A GRAVE IN GAZA is the second book in the Omar Yussef mystery series. Omar Yussef is a Palestinian, a teacher in Bethlehem at a UN school, happily married, and devoted to his family. Circumstances force him into a role that takes him out of the classroom and on an inspection trip to the Gaza Strip.
What are supposed to be routine meetings with other teachers in UN schools rapidly becomes something else entirely. Omar Yussef and Marcus Wallender, the Swedish representative of the UN’s Relief and Works Agency centered in Jerusalem, and James Cree, a UN security officer, arrive in Gaza to learn that one of the teachers, Eyad Masharawi, has been arrested. Masharawi had discovered that the university in Gaza was awarding bogus degrees to officers in Preventive Security, giving them the credentials necessary for promotion although most had not attended high school. When his repeated attempts to discuss this with the administration failed, Masharawi gave his students a test, “Write an essay about corruption in the government.” Called into the office of the director of the school, Professor Maki, the teacher was threatened and ordered to leave. Instead, he went back to the classroom and assigned a new topic, “Write an essay about the corruption at the university.”
Professor Maki, a member of the PLO and Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, and Colonel al-Fara, chief of Preventive Security, have Masharawi arrested. When the situation comes to the attention of a human rights group, the teacher becomes a victim of his code of honor. He is accused of being a spy for the CIA. Nothing about Palestine is simple. Colonel Husseini, the chief of Military Intelligence, is locked in battle with Colonel al-Fara for control of Palestine and Eyad Masharawi gets caught in the battle between two ruthless men.
When he arrives at his hotel in Gaza, Omar Yussef meets an old friend, Khamis Zeydan, the chief of police in Bethlehem. Zeydan knows that the UN people have come to Gaza to obtain the release of Masharawi so he warns Omar Yussef to leave, telling him, “There is no, single isolated crime in Gaza. Each one is linked to many others….” Omar Yussef assures Zeydan that his is with people from the UN, that he is protected by his association with the group. No on in Palestine wants to be accused of doing something that is going to be broadcast on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Zeydan tells his friend he doesn’t understand. “This place is at war. Not with the Israelis – the only people fighting them are the Islamists. We’re at war with ourselves.”
The simple act of a teacher who wants to restore honor to the university is the opening salvo in a battle that will bring Gaza to the brink of destruction. A meeting in a field leads to a death that leads to blackmail. A man is murdered and his family is determined to use tribal justice to honor the victim. Wallender is kidnapped, another UN employee is killed, and Omar Yussef becomes the sole representative of the UN, given the responsibility of saving the teacher and Wallender.
And, into all of this, comes another complication. A missile has been stolen from the Saladin Brigades, the most dangerous of the rival gangs in Gaza. The missile is the game-changing piece in the political quagmire that is Palestine. Omar Yussef finds himself assigned the role of negotiator between the group that has the missile and all the other groups who want it no matter what it takes.
There is a great deal of death in A GRAVE IN GAZA. The author knows Palestine and brings the reader onto this thin strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea. It is a place of desperation, a place where every question is answered with a death. This is an important book because the framework on which Rees builds his fiction are the facts of life in Gaza.
Rees has created in Omar Yussef an everyman. He is a morally upright man who loves his country but knows well how dangerous it is for the people who live there. He is Muslim but he doesn’t practice Islam. He wants to teach history, to encourage students to examine facts, and then to ask questions. He wants to believe that his grandchildren will have all the benefits of the twenty-first century and not be held back by the dictates of the seventh. Omar Yussef is the light in the darkness who manages to make a difference quietly.
On the page after the dedication, Matt Beynon Rees gives the readers this – “The crimes in this book are based on real events in Gaza. Though identities and circumstances have been changed, the killers really killed this way, and those who died are dead just the same.”