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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hard men have the most reason to weep


THE SAMARATIN'S SECRET, by Matt Beynon Rees. Mariner Books, 2010, 310 pp., $13.95 (paperback)

Ever since I saw the 1967 film "In the Heat of the Night," in which black homicide detective Virgil Tibbs (played by Sidney Poitier) brought a redneck killer to justice in Sparta, Mississippi, I confess to having been totally hooked on the "ethnic detective" genre. It's a popular formula because it allows for an almost infinite variety of historical and cultural backdrops, all the while enabling justice to prevail in the end.

Enter Omar Yussef, the creation of Matt Beynon Rees, a Welsh journalist who served six years as Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine. A pudgy, aging Palestinian schoolteacher from Bethlehem, West Bank, Omar Yussef is more of a kindly uncle than a Sam Spade, but nonetheless happens to be tenacious, skilled at deduction and grounded in common-sense logic — which in the tense, faction-ridden atmosphere of the West Bank can be risky, even deadly, attributes.

Omar Yussef is visiting the city of Nablus with his family to attend the wedding of Sami Jaffari, a young policeman. Soon after his arrival, Ishaq, the adopted son of the Samaritans' high priest, is found murdered in a backdrop that not so subtly retells of the story of Old Testament patriarch Abraham offering to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of faith.

Ishaq, blessed with a brilliant mind for business, was apparently killed because he knew the whereabouts of funds allegedly embezzled by the late PLO head Yassir Arafat. Unless the missing money is restored, the World Bank is threatening to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians. But some would rather keep the money themselves, and are willing to kill for it.

The victim, it turns out, was conceived out of wedlock — a rarity in conservative Muslim society — and the mystery over Ishaq's true paternity adds extra pieces to the puzzle.

Omar Yussef teams up with Khamis Zeidan, a tough cop of the same generation who has survived decades of armed struggle with little to show for it but alcoholism, a missing hand and failing kidneys.

Rees does a good job describing the mosques, bazaars and steam baths of Nablus, and in the bargain readers also get a fascinating lesson in the beliefs and practices of the remnants of the Samaritan sect, an ancient offshoot of Judaism. His dramatis personae are imbued with well defined roles, and the book's lively dialogue — alternating flowery Arabic politesse with the coarse language of militia fighters — enhances the characters' appeal.

When Khamis Zeidan gets emotional at the wedding, Omar Yussef asks his old friend, "Tears? A tough guy like you?" and the old fighter gives this wonderfully quotable reply: "No one has more reason to weep than a hard man."

Along with a mystery, "The Samaritan's Secret" conveys the tribulations of the Palestinians through three divergences: religious versus secular; those who rely on violence, as opposed to those to attempt to achieve peaceful reconciliation; and the pursuit of personal gain over social equality.



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