Rees, Matt - 'The Samaritan's Secret'
THE SAMARITAN'S SECRET by former journalist and Time bureau chief Matt Rees is the third in his series of Palestinian noir novels featuring history teacher Omar Yussef. This novel is set in the West Bank town of Nablus, home to the ancient Samaritan sect, and much affected by the second Intifada.
At the beginning of the book, Omar Yussef is staying with his family in Nablus, away from his Bethlehem home, to attend a friend's wedding, the policeman Sami Jaffari. Omar Yussef is invited along by a police friend to help investigate the disappearance of a sacred ancient Samaritan scroll, the Abisha scroll. By the time they get to the Samaritans' village on the mountainside above Nablus, the scroll has been returned, but events have taken a rather more sinister turn, when the body of Ishaq, the adopted son of the Samaritans' high priest is found under a tree. Ishaq had a complicated personal life, as a closet homosexual with a wife but no children, violating many cultural norms, and an even more complicated professional life: he worked for the Palestinian Authority, and as a former financial advisor to Yasser Arafat, "the Old Man", he knew the location of hundreds of millions of dollars of missing Palestinian aid money. Money that needs to be found within a week, or the World Bank will withdraw all aid funding to the Palestinians. Omar Yussef finds that there are many who would like to lay their hands on that money for their own purposes, and who would resort to violence. To ratchet up the tension even further, rumours abound that "the Old Man" died of AIDS, leading to explosive divisions between the Fatah and Hamas supporters in Nablus.
THE SAMARITAN'S SECRET provides a sensitive and fascinating portrait of Palestinian life and culture, both at grassroots and the political level, imaginatively evoking the smells, food and customs of the casbah, cafes and bathhouses. Omar Yussef literally searches high and low for the money and to unveil the murderer - from the depths of the casbah and underground passages to Mount Jerizim, home of the Samaritans. Omar Yussef himself is an engaging but slightly implausible hero - even within the constraints of thriller fiction, it does stretch credibility as to why so many hard-nosed businessmen, politicians and religious leaders are quite so willing to talk to a fairly humble teacher from a UN school. Another slight oddity, particularly given recent events, is that the Israelis are rather shadowy background figures in the book, referred to almost in passing in the context of Israeli soldiers carrying out night raids on the Casbah. Matt Rees is more interested in showing the struggle for power between Hamas and Fatah, neither emerging with a great deal of credit, whilst the ordinary Palestinian people cope with deprivation and difficult living conditions. Overall THE SAMARITAN'S SECRET is an intriguing, complex thriller giving a compelling insight into the politics, culture and day to day family life in this Palestinian city.
Laura Root, England