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You would say this is a mystery “ripped from the headlines” if our media regularly reported on real life in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank in Palestine but it doesn’t. Murder Under the Bridge: A Palestine Mystery by Kate Jessica Raphael (She Writes Press, Berkeley, 2015, 329 pp., $16.95) is a revelation of the most complex and fractured social and political geographic landscape in the world. American nonfiction accounts like Anna Baltzer’s Witness in Palestine: A Jewish Woman in the Occupied Territories, Pamela J. Olson’s Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland, the posthumous Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie, and Max Blumenthal’s Goliath can give you an excellent picture of it. But Murder Under the Bridge is a novel, so it takes you into the thoughts and feelings of the people living there.
Author Kate Jessica Raphael, like the novel’s co-star Chloe, is a Jewish American Palestine solidarity activist. Raphael has lived on the West Bank and took part in the non-violent resistance to occupation, until she was imprisoned, deported and banned by the Israelis. (She is also a long-time host and producer of Women’s Magazine on the San Francisco Bay Area’s KPFA-FM.) She might have written her own non-fiction account of the occupation but instead wrote a stunning, page-turning mystery.
The Azzawiya Bridge of the title is not really a bridge but a section of the new Israelis-only highway passing over the older road Palestinians must use. The jesh (Israeli military) can close the Palestinian road at will, and as the story begins they do just that when they find an abandoned and presumed stolen car on the overpass.
Very nearby, Abu Anwar is on the way to his olive trees, leading his donkey past the open sewage pipe that pours waste into his soil from the neighboring Israeli settlement of Elkana. “Ya haram,” (for shame) he says to himself. He finds a high-heeled woman’s shoe, and then finds the other on the foot of a dead woman, obviously ajnabiya (foreign), neither Palestinian nor Israeli. Frightened, Abu Anwar reports the body not to the Palestinian Authority police but to his brother Abu Jawad, mayor of Azzawiya.
Captain Mustafa of the Palestinian Authority police sends Rania, a policewoman, to investigate the abandoned car. Rania knows the Israelis already searched the area and fears they will begin to harass the villagers. She searches the nearby olive groves herself, looking particularly for hiding places, trying to find anything that might help solve the riddle of the abandoned car, and discovers the dead woman in Abu Anwar’s field, apparently a homicide.
Jurisdiction over the case is ambiguous and Mustafa has Rania collaborate with the Israeli policeman Benny. The two of them seem to be successfully chasing down clues until Benny decides the case is solved and Rania does not. Mustafa takes her off the case but she continues investigating anyway.
Meanwhile, the Israeli wall is closing in on Rania’s village of Mas’ha from both sides. It will soon cut off the farmers from their olive groves and isolate Mas’ha so that its shops and business will be inaccessible to the other villages, making it a particular site of Palestinian resistance and drawing solidarity activists like the Israeli, Avi, and the American, Chloe.
Rania’s and Chloe’s paths cross and, uneasily, they collaborate. Rania finds she must rely on Chloe, whose passport and American identity get her into places Rania can’t go. By the end of the book their rogue investigation of the homicide will reveal human trafficking of women from Eastern Europe for sex slavery and domestic labor, as well as secrets about the 2002 events known as The Jenin Massacre (or in Israel as The Battle of Jenin) and possible crimes at the highest levels of the Israeli military establishment.
Rania and Chloe are the two protagonists of Murder Under the Bridge. Rania Bakara is a Palestinian Authority (PA) policewoman for the Salfit District. She lives with her husband Bassam and their six-year-old son Khaled in Mas’ha, a village neighboring Azzawiya. She worries if her career keeps her from being a good mother, an anxiety exacerbated by her mother-in-law’s wish that Rania would quit her career.
Rania is the only woman at her police station and struggles daily to be treated with respect by her co-workers. At the station she usually doffs her hijab (headscarf) in an effort to be seen as a peer, but then dons it again when she needs to blend in with other Palestinian women. In her youth she watched her boyfriend die in her arms as the Israeli authorities refused to let medics reach him, and now considers it her job to protect Palestinians from ills of the occupation. Her boss Mustafa appreciates her dedication and brains but is wary of her tendency to be undiplomatic. Rania has a small but well-earned chip on her shoulder.
Chloe Rubin is a Jewish American Palestine solidarity activist from North Carolina who came to the West Bank nine months before the story begins, to work with the International Network in Solidarity with Palestine. (Something like the real-world International Solidarity Movement.) Chloe has managed to learn Arabic, but despite eight years of Hebrew school as a child she can’t follow a conversation in that language, something she regrets in a few dicey situations. She is still recovering from her breakup with Alyssa, the love of her life, who she lived with for two years in San Francisco.
There is a large cast of secondary characters, including Mustafa, Rania’s wise and laconic boss, Jaber, a farmer and the local leader of the nonviolent resistance to the occupation and land seizures, and Benny Lazar the Israeli police officer who collaborates with Rania at the start of the investigation.
The mosaic of borders, jurisdictions, checkpoints and the advancing Israeli wall enclosing Palestinian land overlays the story. (There’s even a map at the front of the book.) Through Rania’s eyes and thoughts we learn a good deal about the geography of occupation and the daily resistance.
Police jurisdiction in the West Bank is divided: Palestinian cities are, in theory, under the PA; land near settlements and roads, and agricultural lands are under Israeli authority; Palestinian villages are under shared PA and Israeli authority. Occupation forces include soldiers and border police: soldiers carry F16s with white Stars of David painted on them; border police wear green uniforms, and in Rania’s opinion are worse than the soldiers. Palestinians jailed by Israeli forces can be beaten into confession and tortured for information, but the resistance continues and throwing stones at Israeli soldiers is a favorite pastime of Palestinian boys.
Near Azzawiya is the Israeli settlement of Elkana, a land of oblong swimming pools, where sprinklers fan water over the lawns. Yet, as Rania recalls, in the Aida refugee camp of her childhood there was never enough water and one was lucky to bathe twice a week. Elkana used to be a ten minute walk from Rania’s home in Mas’ha, but now the Israeli wall and the restricted highway have turned it into a trip of hours. Still, despite the web of borders, walls and checkpoints, Palestinians do manage to cross the lines discreetly to work in Israel or the settlements.
In Raphael’s novel, the political geography of the West Bank becomes almost a character in itself, like Donna Leon’s Venice, Sue Grafton’s (imaginary) Santa Teresa, Barbara Hambly’s antebellum New Orleans in her Benjamin January mysteries, or Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles.
The writing is smooth and expert, vanishing into the story and the characters. The dialogue can be sharp and funny, but always reveals character, such as when Rania’s palpable annoyance with Benny’s condescension prompts his half-sincere plea: “I’m a good guy…I take guns away from the settlers…they hate me. Ask [your boss] Mustafa. We used to eat lunch together during the Oslo years. I ate at his house. I know his wife.” To which Rania replies, “You want a prize for that?” Or when Chloe can’t restrain her natural impulse to provoke authority. An Israeli police interrogator notices her ID reads “Chloe Rubin,” and asks, “Are you Jewish?” Chloe snaps back, “Is that a crime?”
Sometimes there’s a striking background detail, as when a group of young air force men “kicked around a soccer ball. A tiny slip of a dog was playing goalie.” And the author can write a chilling scene of violence as deftly as she can a beguiling sex scene.
Arabic and Hebrew words and phrases are liberally sprinkled throughout the narrative, but offer no trouble since they are immediately translated or otherwise transparent. (If that’s not easy enough there’s a glossary.) Nor will you go hungry in this story, which serves the local cuisine: mlochia (soup made from Egyptian spinach); zaatar (dried thyme and sesame seeds); Taybeh (the only Palestinian beer); arabic coffee (made with sugar and cardamom); caffe shachor (Israeli bitter black coffee); and the ubiquitous mjaddara (lentils and rice).
Murder Under the Bridge might be educational, but there isn’t a single action-stopping expository passage. All the political, social and cultural detail is tucked almost unnoticed into the compelling narrative. And if the conditions of life in the territories are depressing, that doesn’t describe the book, which is fun and irresistible. Thankfully word has it a second Rania and Chloe mystery will be on the way as soon as it gets through checkpoints.