weekend reading: The Collaborator of Bethlehem
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 12, 2008
Last weekend was an utter reading binge for me, thanks to the long flights between New York and Oklahoma City. I indulged shamelessly in mysteries: two Donna Leons, thanks to my aunt’s recommendations and my own fond memories of a stay in Venice with the Abu Owlfishes fourteen years ago (where does the time go?).
And I also read a book that I had ordered several months ago but never quite managed to open: Matt Rees’ The Collaborator of Bethlehem, a mystery involving a Christian man accused of collaborating with the Israelis and an elderly Muslim school-teacher determined to clear the man, his former pupil.
This was a hard book to read. Not because it is badly written or the plot stumbles – on the contrary, it is well written and the plot is gripping, in a quiet, menacing way. For me, it was hard to read because having been to Bethlehem and seen the shuttered shops around the Church of the Manger, as well as the beautiful big houses built when people there were making money in the 1990s (or thanks to remittance from abroad), I can imagine the economic desperation. And it was also hard because having heard Christian residents mourn their declining numbers as the younger generation gets visas to leave the country, I can imagine the sectarian tensions that Rees describes.
What I didn’t see when I was in Bethlehem was the way the town is governed: by the Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade, according to Rees. And much of the tension that seeps into each successive page comes from the control that its za’im-like leaders exert over the population.
The Israelis are a presence in the book, but it is a muted one. They appear directly only twice: once, when a squad of tanks and helicopters arrives one afternoon to tear up the road in front of the school-teacher’s house, destroying water and sewer pipes that leave his family without water and with the neighborhood’s sewage pouring into their basement; and once when they arrive to search a neighbor’s apartment and bring the apartment building’s residents to the school-teacher’s house to wait out the search.
But in a way, they are a non-issue: their existence sets the parameters of life in Bethlehem, but it is the Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade that looms large over political and economic life.
This is a well-written, gripping book, but it is a hard book to read because the innocent are not spared and the guilty are not punished. I recommend it whole-heartedly, but I also warn you: if you are sentimental, read it with a box of kleenex nearby. And if you have hopes for good governance in Palestine, you may end the book with a heavy heart.