Secret piled upon secret
In the third Omar Yussef mystery, the amateur sleuth investigates what happened to the Samaritans? stolen Torah scroll.
The Samaritan?s Secretby Matt Beynon Rees. Soho Press, 320 pages. $24
many Israelis, Palestinian life in the West Bank and Gaza may seem inextricably linked with disorder and violence. But in the third of Matt Beynon Rees? thought-provoking Omar Yussef mystery novels, as in its two predecessors, the focus is as much on the thoughts and habits of ordinary Palestinians as on the effects that dysfunctional leadership and Israeli pressure have on their lives.Rather than implicitly take sides in the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian struggle, Rees, a former Time magazine bureau chief in Jerusalem, has chosen to draw a vivid picture of Palestinian life that will enlighten many who know little of its culture, family structure and society.In many respects, it isn?t a pretty picture. Fragmented by corrupt political institutions, battered economically and terrorized by gangs, the ordinary Palestinians in Rees? novels struggle to survive. They live in an environment permeated by suspicion, where the guy next door might well be a member of a hostile political faction, a collaborator with Israel or just a thug. Yet at the same time, family, social bonds and a rich culture provide a source of strength and support.The two earlier books in the series focused on the plight of the Christian minority in Bethlehem and on life in beleaguered Gaza. In ?The Samaritan?s Secret,? the scene shifts to the West Bank city of Nablus and the lives of the Samaritans, an ethno-cultural minority of some 600 souls living mainly in the area of Mount Gerizim, near Nablus, and Holon, south of Tel Aviv, who are caught in the middle of the struggle between the two peoples. With their religion originally an offshoot of pre-rabbinic Judaism, they have a foot in the camps of both the Jews and the Palestinians, yet are on the periphery of each.The book initially revolves around the mystery surrounding the theft of the Samaritans? Abisha Torah scroll, whose importance lies in the belief that it plays a part in the redemption of the world. The scroll, said to have been written by the son of the High Priest Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, is taken out only on Passover in a ceremony on Mount Gerizim. If the scroll is gone, there can be no procession and no sacrifice, and therefore, according to belief, the sect will cease to exist and the Messiah will be unable to arrive.Policeman Sami Jaffari is sent to investigate, and he brings along his friend Omar Yussef, who has come to Nablus for Sami?s wedding. Omar Yussef, the amateur sleuth of all three books, is a 57-year-old history teacher and the principal of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency Girls School in Deheisheh, near Bethlehem. Fastidious, with a taste for mauve shoes, a careful comb-over and a treasured Mont Blanc pen, he is an unlikely hero. But he is decent and clear-sighted, and personifies the response to Edmund Burke?s dictum that ?all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.? In his hapless way, he tries his best.The Abisha scroll is mysteriously returned, though priest Jibril Ben-Tabia is shifty about why that might be. Then, dramatically, the body of Ishaq, Jibril?s adopted son, is found tortured and murdered on the very stone that marks the place the Samaritans believe to have been the site of the Temple.Ishaq, it turns out, was gay. He was also the personal financial advisor ?(and perhaps more?) to the former ?old president,? who is never actually named, but whose spot-on description − ?leering like a lounge lizard beneath his checked keffiyeh? − is unmistakable. As financial advisor, Ishaq might very well have known where the missing millions that disappeared after Yasser Arafat?s death might be. A World Bank employee is also on the hunt, because if the $300 million in missing funds isn?t located, international donors are going to turn off the tap to the Palestinians.If there is a recurring theme in this book, it is secrecy and the deceit it leads to. Secret is piled upon secret, beginning with discarded religious documents called ?Allah?s secrets? stored in a box, like a genizah, that the priest shows to Sami and Omar Yussef in the synagogue.
The rais died of AIDSAt a Hamas-sponsored mass wedding, another secret is revealed − that the late president seemingly died of AIDS. This revelation is meant to strengthen Hamas by disparaging Fatah?s morality, but it backfires. The imputation infuriates Fatah members, and civil strife seems to be about to break out.Meanwhile, Omar Zeydan, a disillustioned, bitter former PLO operative who has become Bethlehem?s police chief and serves as a cynical counterpart to his old friend Omar Yussef, has secrets of his own. He is still in love with Liana, the wife of one of Nablus?s richest men, and he fears that his own misdeeds might be on record in files Arafat compiled on PLO members in an effort to control them. Could Ishaq have had the files and given them to Hamas in return for the missing scroll?From here, the plot becomes a kaleidoscope of violence and counter-violence. No powerful group comes off well − not corrupt members of Fatah who live in luxury on money intended for the people, and not violent Hamas adherents, gangs of gunmen, or arrogant, self-righteous religious leaders. All of them have plenty to conceal.Some secrets are resolved in a dramatic denouement that takes the protagonists back to Mount Gerizim, where the missing money and files, and the true story of Ishaq?s parentage, are discovered. But other secrets may never be revealed − and that, muses Omar Yussef, is probably for the best. His wife, for example, whom he loves in spite of her conventional ideas, may well have her own secrets, ?complicated elements of her character about which he knew nothing.? And the secrets of his friend Omar Zeydan will forever remain hidden, because Omar Yussef has taken the opportunity to destroy the secrets documented in the lost files. In fact, he believes, we all have secrets that can be misinterpreted if they are viewed through a biased prism. What can save this fragmented society, then, is openness, tolerance and understanding. Unfortunately, those are in short supply.Just as interesting as the plot machinations, which sometimes rely a little too obviously on melodrama and coincidence, is the fascinating picture Rees draws of Palestinian daily life, in which family, clan and gender roles play so important a part. Even the food, lovingly described, sounds marvelous: qanafi ?(a syrupy goat cheese and shredded wheat sweet that is a specialty of Nablus?), huwarna ?(yogurt with mustard seeds and mint?), jarjeer ?(arugula, lemon juice and sumac?), baqdounsiyya ?(chopped parsley and sesame paste?), and of course hummus, which bears little relation to the Israeli supermarket variety. ?(Says Omar Yussef, tongue in cheek: ?Your plan to bring peace to the town by making the gunmen sleepy with hummus may work. Leave a big plate outside your door at night and in the morning you?ll find a group of contented Israeli soldiers snoozing in the street.??)Among other local customs, the reader learns that when a man asks the family of a young woman for permission to marry her and coffee is served, the answer is ?yes? if the coffee is sweet, ?no? if it is bitter. Who knew? But one should know, because if there is to be any hope for our beleaguered region, it lies in the mutual attempt to understand the lives of those on the other side.Hope also lies in the efforts of men like Omar Yussef, whom Rees has said is based on a real character. What inspires the amateur detective is his beloved granddaughter Nadia, who flits through the three books as an inspiration for the future and a touchstone for what is good in the world. ?(In a sly inside joke, she is reading Raymond Chandler and writing her own mystery novel, titled ?The Curse of the Casbah.??)All in all, the Omar Yussef mystery series attempts to show that as long as there are good men − and Rees evidently believes that there are − there is hope.Carol Novis is a Tel Aviv-based writer and editor who has worked for many publications in Israel and abroad
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