Mystery And Decay In An Ancient, Occupied City Crime writer Matt Beynon Rees explores the layers of history and decay that characterize Nablus, a 2,000-year-old Palestinian city in the northern part of the occupied West Bank.
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Mystery And Decay In An Ancient, Occupied City

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Mystery And Decay In An Ancient, Occupied City

Mystery And Decay In An Ancient, Occupied City

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

An ancient city, an enigmatic religious sect, corruption, murders and a schoolteacher-turned-detective determined to solve a mystery.

Today, our Crime in the City mystery novel series takes us to the 2,000-year-old city the Romans called Neopolis, or New Town. Today, it's called Nablus, the Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank.

The layers of history and bustling old Casbah in Nablus are inspiration and setting for Matt Beynon Rees' forthcoming novel, "The Samaritan's Secret." It's the latest in his Omar Yussef mystery series. NPR's Eric Westervelt takes us there with the author.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ERIC WESTERVELT: Its peak long past, Nablus' old Casbah still bustles. Local vendors ply their wares along the narrow stone streets.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: There's a decaying, yet still vibrant, feel to the market. Boys hawk pirated DVDs and cheap Chinese plastic ware beneath Ottoman-era architecture where, at times, the smell of fresh-baked pita bread blends distastefully with the Nablus' still-underdeveloped sewage system.

Mr. MATT BEYNON REES (Mystery Writer): All these alleys that we're going to be walking down are covered, vaulted. There's the smell of damp because the sun never gets to them. To me, the Casbah is the perfect setting for a mystery novel because it is a mysterious place.

WESTERVELT: For years, Matt Rees covered news in Nablus as the Jerusalem bureau chief for Time Magazine. Now a mystery writer, Rees has returned to Nablus to set the third installment of his Omar Yussef mystery series. Underfoot, there are remains of empires. Above, posters of dead young Palestinian men in heroic poses clutching rifles adorn the stone walls.

Mr. REES: People are living in strange little apartments underneath other apartments, underneath other buildings that were built 200 years ago. The roots of this go back through the Turkish period to the Ayyubids and right way to the Romans.

WESTERVELT: As a reporter, Rees covered political rallies, shootings and all sorts of events in Nablus. In the daily news narrative, this city is known for lawlessness, masked militants and Israeli military raids. But as a novelist, Rees says, he's trying to get at something he wasn't able to do much as a reporter: explore how ordinary people live. To do that, he says, he's had to see the city in a whole new way.

Mr. REES: Because as a journalist, you're really only looking to assess what's happening right now, why it's happening and maybe what it's going to mean in the next couple of weeks. But as a writer of fiction, I want to know maybe it's that music that keeps people going. You know, so what is that music? And it's in these places that I feel you find the most emotionally real elements of a town.

WESTERVELT: Deeper into Nablus' old city, tucked away from the bustle, up a steep staircase, we enter the courtyard of collapsing palace. It was once a grand Nablus mansion of the Tukans, a wealthy family of traders.

Mr. REES: And now we'll find many poor families living in what used to be the home of one rich family.

WESTERVELT: The roof is long gone. Weeds are growing almost ornately out of cracks in the high stone walls. The fountain of the once-regal courtyard is choked with garbage. In Rees' novel, this broke-down palace, home to squatters and militants on the run, is a key setting for the book's action.

Mr. REES: They live in the palace, but the palace becomes a slum. So everything is turned around from what you would expect, and that's what I'm trying to show about Palestine. It's never what you would expect.

WESTERVELT: Through a side door, you enter an overgrown orchard and garden in the heart of urban Nablus. The sun is beating down on long-neglected olive, pomegranate and lemon tress in this hidden, decaying garden.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: A few squatters are eating lunch. A teenager nearby is feeding a mangy horse as the midday call to prayer begins.

Mr. REES: To stand in a place like this and look at the enormous hills right around the town, because it's in this deep valley, and to feel the heat, feel this heat, it's so intense. You just sweat standing here.

It's wonderful. I've always loved it, and I've always try to capture that, you know, on every page. It's incredible to see it.

(Soundbite of horse)

WESTERVELT: In his first two books in the series, Rees exposed his readers to others, less-well-known facets of Palestinian society. His detective, Omar Yussef, tangled with militants targeting the Arab Christian minority in "The Collaborator of Bethlehem," and waded into a web of clan and factional intrigues in "A Grave in Gaza."

Now "The Samaritan's Secret" centers on Nablus and the tiny ancient religious sect whose some 700 members still live on the outskirts of the city. In the novel, Omar Yussef races against time and the bad guys to solve a slew of mysteries: murdered Samaritans, missing scrolls and millions of dollars stolen, perhaps by a corrupt Palestinian leader.

To solve the murders and avert further disaster in Nablus, Omar Yussef must explore the religious sect and its holy sites, including Mount Gerizim, which overlooks Nablus.

Mr. REES: They believe that they had an ancient temple here, where that sloping stone is, that's been destroyed.

WESTERVELT: Samaritans believe it was here, on Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, where Abraham offered to sacrifice Isaac. Samaritans claim they're descendants of ancient Israelites who survived the Assyrian conquest of the Holy Land and remained here during the Babylonian exile and preserved what they see as the true religion of the Israelites.

In "The Samaritan's Secret," Mount Gerizim is the site of the novel's first murder. The detective comes to see the Samaritans' ancient torah scroll right before the Samaritans' big feast of the sacrifice. But while there, the priest he's visiting hears that a Samaritan man has been beaten to death and thrown off the hill.

Mr. REES: Jareel Ben Tavyeh(ph) cradled the tannish, silver case of the Abisha scroll like a sooty newborn, rocking on his heels as if to lull it to sleep. The old priest wore a thin smock, tight around his boney waist, and a cloth embroidered with a gold floral design twisted around his red fez.

He gazed over a crowd of strangers who had come to the summit of Mount Gerizim to observe his people's Passover celebration. Where was the body? Hami Saddan(ph) asked Omar Yussef.

WESTERVELT: Rees knows most of his readers will probably never visit the settings for his mysteries, but his series continues to take readers to places unexplored in the mystery genre and illustrate parts of ancient Palestinian society mystery fans might not read about anywhere else. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, with author Matt Rees in Nablus.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear Matt Beynon Rees read from "The Samaritan's Secret" and find archives of our entire Crime in the City series at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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