Tuesday, December 12, 2006

CHRISTMAS SEEMS TO BE RUSHING TOWARDS US like an express train, and I don't seem to have got a grip on the situation. There are still presents to be bought and everything to be wrapped, cards to be posted, tree to be installed and decorated, mince pies to be made and most importantly, a turkey to be ordered from the butcher.... how did I let myself get burdened with all this stuff? Next year I'm going minimalist, and reining in all the excess and the family can like it or lump it.


In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar is his first book and was short listed for the Booker Prize this year. Set in Libya in 1979 this story is told through the eyes of nine year old Suleiman, but is narrated by his grown-up self, a voice that never quite convinced me and at times seemed downright clumsy and artificial.
Suleiman is the only child of his parents, a businessman father who is often away, and his unhappy mother who has become a secret alcoholic. They are comfortably off and live in a new development of houses in Tripoli. When his mother has been drinking her “medicine” as Suleiman calls the grappa she obtains illicitly, she tells him stories of her childhood. How when she was fourteen she was seen with a group of other adolescents having coffee together after school and reported to her family, resulting in a severe beating, being locked up for a month and then forced to
marry Suleiman’s father who is 13 years her senior, Suleiman was born 9 months later when she was only 15. The relationship between mother and son is extremely fragile, he is adored by her, but is a constant reminder of how the life she had hoped to have was taken away from her.
One day Suleiman sees his father in the centre of Tripoli when he is supposed to be abroad, and cannot understand what he is doing as his father has told them he is abroad on business.
There is a growing swell of resistance to the harsh realities of life under Muammar Ghaddafi, and many students and others are involved in secret attempts to oppose his government. In the summer of 1979 his regime cracks down on anyone suspected of being linked to opposition, and the father of Suleiman’s closest friend is arrested and taken away, and shortly afterwards Suleiman’s own father is also arrested, some of his business trips have been a cover for organising the dissidents. Those who have been arrested and tortured a made to give public confessions on television, public executions are held in Tripoli’s main sports stadium in front of immense crowds of cheering and jeering Libyans. These hangings are also televised in order to frighten and subdue the population. Given his age and the fact that none of the adults in his life explain things to him, Suleiman cannot fathom what is going on, and often misunderstands what he sees and hears. In his confusion he becomes angry and distressed, especially after he sees his friend’s father hanged, and yet his own father, who has been badly beaten and tortured is returned to the family home a broken man.

In totalitarian regimes there is always a price to be paid by the family for the actions of a dissident, and Suleiman pays it by being sent out of harm’s way to stay with friends in Egypt where he grows up, whilst his parents have to remain in Libya. I thought the title was extremely apt; Libya is a nation entirely ruled by one man and his henchmen, and even on a personal level families in Libyan society are totally ruled by the menfolk, and all life revolves around them.
As a piece of writing, this book is very patchy and Matar is far from a mature author, in fact I am surprised it made it onto the Booker short list; however it is worth reading for the portrait it paints of life in a country of which we know relatively little.

Polyglot is one of the words often used to describe London, and I would certainly agree. In the east end Youth Court where I sit regularly we see people who speak many different languages, and if their ability to speak English is poor or non-existant we have a duty under the Human Rights Act to ensure they are provided with a translator. I have often wondered how much this provision must be costing the justice system. Translators are paid around £75 per half day, and frequently the work involved only takes ten or fifteen minutes. some of the languages for which I have recently seen translators provided in our court are Romanian, Turkish, Bengali, Serbo-croat, Lingala, Somali. I presume that the same situation applies in hospitals, surgeries, clinics, local housing departments and so on. It must be costing us a fortune. Now I don't expect everyone who is visiting London, or who has just come to live in London to speak English fluently if at all. What I do get fed up about is the large number of people who have lived here for years, and who may have become British citizens, who have not learnt to speak it. At long last the government is making noises about how much translation services are costing the nation. If there was a requirement for British residents to pass a basic English exam before being granted citizenship and the money used on some of the translation services was spent on intensive compulsory English language classes, I for one would be much happier.

Tonight we're having Bobotie for supper - and for anyone who doesn't know, Bobotie is a Cape Malay dish dating back to the 18th century, and it is practically the national dish of South Africa. You will be served it all over the country in homes and restaurants. I made this yesterday as I am going off to meetings this afternoon and then on to my Bookclub in the evening, so I needed something easy that I could leave for the rest of the family to eat. I know that there must be a zillion recipes for Bobotie in the blogosphere, but this one is excellent, I've made it for umpteen years. BTW Bobotie is pronounced "Boh-boor-tea"


Pre-heat oven to 180° C Serves 6-8

1 Kg minced beef or lamb
25ml oil
12.5ml butter
2 medium onions, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon curry powder
10ml spoon Tumeric
25ml smooth Apricot Jam
3 thickish slices crustless white bread
3 eggs
375ml milk
Juice and rind of 1 lemon
3 Bay leaves (my recipe called for Lime leaves but I don't have them)
Salt + Black Pepper

Flaked almonds (optional)

For the Topping: 2 eggs + 180ml milk

Sauté onions in the oil and butter, add the chopped garlic and grated ginger and cook for a few minutes until the onions are translucent. Stir in the curry powder and turmeric, add the minced meat and brown it, breaking it up with a fork.

Soak the bread in cold water. Beat the eggs with the milk and add the lemon juice and rind. Squeeze all the water from the bread and crumble it into the milk and egg mixture. Once the meat is well browned add the bread and milk mixture together with the apricot jam. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper. If you find the curry flavour too mild, stir in 5ml curry paste.

Spoon into a well buttered oven dish and push the bay leaves into the bobotie. Bake at 180°C for 30 mins.

For the topping, beat 2 eggs with 180ml milk and pour over the top of the Bobotie. Bake for a further 30 mins.

Serve with yellow rice, chutney and tomato and onion sambal.

1 comment:

herschelian said...

Whoops - seem to have lost the facility to edit my blog hence this comment. In the Bobotie recipe, the optional flaked almond are for scattering on top of the final egg/milk topping.