O Troubled Town of Bethlehem

The Collaborator of Bethlehemby By Matt BeynonReesSoho Crime. 264p $22
Last December, the Welsh journalist Matt Beynon Rees resigned as Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine, a position he had held for six years, and began writing crime fiction. Rees, who still contributes to the magazine, admits that a bit of a beef with an editor influenced the decision. But his real quarrel with journalism was about format. The mediums banal commitment to balance and editors reluctance to offend imposed a formula on his writing about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and he says he found himself submitting prescripted stories that revealed little.

It is sort of back-to-front to turn to fiction to make the news more real, Rees acknowledges. But the way the news makes people not so interested in these bloody conflicts is it turns them into political issues where really they are issues of humanity.

In this, his first novel, Rees uses the simple format of a detective mystery to investigate the complex realities of the Palestinian experience. Set in the Bethlehem of 2002, a city ensnared in the violence of the second intifada(Palestinian uprising), The Collaborator of Bethlehem tells the story of Omar Yussef, a Muslim schoolteacher turned amateur sleuth, who works to save the life of a former student, a Christian, accused of collaborating with the Israelis in the assassination of a Palestinian militant. There is something perversely optimistic in Yussefs pursuit of one particular murder during a time of so much killing. His probe takes him into the intimate spaces of his Bethlehem neighbors, where confessions are made and hopes and anguishes revealed.

Effectively suspenseful, The Collabo-rator, which was recently nominated for the 2007 Quill Award, is an impressive example of its genre. Yet there is more than a well-told murder mystery here. Through the popular medium of crime fiction, Rees makes real a people too often simplistically perceived as victims or perpetrators in a protracted conflict.

Simmering within the pressure cooker of the Israeli occupation and riddled with internal divisions, Bethlehem is an imploding city. Racketeering gunmen, posing as liberators, commit extortion on the locals. Clan allegiance has supplanted the rule of law; and Christians and Muslims, who once shared an intimate peace, now live more separately and a little more hatefully. Hovering over all are the Israelis, whose tanks and choppers kill swiftly and dispassionately.

Here in this city that breeds mistrust lives George Saba, a Palestinian Christian who has recently returned from Santiago, Chile, with his wife and two small children. He is arrested by the Palestinian autho-rities for collaborating in the assassination of Louai Abdel Rahman, a Palestinian resistance fighter who was shot by an Israeli sniper while sneaking home one night to his young wife, Dima. Certain of Georges innocence, Omar Yus-sef sets out to discover the real collaborator and thus exonerate one of his favorite students. In his quest, he navigates creepy confrontations with the head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, suspects his close friend Khamis Zheydan, a former P.L.O. militant and now Bethlehems al-coholic police chief, and faces off with an in-jured gunman hiding out in the Church of the Nativity.

The foppish, middle-aged Yus-sef is an improbable hero, reminiscent of some Graham Greene characters. Prone to outbursts followed by bouts of self-criticism, he frets about the spattered mud on his loafers and the appearance of a new liver spot on a hand that still shakes even though he gave up drinking 10 years ago. A teacher of history, he bemoans the violence that has made his students indifferent to death and their own futures. When you are gone from the world, what will you leave behind? he asks them. The question inspires Yussefs ornery courage and decency; the history teachers preoccupation with legacy is one of the books central themes. Unlike the despondent Zheydan, who has concluded life in occupied Bethlehem is a death sentence from which you try to get a temporary remission, Yussef still cares deeply for the citys future.

Be forewarned: the book is no cozy mystery of the Agatha Christie variety, in which crimes are genteel and infrequent. Many people die during the course of Yussefs investigations. The victims are shot, knifed, blown up, beaten and hanged, and crushed by a collapsing wall during a missile attack. All the killings are based on true events Rees reported. The Collaborator of Bethlehem evokes the corpses depicted in actual news accounts, becoming complex human beings not unlike ourselves. Even the suicide bombers, whose tactics repel us, are given motives we can understand. Usually they had something to prove, deduces Yussef. Sometimes they were mentally unbalanced after they had witnessed the death of someone close to them in an Israeli attack. But most of the bombers wanted to show everyone that they were not the person people believed them to be.

The irony of all this killing occurring in the city of Christs birth is not lost on Rees, who identifies himself as Christian. Some of the books darkest passages are Yussefs reflections on the Church of the Nativity, inspired by the sight of yet another corpse. Distraught with grief, he concludes that in this church, once warmed by the presence of the divine, theres no glowing spirit, no redemption. Implicit in the Muslim teachers observation is a question for those who believe in what the Gospels record. What is happening to this city where God once walked?

While the violence of the Israeli Defense Force in occupied Bethlehem is a given in Reess tale, it remains an unexamined given. His focus is on the internal divisions within Palestinian society, a subject he explored in an earlier work of nonfiction, Cains Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East. The divisions within Israeli and Palestinian societies have been more of an impediment to the peace process than most people realize, says Rees. He believes Oslo failed because Yitzhak Rabin could not persuade his own people. But Bethlehems woes seem inextricably linked to the overarching reality of occupation. Police corruption, the persecution of a minority, the emergence of local gunmen and collaborators and the descent into distrust: are not all of these the predictable fate of any community under lockdown and surrounded by guns? (Belfast 10 years ago? Present-day Iraq?)

Reess story humanizes our understanding of what life is like under the gun. Although his characters are obviously ensnared in a political conflict, he describes their dilemmas in personal terms. We realize that even in bleak Bethlehem, people remain marvelously complicated, endowed with particular affections, regrets, flaws and strengths.

The Collaborator of Bethlehem is the first installment in what will be an Omar Yussef mystery series. Rumor has it the independent-thinking detective will surface next in Gaza.

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