Across the cultures in Palestine
Beat: The true story of a suicide bomb and a heart and the nature of human identity by Rowan Somerville (Lilliput Press, €14.99)

Geoff Day

Here is a true book full of surprises. It starts as an examination of the suicide bombing of the Dolphinarium nightclub in Tel Aviv in June 2001 and ends with highlighting some real moral dilemmas related to issues around heart transplants and apartheid.

Somerville neatly begins by juxtaposing his recall of the facts of that night, when many young Israelis were killed and injured by a suicide bomber, with his journey to interview relatives of both the killed/injured and those of the suicide bomber. Understandably this is a difficult task some 15 years on. 


The son of pioneering cardiologists, Londoner Rowan Somerville was educated by Jesuits and took an honours degree in Literature from the University of Edinburgh, before travelling widely in the Levant.  

In the early chapters he recalls his journey to Israel, which started before he boards the plane in London. I too remember this experience having returned only recently from three months in occupied Palestine

His experience at Ben Gurion airport was also not dissimilar to mine, where airport immigration officials ask banal questions to gather intelligence or to trip you up. Somerville gets to the heart of the current Israel-Palestine conflict quickly and it is hard to put the book down as the various strands begin to weave through the text. 

My own experience of spending time in the places referred to in Beat brings the book to life – Qalqiliya, the home town of the suicide bomber is virtually surrounded by the separation barrier erected by the Israeli government in 2002 at the height of the second intifada to protect Israel from the very suicide bombers discussed in the text and as Somerville observes “access (by Palestinians) is blocked by the wall and the ocean is 11 kilometres away”.

Jerusalem is described by Somerville as “an indecipherable mush” of religion and culture and is “a brittle place shivering with tension”, which in many ways degrades its rich religious history. I too found a palpable tension in the old city.

The real moral issues of the book develop after an innocent Palestinian is murdered in a reprisal attack the day after the Dolphinarium bombing.

The family of this man, pharmacist Mazan Al-Joulani,  who is declared brain dead, even though his heart is functioning, were requested to donate his organs so that others may survive. The potential heart recipient was Israeli but the family of the Palestinian donor had no difficulty in donating so that he could survive.

 Somerville sees this as symbolic of the potential for peace and suggests that this Palestinian – Israeli heart will see a romantic and positive end. But fear and hatred run deep as he found out when he spoke with Israeli friends, the recipient and with the suicide bombers family. These are hard messages to hear as I know from my own experience.

More surprises follow as the reader is taken to a discussion of ethical issues around transplantation in South Africa and then finally to the question of whether the two countries in their time, Israel and South Africa, were and are, practicing apartheid.

Many of us are advised that to use the term apartheid is ‘unhelpful’ in the Israel–Palestine conflict as the phrase itself engenders a tension and incites an unnecessary reaction. Somerville maintains that it is valid to discuss this, but recognises that there is a toxic and terrible danger of it becoming a vehicle for easy moral outrage.

He concludes the book with a note of optimism by writing “that even at the edges people are people. Fundamentally decent, crucially flawed, all of us wanting happiness for our loved ones, our people, ourselves, all of us wishing to avoid suffering, all of us loving our children. All of our hearts beating”.

Many books are being published at this time, 50 years on from the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. However, this book is a worthy read as it locates the present situation in a much wider context, raising as it does many related and important moral and ethical questions.


Geoff Day has just returned from three months in the West Bank of occupied Palestine with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme Palestine Israel