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Bookshelf – Understanding people: Absorbing fact through fiction

The Samaritan’s Secret
Matt Beynon Rees
Soho Press, 2009
$26.50, 310 pages

Pray for Us Sinners
Patrick Taylor
Insomniac Press, 2000
Used up to $ 60.00

Richard Holbrooke in his forward in Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 notes that “some of the most intractable problems of the modern world have roots in decisions made right after the end of the Great War.” Few observers would argue with MacMillan’s assessment that Britain created a dilemma for its Palestinian mandate of the interwar years, and for all future world leaders, by promising the Jews a homeland in territory inhabited by Arabs while at the same time encouraging Arab revolts against the Ottomans by promising them independence.

MacMillan also notes early in her book that the 1919 peace negotiators set aside the question of Irish independence as “domestic matter for the British.” Although the Southern part of Ireland achieved independence in 1922 as “Eire,” it appears that portion of the Emerald Isle is still an ongoing “domestic problem” for Britain.

Those Paris talks of course affected people, MacMillan notes in an aside. To better understand the people who populate today’s headlines from Palestine or Northern Ireland, some of the most gripping and educational reading can be found in fictional thrillers.

Omar Yussef may well do for today’s Palestinian society what Oliver Twist and Micawber did for English society in Victorian London by making readers aware of the life lived by the inhabitants in the Palestinian sovereign entities either within the West Bank or in Gaza. Yussef, a character in a mystery series by Matt Beynon Rees, is a teacher at a refugee camp school in Bethlehem forced into the role of detective. The three Yussef mysteries published to date, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, A Grave in Gaza, and in 2009, The Samaritan’s Secret, reveal much more than “who dun it.” In seeking solutions to crimes, Yussef sublimely shares insight into the internal conflicts in three Palestinian communities.

Rees also provides a perspective not easily captured in current non-fiction – Yussef’s relationship with the women in his life, in particular his wife, Maryam.

Rees has skillfully woven an intriguing thriller against a backdrop of somewhat “ordinary” people coping with the deep divisions in Palestinian society. One can only hope for the emergence of an Israeli counterpart to “Yussef” to throw light on the vicious splits in Israeli society that Rees writes about in his non-fiction book, Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide and Fear in the Middle East. That book’s thesis, that peace is unattainable until Palestinians and Israelis solve their own internal rifts, is more likely to reach a wider audience through characters like Omar Yussef than through the real people named in his non-fiction case studies.

In Pray for Us Sinners, the people on either side of The Troubles in Northern Ireland are given a face and a voice by an Irish doctor who immigrated to Canada to practice medicine. Though his home is British Columbia, Dr. Patrick Taylor returns to his Irish roots to explore the human dimension revolving around an IRA “bomber,” a British spy, and their evolving relationship.

A Special Kind of Courage, discussed in the July/August 2007 issue of Vanguard, described the perspective of a British EOD officer but without the personal details that make Taylor’s fictional account so absorbing. The interplay of power hungry chiefs, intelligence processes and personal loyalties, not to mention romance on both sides of the Irish civil war in the North, will enlighten as well as sadden.

Unfortunately, the Irish conflict remains a British problem, although Canadian general John de Chastelain played a role in the most recent peace process that appears to be holding somewhat shakily at time of writing.

Canada’s Insomniac Press is to be commended for bringing us Taylor’s thriller, which forces us to recognize that the struggle cannot be understood in black and white terms. Both this thriller and any one of the Omar Yussef mysteries call to mind the advice I received from a colleague in Yugoslavia before I deployed in 1993: “There are no good guys, only victims and villains!”

If you don’t have time to do in-depth historical or political reading, indulge yourself with some gripping fiction and learn in the process.

Roy Thomas, who has deep Irish roots, lived in Jerusalem for seven months and was hi-jacked in South Lebanon while with UNTSO.

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