MURDER UNDER THE FIG TREE, A PALESTINE MYSTERY, BY KATE JESSICA RAPHAEL
by Roger Stoll
Inside the cover of Kate Jessica Raphael’s new mystery, Murder Under the Fig Tree: A Palestine Mystery (She Writes Press, Berkeley, 2017, 359 pp., $16.95) is a detailed map of the West Bank, like those maps in fantasy novels with places marked “forbidden lands” or “land of dragons.” Instead here are the fractured lands of Palestine’s West Bank, scarred by a vast network of roads that Palestinians cannot use; colonial enclaves squatting on Palestinian land, euphemistically called “settlements”; checkpoints where soldiers stop, question, detain, torture or kill Palestinians and almost no one else; towering cement walls that enclose or fragment Palestinian farmlands, fig or olive groves and towns; caste-coded license plates (green for Palestinians, yellow for Israelis). It is an archipelago of shrinking atolls in an Israeli sea, less believable at first glance than those fantasy worlds, except in this book you can touch, taste and feel Palestine.
Chloe Rubin is a Jewish American unemployed software worker in San Francisco and recently a peace activist in Palestine in the West Bank. Ten months earlier she and Rania Bakara, a Palestinian Authority (PA) policewoman and detective, had collaborated haphazardly in the investigation of the murder of one Nadya Kim, a foreigner whose body was found in the occupied West Bank. Chloe is in Golden Gate Park when she gets a text from Tina, a Palestinian-Australian working in the West Bank and Chloe’s long-distance lover, that the Israeli army has Rania in jail. Chloe knows she must get back to Palestine to get Rania released. But the Israelis had kicked Chloe out of the country because she and Rania had stepped on some highly placed toes in the Nadya Kim investigation. She didn’t know if she could get through Ben Gurion Airport let alone do anything to free Rania.
It is 2006 and Hamas has just won the Palestine legislative elections. Israel replies with raids and roundups of dozens of PA police, including Rania, despite the fact that she, like nearly all the PA police belonged to Fatah, the rival party. In her case, she knows she might be considered dangerous because of things she had learned in the Nadya Kim case. The US and Israel have also withheld funds from Palestine, resulting in many temporary leaves and layoffs in the PA.
Present throughout is the cost and duration of the occupation to Rania and her people. In her youth Rania watched her boyfriend die in her arms as Israeli authorities refused to let medics reach him. Her husband Bassam’s sister was killed in the First Intifada. Rania’s friend Samia was raped and tortured in an Israeli prison. And Israel’s practice of collective punishment is common enough that it doesn’t surprise
Benny Lazar, the compulsively manipulative and self-satisfied Israeli policeman, offers to get Rania out of jail if she’ll investigate the murder of a young Palestinian music conservatory student in a nearby village, apparently killed by an Israeli soldier. Benny assures her that her boss, Captain Mustafa, wants her to. Rania refuses but is mysteriously released anyway, and what she learns leads her to investigate the killing without authorization. But it is unclear which of those seemingly interested in the case — Benny, Captain Mustafa, and the local families — really want her to investigate, or might try to stop her. To complicate matters, because Rania’s release from jail is unexplained, she falls under suspicion by nearly everyone of having become an informer for the Israelis.
This is author Kate Jessica Raphael’s second Palestine mystery featuring Rania and Chloe. The first was Murder under the Bridge: A Palestine Mystery, 2015. Raphael, like Chloe, is a Jewish American Palestine solidarity activist. She lived in the West Bank and participated in the non-violent resistance to occupation, until she was imprisoned, deported and banned by Israel. She is also a long-time host and producer of Women’s Magazine on the San Francisco Bay Area’s Pacifica station KPFA-FM.
As in the previous volume, Rania and Chloe collaborate in a murder investigation. They are a study in contrast. Chloe is impulsive, hypersensitive, sometimes reckless, while Rania is a skilled investigator, dignified, reserved, contemplative and altogether fascinating. But in her determination to find the truth, Rania takes large risks and as she mentally notes, “Chloe might be the only person in Palestine with less tact than herself.” As in the previous work, the occupied West Bank is a character itself, like Donna Leon’s Venice or Barbara Hambly’s antebellum New Orleans.
Rania’s investigation leads her into the underground cross-border gay and lesbian scene and a bar in Jerusalem called Adloyada, after the traditional Hebrew exhortation to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim by drinking ad d’lo yada, literally “until you did not know” the difference between one hero (Mordechai) and the villain (Haman) of the story told in the Book of Esther. And though Rania seems not to be homophobic, Chloe and Tina have to bring her up to speed from zero:
[Rania:] “An Israeli bar?”
[Chloe:] “It’s owned by an Israeli. Israelis go there, and Palestinians too.”
[Tina:] “It’s a gay bar.”
[Rania:] “What is gay?”
[Tina:] “It’s a word for men who love men, or women who love women.”
[Rania:] “But we don’t have people like that in Palestine.”
While Rania’s rogue investigation proceeds, Chloe is unsure why Rania remains under suspicion, on leave, and has refused a new assignment. Rania explains, beginning with the role of the PA police.
[I]n our society, enforcing our laws is secondary to protecting the people against the occupier. … We look for people who may be working on behalf of the Israelis, we make sure that demonstrations in the cities are not attacked by the army, and we help people make peace with their neighbors so that they cannot be so easily turned against one another.
Accordingly, official suspicion which put her on leave from the police makes sense to Rania: “I understand that decision. They cannot allow someone to work in the police until they are sure that person is not an informer.” Yet Rania’s boss wants her to return to work to begin and train an all-women police force to enforce traditional strictures on women’s behavior, and Rania believes “
he women’s force is not real police. It is a way of enforcing social norms that I’m not even sure should be enforced. It is more like what you are saying your police do.”
Present throughout is the cost and duration of the occupation to Rania and her people. In her youth Rania watched her boyfriend die in her arms as Israeli authorities refused to let medics reach him. Her husband Bassam’s sister was killed in the First Intifada. Rania’s friend Samia was raped and tortured in an Israeli prison. And Israel’s practice of collective punishment is common enough that it doesn’t surprise:
They wound their way through dense groves of olive and fig trees, occasionally greeting farmers pruning trees or herding goats. … Yawning pits dotted freshly leveled dirt, clear signs of bulldozing. Stacks of olive branches littered an area the size of two football fields. Chloe stared in horror. “Why would they bulldoze here?” she asks. “There are no settlements or Israeli roads in this area.”
“Punishment … Five settlers reported that stones hit their cars last week on the highway by Hares. The army ordered five hundred trees to be cut down in each of the four villages nearest the spot where it supposedly happened. … You know they don’t care if they get the right people or not. That’s part of the terror.”
In such a place, justice is elusive to say the least, and Rania’s pursuit of it, neither clear nor easy. She knows, for example, that “Israel did not have the death penalty, but it carried out plenty of executions.” When Rania endangers her family to try to clear an Israeli suspect, making compensation to the family of the murder victim unobtainable, Bassam argues: “The soldier is in jail. If you leave it alone, the family may be able to get their money.”… Rania answers, “If the soldier goes to jail for a crime he did not commit, where is the justice?” Bassam replies, “[there] is no justice in this land…” Chloe is present and thinks she had thought that she “cared about an absolute form of justice as deeply as anyone on the planet. But Rania was a breed apart. It made her an ideal detective. It didn’t necessarily make her an ideal wife.”
Raphael is generous with her themes and rounded characters. This is not only a compelling and suspenseful police procedural but a novel of people and relationships. Rania’s husband Bassam and their seven year old son Khaled are sensitively drawn, as is her relationship with each of them, all touched by the harshness of their world.
Bassam had barely seen her since she got out of jail. The first night had been like their wedding night again. He had held her while she cried for hours, stroking her back and kissing her hair. He had to learn the spots where she had been beaten, which he loved twice as much even as he avoided them.
They have a running dispute: Bassam wants a second child, but Rania isn’t sure it’s the right time. “Khaled is lonely,” Bassam complains.
Raphael has an eye for the telling and evocative detail. In a tense moment of the investigation Rania and Chloe observe a piano student from the same conservatory the victim attended, whose “long fingers played riffs on the coffee table.” An Al-Jazeera TV reporter is described with perfect precision:
She wore a smart, navy-blue pleated skirt, falling just to mid-calf, and a blue and red plaid blouse, accented with a red scarf around her neck. … She wore a little makeup, just a touch of red on her lips and a tiny bit of foundation covering a blemish or two.
During Rania’s visit to the Jerusalem gay bar she mentally compares the bars she went to in college days.
The bar was nothing like she had imagined. The bars she had been to long ago had been elegant, Arab-style lounges, with red, plush carpets and crystal chandeliers dripping hundreds of tiny prisms. This one had sawdust on the floor and scratched faux-wood tables with high stools to perch on.
Even Raphael’s quick brushstrokes make a picture: “They walked through the old city, competing for sidewalk space with merchants pushing heavy, hand-drawn carts loaded with wool blankets or cotton shirts.” When Rania has to sneak through the wall into Israel, she doffs her hijab (headscarf) and jilbab (traditional long coat) and dons “her idea of hip Tel Aviv clothing,” but then once inside and on a bus,
[she sits] next to an old woman with a paisley scarf covering her head. It was not a hijab, she knew, but what the Russians called a babushka, but, still, it felt comforting to sit next to a woman wearing a scarf on her head.
Food is ubiquitous: molochia, za’atar, mujaddara, shawarma, etc. You will always know what is being served because the frequent Arabic and Hebrew words throughout the novel are immediately translated or obvious in context, and there is a glossary at the back.
How wonderful to have this realistic tale, set in one of the most fascinating and fraught places in the world, featuring the irresistible Rania Bakara and comfortably familiar homegirl Chloe Rubin, told by politically astute writer Raphael, who with this second novel shows an even surer hand than in the first.
Roger Stoll is a Latin America solidarity activist living in San Rafael, California. He has published essays on Mumia Abu-Jamal (San Francisco Examiner) and the Zapatistas (ZNet), and a previous book review (Counterpunch.org). He has been arrested numerous times in support of numerous causes.