(The city of Nablus on the West Bank)
Matt Benyon Rees’ third installment in his Omar Yussef mysteries, THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET, attains the same level of character development, stimulating plot line, and insight into the political and social conditions that form the basis of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as his first two novels in the series. The story begins in the city of Nablus, located on the West Bank, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Nablus remained under Israeli occupation until it was returned to the Palestinian Authority, which has governed it since 1995. Nablus has been a hotbed of radical Palestinian nationalism, with a strong Hamas presence which continued even after it split with the Palestinian Authority in 2006. For the Palestinians, even after it was granted autonomy it still felt like they were being occupied by the Israeli army with its numerous checkpoints that had to be navigated on a daily basis.
Omar Yussef, a fifty-seven year old, physically unfit history teacher in the Dehaisha refugee camp travels to Nablus to attend the wedding of his friend Lieutenant Sami Jaffari, a Nablus policeman when a robbery is reported at the Samaratin synagogue, a repository for the religious sect’s historical documents. The Samaritans claimed to be descendants from the biblical Israelites and remained in Nablus after many of their brethren were exiled to Babylon. While investigating the break-in, which they learn had already been solved, a murder is reported on Mount Terzim, near the Samaritan temple. It turns out that the murder victim, Ishaq was the son of Jibril Ben-Tabia, the head priest of the Samaritan people. The victim also worked for the Palestinian Authority as the unofficial advisor for the deceased “old man,” a.k.a Yasir Arafat. When in power, Arafat’s financial policy was remarkably medieval, based on the head of the Palestinian Authority doling out funds as he saw fit. It was a corrupt system that members of the younger Palestinian generation and radical elements within the community vehemently opposed, as they hoped to install modern financial institutions once Israel granted them total independence. After Arafat’s death, Ishaq went to work for Amin Kannan, one of the richest men in Arab Palestine.
Hamas politics permeate the novel. For example, a wedding was planned for fifteen couples which would allow a radical sheik to address the guests. In reality this was nothing more than a political rally to spread Hamas’ propaganda. Further, the corrupt political establishment of Nablus had far reaching tentacles and Lt. Jaffari feared if he continued his investigation into Ishaq’s murder he might be returned to Gaza, where he was once exiled. Jaffari also feared that his fiancé, Meisour would be denied the necessary papers to travel from Gaza for their wedding. With Jaffari’s reticence to follow leads it fell to Omar Yussef to figure out why Ishaq was murdered, and who was behind it.
Rees does a commendable job exploring the political and economic realities that pervade the city of Nablus and other towns under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority. The role of radical clerics, Hamas, and the Israeli army are all major factors in the everyday life of the Palestinian people, and the author integrates them throughout the novel. But for the Palestinians, the corruption endemic to the Arafat regime comes home to roost as the World Bank threatens to cut off aid unless millions of dollars that Arafat dispersed was not recovered- as the money was geared toward building hospitals, schools, and infrastructure projects. To protect the future Palestinian state, the money had to be found.
The Palestinian Authority-Hamas civil war keeps resurfacing as the story unfolds and what seems obvious at certain point’s turns out to be totally untrue. Rees is a master story teller and has an excellent feel for the plight of the Palestinian people. He has written a crime mystery, but in reality it is a window into what is truly the historical tragedy of the Palestinian people.
(Nablus, the commercial center of the West Bank)