Tales of a Palestinian Sleuth and Real Life

By Robert Rees

Published July 22, 2009, issue of July 31, 2009.
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The soft-spoken Welsh writer and news correspondent Matt Beynon Rees acknowledges that he never intended to make the Middle East his home. But Rees (no relation to this writer), Time Magazine’s former bureau chief in Jerusalem and now the author of three Palestinian detective novels, might be the first to admit that his own career has taken more unexpected turns and butted up against greater sudden dangers than he ever anticipated.

What, then, could be a more inspired invention for the journalist-turned-novelist than to create a fictitious character — a Palestinian detective, no less — whose daily routine requires the smarts and the luck to stay one step ahead of the last gunshot? Timely, too. Omar Yussef might possibly be the first Palestinian detective that you’ve ever heard of. In short, Rees has created an award-winning crime series which provides a view of Palestinian society, warts and all, not previously available to a wider public.

Rees’s third detective novel, “The Samaritan’s Secret,” (Soho Press) came out early this year and received favorable reviews in newspapers ranging from The New York Times to The National, in Abu Dhabi. As in his previous two novels, “The Collaborator of Bethlehem” (2007) and “A Grave in Gaza” (2008), “The Samaritan’s Secret” serves up an unlikely protagonist. Omar Yussef is a middle-aged, out-of-shape former schoolteacher and unlicensed sleuth. His resilience lies in his ability to survive internecine warfare while tracking down killers. Yussef, who Rees has said is based on a real-life resident of the Deheisha refugee camp outside Bethlehem, is nonchalant, fearless, persistent and plain lucky. He needs all these attributes simply to survive the constant gunfire in an environment where the enemy of one’s enemy is also, all too often, another vicious enemy.

“The Samaritan’s Secret” is set in and around Nablus and the nearby Samaritan village of Kiryat Luza, atop Mount Jerezim. These are locations that Rees knows well, having roamed much of the West Bank and Gaza while covering the second Intifada. The local color — the dank, ancient casbahs, the bad mountain roads, the smell of angry, sweaty peasants — is rendered effectively. So, too, is the mortal danger. Yussef, visiting Nablus for the wedding of a policeman friend, is quickly sidetracked into a murder case, the consequences of which may prove catastrophic for the Palestinian Authority.

A young Samaritan. Ishaq Ben-Tabia, has been found beaten to death near the Samaritan synagogue. The author writes: “The dead man was of medium height and wore a white shirt and blue slacks. His feet were bare. His midriff folded around the tree trunk, his legs falling down the hill on one side of the pine and his torso curved around the other. His hands and knees were bound with electrical tape. Omar Yussef breathed heavily. He caught eye. The young man whispered: “He’s been tortured, Abu Ramiz.”

It transpires that Ben-Tabia had served as a top aide to “the Old Man” — the now-deceased president of the P.A. (never mentioned by name in the novel). With Ben-Tabia’s death, $300 million on the P.A. books can no longer be accounted for. The World Bank, represented by an intelligent, young American woman, demands to know where the money is, or future World Bank funding for the P.A. will be cut off. To raise the stakes higher, secret files belonging to the Old Man and containing incriminating information about top-ranking Palestinian officials, also have gone missing.

Mixed in with the criminal element is religious, political and class conflict in which everyone has something to fear; no rivalry or private offense is too petty to avoid the taking of human life. Hamas battles Fatah in Nablus, the Palestinian elite employ their own private soldiers, physical sanctuary is an illusion, and corruption taints nearly every hand. Israelis are present too, but only from a distance, as a foreign army whose soldiers swoop in and disappear with the night. The real players on this bloodied stage are all Palestinian.

What seems to be a dangerous, polarized setting is exactly that, as any number of real-life, journalistic accounts from Gaza and the West Bank can attest. Rees saw the dangers up-close on more than one occasion. Interviewed at his Jerusalem apartment this spring, Rees recalled, for example, the time that a Palestinian journalist stepped in to prevent himself and a fellow Western correspondent from being stoned in a Gaza refugee camp.

“In moments of extreme danger,” Rees said, “you want everyone else to die, just so you can survive. It’s not so nice to admit it, but it’s very real. When that [feeling] appears on the page, for a character, it draws you closer to a real emotion.”

Photographer David Blumenfeld, who has worked closely with Rees since he was the Time bureau chief, notes that he and Rees “have been through some pretty crazy situations together, but Matt has always kept a cool head. One time we went to visit Zakaria Baloush, a Palestinian warlord in Gaza, who was once [Yasir] Arafat’s head of intelligence. Baloush sent one of his gun-toting thugs to pick us up from the border. After a few hours, the guy was still hanging with us, and we realized he was actually there for our ‘protection’ against kidnappings, which were just starting around that time in Gaza.”

Rees added, however, that since the Yussef books have been prublished, he has not been threatened. “At one point,” Rees recalled, “Arafat said he wanted me arrested and then, when told that was silly, changed it to my being banished from Gaza. That wasn’t carried out, either.”

The Yussef series is available in 22 countries and has been translated into more than 15 languages, including Hebrew, Czech and Korean. Surprisingly, it has not been translated into Arabic. “I don’t really care,” Rees said directly when asked about this. “I wrote [the books] not knowing whether they would be translated into any language, so it’s all a bonus.”

He said he has received “quite a few” supportive e-mail letters from Palestinians living in Jordan and Europe. The letters, he said, convey that the Yussef books “reflect the reality that we know about and which doesn’t show up in the Western or the Arab press. The Arab press is intent on demonizing Israel while Western correspondents aren’t here long enough before they’re moved on.” Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi commented some time ago to German Television reporters that Rees’s books “reflect Palestinian reality, sadly.”

The 41-year-old author also writes a column about Israel and the territories for Global Post, and recently began writing for The Daily Beast. He’s working on a fourth Omar Yussef novel, set in Brooklyn, that will be published next year. The action in the fifth in the series will return to the Middle East.

“In the fifth book Yussef will come to Jerusalem and will have to confront Israelis,” Rees said. “I have intentionally kept Israel and Israelis out of the first books, to avoid the cliches of the conflict.”

Robert Rees was a reporter for The Jerusalem Post and is a teacher in Minneapolis.

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