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Reporter creates fictional detective to tell Palestinian story

JERUSALEM—Omar Yussef lay on the stone-cold floor of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity staring up at the steel blade of a hunting knife.

On a quest to rescue a former student accused of collaborating with Israel, in the revered spot where Christians believe that Jesus was born, the elderly Palestinian schoolteacher's life looked as if it were about to come to a gruesome end.

Detectives have been hailed as heroes in novels throughout the ages—from Agatha Christie's spinster sleuth, Miss Marple, to Robert Langdon, the Harvard-University-professor-turned-reluctant-detective in Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code"—and former Time magazine Jerusalem Bureau Chief Matt Benyon Rees has created an equally unlikely example: Yussef, the stubborn do-gooder in the literary world's first Palestinian detective series.

Yussef starting coming to life four years ago when Rees was standing in a cabbage patch near Bethlehem talking to the family of a Palestinian militant whom Israeli soldiers had killed with the aid of a local collaborator.

Even as Rees soaked up the tale, he knew that the details would command no more than a few sentences in his magazine. After nearly a decade of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rees began to see the limits of journalism and sought out other ways to tell the story.

Enter Omar Yussef, an irascible teacher at a local United Nations school for refugee children. Ignoring warnings from the police chief, militants and even his wife not to venture into the murky, cold-blooded Palestinian underworld, Yussef sets off to clear his former student's name.

Rees, 39, sees "The Collaborator of Bethlehem," published this month in the United States by Soho Press, as the first of a series that might bring Palestinian society to life in a way that newspaper stories and magazine articles can't.

"In many respects, with the news here, we've gone beyond the state where it has an emotional impact," Rees said. "When I first came here, people in New York would hear about a suicide bombing that killed 18 or 20 people and it did have an emotional impact. Now I don't think it does. And the fact that Palestinians are dying in fairly large numbers, often at their own hands, has even less impact than some act of terrorism between the two sides."

As Yussef works to save his former student, the book captures the texture and nuance of daily Palestinian life, filled with unsweetened coffee, complex internal Muslim-Christian relations and well-meaning characters caught up in ethically ambiguous events.

Rees said he wanted the book to help readers see the Middle East conflict with a more personal connection. "Next time they look at the newspaper and the bare statistics, I want them to think: `That's a friend of Omar. That's someone I might be reading about in the book.' I want it to have a kind of humanity they can relate to."

Unlike most books about the conflict, "The Collaborator of Bethlehem" is almost devoid of Israelis, who seem to operate on the periphery of Palestinian life. Israeli soldiers set the tale in motion by killing a Palestinian militant but rarely appear again in the tale.

"Whenever I see Palestinians and Israelis on the same page, cliches leap out at me," Rees said.

Israelis will play even less of a role in the next two books as Yussef sets out for the Gaza Strip and Nablus to embark on his new career as an amateur sleuth.

Writing Israelis out of the tale is in many ways an outgrowth of Rees' view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can't be solved until both sides resolve their internal divisions. Before bringing Yussef to life, Rees authored a well-received nonfiction book, "Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide and Fear in the Middle East," which explored that issue.

Rees, who's now focusing on his fiction, said he'd found working with Yussef much more rewarding. He isn't saying what fate may befall his detective in the coming books, but he's hoping to send Yussef to Beirut, Damascus and other parts of the globe before he retires.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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