Man vs. Militia
Monday, January 29, 2007
THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM
An Omar Yussef Mystery
By Matt Beynon Rees
Soho. 264 pp. $22
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.