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The Collaborator of Bethlehem: An Omar Yussef Mystery (Omar Yussef Mysteries) Paperback – International Edition, January 9, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This powerful first novel from British journalist Rees humanizes the struggle of the West Bank, where Omar Yussef, a modest 56-year-old schoolteacher in the Dehaisha Palestinian refugee camp, becomes an unlikely detective amid the uncertainties and violence of modern Bethlehem. Israeli gunfire peppers the area, the Muslims mistrust the minority Christian population, and the Martyrs Brigade instills terror in virtually every group. Yussef once taught in a Christian school and developed strong bonds with several of his students, among them George Saba, now a restorer of antiques. When Israeli snipers kill a member of the Palestinian resistance, the authorities accuse Saba of collaborating and throw him in jail for the crime. Yussef finds evidence that Hussein Tamari, the leader of the Martyrs Brigade, orchestrated the situation, but even the police chief, an old friend, seems unwilling to help Yussef save Saba. The characters and the setting are so richly textured and the politicized events so wrenching that the mystery story becomes incidental. Though the story's conclusion offers a gratifying payoff, for many readers the real reward will be a more immediate sense of a distant and bewildering conflict. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* Omar Yussef is a schoolteacher in Bethlehem, struggling to teach history unfettered by politics. When a PLO soldier is murdered, and a Palestinian Christian is arrested for the crime (and accused of being a collaborator with the Israelis), Yussef launches his own investigation, convinced that the accused, a former student, is innocent. Yussef knows he is not a brave man ("What an old fool you are, scrambling about in a battle zone in your nice shoes"), but his determination to stand up for his friend outweighs the futility of his quest, even if it means jeopardizing his family. The premise of this gripping first novel by Time magazine's former Jerusalem bureau chief evokes that sense of mean-streets honor that drives so much crime fiction, but there is no sentimentality lurking beneath Rees' complex, uncompromising tale of a good man trapped in an untenable world. The plot unfolds with a tragic inevitability, but along the way, Rees captures the human spark of daily lives being led in totally polarized, soul-deadening conditions. Ideologically driven absurdity blocks Yussef's way from every direction, but he plods on in his nice shoes, determined to throw "the filth out of his own home with hopelessly insufficient tools." With the recent death of Israeli novelist Batya Gur, there is a very large gap to be filled in the crime fiction of the Middle East, and Rees seems poised to fill it. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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This book is very well written; Rees sets the scenes very vividly and his characterizations are well done. He presents the corruption of the Palestinian officials and their underlings and thugs in an accurate fashion and depicts the demoralization of the people because of this. I found the book to be depressing because of the hopelessness of the local political situation with the result that even though it was a good read, I don't think I'll be reading any of the sequels.
Omar Yussef, a free-thinking Palestinian school teacher abhors all that has happened to his very oppressed people, but refuses to give up on hope for the future, and surprisingly, refuses to blame the Israelis for all Palestinian problems. Through his protagonist, the author also expounds convincingly on how the Israelis have condemned themselves to an unending conflict with their neighbors by continuously working to destabilize Palestinian community and family life which inevitably produces more violence directed against the Israelis themselves.
On top of everything else, "The Collaborator of Bethlehem" is a genuinely good police mystery that holds the reader's attention from page one. This is a very intelligent book, clearly demonstrating Rees' understanding of the Middle East and the complexities the Palestinian/Israeli relationship. You have to wonder whether it would be possible for an Arab or an Israeli to have written such an honest and insightful book. We should all be happy that this is published as the first in a series of mysteries. Bring on number two.
When a young man -- a rebel and 'martyr' -- is gunned down outside his home, all assume that he was betrayed, and that the culprit is a Palestinian Christian, a former student and close friend of Omar's. Omar can't bring himself to believe it, and the plot unfolds from there. Rees is obviously very familiar with life in the Arab West Bank, and does a tremendous job of portraying it from the nuances -- the mannerisms, the phrases -- to the bigger themes, such as the importance of tribe and relationships (the fact that fathers, on the birth of their eldest son, become known as Abu (name of son) as an honorific becomes an important turning point in the narrative). He doesn't shy away from violence or even tragedy, all of which are too much part of the real backdrop in which his fictional characters exist -- indeed, tough as it was to read parts of this book, I still realized that ducking these issues, softening the events and the plot, would have been a dishonest choice by this acute storyteller. Rather, he makes the plight of many Palestinians -- the silent majority, perhaps? -- more acute by his fascinating portrayal of Omar Yussef. Even as the teacher deplores what his students are learning outside the classroom ("there was such violence even in his girls that it shocked him. No matter how he tried to liberate the minds of Dehaisha's children, there were always many others working still more diligently to enslave them"), stubbornly tries to remain a voice of reason.
It's rare to find a mystery novel that transcends its genre and that doesn't avoid the ugly realities of life or somehow 'pretty them up'. There are disturbing moments in this book, but they aren't there for effect, as in some slasher novel, but because that is the reality of the world in which Rees has set his characters. In a way, it's like reading the newspaper or magazine articles -- but really getting inside the lives of the people in the region, and coming to grips with their limited options and understanding some of their conflicts and decisions. We too often see the rest of the world in black and white; here's a book that emphasizes the shades of grey. Even Omar Yussef is no textbook hero -- he's an alcoholic who's been on the wagon for years, but whose hands still shake, to the scorn of the self-righteous and devout Muslims around him.
Recommended very highly to anyone who likes a gritty mystery full of detail and compelling characters; those who appreciate that life has no easy answers. (Not for anyone who is a cozy mystery addict, however...)
I promptly went out and downloaded onto my Kindle the next three books in the series, as well as an earlier non-fiction book by Rees that I hadn't run across before, but that explores some of the same themes that I saw pop up in this novel.