Exploring the Palestinian predicament with Omar Yussef (Column: Bookends VII)

By Vikas Datta (11:30) 

Their predicament is an enduring problem of our times and has resisted solution — by violent struggle or by negotiated settlement. An unfortunate offshoot is that Palestinians have ended up being portrayed either as brutal terrorists or hapless victims.

But if you don’t subscribe to the stereotyped view and seek a view from an entirely new angle, the Omar Yussef mysteries by British journalist-turned-novelist Matt Beynon Rees — set in West Bank and Gaza and even beyond — could be a good start. With a long stint as a correspondent in Jerusalem, Rees has impeccable qualifications to tell the story.

The hero of ‘Palestinian Quartet’ is an unlikely sleuth. Omar Yussef Sirhan is an elderly history teacher in a U.N.-run school in Bethlehem who could be content to live quietly with his family and grandchildren. But his radical past and awareness of sufferings of the refugees whose children he teaches don’t let him stick to a sedentary life and make him confront the violence and corruption around him — to the best of his ability.

We first meet Omar Yussef in “The Bethlehem Murders” (“The Collaborator of Bethlehem” in the US, 2007), as he seeks to clear an ex-student — a Palestinian Christian — arrested on charges of collaboration after a resistance leader is killed by Israeli snipers while visiting his home surreptitiously.

Yussef launches his own investigation despite his family and best friend (Bethlehem police chief Khamis Zeydan) urging him not to jeopardise his and his family’s safety by taking on the gunmen running rampage through the town, but is unable to save his student.

However, he carries on doggedly to unmask the real culprit as the story builds up to an adrenalin-pumping finale in the Church of Nativity’s crypts.

“The Saladin Murders” (“A Grave in Gaza” in the US, 2008) takes Yussef to Gaza with his U.N. boss to inspect the U.N. schools there. Trouble is not far away as a fellow teacher, a whistleblower, in the volatile region is arrested on suspicion of links to the CIA, while Yussef’s U.N. superior is kidnapped.

Now embroiled in Gaza’s murky and violent machinations, Yussef has to carefully manoeuvre between rival but equally sinister security agencies, derail an arms shipment that could ignite fresh conflict with the Israelis, rescue his boss and get justice for his colleague. Help is on hand from Zeydan, in Gaza City for a Palestinian conclave, and his mysterious local contact Sami Jaffari.

The next is “The Samaritan’s Secret” (2009), which takes Yussef to Nablus, the West Bank’s most violent town, to attend a wedding but before that he has three days to avert a catastrophe looming over the Palestinian people.

The trouble starts when a Samaritan, member of a tiny Jewish community who hold they have been continuous inhabitants of the land from Biblical times, is found murdered. He is, however, no ordinary man but a close aide of the recently-dead Yasser Arafat (referred to as “the Old Man”) and controlled his secret funds — millions of dollars of which are missing.

The World Bank threatens to cut off all aid until these are traced and it is Yussef who undertakes to accomplish the impossible, even as fighting rages in the town between Arafat loyalists and Hamas men.

“The Fourth Assassin” takes Yussef to New York to attend a U.N. conference on education. Dropping in to see his youngest son, who works as a computer programmer in the city, he discovers a corpse in the house. Thankfully, it is not of his son but his flatmate; but his son is arrested for suspected involvement.

Yussef, aided by Zeydan (accompanying the president who is due to address the U.N.), must solve the crime and prevent a dastardly assassination plot in the corridors of the world body while getting a chance to vent his mind at the assembled delegates from across the Arab world.

Rees is a dab hand at evoking the settings — the grimness of Bethlehem, the sense of danger in Gaza, the bewildering aromas of Nablus’ sunless casbah and the Arab sections of New York — as well as drawing well-delineated characters and creating realistic dialogue — specially the banter between Yussef and Zeydan.

Significantly, no Israelis appear in the books and Rees makes it clear that Palestinians — some of them at least — must share the blame for the plight of their people, who have the understandable aspirations of a life of honour and dignity.

The books do not flinch from portraying the endemic violence of West Asia, but seeks to humanise what is a distant and bewildering conflict, and the resilience of spirit even in a polarised and soul-destroying milieu.

(Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)


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