Omar Yussef Sirhan, Palestine’s cantankerous but lovable detective, is back, determined as ever to investigate and rectify the injustices he encounters. The star of Matt Beynon Rees’s mystery series first appeared in Bethlehem, where he reckoned with Palestinian gunmen ruling the streets of his beloved hometown. Now the foppish, middle-aged, former history teacher is in the Gaza Strip, unraveling a network of criminality that extends from the arms-smuggling tunnels of the Rafah refugee camp to the gaudy mansions of corrupt government officials in Gaza City.
A veteran journalist and former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time, Rees recently left full-time reporting for what he considers the more revealing genre of mystery fiction, compelled by a desire to report deeper truths. The Collaborator of Bethlehem, the first book in his mystery series, received rave reviews for its intimate and vivid portrait of Palestinian life and was nominated for the 2007 Quill Award. Rees’s second mystery is equally striking. Inaccessible Gaza, often dismissed as a desperate trap of poverty and violence, comes to life in this head-spinning tale of intrigue and deception.
After his former boss is killed by a bomb, Omar Yussef becomes the principal of a U.N. school in Bethlehem, where he teaches. He and Magnus Wallender, a Swede working for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, go to Gaza to inspect its U.N. schools. Upon arrival, they discover that Preventive Security, the Palestinian secret police, have arrested Eyad Masharawi, an education professor at al-Azhar University and part-time teacher at a U.N. school, and accused him of collaborating with the C.I.A. His wife, Salwa, is convinced her husband is in jail for publicly criticizing the university’s sale of degrees to members of Preventive Security.
With the help of James Cree, a U.N. security officer, Omar Yussef and Wallender set out to procure Masharawi’s release. But their mission is quickly derailed. The Saladin Brigade, Gaza’s most powerful gang, kidnaps Wallender. After a U.N. vehicle is bombed, the agency pulls its foreign staff from Gaza, leaving Omar Yussef alone to obtain the release of his colleagues.
Gaza, sealed off from the rest of the world, is a place of intricate lawlessness, at war with itself. Military Intelligence and Pre-ventive Security, the government’s main security forces, are vying for power and will use any means necessary—like torture, extrajudicial executions—to prove they control the anarchic Palestinian territory. Complicating their deadly rivalry is the factionalized, arms-smuggling Saladin Brigade. They too want to be players in Gaza’s paltry power game. Against the advice of his old friend Khamis Zeydan, Bethlehem’s alcoholic police chief and a former P.L.O. militant, Omar Yussef navigates and manipulates these hazardous divisions to untangle eventually the links between Eyad’s imprisonment, Wallender’s abduction, a stolen missile and a desecrated grave.
A Grave in Gaza is not a tale of tidy parlor-room murders. Killings are numerous and gruesome, based on real events in the Gaza Strip. The kidnapping of the BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was captured in Gaza last spring amid the Fatah/Hamas civil war, inspired Wallender’s abduction. Omar Yussef’s task is to encounter “this dirty world and retain his decency, even his life.” In Gaza, the “dirt” is literally everywhere (a sandstorm rages throughout his investigation). It is in the crowded refugee camp, where the toxic combination of poverty and violence has convinced the young that death is a relief, and in the cruel pragmatism of government officials who argue that respect for law and human rights will come after the “wicked occupation” has ended. Amid this cynicism and despair, Omar Yussef retains his humanity and rejects Palestinian victimhood as a justification for the territory’s lawlessness.
Rees has been likened to the American mystery writer Dashiel Hammitt. The comparison pleases the Welsh-born author, who hopes to do for the Palestinian Territories what Ham-mitt did for San Francisco—make it a place that interests us. Gaza clearly matters to Omar Yussef, who realizes that this strip of land—rather than Bethlehem—represents “the desperate reality of the Palestinian people.” With him we choke on Gaza’s dust, savor the scent of its foule and listen to the confessions of men who behave criminally for reasons we can understand. “I’m not a monster, Abu Ramiz. I’m a politician,” confides the president of al-Azhar University, whose deadly double dealings are motivated by both greed and a desire to preserve the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks.
Years of interviewing Palestinians has enriched Rees’s story with authentic and luminous dialogue. As in any good detective tale, confessions abound, but more than the particulars of a crime are revealed. To the fiercely honest Omar Yussef, Gazans confide their fear of death, their frustrations with the present and their doubts about self-governance. This Palestinian commentary, notably missing in American mainstream coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, elevates Rees’s story from entertaining thriller to significant literature.
But Gaza is no San Francisco, a city allowed to flourish or fail on its own merits. A “zoo,” a “concentration camp in the desert,” is how some Palestinians describe the 360-square kilometer Strip that Israel has kept hermetically sealed since Hamas seized power in June 2007. During the past year this “zoo” has endured a U.S.-fomented civil war (see David Rose’s exposé in Vanity Fair, April 2008), dire power and water shortages, and a recent Israeli invasion—launched in retaliation for months of Hamas rocket fire—that killed 106 Palestinians in a week. Half the victims were noncombatants.
Amid these spectacular violations of human rights, Omar Yussef’s investigation of Palestinian criminality seems poignantly noble and myopic. He is like the prisoner who insists his fellow inmates sweep their cells and wash their hands before receiving starvation rations. While such hygiene is vital, justice, in the case of Gaza, would be better served if the prison were dismantled.