March 2007

Colleen Mondor


The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Benyon Rees

Matt Benyon Rees’s The Collaborator of Bethlehem is a very complex and fascinating look at a murder in the modern West Bank. Rather than dwell on the obvious Israeli/Palestinian conflict (the Israelis are present but in a peripheral role), Rees chose to delve into the often underreported fighting between Palestinians themselves. The result is a riveting combination of politics, greed and power that is told on the smallest of scales and introduces a new and very unlikely sleuth to the Soho Crime pantheon.

If you would like to have a better idea just what is going on in the Palestinian Territories but feel intimidated by heavy tomes on Jews, Arabs and Christians in the region then Bethlehem is an excellent place to start. Rees knows what he is talking about in this book; he is the author of the nonfiction title, Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East and until last year was Time’s Jerusalem bureau chief. His book will ease you into the conflict, while providing excellent characters and an engrossing plot.

Omar Yussef is a teacher who prides himself on giving his students a broader and more accepting vision of humanity. He tries very hard not to take sides and do what he can to get along. One of his former students, a Palestinian Christian who recently returned to the city from Chile, is arrested and accused of collaborating with the Israelis in the murder of a resistance leader. Yussef seems to be the only person unwilling to accept that George Saba could be guilty and so he begins asking questions. And just as many other amateur sleuths before him, Yussef soon finds himself the target of violence. Unlike Miss Marple or Travis McGee however, Yussef lives in what normal people would classify a war zone and the techniques for silencing an annoying sleuth have gotten far more sophisticated and ruthless. Very quickly he must make a choice as to how badly he wants to pursue the truth. When there is another murder and a bomb he can not ignore the fact that the case does not end with George Saba. As Rees shows Yussef's decisions challenge many Palestinians -- in situations and ways largely unknown to western readers.

There were many things that impressed me about The Collaborator of Bethlehem, but it was the easy dissection of Palestinian life that really made me want to avidly follow this series. Rees shows how it is not an easy split of Israeli versus Palestinian; that there is an enormous amount of fighting between Palestinians as well. (Look no further than the first victim, a Palestinian Muslim and the accused, a Palestinian Christian. The crime that entwines them barely involves Israel and as Yussef learns, both of them probably shared a similar frustration over relations between their people and the Israelis.) Bethlehem suffers from many of the same old problems that are found anywhere: greed, anger and jealousy. Some of the book’s criminals casually wrap themselves in slogans of Palestinian nationalism but it is not for their fellow man they fight, it is all about their own benefit and wealth. As for the penchant for martyrs among the dead, well, that might be all about self preservation. As Rees writes: 

It struck Omar Yussef that there was a security in the thought that a man died as a martyr. There was no groaning and bleeding and wishing not to die in a case of martyrdom. For those who lived on, it was as though there had been no death. 

I thought the most telling statement in the book though came from an exchange between Yussef and George Saba’s lawyer. Both of them know that Saba is innocent and have an idea as to who was involved in the crime, but the lawyer is unwilling in trying to expose the truth. Yussef says: 

“Then we all have the same problem. It should unite us. We have a common cause, all Palestinians against these gunmen.” 

“It’s only in the most superficial way that we Palestinians manage to be united even against the Israelis. Do you think we’re capable of unity at all? People aren’t like that. I ran away from what the gunmen are doing in my hometown of Hebron. Why would I make a stand against them in Bethlehem?” 

And what if so much of the violence is generated by thugs and criminals -- if it is less about the religious war and nationalistic claims westerners have been led to believe and much of it is just about power, like so many other wars before it? That does not lessen the significance of the larger struggle but it does explain why sometimes the violence seems to happen for no discernible reason or gain. It could simply be that we are not privy to the real reasons behind the guns firing on any given night in Bethlehem or why the tanks are invading again, or who is behind the latest rocket launch.

The Collaborator of Bethlehem is a book that succeeds on multiple levels: it’s a flat out gripping murder mystery that will keep readers guessing until the very end but also a rare opportunity to look inside one of the most conflicted and misrepresented regions in the world. There is nothing else like this book out there today -- no other character who must walk such a dangerous path in the modern world as Omar Yussef. I certainly hope that it gets the sort of readership and critical attention it deserves but regardless, I will be back for the next book, the very moment it becomes available. 

The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Benyon Rees
Soho Press
ISBN 1569474427
264 pages