Matt Beynon Rees brings to life a Palestinian different different from those who appear on the evening news. Rees’ hero is a history teacher who has taught Muslim and Christian children at the UN school in Bethlehem for many years. His heroism lies in his steadfast belief that the way he lives his life, the way he treats his neighbors, is one small step for him and one giant step for his country and its reputation in the world.
When THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM opens, Omar Yussef is having dinner with George, a former pupil and a Christian, who has just brought his family back to Palestine after living in South America. He left his homeland to escape the violence but he has missed his home and his extended family so he returns in order that his children may learn who they are. As Omar Yussef and George leave the restaurant, they hear gunfire, an all too frequent occurrence, but this time the shots are coming from the roof of George’s house and the Israelis are firing into his home where his wife, children, and father are cowering, trying to stay out of the line of fire.
Outside of the town, a young wife, Dina, another former pupil of Omar Yussef, waits for her husband to come though the olive groves to visit her. He is part of the Martyrs Brigade, an organization that has been identified as terrorist by the Israelis , so he must sneak home to spend time with his bride. As Dina watches Louai come out from the trees, a red light shines on his chest, a shot is fired, and he dies. The Martyrs Brigade is led by Hussein Tamari, who labels Louai a “martyr” because of the method of his death. Honor requires that his death must be avenged swiftly. Vengeance is more important than justice so “assassin ” must be hung around some man’s neck to satisfy the “honor” of the group. George has infuriated Tamari by ordering him off the roof of his home so Tamari has George arrested, accused of collaborating with the Israelis, and of organizing Louai’s execution. He is to be held in the town jail until a sham trial can be organized but it is a foregone conclusion that he will be found guilty of all charges and duly executed.
When Omar Yussef pays a condolence call on Dina, she tells him that she heard her husband speak to a man just before he was shot, a man he called Abu Walid. The police aren’t interested in Dina’s information. There is no need to investigate Louai’s death; they have George in custody for the crime. Omar Yussef decides that he needs to learn the truth behind Dina’s information so he can save George.
Then Dina, too, is murdered. Omar Yussef realizes that to save George and avenge Dina he must find Abu Walid, a task that can easily cost him his life.
Matt Rees is the former Jerusalem Bureau Chief for Time magazine. He brings to the page a picture of life in Palestine, of life in Bethlehem where Muslims and Christians live as neighbors and both live under the shadow of Israel. Bethlehem is a town of approximately 30,000 people situated on the West Bank. Omar Yussef lives with his wife, his son and daughter-in-law, and his grandchildren. He loves his wife’s cooking and he loves classical music. Rees creates real people who live in circumstances that we cannot imagine but who live ordinary lives in the world as they know it to be. Omar Yussef is an Arab but he is secular, his social circle includes Christians, and he bears with grace the intrusion of Israeli soldiers into his town and into his home. The author does the reader a great service; Palestine is not just Gaza, it is home to people leading lives that are not so different from our own but who undergo injustices we cannot imagine.
And he writes a fantastic story with unforgettable characters.