Matt Beynon Rees

The Samaritan's Secret

Chapter 1

Lime green paint on the domes of the neighborhood mosques punctuated the khaki limestone in the Nablus casbah. Like tarnished copper tacks, they seemed to pin the Ottoman souk and the Mamluk caravanserai to the floor of the valley. Otherwise even the stones might get up and run away from this dirty town, Omar Yussef thought.

The distant siren of an ambulance rumbled in the stomach of the city and Omar Yussef felt the last crispness of dawn burn away in the sun. With his habitually shaky hand, he stroked the meager white hairs covering his bald- ness and clicked his tongue. These few strands wouldn’t save his scalp from sunburn, and he could see that the day would be hot. Sweat itched behind his tidy gray mustache. He scratched his upper lip petulantly.

He turned from the valley and contemplated the sparse spring grass stippling the rocky flank of Mount Jerizim. Let’s see who gets burned worse-you or me, he thought. The mountain arced, sullen and taut, to the row of mansions on its ridge, as though tensing its shoulders to endure the heat of the day.

A turquoise police car pulled up. The driver’s window lowered and a smoldering cigarette butt spun onto the side-walk. “Greetings, ustaz,” Sami Jaffari said. “Get in.”

Omar Yussef left the paltry shade of the lacquered pinewood canopy outside his hotel, opened the door of the patrol car and stretched a stiff leg into the passenger’s side.

“Grandpa, morning of joy.”

Bracing himself against the car door, Omar Yussef looked up. From the balcony of a second floor room, his granddaughter waved. In her other hand, she clutched a book. He wiggled his fingers to her in greeting. “Morning of light, Nadia, my darling,” he said.

“Don’t forget, you’re taking me to eat qanafi today.”

Omar Yussef’s mustache curled downward. Sweet things were not to his taste. But Nablus was famous for this dessert of goat cheese and syrupy shredded wheat, and this was Nadia’s first time in the town. He anticipated that the inquisitive, methodical thirteen-year-old would want to compare the qanafi from a range of bakeries and he would have to gulp it all down and grin indulgently. Even his considerable prejudice in culinary matters couldn’t outweigh his love for this girl. He waved to her again. “If Allah wills it, we’ll eat qanafi soon,” he said.

“Sami, make sure you bring my grandpa back in time for a midmorning snack in the casbah,” Nadia called.

“He’s on official police business now,” Sami shouted. “We have to investigate the theft of a valuable historical relic.”

“I’m warning you. I’ll tell Meisoun to call off the wedding, if you don’t bring him back in time. She won’t marry you if I tell her you’re not nice to little girls.”

Sami stuck out his tongue and put a thumb to his nose. Nadia giggled as the car pulled away from the curb. “You’re going to get fat in Nablus, Abu Ramiz,” Sami said, slapping Omar Yussef on the knee.

“It’s you who’ll start to gain weight, because by the end of this week you’ll have a wife to cook for you.”

Sami swerved to avoid a long, yellow taxi that drifted languidly out of a side street. He rummaged for a pack of Dunhills in the glove compartment. “Police work in Palestine keeps me thin,” he said, shaking a cigarette loose and lighting it. “It’s four parts nervous tension and one part genuine danger. I burn more calories thinking about my day than most people would by running a marathon.”

Sami had become leaner since Omar Yussef last saw him in Gaza almost a year earlier. In the police car, Omar’s initial impression was of a healthy, contented young man, but as he looked harder he sensed this was a mask for some-thing apprehensive and angry. It was as though the police officer had been forced to swallow the criminal outrages of Nablus and had found that they ate away his muscle and left his flesh tight on his bones.

Sami picked his teeth, discolored almost to the shade of his tan by the thick coffee he drank to stay awake on long shifts. “I’m looking forward to seeing my old childhood friends at my wedding,” he said. “I’m very lucky that you and your sons were able to get permits to pass through the checkpoints. It’s been years since I spent time with Ramiz and even longer since I saw Zuheir.”

Omar Yussef forced a smile.

Sami lifted his palm, questioningly. “What’s wrong?”

“Zuheir is much changed.” Omar Yussef looked at his feet. “He’s become very religious.”

“Then he’ll be at home in Nablus. This place is one big mosque.”

“He’s very different from the boy who went off to study in Britain a few years ago.” He thought of the square-cut beard and the loose white cotton his son had taken to wearing, the regular prayers and the stern disapproving face. He didn’t know how far his son had ventured into the unbending world of indignant imams, but the question disturbed him.

“It’s lucky you gave up alcohol, or Zuheir would be trying to force some major lifestyle changes on you,” Sami said with a smile.

“If I hadn’t given up alcohol, it would’ve killed me and I might not have lived long enough to see my son become an adherent of a crazy, hard-line version of our religion.”

“May Allah forbid it.” Sami slapped Omar Yussef’s thigh. “Enough of such thoughts. This is a day of pleasures. I have to go down to the casbah later to finalize arrangements for the wedding with the sheikh. Then we’ll have a reunion with your sons at the hotel.”

“After we’ve checked on the theft at the Samaritan syna-gogue and talked to their priest.”

Sami shrugged. “Crime is also one of the pleasures of Nablus.”

“I’m a connoisseur. Thank you for bringing me.”

“I knew you’d be intrigued, as a history teacher who’s knowledgeable about all elements of Palestinian culture.” Sami sucked in some smoke. “They are part of Palestinian culture, aren’t they?”

“The Samaritans? They’ve been here longer than we have, Sami. They claim to be descended from some biblical Israelites who remained in this area when their brethren were exiled to Babylon. In a way, they’re Palestinians and Jews and neither, all at the same time.”

Sami pulled over and peered out of the window. “I think it’s in here,” he said.

Omar Yussef raised himself out of the passenger seat with a grunt. His back ached after the long ride from Bethlehem the previous day, squashed into a taxi with his wife, his granddaughter and two of his sons. To bypass the security checks around Jerusalem, they had taken the desert backroads. He was fifty-seven and unfit, so the bumpy ride and the heat had exhausted him.

On the sidewalk, Omar Yussef straightened his spine. He pushed his remaining hair into place with his palm and nudged his gold-framed glasses to the bridge of his nose with the tip of his index finger.

He looked up a walkway of cracked steps between two apartment buildings, bright green weeds cutting through the polished stone paving, creeping over the railings at each side of the path. The door of the Samaritan synagogue, set forty yards back from the road, was a tasteless metal panel painted brown to look like wood. Seven bulbous lights on long, upright stems surmounted the stone canopy at the entrance. The building was a low square faced in the same limestone as the apartment blocks around it. Its basement level was painted pink.

“I thought it would be older than this,” Sami said. He stamped out his cigarette and set off up the steps.

“They had a much older synagogue down in the casbah,” Omar Yussef said, “but they left the old town fifty years ago, because their Muslim neighbors wouldn’t sell them land to expand their homes as their community grew. So they moved up here.”

Sami waited at the top of the first flight of steps. “But they don’t even live here anymore.” He pointed above the roof of the synagogue to a cluster of buildings on the ridge of Mount Jerizim. “They went up there, out of the

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