Matt Beynon Rees, a British ex-journalist, has given us a person-sized view of a globally transfixing political situation.
Omar Yussef is a middle-aged man, a husband, father, and grandfather, who teaches high school-aged girls in a U.N. sponsored school in Bethlehem. He is the neutral eyes through which we see ordinary Muslim citizens, violent Palestinian jihad movements, the dwindling Christian community, Westerners who have come to supply aid, and off-screen Israeli military forces. They mix together in Bethlehem, a town burdened by fights between the "Martyrs Brigade," a Palestinian militia group, and Israeli forces. The ordinary citizens, Muslims and Christians alike, are caught in the crossfire.
Yussef is not a radical. It is not obvious that he has a strong political viewpoint. Even though his family was relocated from its home village to make room for Jewish settlements, Yussef's father taught his family to make the best of it and not look back in anger. (Yussef cannot help, however, longing for the quiet, simpler times that life in his village represents.) Yussef, in turn, preaches tolerance to his students and practices it in his personal associations.
Rees has created a character who is our moral lynchpin. He accepts people as people, regardless of their religious or political affiliations. He presses on through his feelings of cowardice to perform acts of bravery. He is the irritating burr under the saddle that goads others into action. But he is not without his own shortcomings. Some are significant: he is an alcoholic and the disease has left him physically diminished before his time. Some are milder: he modestly lusts after a neighbor's wife, despite actually loving and treasuring his wife of many years. He misjudges people and is not afraid to admit his errors.
When two of his ex-students, both adults now, run afoul of the Martyrs Brigade, Yussef must seek justice for them. Despite their unofficial status, the Martyrs Brigade, it is hinted, really runs the government. Yussef will not receive much help from the official elements, including the police, in his quest. It is this Quixote-like quest that brings Yussef into shadowy places to find out who has been collaborating with the Israelis and has caused the deaths of people he loves.
While this novel is not a political polemic, it deals sensitively with divisive issues without making them the centerpiece. We yearn, with Yussef, for a time when different cultures could exist side by side and mutually celebrate a part of the world where history has written its mark for far longer than for most.
Despite the setting and violent incidents depicted in the book, this is not an action-filled thriller. It is a thought-provoking, very different look at a community in crisis. Don't read it for the mystery (a real "Yussef" would have been killed on page 100), but for what it might bring you in understanding.