Cameron can’t solve English i.d. crisis

I was at Oxford University at the same time as Britain’s new prime minister. But while I spent all my free time at a famous old pub opposite the historic Bodleian Library with a pint of Guinness in the company of some old Irish porters, I never saw David Cameron there. Which makes me doubt his suitability for office.

That’s not because I think the prime minister should be overfond of alcohol (at Oxford, Cameron was a member of a very upper-crust private drinking club famed for smashing places up). Rather, it’s because Cameron is the wrong man to unite the pub-drinkers and the rowdy aristocrats — and all the other splinters of a society still shattered by Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of the old identity of Empire.

The coalition Cameron will lead reflects an identity crisis among the English that has developed in the two decades since Thatcher’s reign. It’s much deeper than mere political divisions, and I don’t think he’s equipped to resolve it.

Read the rest of my article on AOL News.

Bigmouth loves ‘Bethlehem Murders’

Me and My Big Mouth is the blog of the inimitable Scott Pack, the most innovative (and, to many, the most controversial) man in British publishing. We met a year ago in freezing Oslo, tramped through the snow to the Ibsen Museum, and generally had a great time. It’s possible we were the only teetotallers in the city…. On his blog today, Scott reviews the first of my Palestinian crime novels, THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS (US title: THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM). You can read his whole post or satisfy yourself with this quote:
“If you like your crime fiction to be intelligent as well as gripping and if you are prepared to tackle something set in an unusual part of the world for this genre then I cannot recommend this series highly enough. I will certainly be reading the rest of the books.”
Of course, if you don’t like your crime fiction to be intelligent and gripping, then don’t read my books. But I dare you to admit that applies to you. Go on and read them.

Big Mouth recommends my debut as “bloody good but a little bit different” for Christmas

Scott Pack, controversial publishing guru and self-declared big mouth (I can tell you he’s rather more charming in person than such a description would imply), recommends my debut novel THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS (US title THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM)for a Christmas gift on his blog. Writes Scott, as he roasts his chestnuts over an open fire at his home office in Windsor, “If you like crime novels and are looking for something that is bloody good but a little bit different then see if you can sneak one of these into your stocking.” Seasons greetings to you, too, Scott, as I look over the dusty hillside toward Bethlehem from my office window — where the only thing roasting in the Middle East’s so-called winter is me…

Scared away

Here’s my latest post on the International Crime Authors Reality Check blog:

I keep finding new reasons why I write my novels about the Palestinians. Usually these reasons have nothing to do with the Palestinians.

Here’s the one that may be the deepest, the one I’ve known about for a while, but have only recently been able to face up to: it’s because I’m scared of home.

Not so long ago, I read the 1992 novel “Fat Lad” by Northern Irish novelist Glenn Patterson. It’s a terrific book, examining Belfast’s changing political landscape through the story of a young man returning after a decade in England.

But I was struck by my reaction to the nostalgic tone of the main character’s memories. They filled me with terror and loathing.

What were these memories? Patterson recalls Choppers, which were long-handled bikes for kids. I never had one. The main character lays out his desk with a bottle of Quink, a brand name for ink which I used at school. I wasn’t happy at school. He listens to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, a specific remix of the song Relax. Relax was number one in the charts when I was in high school; I chose to listen to music that no one else liked in high school, because I didn’t like anyone and imagined no one would like me.

I cite other examples of Patterson’s nostalgia, but I think perhaps you get the picture.

Patterson created a world coterminous with my own childhood in Wales. For Patterson, who went to England for graduate work and returned to his hometown, nostalgia is filled with warmth and friendship, even amid the violence of Belfast. Nostalgia doesn’t work if the period being viewed through rose-colored spectacles was experienced through isolation and self-loathing. I left home, and I’ve never been back.

I used to think: Never mind, everyone’s pretty miserable as a teenager. In a series of interviews with other writers on my blog, I started asking: “Do you have a pain from childhood that drives you to write?” Almost all of them responded that, No, they had pretty good childhoods. At first I refused to believe it. (I even told Miriam Froitzheim, the delightful German who gave me my copy of “Fat Lad,” that she couldn’t be a writer because she’d had a happy childhood and was a very well-balanced, happy adult. Well, I take it back, Miriam. It’s just me.)

I started to realize I had been pretty miserable in my twenties and early thirties, too. It wasn’t only my childhood. I left Britain and went to America. But I boozed myself into a different kind of isolation there, before I found my way to the Middle East.

During those early times I wrote stories of alienation – loners driven to acts of violence or victims of violence, troubled men stuck in unfulfilling relationships with doomed women. With the Palestinians, I came out of that darkness. It wasn’t just the exotic magic of their culture, their architecture, their cuisine. It was that their memories weren’t mine.

No Palestinian has ever said: Did you have a Chopper when you were a kid? Remember having those Quink-stains on your fingers at school? Did you grope your first girl dancing to Frankie at the school disco?

I’ve never had to say to a Palestinian: No, I was a miserable kid and I hate you for having been happy.

This freed me from the angst trap. Me, and my writing, both. I could enter the heads of characters who had been scarred – I understood what it was to have suffered. But they’d been scarred by war and occupation. That allowed me to see my own sufferings for what they were: bad, but things that could be overcome by personal development.

If you’re a Palestinian, you can go to therapy and meditate and listen to Mozart all you want. You’ll be better off, but you’ll still be living under occupation. In my case, life among a people with real problems helped me separate from the anger that clung to me all those years. Beside them, my life was a constant beach holiday. In Jerusalem I go for days on end without meeting anyone as relaxed as me. I’ve started to think perhaps this is the real me.

I’ve lived in the Middle East 13 years now. Last month it was 20 years since I left Britain (when I was 22.) Soon all the nostalgia novels will be about periods of British life of which I know nothing, because I was no longer living there. In the Middle East, I’ve been insulated, distant from British culture and not really immersed in Palestinian or Israeli pop culture. Free from all the babble, from the reminiscences of others’ lives which are supposed to be my shared experiences.

Free not to be a member of a broader society. Free to live inside my head. Which is good. Because that’s where novels are written.

Oldest Bible? Tell it to the Samaritans

UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph reports the discovery of a portion of a Bible from 350 AD in the library of the monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai. The Codex Sinaiticus is written in Greek on animal skin and the newspaper calls it “a fragment of the world’s oldest bible.” Well, I hate to disappoint the good Fathers in the Sinai, not to mention the hacks at the Torygraph, but there’s a much, much older Bible on a hilltop just outside the Palestinian town of Nablus. The Abisha Scroll is used in the rites of the ancient sect of Samaritans. I featured it in my Palestinian crime novel THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET. How old is it? Read these few paragraphs from my novel to find out just astonishingly aged it is:

“Our greatest treasure was stolen, Abu Ramiz,” Ben-Tabia said. He lifted the tips of his fingers to his beard, as though he might pull it out in despair at the thought of such a calamity. “I felt terrible shame that it should be during my tenure as a priest here in our synagogue that the Abisha Scroll might be lost.”

“The Abisha?” Omar Yussef’s voice was low and reverent.

“What’s that?” Sami said.

“A famous Torah scroll,” Omar Yussef said. “The oldest book in the world, they say.”

The priest raised his eyes to the ceiling. “The five books of Moses, written on sheepskin three thousand, six hundred and forty-five years ago. It was written by Abisha, son of Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron who was the brother of Moses, in the thirteenth year after the Israelites entered the land of Canaan. Every year, we bring it out of the safe only once, for our Passover ceremony on Mount Jerizim.”

“It must be very valuable,” Sami said.

“It’s beyond all value. Without this scroll, our Messiah can never return to us. Without this scroll, we cannot carry out the annual Passover sacrifice, and if we fail to sacrifice on Passover we cease to be Samaritans and the entire tradition of our religion comes to a terrible close.” The priest’s eyes were moist.

Book bloggers love Omar Yussef

Since the first of my three Palestinian crime novels was published in early 2007, I haven’t been short of terrific reviews in the mainstream media. After all, The New York Times said I’d written “an astonishing debut novel” and every outlet from The Sunday Telegraph to The Sowetan has raved about the books. But I’m always particularly pleased when I get good write-ups on individual book blogs. It makes me see the series is building a grass-roots momentum. So two recent reviews were very pleasing to me. On Joe Barone’s Book Blog he writes a review of my latest THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET: “To me, the regional and religious parts–the food, the geography, the buildings, the sacred objects, and the people–were most interesting. I would have read the book for those things alone. I will read more Matt Rees.” Then British blogger A Book Every Six Days writes of THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS (the first in my series, which has the title THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM in the US): “I always like books which teach one about places as well as entertaining one. This one also had the added advantage of taking the reader through some of the moral dilemmas facing all parties in modern Palestine.”

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