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The Bethlehem Murders
Omar Yussef
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Book Synopsis

From the Book:  Omar Yussef is a school master in Bethlehem.  When a favourite former pupil, George Saba, is arrested for murder, Omar is convinced that George has been framed and is determined to uncover the truth behind his arrest.  But in the process he falls foul of his headmaster and the local police-chief, and time begins to run out for this teacher-turned-detective.  His classroom is bombed and members of his family are threatened.  But with no one else willing to stand up for the truth, it is up to Omar to act, even as bloodshed and heartbreak surround him.

Book Review

As implausible as it sounds Omar Yussef is a man in the middle of an awful situation that you want to meet.  Spend some time with.  Drink some sa'ada coffee.  Talk to about his Bethlehem.  Omar brings a unique perspective to murder, to power games and to fanaticism whilst simultaneously providing a human and humane view of life in his Bethlehem.  That Bethlehem is a world of conflict within and from without his own society; and the tension that changed viewpoints between generations brings.  Where once he intermixed happily with all people in the town, now there's a very different feeling and he's horrified by what he sees happening around him.
Yussef is an opinionated, "difficult" teacher in a refugee camp, he says what he thinks, he likes his pupils to think and to be challenged and he genuinely loves and cares for them - even if he's a bit grumpy with them sometimes.  So when an ex-student and friend of his, George Saba is accused of collaborating with the Israelis - a crime punishable by death - and nobody else seems to want to do anything to help, Yussef turns from teaching to detecting.  Of course, this isn't going to be quite as big a relief as the UN appointed head of his school thinks - he's been hoping Yussef will retire for years - but he really should have been more careful about cultural sensitivity when he starts putting words into Yussef's mouth.
Mind you, Yussef is not exactly perfect.  He is prone to grumpiness, he can be acerbic, he hates anointed authority, he used to have a drinking problem and he's a Muslim in a society made up of the devout and the not so devout of many religions.  But he also lives in a very complicated Palestinian society - divided between factions, religions, clans, power bases and the good and the bad.  So his complicated nature seems almost tame sometimes by comparison.  And that complication is one of the great strengths of THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS.  Incorporated alongside a complicated and complex character, there's a complex society and a series of deaths which are stark, appalling and desperately sad.  Yussef is also a character that the author has allowed to make mistakes - and he forces Yussef to face those mistakes.
The interesting balancing act in THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS surely has to be that the book tells a story of Palestinian society which has such a realistic feel to it, that really gives the reader insights into the nature of day to day life in Yussef's world, but at the same time, it provides a real plot and it moves forward through the story of Yussef and of George Saba and his family - and all the other families that are dragged into what seems like day to day violence.  And under it all there's a message that fanaticism comes in all sorts of different forms - and sometimes it's not directed outwards.

All Reviews of Books by this Author

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