Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Rees (The Palestinian Quartet)

[Warning: The introduction to the review of the book is rather long; I apologize for that but felt it necessary to ensure readers have the complete context from which I base this review. In an era of soundbites, pull quotes, memes and GIFs, I shall plant my lonely flag of exposition. It’s a luxury afforded to those of us who have maybe two people who read our blog.]

It's easy in today’s information-saturated age to believe one understands a place and its people, even never having been there (or spoken to anyone who has). It is so effortless, after all, to binge watch YouTube lectures and read an assortment of blogs, articles and – for the true cyber-anthropologists – all the comments below said videos or articles.

That said, it is equally easy to become so inundated with information, from so many conflicting sources, that one loses all hope of ever understanding other places, cultures and people.

Finally, there are those who moor against the unceasing tidal waves of information by sheltering within unshakable conviction.

Thankfully, fiction allows an alternate avenue to information about cultures, places, nations and, naturally, conflict. If a work a good – and I don’t mean just entertaining, I mean a piece that truly masters a genre – then intertwined with dialogue and people spun from thin air are real, honest facts and truths about the character’s setting, societal norms and culture.[1]

Fiction allows us to learn and absorb information in a way that somewhat cushions against the modern instinct -- not misplaced --  to analyze the source and its motives. We already know that story is the motive and we trust the writer has done the due diligence to make it a story worth being told.

Perhaps that’s why I have found some of the best insights into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in works of fiction such as Joe Sacco’s startling, disorienting and wonderful graphic novel Palestine.

To be sure, I’ve read plenty of nonfiction as well, from Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid and Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree, but often it was only when I read works of fiction, such as Almost Dead by Assaf Gavron, that any the information I received from nonfiction works metamorphosed into knowledge, or at least the closest thing I can claim to have of knowledge, given that I’ve never set foot anywhere in Israel.

I’m not going to share my opinions on that conflict; this isn’t a political blog and, in any case, in my view any review that allows political bias to influence an assessment of a work of fiction is not to be trusted.

I will, however, disclose that I have had a fascination and admiration for Middle Eastern culture since I was little girl, long before it became distilled down to media buzzwords and conflated with the Muslim religion.

Which is why I saved this book from a friend’s culling pile.

I forgot about it for years until, looking for a quick read prior to my first travel vacation in five years, I found it again on the wrong bookshelf, the one I reserve for “stand alone” mysteries. And I am so glad I did.

First, a reader should understand that the protagonist, Omar Yussef, is a Christian in modern-ish Bethleham (presumably, this around the mid-to-late 1990s), which has become increasingly hostile to Christians.

Yussef is old enough to recall his father’s friendships with Muslims and Jews, and even to have a few Muslim friends of his own, but cynical enough to recognize the Martyrs Brigade for the strong-arm gang of thugs it is, even as it shrouds itself in the Palestinian flag and resistance movement.

His faith is not the only thing that sets Omar Yussef apart, however. Also compelling is the way he internalized what his father told him when the family was forced from their home by Israeli soldiers. Unlike the other refugees, Omar’s father didn’t expect to return. Which isn’t to say the eviction didn’t touch the Yussef family; his mother was so spiritually traumatized and chronically homesick she never settles into Bethlehem and struggled with severe depression for the rest of her life.

But Omar is no martyr to be pitied; indeed he is human to a degree that one rarely finds in fiction protagonists. A recovering alcoholic who squandered much of his youth in the bottle, Omar Yussef has been essentially demoted from teaching history at a respectable school to United Nations Palestinian refugee camp girls’ school. Still, he retains a dignity and honesty in his teaching and takes true pride in helping to form students' minds. 

Omar’s thoughtful, if politically tone-deaf, refusal to allow his students to give into blind hatred and propaganda make him unsurprisingly unpopular with many of his students’ parents and his American boss. The mischievous sense of humor with which he handles this situation is one of several unexpected delights within the book. 

Omar’s drinking has taken a toll on his body, which is aging prematurely, a rather nice change from the typically vigorous, indestructible protagonists so many mystery novels have.

In addition to a complex, rather unlikely hero, Matt Rees also humanizes the ambivalence, weariness, frustration and even hope of everyday people attempting to live ordinary, everyday lives in the midst of a conflict with global repercussions.

Rees shows us families cowering from Israeli tracers and bulldozers that destroy roads in the middle of the night but he also shows, rather mercilessly, the degree to which even Palestinians are not united amongst themselves and their own culpability in perpetuating half of the endless cycle of hate.

The mystery at the heart of this novel, with its mix of foregone conclusions, hope, cynicism and the never ending capacity of our fellow humans to surprise and disappoint us, lives up to complex and absorbing backdrop.

Omar’s motives are messy and a bit selfish – one of his brightest former students has been falsely accused of being an Israeli collaborator and helping Shin Bet to assassinate a resistance leader (or terrorist, depending on your perspective) and Reese pulls no punches in its inevitably bloody conclusion – of the many things this novel is, wish fulfillment it is not. Omar sincerely wants justice but in his core is desperate that one of the best examples of his legacy is not senselessly wrongfully destroyed.

It all makes for surprisingly quick and thought-provoking reading. It is easy to see why Rees was an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Scotsman and Newsweek.

As readers, we can be thankful for that. As people who hope for peace, we can only sigh and accept the truth as it stands.

[1] In no way am I suggesting that reading fiction is an adequate substitution for educating oneself. That is an entirely different process and, by definition, would include credible sources such as newspapers of record, original source notes and transcripts, peer-reviewed academic journal articles and the like at the very least.

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