmen. The Palestinian Authority police and judiciary are shown to be severely weakened by their power, and Rees expertly paints a picture of a society in free fall.
"The calmness Omar Yussef had sensed in himself... was overwhelmed by his anger at the gunmen. Here was a boy who had worked hard at the Freres School and become a professional... The curfews and gunfights had destroyed his career, murdered his father and made his mother suicidal. This was his reward for his goodness. Yet the gunmen thrived... they who would have been obliterated had there been law and order and honor in the town."
The futility of taking a stand against the pandemic of corruption and violence is dealt with several times: "There would be no point defending his friend before these people. It disgusted him that there were... so many who would gladly see a man condemned to death, for it was not an acquittal that the crowd had come to witness. He felt saddened that his town was so beaten down and full of hate that its highest pleasure would be the punishment of [a suspected collaborator]."
The story twists and turns throughout the book, and Yussef is portrayed as an almost biblical figure, whose lusting after another man's wife detracts from the image of an otherwise fine and moral individual with a keen sense of right and wrong. The author's political leanings do sporadically bubble to the surface, but it would be asking too much to expect any different.
That said, comments on both the Israeli government and IDF are conspicuous by their absence. It is almost as though the author expects the reader to take the occupying powers as a given, and instead he chooses to focus on the cause of social decay on the Palestinian side of the fence.
The villains of the tale are depicted as monstrous, and rightly so. Throwaway descriptions are expertly employed, such as "Jihad Awdeh nodded and breathed smoke from his nostrils" - encouraging the reader to see him as dragonlike, and reinforcing the inhuman image that has been built up of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades leader throughout the book.
What is most powerful about the novel is its unique spotlight onto a society that many of us live alongside, yet know next to nothing about. By utilizing the model of a detective story, Rees actually takes the reader into the bedrooms, courtrooms and alleyways of ordinary Palestinians - and succeeds in greatly enriching the outsider's understanding of what life under such strain must really be like.