Rania placed the little brass coffee pot on the flame, resting one hand on the long handle so she could snatch it up before it boiled over. Her mouth tingled in anticipation as she inhaled the cardamom-laced steam.
“The boss wants you,” said Abdelhakim at her elbow. The man must wear sheepskin soles, he crept up on her so silently. His cherubic good looks were spoiled by a permanent smirk.
Rania reached for the knob to quench the flame, but he held out a hand to stop her. He grasped the pot’s handle as she let it go, taking care that their hands did not touch. She tried not to let the thought of him drinking her coffee gnaw at her, as she went into the captain’s office.
“There is a situation in Azzawiya,” Captain Mustafa said. His roly-poly frame spilled out of his overstuffed leather chair.
“What kind of situation?” asked Rania.
“One requiring great tact.”
Rania knew the captain well enough to take this as a warning, not a compliment. She was not known for her tact.
Captain Mustafa cleared his throat. Suddenly self-conscious, Rania removed her head scarf. The men were still learning to accept her in this job. Traditionally, women were nurses, engineers and teachers, more recently a few were doctors. Women as police detectives was a new concept. Wearing the hijab made the men she worked with feel like they were talking to one of their sisters or cousins; taking it off made it possible for them to treat her like a colleague. To her it was not important. Sometimes she told her friends, “I think more clearly without something between my brain and the sun,” but in fact she felt the same, whether she was wearing it or not.
“A car is abandoned on top of the bridge,” Captain Mustafa said.
“A Palestinian car?”
“Yellow plates,” he answered.
An Israeli car on an Israeli road. Why should the Palestinian police care about that?
“The Yahud say that the car is stolen,” her boss continued. “The jesh have closed the road under the bridge and no one can pass on foot or by car.”
Rania understood now why she was being sent on this errand. Mas’ha was her adopted home, her husband’s village. If the Israeli army had closed the road between Mas’ha and Azzawiya, it would be necessary to find another way to approach, and she knew the land. She would know many of the people waiting to pass the roadblock and would have a plausible excuse for being there. A woman could surreptitiously gather information, while a Palestinian man moving around an army roadblock asking questions would not last long. The captain hoped she could find out who did what with that stolen car before the army did. She would deliver, if it killed her.
She tied the scarf around her hair again, grabbed her purse and removed a bag of supplies from her desk drawer.
“Tread lightly,” Captain Mustafa called after her.
Rania didn’t bristle at the caution. It was his job to remind her of things she was likely to forget. On the other hand, she was unlikely to heed his advice.
She walked out into the street, squinting in the bright spring sunlight. She wondered if she had time to run into the shop for a coffee. Every night, she told herself she would get up early enough to make herself a cup. But every morning when her alarm rang at half past five, she shut it off and did not get up until six. By then she just had time to get Khaled up and ready for school before she had to leave. Since the Israelis put up the roadblocks, she often suggested to Bassam that they rent a little house in Salfit City so she could walk to work. She would love to be away from her mother-in-law’s prying eyes, but Bassam did not want to leave his village. He liked being the center of his mother’s universe.
She spied a collective taxi, a seven-seat orange Mercedes, at the corner, so she gave up on the coffee and dashed to the car. Two men sat silently in the middle seat, one reading a newspaper, the other talking on his mobile. The one on the phone scooched forward so she could climb awkwardly into the back, gathering her jilbab in one hand to ensure she didn’t show anything improper. The fiftyish driver stood next to the open front door, smoking and joking with a friend.
“I am in a hurry,” she called out the window. “I can pay the rest of the fares.” It could take ten minutes or more to fill the three empty seats. She couldn’t afford to wait that long. At least, she didn’t want to.
“No problem,” the driver said. He ground out the cigarette on the side of the car and climbed into the front seat.
The drive was one of her favorites in Palestine, giving a spectacular view of beautifully groomed olive terraces, the stately buildings of the city visible in the distance. The best thing about the view of the hills was that there were no Israeli settlements in sight. For those few kilometers, which took about twenty minutes to pass, she could almost believe that Palestine was as it had always been.
Today, she was too nervous to enjoy the drive. She wanted to justify her boss’s confidence in her by finding something to keep him one step ahead of the Israelis. But she hated working so close to home. Mas’ha, where she lived, and neighboring Azzawiya were small villages with a lot of inbreeding. If anyone from Bassam’s family were involved in shady activities, she could end up handing someone a weapon against her husband. His family, in turn, would use that against her, to prove once more that she was a bad wife and mother, that she should be home taking care of Khaled and making more babies to work in their olive groves and two dry goods stores.
Eventually, this argument would lead her to make the point no one wanted to hear—that with the Wall enclosing Mas’ha from both sides, their olive groves would soon be theirs no longer, and no one would be able to come from the nearby villages to shop at their stores. When that happened, her income from the police might stand between her family and starvation, and it could be an advantage to have fewer mouths to feed.
The road was thankfully free of the flying checkpoints that dotted the roads at commute hours. She changed to a private cab at the first roadblock and in fifteen minutes, the bridge loomed before her.
Azzawiya Bridge was really an overpass, where the new Israeli highway ran on top of the old Palestinian road. Normally taxi drivers lined the road under the bridge, waiting to ferry people back and forth between Deir Balut checkpoint and Biddia roadblock. Today, though, a row of medium-sized stones fifty meters in front blocked the entrance. Rania wondered what good the boulders would do, if the four jeeps and two Hummers under the bridge did not deter someone from trying to drive through. Eight soldiers patrolled the dark underpass, four facing in each direction. All of them caressed the triggers of their M-16s.
Rania’s driver stopped a respectful distance from the command center, where the paved road gave way to a dirt track. The track went both ways around a mound of old tires and car parts, as if people whose cars were damaged by the jutting stones simply ripped off the offending part and drove their crippled cars on until they stopped running altogether.
She paid the driver and walked toward the dozens of taxis and vans jammed together pell-mell, waiting to cross the roadblock. Men sat on the hoods and stood in clusters, smoking and craning their necks for a better view. A young boy moved among the men, pouring coffee into tiny paper cups from a brass coffee urn on leather straps draped over his shoulder. Looking south to the Azzawiya side, Rania saw an equally large crowd assembled. To the west, the Mediterranean was just visible, and rising before it the Tel Aviv skyline, a fifteen-minute drive and a world away. In the no-man’s land between the bridge and the people, two young soldiers drank Pepsi out of a bottle and kicked a rock as if it were a soccer ball.
To the right of the throng of cars and men, women perched as comfortably as possible on the stone terrace leading down to the olive groves. As Rania expected, she knew many of them, teachers and nurses on their way to work, students heading to the university. They uniformly wore the long dark jilbab and white headscarf. Some wore sneakers or sandals, while others sported heels as high as any Lebanese supermodel’s.
“Sabah al-kheir, ya banat,” Rania greeted them. Good morning, girls.
“Sabah an-noor, Um Khaled.” Mother of Khaled. Just hearing his name brought a little smile to her lips.
Her sister-in-law, Maryam, was there, pink pajama bottoms peeking out from under her jilbab. Maryam hated getting up early even more than Rania did. On her way out of the compound every morning, Rania invariably heard Amir yelling at Maryam that she was going to be late.
“Why aren’t you at work?” Maryam asked. “You don’t have to go this way.”
Would she get more information by pretending to be stuck like everyone else, or by claiming inside knowledge? The latter would be titillating to the women. Hopefully they wouldn’t find out just how paltry her information was.
“I went all the way to Salfit and had to come back,” she said, playing for sympathy. “Captain Mustafa sent me to see what I could learn about the stolen car.”
“That car is stolen?” Salma, a thin young woman who always looked like she had just heard a good joke, leaned forward. Rania followed her finger. She could just make out the dark blue car up on the bridge, the open front doors making it look like a square bird. A platoon of blue-clad men, their vests proclaiming “POLICE” in English and Hebrew, ran back and forth, gesticulating and talking into their hands and shoulders.
“That’s what the Yahud said,” Rania said. “Have you been here a long time?”
“Sea w nos?” An hour and a half, Salma said, looking at her friends for confirmation.
“Seateen.” Two hours, said Um Raad, who worked at the Ministry of Prisoners in Salfit. That probably meant an hour, Rania figured. It matched her guess based on the size of the crowd.
Rania wondered why Um Raad was going this way. It would have made more sense for her to take the same buses as Rania, but she must have her reasons. It didn’t matter. Though they were not friends, Rania was glad Um Raad was here. She had been in prison during the First Intifada, and like most former prisoners, spoke fluent Hebrew. If the soldiers had said anything, she would have been the most likely to understand it.
“Did the jesh say anything about the car?” she asked.
“Walla kilme.” Not a word, Um Raad said. “They are not in the mood for talking. I asked that one how long it would be and he threatened to arrest me.”
She indicated one of the soccer players. Very tall and very thin with a shock of straw-colored hair, he reminded Rania of a broom. If he was in an arresting mood, she would stay away from him. His partner was short and lumbering and kept scratching at his cheek. She walked slowly towards Itchy until he noticed her.
“What do you want?” he asked. He sounded rude but not aggressive, and she gave him credit for speaking English. Most Palestinian men in this area knew Hebrew, but few women did. Even those who understood a fair amount, like Rania, generally pretended they didn’t, in an unspoken pact of resistance.
“Do you know how much longer it will be?” she asked. “We need to get to work.”
“Work? What work?” His voice cracked. If he’d spent any time at all at checkpoints, he couldn’t be so ignorant as to believe Palestinian women didn’t go to work. But she certainly wasn’t going to tell him she was a policewoman.
“I’m a teacher,” she said.
“Well you might as well go home,” he said. He clawed at his cheek, his scraggly nail leaving behind a bloody streak. “School will be out before you can go through.”
“Really? Why so long?”
“You see that car?” he pointed in the direction of the blue car. She could see a trace of blood from his cheek on the tip of his finger. “There might be a bomb in it. If it blew up while you were walking under it…” He waved his arms in an exploding motion.
Rania inched closer to him. “What makes you think there could be a bomb in it?”
He shrugged, scratching his jaw again. “They don’t tell me that. They just tell me to keep everyone off the road.”
She turned away from the soldiers and started to walk toward the taxi drivers, the best source of information in any Palestinian town. A sharp crack made her spin around. She didn’t see what had made the sound, but she saw the soldiers tense. The Broom shouldered his rifle, and she heard the clip slide into place. He tore off up the hill, his itchy friend plodding after him.
“Atah tamut hayom,” The Broom yelled suddenly, at no one she could see.
Rania jumped into action, moving toward him with no clear goal. You are going to die today, he had said.
Young men from the village nearby must be engaging in their favorite pastime: throwing stones at the army.
“Do you really want to kill a child?” she asked, running alongside The Broom and trying not to pant.
He made the gesture with clumped thumb and fingers that meant “Wait,” and aimed his gun at the kids. She stayed near him, weighing the options. Standing in between a soldier and the stone-thrower he was bent on murdering would not fall under Captain Mustafa’s definition of treading lightly. Plus she didn’t want to get shot. But she could not simply move back and let him kill someone.
More stones rained down from the hillside. One passed dangerously close to her head. That would be the most ignominious thing of all, to be trying to protect the kids and get hit with one of their projectiles.
“Haji, go down!” one of the invisible youths called. The respectful appellation was more humiliating yet. She was not haji yet, not by a long shot. In her mind, she was barely out of her stone-throwing teens, when she had been better with a slingshot than half the boys in the refugee camp. She pumped her legs, willing herself to move faster, to get ahead of the soldiers and in a position to reason with the kids. Not that she had a clue what she would say to them.
The soldier fired in the air. The shot was so loud, it made her ears throb.
“Khalas, don’t!” she shouted, in Arabic for the kids and English for the soldiers. She hated these games, even as she knew the kids needed the outlet for their rage. Who were they, anyway, and why weren’t they in school? She couldn’t see if they were youngsters, or young adults. She pushed herself forward, recoiling as another shot rang out. She finally passed The Broom, and could glimpse one of his targets up on the hill. She turned around to plead with him. More stones thudded to the ground at her feet.
“Please,” she shouted, targeting her words at the shorter soldier, who had made it to his friend’s side. “Go back down, and I will get them to stop throwing stones.”
“You go down,” The Broom growled. “You are not allowed here, it’s a closed military zone. If you don’t leave, I will arrest you.”
“Fine, if you are arresting me, then you won’t be shooting at the children.”
He actually stopped and looked at her then. She imagined his thought process. Drop his pursuit of a group of young men armed with stones, to arrest a tiny woman for mouthing off? Still, could he shrug off her disrespect for his supreme authority? He took one step closer to her, his finger still on the trigger of his M-16. She was so close, she could count the tiny whiskers on his cheek. He reached toward her with his left hand, his right still clutching the rifle. She wanted to back up, but she would not allow herself that.
“You know, you’re on film,” a clear voice carried on the wind.
A foreign woman was striding toward them, video camera pointed straight at The Broom’s face. Rania’s eyes quickly took in the woman’s wild curls, black jeans faded in the knees, and baggy beige polo shirt. The other woman flashed her a smile, showing an appealing gap between her front teeth. The Broom swiveled, his rifle now pointed squarely at the other woman’s face. Relief washed over Rania, and she surreptitiously moved out of striking range.
“You’re not supposed to leave your post, are you?” the foreigner said to The Broom.
He did not answer, just peered through the sight on his rifle into the lens of the camera. Rania held her breath. If his finger moved on the trigger, the woman’s head would explode. How could she just stand there, calmly filming him?
Seconds ticked by, each one feeling like an hour. The rain of stones had stopped. The boys must be transfixed by the scene below them.
“Yalla.” Let’s go, The Broom said to Itchy. He slid the cartridge of bullets out of his rifle and they scrambled down the hillside.
Rania exhaled sharply.
“You’re very brave,” she said to the other woman.
“Not really,” the other woman shrugged. “I really didn’t think he’d shoot me. I’m Chloe.”
Chloe extended her right hand for Rania to shake, but it felt a little formal for the moment. Rania raised herself on tiptoes and kissed the taller woman first on the left cheek, then the right and the left again. The end of her head scarf caught on something on the other woman’s shirt. She extricated it. The offending item was a little silver charm, two interlocked circles with crosses attached.
“Is it something religious?” Rania asked, fingering the little icon.
Chloe hesitated. “Something like that.”
“Where are you from?” Rania asked.
“The States,” Chloe said.
“California. San Francisco, to be exact.”
“Like Michael Douglas,” Rania said.
“Um… sorry?” Chloe cocked her head to one side, cat-like.
“The Streets of San Francisco,” Rania said.
Chloe laughed. “That stupid show from the seventies? How do you know about that?”
“It comes on late night satellite television. San Francisco looks very beautiful.”
“It is.” Chloe’s face softened, and she looked off into the distance, as if San Francisco, not Tel Aviv, lay just beyond the trees.
“Let’s go down,” Rania said. “I need some coffee.”
Abu Anwar picked his way carefully along the rocky path.
“Watch the thorns,” he said to the donkey, who whinnied in resigned acknowledgment.
Abu Anwar steered the beast away from the thorny cactus lining the trail. They slowly climbed rock terraces. He walked next to the donkey, one hand on its scraggly mane, the other steadying the mound of tarps, tools, and provisions tied onto the animal’s back. The terraces were not a problem for him—he knew them like he knew his own children. They were built by his family and his neighbors’ families over the decades, with the rocks they cleared from their olive groves. But he had to pay close attention to the exposed sewage pipe, pouring waste from the settlement of Elkana into Azzawiya’s precious soil. He guided the donkey over one shallow pool of sludge, partially covered with branches. Soon though, they came to a raging river of filth, too wide to step across.
“Ya haram.” For shame, Abu Anwar exclaimed. He looped a rope loosely around the donkey’s front legs and tied it to a nearby olive tree. He clambered back over the low stone wall and wandered down the path, looking for a plank of wood big enough to make a bridge for them. He shook his head, muttering at the debris rotting in the fetid earth: plastic soda bottles that had carried water for last year’s olive picking, bits of tools long since corroded and cracked, rotting meat, a pair of baby shoes.
More surprising was the adult shoe a hundred meters further down. A woman’s shoe, high heeled, shiny leather, in good condition. Abu Anwar mused over the shoe as he continued to scour the litter. Some young women dressed to go to the fields as if they were going to a wedding and changed into picking clothes when they reached the trees. He supposed someone might have gone to the fields in her good party shoes, but at the end of a long day’s picking, not bothered to change out of her sneakers. Laden with buckets, picnic supplies, and children, it was plausible that she would not have seen a shoe slip out of one of her bundles. Satisfied with that explanation, he let it go.
He spied a board about a hundred meters away that looked like it would hold the donkey’s weight. A thicket of brambles blocked his path. As he bent to clear it, a bit of bright violet caught his eye. He reached cautiously into the tangle of branches and exposed the source of the bright spot—a small circle of cloth, gathered with elastic bands, caught on one of the thorns.
Abu Anwar knew that something was not right. He couldn’t have told you how he knew it, but he would bet his house on it. He also knew it was none of his affair. He would leave the bit of cloth where it was, and the shoe, and take the board and go tend his trees and return home to eat his wife’s makluube and smoke sheesha with his brothers in the evening. If something evil was walking their lands, it would no doubt find them in its own time, like the soldiers who came in the night to take their sons and the settlers who set fire to their trees. He would not do anything to hasten it.
He reached the board and pried it loose from the bed of mud and slime. He scraped it on an old tire. A wave of dizziness fell over him as he straightened up. He lost his balance and toppled over in the high grass. He clutched at the long weeds for support, and the sharp prickles tore at his hands. He lay for a few minutes, stunned.
“Shu bisir?” What is happening? he asked.
Something was definitely wrong. In his sixty-eight years on earth, he had never had a moment when he did not know where his feet were. Abu Anwar sat up slowly. His old bones ached uncharacteristically. He looked around, shaking his head over his clumsiness. Could he be losing his faculties? He got unsteadily to his feet.
He saw the pair to the girl’s shoe a few meters from where he had landed when he fell. That was more unsettling. Two shoes would hardly have been dropped by accident, and no Palestinian girl would intentionally throw away two good shoes like this. Abu Anwar bent to look at the second shoe more closely.
“Haram!” he said aloud again.
This shoe was attached to a girl. Ajnabiya—a foreign girl.
“Allah yirhamha.” He whispered the prayer for her soul.
Abu Anwar was careful not to touch her, but he thought she had been dead for some hours. Her skin had a bluish cast, and the faint odor which rose from her reminded him of the stench that could hang around your compound after the ritual slaughter of a cow for Eid, if you didn’t clean up well enough. She wore a violet blouse with gathered sleeves and black slacks. Her hair was shiny black, her features small and delicate. Abu Anwar thought she must be Japanese. She reminded him of pictures he saw once from the bombing of Hiroshima. At the time he had only thought, “If the Israelis get hold of this weapon, we are truly finished.” But now he heard that they had the weapon. Yet he and his family were still there, Allah be praised.
Abu Anwar was quite undecided about what to do. This girl was not a Palestinian, and no Palestinian would have left her in this state. Still, it was Palestinian land, so it was a matter for the Palestinian police. But if Abu Anwar called them, to report this dead girl, the Palestinian police would call the Israeli police. The Israelis would ask the Palestinian police who had found the girl, and then they might decide Abu Anwar had something to do with her getting dead, and he could find himself in a belagan, a big mess.
He left the girl where she lay. He took his board and went back to where he had tied up the donkey. It did not seem right to let her rot in the sun, but he could not think right now. He would work on his trees, and when he was done, he would go back to the village and discuss it with his brother, Thamer, the mayor of Azzawiya.
He slowly untied the donkey and headed into the groves.