One of the more interesting literary trends of recent years is the notable increase in the number of novels, mysteries and stories set in the Middle East and told from the points-of-view of those born to the region. Some of this fiction is written by citizens of that part of the world and some of it by Westerners who have spent significant segments of their own lives there. Regardless of the author’s origin, however, the best of this new fiction presents memorable insights into everyday Muslim culture that are seldom as memorably obtainable from histories or other nonfiction written about the area.
Matt Beynon Rees, himself from Wales, but living in Jerusalem, has written one of the better ones with A Grave in Gaza, the second novel in his Omar Yussef mystery series.
Omar Yussef, in his mid-fifties, is the principal of a U.N. sponsored refugee school on the West Bank where he also teaches history. As the novel opens he is accompanying his boss, a U.N. employee from Sweden, on what is to be an inspection tour of U.N. schools in Gaza. But some things are not to be and, because the two men discover almost immediately upon their arrival in Gaza that a local U.N. schoolteacher has been arrested on trumped-up spying and collaboration charges, the inspection tour is forgotten in their efforts to gain the teacher’s release before he is tortured or killed by those who hold him.
Yussef is a relatively simple man who has a keen sense of right and wrong, a man who loves his wife and grandchildren, and who feels a strong personal obligation to seek justice in a world gone mad, just the world he finds in Gaza. What starts as a simple quest to free a fellow teacher he has never met, becomes much more complicated when Yussef ignores a warning that there is no such thing as a “single, isolated crime (in Gaza)” and that his insistence upon freeing his colleague will anger and threaten some powerful and ruthless men who are willing to do whatever it takes to stop Yussef’s snooping.
In a matter of days, violence becomes the order of the day and Omar Yussef desperately struggles to make sense of the several, almost tribal, factions that compete to dominate what passes for local government in Gaza while trying to stay alive long enough to free both the schoolteacher and his Swedish boss who has by now been kidnaped by unknown gunmen.
A Grave in Gaza is a wonderfully atmospheric novel, especially in terms of the prolonged dust storm that dominates the area, and almost the story itself, during most of Yussef’s stay in Gaza. It leaves the reader with a feel for what everyday life in Gaza must be like for those who simply desire to live normal lives with their families amidst a society dominated by crime, corruption, violence, and a religious war that uses their children as disposable, human explosives. Some will consider A Grave in Gaza to be a political novel, some a mystery, and others will call it a thriller. However they categorize the book, most readers will agree that Rees has written a first rate novel and will look forward to the third Omar Yussef mystery.
Rated at: 5.0