The Samaritan's Secret: Part 1

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NABLUS, West Bank — Black flags and palm fronds, symbols of Islamic mourning, rattled against the rusty oil drum where they stood, rustling in the hot wind over the rooftops of the Nablus casbah.

In the Jumayel home, the men sat under a black canopy, chain-smoking, tense and quiet. I found the dead man’s brother, drank the mourner’s bitter coffee, and asked him to tell me a story that would change everything I had thought I knew about the Palestinians.

Under the black tarp, Amin Jumayel shuffled through a stack of photos of his brother’s naked corpse, everywhere bruised purple. Not, as you might expect, dead at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Rather, tortured to death by Palestinian policemen in the prison just along the valley.

“The responsibility for my brother’s death lies with the Palestinian Authority,” Amin mumbled. “We have no democracy. Everyone’s frightened.”

I came to the Middle East back in 1996 as a journalist to write what I believed would be the story of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Most foreign correspondents did just that. But not me. I had an advantage, something that spelled out for me the complexity, the corruption of the West Bank. I knew Nablus.

I reported how the peace process degenerated into the all-out warfare of the intifada, and I’ve watched the Palestinian civil war plunge seamlessly into the Israeli onslaught against Gaza this year. I’ve seen men fight, surveyed their dismembered bodies in the street and in the morgues.

But I’ve always returned to that conversation with Amin Jumayel — my first visit to the West Bank — as the instant when I saw what really was happening here. The line connecting that solitary death in the Nablus prison 13 years ago with the mess in which the Palestinians find themselves today runs through Nablus.

"The Samaritan’s Secret," the third book in my Palestinian detective series, uses the real events I’ve covered in Nablus as a reporter.

The novel is based on the facts gathered on the ground.  I wove that traditional reporting into my own fiction to develop a theory of what might have happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money salted away by Yasser Arafat. It also examines the battle between the Hamas and Fatah factions contending for control of the city’s ancient casbah. Most of all it’s my homage to the wonderful people I’ve met in desperate circumstances in Nablus and to the Palestinian city I love above all others for the historic sense of mystery I find in its ancient alleys.

The pyrotechnic struggle between violence and democracy seems to catch the headlines most when it occurs in Gaza. Foreign journalists also like to write about Ramallah, because it’s close to their offices in Jerusalem. But Nablus? Many Americans haven’t heard of the place. Yet historically it was more important than Gaza or even Jerusalem, sitting in a pass on the trade routes to the East.

Until the intifada blew it apart, Nablus was the most important center of commerce for the Palestinians, manufacturing soap and halva. It was famous for a dessert of goat’s cheese baked with syrupy shredded wheat called qanafi.

Now it’s known mainly for masked militants, corruption and murder.

That makes it the perfect place to understand what’s really happening to the Palestinians — and, unfortunately for the people of Nablus, the ideal setting for a crime novel.

I wrote "The Samaritan’s Secret" because I wanted to expose the corruption of Palestinian political and military leaders. That’s not because I’m anti-Palestinian. It’s because I’ve heard so many ordinary Palestinians over the years complain about the people who govern them. You rarely hear what these people have to say. Their media is tightly controlled and fearful. Speak up on the street and at best they’d get a dreadful beating. Though I’ve written occasional articles about them, I hope my novel will give them a true and lasting voice.

How bad was the corruption these people lived with? In real terms the Palestinians have frittered away more money than Germany received to rebuild after World War II under the Marshall Plan — $4 billion in little more than a decade. Arafat skimmed off $1 billion-plus to secret accounts (U.S. State Department-backed auditors later recovered $800 million) and 65 percent of the budget went to a dozen militias designated as official “security forces.” Even if Israel hadn’t occasionally destroyed Palestinian infrastructure with its tanks and F16s, there’d still be little to show for all that cash.

The result: everybody hated the regime and followed extreme alternatives. At a funeral for two Hamas leaders killed by an Israeli missile in 2001, I noticed that the biggest contingent among the marchers brandished the yellow flag of Hezbollah along with their M-16s. Hamas garnered tremendous support by paying for a dozen weddings at a big ceremony I reproduced in my novel, where the grooms rode in on white Arabian stallions.

In the end, however, it wasn’t the noisy moments of strife or celebration that struck me most about Nablus. In the oldest neighborhood of the casbah, off a vaulted junction of four alleys where the smell of damp mingles with the cardamom scent in the corner spice shop, I often visit the Abdel Hadi Palace. Once the home of a wealthy family, it’s populated now by poor refugees. The 200-year-old palace is decrepit and stinks of sewage. Every time I stop by, there seems to be a shoeless child playing in the mud of the courtyard.

I once pointed out the irony of his home’s former glory to a young refugee there. “It’s not a palace anymore,” he said. “They don’t let people like us live in a palace.”

They. The mysterious, unnameable figures who wield authority, who possess money and the power over life and death. I made them into the bad guys of my novel. And they’re real.

The Samaritan's Secret Part 2: How the Samaritans straddle the Israelis and the Palestinians

The Samaritan's Secret Part 3: How Palestinians videotape evidence

(Matt Beynon Rees’s latest Palestinian crime novel "The Samaritan’s Secret" was published Feb. 1 by Soho Press.)