The Bethlehem Murders by Matt Rees

Matt Rees is a Welsh novelist and journalist. This is the first of his books I have read, although he is the author of The Palestine Quartet, a series of crime novels about  Omar Yussef a Palestinian sleuth. He is the winner of a Crime Writer’s Association Dagger for his crime fiction.  This part of the world has always fascinated me but Rees’s novels approach the Middle East conflict from an often unexpected direction. There are almost no Israeli characters, and the novels maintain a focus on Palestinian society, good and bad.

Rees has stated that this perspective was dictated by his discontent with news reporting of the conflict, which focused on stereotypes of Palestinians as either terrorists or victims. Instead, Rees writes, the diversity of Palestinian society awakened him creatively and made him look at the Middle East from a different angle.

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Matt Rees has there fore decided that the best vehicle for his years of reporting from Israel and the Palestinian territories is a murder mystery novel.  His focus is Bethlehem, a town that most Christians learn about at an early age and then continue to hear about annually for the rest of their lives. However, in Bethlehem 2003, the baby in the manger and the shepherds on the hillside have been replaced by gangster gunmen and overcrowded refugee camps. It is in the mud-covered alleyways of the camps and the surrounding town that Rees sets this book.

His principal character, Omar Yussef, is a teacher sickened by the culture of death and the glorification of gunmen he sees around him. He leaves the classroom to save the life of an old pupil, a Christian, who was accused of collaborating with Israel. That is a crime punishable by death. Yussef is an interesting character, a Muslim who was once an alcoholic and is not strict about fasting during Ramadan.

The Palestinian society portrayed by Rees is divided between factions, religions and authority – both the good and the bad. Yussef considers the days when Christian and Muslim were close but can do nothing to prevent the mutual suspicion that has grown in the chaos of recent years.

The Bethlehem Murders is an exciting read.  Rees roots his story in a series of events that he investigated  for a work of non-fiction, Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide and Fear in the Middle East.  His reader, therefore. gets an insight into Palestinian society that would be hard to achieve in a work of non-fiction.  In Rees’s portrayal of Bethlehem the gunmen are the only Palestinian authority.  The official police and courts are powerless.

Yusef’s former pupil, George Saba, tried to stop gunmen firing from the roof of his house in Bethlehem across the valley at the suburbs of Jerusalem. Following this audacity, he is accused of collaborating with Israel in the assassination of another Palestinian. Saba’s crimes were to be a member of the Christian minority in the once Christian-dominated town of Bethlehem.  He compounded this by standing up to the new members of the ‘resistance’. His former teacher undertakes to unravel a web of prejudice, corruption and complacency as he attempts to free his former pupil and save him from execution.

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Through the eyes of Yussef,  the reader can begin to understand the real frustration of Palestinians. It also becomes clearer why members of the Palestinian Authority have been reluctant to give up their privileges.

Some readers may be disappointed to find that Israel has only an offstage presence in this book, but Rees is sticking to the territory he knows best. The world that he writes about does not represent the whole Palestinian experience, but this is a very good story which offers some illumination of the bigger picture.  I enjoyed the book and hope to read more in the series.

Valerie Penny

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