A loss of trust

New novel by former 'Time' magazine J'lem bureau chief reveals complex divisions in Palestinian society.

pal rioting 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
pal rioting 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Omar Yussef, a balding 56-year-old grandfather, non-practicing Muslim and teacher of history at the UN-run Girls School in Dehaishe refugee camp, was squabbling over a dinner bill with his friend and former pupil, George Saba, when gunshots rang out nearby. The two friends were seated in an empty restaurant not far from George's home in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala. They hadn't seen each other in some time, for George, like many of Bethlehem's Christians, had left and moved to Chile, home to the largest Palestinian community outside the Arab world. Unlike most Palestinian emigres, George had recently returned. But the Bethlehem he came back to was one in which he was now even less welcome, one in which dinners between old Muslim and Christian friends had become rare. Moments before the gunshots, George and Yussef had been sipping tea and sharing baklava. George had told his old teacher how his home had been the target of Israeli fire when local men from the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade had used his rooftop to shoot across the valley at the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo. George had vowed that he would not let them do it again. Now, as the bursts of gunfire continued, George and Yussef went to the restaurant's door. "Jesus," George said, "I think they might be on my roof again." Before Yussef could stop him, George was off. The next time they saw each other, some days later, it was in a damp, rank jail cell. Yussef was visiting and George was incarcerated, arrested for collaborating with Israel and accused of facilitating the recent murder of a Martyrs Brigade fighter. George was facing imminent execution. Yussef was determined to spend the next days and nights doing all in his power to exonerate his friend. He would confront Bethlehem's corrupt authorities and all-powerful gunmen. He would search for the identity of the real collaborator. A TOP-STORY apartment in a tall building in the Givat Oranim neighborhood of Jerusalem, just a short drive from Dehaishe, is where Yussef's creator lives. British-born and Oxford educated, a journalist for over 15 years (most recently the Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine), Matt Beynon Rees is the proud father of a first novel, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, the first in a series of Omar Yussef mysteries. In an airy study overlooking Rehov Shai Agnon, Rees sits on a beanbag across from a framed cover of his first book, Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East, and paraphrases the words written in his novel's prologue: "All the crimes in this book are based on real events in Bethlehem. Though identities and some circumstances have been changed, the killers really killed this way, and those who died are dead just the same." One of those real events in Bethlehem, Rees says, "was a man who was dragged into the street and shot as a collaborator. Sometime later, I went to the head of Fatah in Dehaishe and he said, 'No, he wasn't a collaborator. He just was a powerless guy.' There was a collaborator who had been involved in an assassination. The government didn't know who the collaborator was, and they wanted to kill someone to put off other collaborators. So they killed this guy." Though Rees's criticisms are harsh, he can hardly contain his love of Palestinian society. Blue-eyed and fair skinned, he speaks unabashedly of feeling "incredibly alive" when he first stepped foot in the West Bank, "like a 19th-century Victorian who came to the source of the Nile." The idea for the novel came to Rees when he was in Irtas, just south of Bethlehem, in 2003. He was covering the murder of a man from Fatah who had been shot in a cabbage patch while sneaking home for Iftar, the evening meal with which Muslims break their Ramadan fast. "I was standing in the cabbage patch with the guy's wife and mother and they were talking to me in a very emotional, very eloquent, very forthright way," recalls Rees, who once worked at The Jerusalem Post. "And I remember standing there thinking, 'this is great. I'm really learning something about Palestinians and how they respond to an extreme situation. What's not so great is that I know it's going to be one paragraph of color at the top of my story in Time. Then I'll have to have a paragraph that says that the Palestinians say this, to be sure the Israelis say that, and the State Department says let's be nice. And it's worth more than a paragraph, what I've learned here.'" The event provided the basis for the first murder in the novel. Rees says he wrote the mystery because he wanted to get at the interior life of the Palestinians. "Journalism is limited by its formulas, it's limited by its pretense to objectivity," he says. "And what it doesn't get at is what happens inside a Palestinian's head. That emotional core, that core of the Palestinians' thinking, is missing." It is for that reason Rees believes many readers are not interested in the journalism that's written about the Palestinians. "I think it's fair to say that most foreign correspondents are political scientists manque. That's what their focus is. My focus I would say is anthropological or sociological. And what that means essentially is that I'm interested not so much in systems but in people." Nevertheless, Rees's novel contains valuable political insights; How the vacuum created by an inept and corrupt government has been filled by rival militias; how the resistance against Israel is used to justify extortion and thuggery by local gangs; how clan loyalties often supersede political ones; how the existence of collaborators is exploited to settle personal scores; how redemption of lost honor can motivate suicide bombers; how religious groups like Hamas are often perceived as less corrupt than secular ones like Fatah; how the militants in the younger generation look upon their elders with contempt; how minorities are the first to be persecuted; how clan-size is of paramount importance to one's survival. But above all, the book is a lament for the loss of brotherhood and of trust, not just between Muslims and Christians, but among all Palestinians. In Bethlehem, the distrust is palpable. "When I go to Bethlehem, I know a lot of different people," Rees explains. "But they don't all know who else I know. So, for example, if I ask Mr. X 'What do you think of Mr. Y,' who also actually happens to be a friend of mine, he'll probably say, 'I think he's a collaborator.' Or, 'He's too close to the Authority.' Or, 'He's Hamas. He's not to be trusted.' And if ask Mr. Y about Mr. X, he'll say exactly the same thing. So the murky situation in which they live has led to a real breakdown in trust between people, which is for me one of the saddest things about the effects of the intifada. And one of the effects of the Israeli system of collaborators as well, which is that if you have 10 collaborators in a village, the people in the village will probably think there's a hundred." Rees believes another major cause of the loss of trust is the cynical exploitation by local militia leaders of the fight against Israel. "Some of those people who are now running groups of gunmen began as nationalists," he says. Certainly many of them were prepared to sacrifice their lives, and did. And continue to do so. But essentially when things broke down, the gunmen were the people who were in a position to take control. And they were receiving money from [former Palestinian Authority president Yasser] Arafat, not on the basis that they would just be loyal to him but on the basis that they would maintain control, by whatever rough means necessary, over their refugee camp, or over their town. One way to gain credibility is to occasionally kill an Israeli. If you kill an Israeli and then you extort a businessman, the businessman can't say you're a criminal, because you turn around and say 'I killed an Israeli last week. I'm the resistance. You don't support the resistance? You're a collaborator.' And therefore the fight against Israel became bound up with criminal extortion." REES'S FOCUS, from the moment he arrived here as a journalist, has been the internal conflicts within Israeli and Palestinian societies, and not what he calls the "diplomatic nonsense" between them. His approach garnered widespread attention when he wrote a 1997 Newsweek cover story entitled "Mafia State," a pioneering expose of the Palestinian Authority's corruption. Arafat's government, Rees says, was set up to fail, "because the leaders who came from Tunis, with Arafat, got all the top jobs. They got all the ministries, they got all the heads of security services, they even got all the director-generals in the ministries. And the leaders inside who had led the first intifada got nothing," he says. "Marwan Barghouti said to me in 1997 - I was outside the Parliament building in Ramallah, and he said, 'If we [the inside leaders, from the first intifada] don't get some of the power, maybe we'll have another intifada.' And I remember writing it down in my notebook and saying to myself, 'Well, this is hot air. This is just an attempt to put pressure on Arafat.' "But what happened in 2000, when those inside leaders were at the end of their tether, the intifada started, and these guys took it by the scruff of its neck - Marwan Barghouti was the leader among them - leading people to the barricades, to the checkpoints, going to the funerals, getting people stirred up and sending them off to the checkpoints again, because he knew that if they destroyed the whole Oslo edifice, those outside leaders [from Tunis] would have no power anymore and Arafat would have to turn to him and the inside leadership." That inside leadership, Rees says, "then became local gang leaders. And while they were getting money from Arafat, they also wanted to get money from parts of society that couldn't resist them. In Bethlehem, that's the Christians. But it's different groups in other places. Whomever you can exploit." A virtue of the novel is that unlike much journalism, blame for injustice and corruption is not placed almost entirely on the uppermost echelons of society. "That's because the experience of a Palestinian, an ordinary Palestinian like Omar Yussef, is not to turn on the news and see what Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] says and think, 'Hmm, what does that mean for me?' It's to walk through the old souk of Bethlehem in safety or not. Or to go into his insurance office and not worry about gunmen coming in and shooting him in the leg unless he gives them money. Reality for Palestinians has become, to use the parlance of mystery fiction, very noir-ish." In the novel, Omar Yussef expresses similar cynicism about the Palestinian government, about the nobility of the resistance, about the motives of the local militias. Parents complain that in the classroom he criticizes the government, lambastes the Martyrs Brigade as gangsters, and condemns suicide bombings. The day after a demonstration, he tells his students that instead of throwing stones at soldiers, they should throw stones at their parents and their government for making a mess of their lives. Rees says that his protagonist's perspective is "fairly common" among Palestinians. But what would Rees say to one of his readers who wonders whether the gunmen could prosper if thinking like Yussef's was truly common? "I'd say, 'You live in a democracy where the police enforce the law,'" Rees says. "'And if the police stopped enforcing the law in New York or Chicago and you didn't have a way of voting out the politicians who are supposed to oversee the law enforcement, then Chicago and New York would pretty soon become Bethlehem and Nablus. And you have to ask yourself, would you then rush out to the streets and tell it like it is? Or would you try to get along and keep your head down?' And I think that's the situation for Palestinians, which is that they live in a very unpredictable, murky environment where there's no trust. An ordinary Palestinian can trust almost no one, and that shapes the way they behave." See UpFront for a review of The Collaborator of Bethlehem.