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Mystery And Decay In An Ancient, Occupied City

The winding streets of Nablus' ancient casbah are a bustle of activity.
Eric Westervelt/NPR /
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The winding streets of Nablus' ancient casbah are a bustle of activity.
Some of the casbah's covered alleys never see the sun.
Eric Westervelt/NPR /
/
Some of the casbah's covered alleys never see the sun.
Once the dwelling of a wealthy family of traders, the Tukan Palace is now home to squatters and militants on the run.
Eric Westervelt/NPR /
/
Once the dwelling of a wealthy family of traders, the Tukan Palace is now home to squatters and militants on the run.

The market, or casbah, in the 2,000-year-old Palestinian city of Nablus is a mixture of vibrancy and decay: Boys hawk pirated DVDs and cheap Chinese plastic items beneath Ottoman-era architecture, and the smell of fresh-baked pita bread blends distastefully with the city's still-underdeveloped sewage system.

Matt Beynon Rees knows the casbah well; for years Rees served as the Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine, covering news in the occupied West Bank city. Now a mystery writer, he's returned to Nablus for the third installment of his series featuring Omar Yussef.

"To me, the casbah is the perfect setting for a mystery novel, because it is a mysterious place," says Rees. "The roots of this go back through the Turkish period to the Ayyubids and right way to the Romans."

On a recent tour through the covered alleys of the casbah, we stroll on ancient stone, the remains of empires. Up above, the walls are adorned with posters of dead young Palestinian men photographed in heroic poses clutching rifles.

This is a city known for lawlessness, masked militants and Israeli raids — all of which Rees covered as a reporter. 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 new way.

"As a journalist you're really only looking to assess what's happening right now — why it's happening," says Rees. "But as a writer of fiction, I want to know ... the most emotionally real elements of a town."

A Mysterious, Ancient Sect

Deeper into Nablus' old city, tucked away from the bustle, we enter the courtyard of Tukan Palace, once home to a family of wealthy traders. But, as Rees says, this place is never what you would expect: The palace is collapsing, its roof is long gone and weeds are growing ornately out of cracks in the high stone walls; a number of poor families now make their home here.

This broken-down palace, home to squatters and militants on the run, is a key setting for the action in Rees' new book, The Samaritan's Secret. The novel centers on Nablus and the Samaritans, a tiny, religious sect whose 700-odd members still live on the outskirts of the city. The group claims they are descendants of ancient Israelites who survived the Assyrian conquest of the Holy Land, remaining here during the Babylonian exile and preserving what they see as the "true" religion of the Israelites.

The book features a slew of mysteries — murdered Samaritans, missing scrolls and millions of stolen dollars — that school-teacher-turned-detective Omar Yussef races to solve. To do so, Yussef must explore the religious sect and its holy sites, including Mount Gerizim, which overlooks Nablus. Samaritans believe it was here — not Jerusalem — where Abraham offered to sacrifice Isaac.

Previously, 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.

Rees knows most of his readers will probably never visit the settings for his novels, but his series continues to take readers to places previously unexplored by the genre — and to illustrate parts of ancient Palestinian society that mystery fans might not read about anywhere else.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.