Wednesday, January 09, 2008



When I saw The Bethlehem Murders by Matt Rees on the new books shelf in the library I vaguely remembered reading a positive review of it in the Economist, and because the title seemed so appropriate in the week before Christmas I added it to my pile of reading material.

The first thing to say about the book is that it is far from festive reading, life in modern day Bethlehem is bleak, hard and dangerous. In this difficult environment Omar Yussef, a middle aged history teacher who works in a UN run school in a Palestinian refugee camp just outside the city, takes it upon himself to solve the murder of one of his former pupils. He has to contend with the various lawless Palestinian factions dodging both their wrath, and Israeli fire in equal measure, but he is determined to get at the truth. Yussef is a great new addition to the long list of memorable detectives such as Morse, Marlow, and Rebus.

In addition to being a cracking crime story, the book told me more about the situation within the occupied territories of the West Bank than I could have learned from reading any number of serious articles in the news media.

Many years ago we visited Bethlehem, and I have clear memories of the town as it was then, thronging with tourists, and relatively easily accessible from Israel proper. How different it is today; reading The Bethlehem Murders I felt I was IN Bethlehem, walking the hot, dusty, rubble strewn streets. I could sense the fear and feel the overwhelming hopelessness that now pervades the people who live there, particularly the young people.

Matt Rees, who lives in Jerusalem, was Time magazine’s bureau chief in that city from 2000-2006 and Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman and Newsweek, so he knows the area very well indeed. This is his first novel, though he has written a highly regarded non fiction book about Palestinian-Israeli divisions. His next book featuring Omar Yussef The Saladin Murders is to be published in February and it is already on my Must Read list.

For some reason the titles of Matt Rees’s books are different in the USA and the UK – I really can’t understand the need for publishers to do this:

The Bethlehem Murders (UK) is titled The Collaborator of Bethlehem (USA) and his new book The Saladin Murders (UK) is titled A Grave in Gaza (USA).

Rated 4.5*


What kind of society are we becoming? I felt really horrified and angry when I heard about Ama Sumani being taken from a hospital bed to be sent back to Ghana. I know she has broken the UK visa regulations, and she has failed to communicate with the immigration authorities, so in strictly legal terms her removal from the country is justified.

But this woman is very, very ill. She has malignant myeloma which has fatally damaged her kidneys. If she were entitled to NHS treatment she would have been given a bone marrow transplant to treat the cancer; as she is not entitled to such treatment she has been kept alive by having kidney dialysis three times a week. If she is sent back to Ghana this grievously ill woman will not be able to have regular dialysis and the doctors at the University Hospital of Wales where she was being treated say that without it she will die within weeks.

In effect, our immigration bureaucrats, by sticking strictly to the regulations, are condemning her to death.

What happened to compassion, to pity, to care and concern for a fellow human being? Making an exception in Ama Sumani's case would not open the floodgates for other visa violators, it would merely demonstrate that we are a civilised and humane society.

Or are we?


The excesses of the whole Christmas/New Year season are well behind us now and I, for one, am glad to be eating simpler meals. This year I am determined to try a new recipe or two every month and this is the first of what I hope will be many successful experiments. As a weeknight supper dish it has several advantages; firstly it is a 'one dish' dish so there is minimal washing-up, secondly Halloumi keeps for ages and ages so buy some, put it in the fridge and then you can rustle this up when you have to provide a vegetarian meal. The DH and son both gave it the seal of approval two nights ago and I think it will become an old favourite very soon.


Serves 4

1 butternut squash
4 potatoes
2 red peppers (The Romano variety are best for this dish)
2 red onions
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
250g block Halloumi cheese, cut into chunks
Handful of pine nuts
Fresh basil leaves to garnish

Pre-heat oven to 200°C

Put the pine nuts on a small baking tray and place in the oven to toast – it will take 4-5 minutes. Set your oven timer to remind you as they burn ever so quickly! Remove from the oven when lightly toasted and set aside.

Peel the butternut and remove the seeds and stringy material. Cut into chunks and place in large roasting tin.
Peel the potatoes and cut into quarters. Place them in the roasting tin with the squash.
Cut the stalks off the red peppers and remove the seeds, cut the flesh into large pieces and add to the squash and potatoes.
Peel the onions, halve them and cut each half into 3 wedges, add to the roasting tin.
Drizzle the olive oil over all the vegetables, and season with a little salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper; mix to ensure all the vegetables are well coated.
Roast in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the veggies are becoming slightly charred at the edges, remove from the oven.

Sprinkle the balsamic vinegar over the vegetables, and scatter the chunks of Halloumi cheese over the top.
Return to the oven for 15-20 minutes until the Halloumi is golden and beginning to brown.

Scatter with the toasted pine nuts and shredded basil leaves, and serve piping hot with crusty bread.


Nick said...

The Matt Rees book looks good. I always like detectives in foreign parts, as you say you can often learn a lot more about the country than you would from a more factual book. I always enjoyed Michael Dibdin's books for the same reason - he was brilliant on the seedy underbelly of Italy, the corruption and bureaucracy and political shenanigans. A tragically early death.

Teuchter said...

Congratulations on your anniversary which is this week, I think.
Hope you and your DH have/had a splendid day.

I'm amused that someone else was daft enough to have a January wedding - but perhaps yours was in SA?

herschelian said...

nick - I am also a Dibdin fan, what a loss to his readers (not to mention family and friends) to have him die so young.
Recently I have been on a bit of a mission to read crime novels set in other countries - just finished one set in Iceland,; but The Bethlehem Murders really stood out.

teuchter - Thank you for your kind wishes. No we did not marry in SA but in cold, grey Covent Garden, at The Kirk of the Crown Court(!) But the wine was from SA!

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