Yussef is a decent man in a very bad place. He is the principal and
teacher at a United Nations-run school in Bethlehem, achieving his
post through what passes for attrition in the area (the former
principal was killed by a bomb). While Yussef is a fictitious
character, the creation of reporter Matt Beynon Rees, there is a
real-world sense about him that for all practical purposes
transcends the fiction in which he appears. To put it another way,
Rees has the goods like few others do.
A GRAVE IN GAZA is only the second in a series of Omar Yussef
mysteries, but the character is such that, upon beginning this
masterful novel, you feel as if you are meeting an old friend,
albeit under horrible circumstances. It is Yussef’s lot to
escort his new boss, Magnus Wallender, on a tour of UN schools in
the Gaza Strip. Rees thoughtfully includes a map of the area as an
introduction to A GRAVE IN GAZA, one that speaks volumes even
before you get into the meat of the book. One can hardly imagine
how such a small territory can be the focal point of so much
misery, yet there it is. No matter; Yussef and Wallender have
barely arrived in Gaza when they are mired in controversy.
Eyad Masharawi, a teacher at one of the UN schools who also works
at a local university, has accused the head of the institution of
selling degrees. He is almost immediately arrested and charged with
collaborating with the CIA. Despite being warned off of involvement
in their attempts to free Masharawi, Wallender and Yussef persist.
Wallender is then inexplicably kidnapped by a shadowy group of
outlaws who hold him for ransom, demanding in exchange the freedom
of one of their members, who himself is under arrest for the murder
of an officer of one of the Palestinian security forces. When
another UN official is killed in a roadside bomb explosion, the UN,
except for Yussef, officially withdraws from the area.
Yussef is left to attempt to save both Wallender and Masharawi. His
only guidance is the maxim that in Gaza, all crimes are connected.
Yussef is left to somehow connect the dots, improbable as such a
task may be, between Mashawari’s arrest, Wallender’s
kidnapping, the officer’s murder --- and the theft of a
prototype missile that was to be reverse-engineered and used
against the Israelis. Unable to fully trust even his friends,
Yussef is at risk in a land where the only consistent rule is that
the man who is in front of you is merely the next in line to kill
It is difficult to adequately describe how well written A GRAVE IN
GAZA is. Rees easily could have made Israel the scapegoat for each
of the events taking place in this series or picked a more likely
protagonist (A Palestinian? Working for the UN? As a hero?).
Yussef, however, is wonderful, struggling not so much against
groups as against individuals who are the manifestation of evil in
the middle of what could be reasonably equated an interfamilial
barfight that has lasted for thousands of years. What is equally
noteworthy, though, is that while Rees has done yeoman’s work
in accurately depicting the backdrop of this tale, he has also
created an intriguing mystery with a satisfactory solution. Add
Rees and Yussef to your must-read list.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011