From 2007 to 2010, Welsh author Matt Rees published the four novels of the Palestine Quartet. The first, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, introduces schoolteacher and would-be detective Omar Yussef. It was an outstanding debut for the series that followed—an unconventional but entirely convincing picture of the Palestinian Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000-5). Drawing on his many years as a working journalist in Israel and Palestine, Rees dug beneath the surface of the headline-grabbing events to dramatize the real-life consequences for the hapless and often unsuspecting Palestinian people in thrall to the violence of their leaders.
A murder in Palestine involves both the Israelis and the PLO
Rees’s tarnished hero, Omar Yussef Sirhan, is a reformed alcoholic who teaches history at a UNRWA school in the Dehaisha refugee camp adjoining the historic town of Bethlehem. Omar Yussef is an angry man, at odds with the “corrupt scum who ran the government” and the people of the camp who blindly follow them. He deplores “the hopeless rigidity of his people’s politics.” An Arab nationalist, he is no less angry at the Israelis. Their soldiers have killed a great many innocent people in reacting to attacks by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which controls both the camp and the town.
The Collaborator of Bethlehem (Omar Yussef #1) by Matt Rees (2007) 273 pages ★★★★★
Then Omar Yussef’s former star pupil and now good friend is murdered by an Israeli sniper—after a collaborator among the “martyrs” sets him up. Enraged, Omar Yussef sets out on a crusade to prove that the collaborator was, in fact, the head of the Brigade. His investigation sets off a sequence of events that threaten the stability of his family and neighbors and seems bound to end his life.
A sobering reminder of the complexities of life in Palestine
In exploring the origins and consequences of what might otherwise be thought an unremarkable murder in Palestine, Rees offers a balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It wasn’t wrong to see the Arabs as victims of a harsh history,” Omar Yussef thinks, “but it was a mistake to assume that they bore no responsibility for their own sufferings.” His portrait of Police Brigadier Khamis Zeydan, Bethlehem’s police chief, “a bitter, melancholy, apathetic drunk,” is a sobering reminder of how complex the history of this little corner of the planet has been.
Who is a terrorist? Who is terrorized?
“‘I may be a police officer now,'” Zeydan remarks to Omar Yussef, his best friend, “‘but I was, for many years, what the world chooses to call a terrorist.'” And Omar Yussef responds, “‘You were all terrorists, you and your PLO buddies in exile. Now what? Now you are terrorized. By people like [the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade].'” Later, Omar Yussef muses, “Perhaps Bethlehem was their town, after all, and it was Omar Yussef who was the outlaw interloper here, peddling contraband decency and running a clandestine trade in morality.” It’s reflections like this that vault what might otherwise have been a simple mystery story about a murder in Palestine into the realm of serious literature.
About the author
The award-winning Welsh author Matt Rees has published nine novels, including historical fiction, mysteries, and thrillers, as well as a nonfiction book that reflects his extensive experience in the Middle East. According to the bio on his website, Rees was for many years the Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman and Newsweek. “During the Palestinian intifada he was Time’s Jerusalem bureau chief. Yasser Arafat once tried to have him arrested.” The four Omar Yussef novels won the coveted John Creasey Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association.
For related reading
You’ll find my review of the second novel in the Palestine Quartet here, too. It’s A Grave in Gaza (Murder in the shadow of the Palestinian Intifada). I’ve also reviewed Murder Under the Bridge (Palestine Mystery #1) by Kate Jessica Raphael. My review is posted at In a Palestinian mystery, a young female cop confronts Israeli corruption. And I also reviewed The Ambassador by Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees (An alternate history of Israel and World War II).
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