Matt Beynon Rees: The Collaborator of Bethlehem

“It was a mistake to think that detection was a matter of figuring out what had happened in the past and then taking revenge for it. He understood now that it was about protecting the future from the people that committed evil and who would do so again.”

When enough customers ask you about a certain author in a short period of time, it makes you take notice. When several of my more discerning “guy” readers mentioned Matt Rees as a wonderful writer, I was intrigued enough to pick up the first book. Rees was a longtime bureau chief for Time in Jerusalem, and his familiarity with the area certainly shows. The book is set in Bethlehem, with characters that are a mix of all the peoples that crowd into this tiny area—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Palestinians. The central character, Omar Yussef, teaches at a UN Refugee school. He is a Muslim originally from Palestine, and his view of the world is out of sync with many of those around him.

He remembers with fondness a time when differences were more tolerated; the violence and suicide bombings that surround him now fill him with anger. He’s 56, an age where he teeters on retirement, and he knows his way of seeing the world—through a veil of politeness and civility—is long past, but he feels that if he can just get his message through to a few of his students his time on earth will not have been wasted.

This is a large, rich, complex chunk to bite off and work with, and the wonder is is that not only was Rees apparently a gifted journalist, he is also a gifted novelist, with a real ability to breathe life and emotion into the characters he writes about. After reading this book it’s almost upsetting to me that Omar Yussef is not actually a real person. More than that, the way he sets up the story is the work of a full blown pro. Yussef meets one of his students, George Saba, for coffee. George has recently brought his family back to Bethelehem from Chile, and he is not sure it was the right decision, even though his children can now live with, and know, their grandfather. George is also one of the students that Yussef feels was a success—his kindness and decency, he hopes, came about partly because of his teaching.

The second part of the set up is the next scene, where George and his family are crouched in their apartment, hoping to avoid the sniper fire that is whizzing around them. The bullets are imbedding themselves in the walls of his apartment—over the heads of his children—and he is angry. He goes up on the roof with an antique gun (so rusted it can’t be loaded or fired) and threatens the gunmen with it, telling them to leave. Right then I was invested completely in the story, but then Rees takes it one better: next day comes the news that George has been arrested as a collaborator. Yussef is stricken—he knows his friend is innocent—but in Bethlehem innocence and guilt mean very little, something he already knows, but which is hammered home to him throughout his quest to save George from inevitable execution.

Yussef, who is able to accept and adapt to many of the vagaries of life in such a violent corner of the world, is continually frustrated in his quest to free George. His old friend Khamis Zeydan, now the frequently drunk police chief of Bethlehem, seems like he might be involved, and Yussef questions even this old friendship. The “collaborator” of the title is not only the innocent George Saba, but almost every one else who lives in and around Israel and the West Bank.

Rees is able—like the very best of novelists—to convey absolute horror without sentimentality. Some of the things that happen in this book will probably haunt you, but they also seem like something that can and does happen. The real bit of grace in the book is the way Yussef chooses to deal with what happens. He shows that even a somewhat frail 56 year old can find a reason to move ahead in the world. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.