Published: Atlantic Books, 2006
ISBN: 9 781843 546030
First line: Omar Yussef, a teacher of history to the unhappy children of Dehaisha refugee camp, shuffled stiffly up the meandering road, past the gray, stone homes built in the time of the Turks on the edge of Beit Jala.
When a young member of the Palestinian resistance is shot dead near his home on the outskirts of Bethlehem, George Saba, a Christian, is arrested as the collaborator who led the Israelis to him. As a member of the minority Christian community, he is a convenient scapegoat, but Omar Yussef, his old teacher and friend, is convinced that George has been framed.
With George under threat of imminent execution, Omar takes leave from his teaching job to carry out his own investigation. His enquiries bring him up against the Martyrs Brigade, the resistance fighters who effectively run the town. To Omar, they are no more than a gang of corrupt and violent thugs. Everyone, including the police and legal system are powerless against them, and it seems Omar is the only one interested in the truth. As he moves closer to discovering that truth, he puts himself and his family in danger.
THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS is a fascinating book, as much for its insight into the effect of the ongoing conflict in Palestine on the lives of ordinary people, as it is for the mystery. Rees brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of a town in the middle of a battlezone, and a people living with daily violence, fear and uncertainty.
Rees has created a very different and exceptional hero in Omar Yussef. A middle-aged school teacher with a full set of human foibles, he is a man of great integrity, who ultimately cares more about the truth than his own safety. He hates what has happened to his town, and he mourns the time in the past when Christian and Muslim could live together in harmony.
There are some horrific and brutal scenes, made all the more so by Rees' note at the beginning of the book which states that all the crimes in the book were based on real events in Bethlehem. Omar Yussef 's quiet, cynical humour provides a few lighter moments in an otherwise rather bleak book. Rees is a wonderful storyteller and this beautifully written book brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. I look forward to reading more of Omar Yussef's adventures.
This book also goes by the title of THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM (USA).
Matt Rees is a journalist who has worked in the Middle East for more than 10 years. He has written two more books featuring Omar Yussef, THE SALADIN MURDERS (or A GRAVE IN GAZA in the USA - why do they do that?), and THE SAMARITAN'S SECRET (which rather surprisingly appears to have the same title on both sides of the pond). You can find more information at Matt Ree's website.
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