Matt Beynon Rees

Omar Yussef - U.N. School Teacher & Amateur Sleuth, Palestinian territories

"The Collaborator of Bethlehem"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte DEC 19, 2007)

Collaborator of Bethlehem

News reporting at its best, presents well-researched facts in a compelling fashion. Fiction, on the other hand, allows you to breathe, to take liberties with characters and their stories.

For this reason Matt Beynon Rees, a well-established journalist who has reported extensively on the Middle East, decided to create a series of fictional stories all featuring protagonist, Omar Yussef. Rees, whose experience includes serving as Jerusalem Bureau chief for Time Magazine for many years, has put all his expertise to work in the first book in the series, The Collaborator of Bethlehem.

Omar Yussef is an experienced teacher in Bethlehem employed by a local U.N. school. He has been teaching his students to be free of bias and to be good citizens even when they are surrounded by constant strife and violence. But his forthright policies don't win him many popularity points with the local Palestinians. Then an old student of his—a Christian, George Saba, newly returned from Chile with wife and kids, gets falsely accused of murdering a local Palestinian businessman. The injustice of it all really bothers Yussef. Soon enough, he starts asking questions, trying to figure out exactly who killed Louai Abdel Rahman and shortly thereafter, his widow Dima. As his investigation digs deeper, Yussef is often thrown up against some of the most dangerous players in the region.

Rees sticks to the principles of the whodunit genre methodically—sometimes a little too methodically. Some initial suspects are found out to be mere red herrings and as the body count ratchets up, the inevitable showdown between the protagonist and the bad guy yields satisfying results. A final confrontation scene between the suspect and Yussef is set in the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's most religious places. The suspect even tries to hide in the Grotto of the Nativity—the cave where Jesus is believed to have been born. This precisely choreographed scene is vividly (almost cinematically) realized but together with the setting, it  comes across as a little too contrived.

Even if the essential structure of the novel is somewhat predictable, the real strength of The Collaborator of Bethlehem comes from Rees' expert handling of the setting. The underlying story turns out to be a nuanced one showing the internal conflicts in the region not just between the Palestinians and the Israelis but between the various factions of Palestinians themselves. Rees writes convincingly about the petty in-fighting between the various factions of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade as each person jostles for leadership within the group.

Rees sneaks in a touch of romance to the narrative, including details about the natural beauty of the city with its olive groves and gently sloping hillsides. He also does a good job portraying Yussef's brave fight against all the evil around him. “Perhaps Bethlehem was [the gunmen's] town after all, and it was Omar Yussef who was the outlaw interloper here, peddling contraband decency and running a clandestine trade in morality,” Rees writes.

 The Collaborator of Bethlehem is a promising start to what looks to be an interesting series of mystery stories. Omar Yussef is convincingly reminded of this fact: In a land riddled with violence, justice is often meted out not by reason and procedure but by guns and bombs. What's worse, he has to learn to make peace with it.

  • Amazon readers rating: 4.5 Starsfrom 28 reviews
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"A Grave in Gaza"

(Reviewed by Jana Perskie MAR 1, 2009)

"Saladin came along this road to liberate Palestine from the Crusaders. No liberators rode it now. Just brutal gunmen and corrupt politicians and government functionaries who care only for their status as VIPs."

A Grave in Gaza by Matt Beynon Rees

Omar Yussef Sirhan, history teacher and principal of Bethlehem's UN sponsored Girls' School in Dehaisha refugee camp, is visiting Gaza to inspect U.N. schools there. He unhappily accompanies his boss, Magnus Wallender, a UN dignitary with the Relief and Works Agency. Omar Yussef does not like Gaza nor does he particularly care to expose himself to its ever so prevalent danger. Unlike the relatively peaceful streets of Bethlehem, this region is filled with violence, rivalries between fighting brigades in Gaza City and Rafah, and politicians who play deadly games. After a difficult time with a Palestinian officer at the border crossing, he thinks, "Even Bethleham is more welcoming than this."

Shortly after their arrival, they are informed by United Nations Security Officer, James Cree, that Eyad Masharawi, one of their teachers who also works at Al-Azhar University, has been arrested and is being accused of spying for the CIA. After visiting with the teacher's family at their home in Gaza City, the three men learn that Masharawi's arrest was purely political and very personal. The teacher discovered that corrupt university officials are selling degrees to officers in the Preventive Security, the plain clothes police force. Holding a degree would put a policeman on the fast track to the highest positions. Disclosing this information publicly immediately put Masharawi at odds with the head of the university, Professor Adnan Maki and, much worse, with Colonel al-Fara. the head of Preventive Security. The Colonel is not a man to be messed with. He is a known sadist who delights in torturing his prisoners. Both Maki and al-Fara are members of the Fatah Party's Revolutionary Council. Also a member of the Revolutionary Council is head of Gaza's Military Intelligence, General Moussa Husseini....another bad guy. When Omar Yussef asks what the difference is between the Military Intelligence people and those in Preventive Security, he is answered with, "Imagine you wanted to set up a police state. You'd need a uniformed force to do the day-to-day brutalizing and intimidation - that's Preventive Security," (al-Fara's turf). "Military Intelligence is a private army for General Husseini," al-Fara's rival. Lethal ambitions abound!!!

Naturally, Omar Yussef, Wallender and Cree receive multiple warnings from multiple people, some masked others not, to get out of town and leave matters alone. However, Omar Yussef refuses to back down. He says, "just recently my anger at the way our people are governed began to outweigh my fear."

The corruption, assassinations, murder, political rivalries, intrigue, graft and, most of all, the plight of the Palestinians who live in Gaza and are collateral damage of all this violence, make for a situation and storyline both complex and compelling. The author must be given credit for keeping the many plots and subplots intelligible. Matt Beynon Rees doesn't leave any loose threads hanging. He ties everything together in a believable fashion, and adds a surprising plot twist at the novel's end.

Mr. Rees is a former Time Jerusalem bureau chief, who is obviously extremely knowledgeable about the explosive geopolitics of the region. His narrative also pays tribute to Palestinian social customs, culture, and delicious cuisine, which I found just as fascinating as his exploration of life on the dark side.

I really enjoyed the well developed, sympathetic character of Omar Yussef Sirhan, also called Abu Ramiz, (father of Ramiz). He is an educated and just man who loves his wife, family and God. His amateur detecting proves to be effective, almost to his own surprise. His beloved granddaughter, Nadia, creates a Website for him, "Across the top of the screen, (above his photograph), in yellow letters, ran the title, 'Palestine Agency for Detection,' and the quote, 'Wherever there is injustice and bother, I am your man' - Agent O.'"

A Grave in Gaza is book two in the Omar Yussef series. I plan to pick-up book one, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, very soon.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 11 reviews
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"A Grave in Gaza" (another review)

(Reviewed by Tony Ross DEC 25, 2008)

A Grave in Gaza by Matt Beynon Rees

As someone raised in the Arab world and a fan of the crime genre, I'd long been awaiting something like Rees' first Omar Yussef mystery, last year's The Collaborator of Bethlehem. That debut wasn't flawless, but on the whole, was a very promising start to the Palestine/Israel-set series. Now 50-something former alcoholic Omar Yussef returns for another mystery, this time in Gaza. Employed as a principal and schoolteacher in a U.N. refugee school on the West Bank, the story finds him accompanying his Swedish boss on an inspection tour of U.N. schools in Gaza.

Upon entering Gaza, they are joined by a Scottish U.N. security officer, ex-soldier James Cree. Almost instantly, the trio are plunged into the confusing briar patch of Gaza politics, as they take on the case of a local U.N. schoolteacher who has been arrested by one of the several local police/military/intelligence forces. This also coincides with large meeting of Palestinian bigwigs and power brokers, providing an excuse for Omar Yussef's friend from Bethlehem, Brigadier Khamis Zeydan to be on hand, along with his mysterious local fixer, Sami. Zeydan warns his friend and the U.N. men that everything in Gaza is connected, and if you start tugging at one case, you'll find yourself unraveling all kind of things best left untouched.

Of course they continue in the face of his warning and are soon embroiled in a very complicated power-play between various Gaza factions. The story becomes increasingly ruthless and violent, and as in the previous book, those who do not want to face the reality of Palestinian factionalism, pervasive corruption, and intercinine bloodshed, will find this a trying read. The one main flaw in the book is one I've encountered in other series set in unusual places, and that is overexplaining. The problem facing the knowledgeable or native author is that they know all the ins and outs of their setting, but the reader will not. So, the simplest solution is to involve some kind of foreign characters (here, the two U.N. men), who act as stand-ins for the Western reader, and provide some kind of pretext for other native characters to deliberately explain things to them. In a very real sense, Omar Yussef is an outsider here as well, and the story depends a little too much on fixer Sami arranging things. Another minor flaw is that it's often unclear who is speaking in what language. This is actually somewhat important to the story, since the Swede speaks no Arabic, the Scot a little, and Omar Yussef is supposed to act as translator. However, in many of the meetings throughout the book, I had to stop and reread to figure out who could understand what portions of the conversation.

On the whole, the book is another solid entry in a series that doesn't shy away from the ugly realities of life as a Palestinian. Crammed with details from the personal (such as food, family, and daily life) to the political, it offers a perspective of Gaza one simply can't get from news accounts.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 11 reviews
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"The Samaritan's Secret"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky FEB 5, 2009)

"Elsewhere in the world... a person may go his whole life without seeing a dead body. Perhaps he will never experience grief, except to weep when his father dies. Here in Nablus we aren't normal. We've finished crying. The shock of death is dead in us."

The Samaritan's Secret by Matt Beynon Rees

In The Samaritan's Secret, by Matt Beynon Rees, Omar Yussef leaves Bethlehem to visit Nablus where his friend, Sami, is about to be married. Omar is a history teacher who is in frail physical condition, but his intellect and powers of observation remain sharp. Although he has no training as a policeman, Yussef has done quite a bit of amateur sleuthing. When confronted with a mystery, he cannot resist sticking his nose where it does not belong.

He is intrigued when Sami, a police officer, invites him to look into the theft of an ancient and valuable scroll from a Samaritan synagogue. A case of larceny turns into one of homicide when a caretaker discovers the body of a young man who had been brutally beaten and tortured. Further acts of violence do not induce Yussef to back off; he stubbornly persists in questioning anyone who may have information that will lead to the identity of the murderer. At the same time, he would like to know the location of a large amount of money that has gone missing. If it is found and spent by the right people, these funds could help alleviate the hardship of Yussef's countrymen. Meanwhile, Omar's old pal, Khamis Zeydan, Bethlehem's police chief, is also in Nablus for Sami's wedding. He too gets involved in the increasingly complex investigation.

Rees captures the atmosphere of life in the West Bank, with its fear, violence, fanaticism, and political corruption, as well as its close family ties, exotic cuisine, and unique culture. Sadly, Nablus is poisoned by the bitter hatred between factions warring for control of the embattled territory. Although Omar Yussef is a likeable hero with a commendable passion for justice, this book is hampered by its painfully slow pace, poorly constructed plot, and stilted dialogue. The author would have us accept an unlikely premise—that Omar Yussef could get away with freely interrogating whomever he pleases without being summarily shot or told to get lost. The plan to set a mystery series in such an intriguing locale was a terrific bit of inspiration, but for a work of fiction to succeed, it also requires finesse, subtlety and realism—qualities that sorely lacking in The Samaritan's Secret.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 7 reviews

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About the Author:

Matt Benyon ReesMatt Beynon Rees was born in Newport Wales in 1967 and studied at Oxford University and the University of Maryland.

As a journalist, Rees covered the Middle East for a decade. He was Time magazine's Jerusalem bureau chief from 2000 until 2006, writing award-winning stories about the Palestinian intifada. He also worked as Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman and Newsweek.

Rees lives in Jerusalem. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014