Murder Under the Fig Tree – Chapter 1

March, 2006

“Rania in prison.”

Tina’s text caught Chloe in mid-glide. She looked around at the skaters, volleyball players, jamming musicians, couples walking with kids licking ice cream cones in their strollers. It was the first clear Sunday in weeks. Golden Gate Park was packed with people thronging to the azalea gardens and the arboretum. A minute ago, she had felt in sync with them all. Suddenly, she was on a different planet. She spun around on her rollerblades and took the hills as fast as her forty-year-old legs would carry her.

Barely a week later, she watched the ground come closer and closer as the plane circled over Ben Gurion Airport. She felt each successively smaller circle gnawing its way into the pit of her stomach. This is a mistake, her brain whispered. They’ll never let you in. You should have gone over land, from Jordan or Egypt. Then when they refused you entry, you would have been nearby; maybe you could have appealed, tried again. But, in reality, fifteen miles might as well be fifteen thousand when the Israeli border stood in your way. If she was going to get sent home, she would rather the rendering be swift and brutal. The doors were opening now, and the impatient passengers were shoving toward the steep stairs leading to the tarmac. She let everyone go ahead of her. At least she could give herself a few more minutes.

She parked herself in the mob under the All Others sign and waited, practicing her lines over and over. To her right, Israeli passport holders breezed through the turnstile, joking with the passport control officers in Hebrew.

To distract herself, she imagined Tina pacing around the huge airport lobby, waiting for Chloe to emerge from the secured area. Since getting the news about Rania’s arrest, Chloe had been so obsessed with getting her friend out of prison, she had not really considered that she would also be renewing her relationship with Tina. What should her first words be? Would they even still like each other? Theirs had been a whirlwind courtship in the context of a big adventure which had ultimately forced Chloe to leave Palestine. They had spent fewer than ten days in each other’s arms, though the intensity had made it seem much longer. Not much to base a relationship on. But Tina had encouraged her to come, so that had to mean something.

To her left, a motley mix of women who resembled her mother and kids who resembled her camp counselors danced a hora under a sign reading Welcome New Olim. The Olim, Jews coming to claim the birthright of Israeli citizenship bequeathed to them by Israeli law and the United Nations, stood in the center of the circle, clutching pet carriers and household appliances and looking shell-shocked.

She felt a moment of envy, which she quickly stowed in a tightly locked closet in her mind. Even now, despite all that had happened, if she told the immigration officer she wanted to immigrate to Israel—to “make Aliyah,” they would whisk her off to a special area reserved for Jews “returning” and help her sign up for government-paid Hebrew classes. In junior high school, she had imagined doing it. She had pictured herself strong in olive fatigues, an Uzi slung over her shoulder, like the two soldier girls just now strolling past her, laughing. She thought one of them glanced her way.

Chloe took deep breaths, or tried to. She should have brought a fashion magazine, as a friend had suggested, to make herself seem harmless. Like that would help. There were agents everywhere whose job was to watch out for people just like her, people who were not what they seemed.

What she seemed to be was a middle-aged American with an unmistakably Jewish countenance and wild dark curls flecked with gray. She wore jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt, like 80 percent of the others in this line. Hers clung to her zaftig middle, creating dark patches where tension was making her sweat. She wished she had a hair dryer, but of course she hadn’t even packed one.

She made a game of distinguishing all the languages her fellow tourists were speaking. She picked out snatches of conversation in French, German, and languages she didn’t recognize, probably Dutch, Polish, Serbian. Directly in front of her, a group of Christian pilgrims joked in German, all tall, rugged blondness, the crosses around their necks mildly clashing with their grunged-out clothing. If she got in, she would no doubt run into them in the Old City, eating hummus at Abu Shukri’s famous shop.

In front of the pilgrims was a South Asian Muslim family, the woman in a lavender headscarf, the father with a long, black beard and white cap. Chloe guessed they were Indian, and the Indian government was a close ally of Israel, so maybe that would help them, but she predicted they would be in for some rigorous questioning. She examined the three children, the oldest not more than five, dancing and hopping around while their mother tried to contain them by clinging to their hands. How would they hold up under the interrogation of the airport authority? she wondered. And if they were taken aside for questioning and background checks, would that help or hurt her own chances? Was there a quota of harassment they had to meet every day? A limited number of people available to conduct strip searches and other invasive procedures? She had no idea. She silently apologized to the Indian family—if that’s what they were—for hoping that they would occupy the suspicious slot for this line.

Her turn finally came to walk up to the counter. She watched the Muslim family be herded through an iron door, flanked by two police, one male and one female. One of the kids turned to look back, her pigtails flying out around her head. The policewoman gently but firmly prodded her toward the invisible back room.

Chloe’s legs would hardly hold her up. She braced a knee against the bottom of the counter, so the young woman behind it would not see her shaking. She leaned over slightly to make sure the Star of David around her neck dangled into the clerk’s line of sight.

“What is the purpose of your trip?” asked the young woman, between chews of gum.

“Visiting friends and family,” Chloe replied. Her eyes burned as she tried to keep them from shifting away.

“Family? What family do you have here?”

What should she say? She couldn’t name the second cousins she had never even met. The people she considered family were not going to do her any good in this encounter.

“My cousin Nehama,” she said. “In Givatayim.”

She should have called Nehama and made a plan to say they were cousins. The older woman would surely have agreed. What else had she neglected to do? She had been half-crazed, worrying about Rania, dreaming of Palestine; she had barely gotten it together to find someone to take care of her cat.

As long as the agent didn’t ask for Nehama’s phone number, it would be okay. If Chloe got to make the call herself, her friend would back her up.

“Nehama what? Her name is Rubin also?”

“No, it’s Weiss. She’s my mother’s first cousin.” Might as well lay it on.

“Where does she live?”

“I told you, Givatayim. It’s a suburb of Tel Aviv.” Of course the woman knew where Givatayim was. She was just testing, to see if Chloe would crack.

“What street?”

“Keren Kayemet.”

The young woman chomped noisily on her gum. She swiped the passport’s magnetic stripe through the machine, and they both waited impatiently. A flood of information splashed across the blue screen. Chloe couldn’t see it, but she imagined she knew what it said, chronicling the trouble she had caused for the Israeli military last time she was here. The woman made faces at it, her hand hovering over the telephone to her right. This is it, Chloe thought. She was going to call the police to come get Chloe and take her into that back room. Chloe instinctively took hold of the Star of David, rubbed it a little for luck. The young woman took her hand off the phone and held the passport with both hands in front of her face.

“How long do you plan to stay?”

“At least until Pesach.”

The woman lowered the passport and studied Chloe’s face. Chloe concentrated on appearing as middle-aged and nonthreatening as she possibly could. She wished she had gum, so she could chomp like the agent was doing.

Stamp, stamp, stamp. The agent’s hand moved rapidly, and now she was holding the passport out to Chloe to take. Improbable as it seemed, her use of the Hebrew name for the Jewish holiday of Passover, coming up in four weeks, had worked like a secret handshake. She was in. Chloe walked away, mentally shaking her head over her dumb luck. In minutes, she was holding Tina’s long, lithe body in her arms, burying her nose in her lover’s neck.

* * *

Rania perched on one end of the narrow cot and concentrated on carving into the plaster wall with her hardiest fingernail. When she was done, she counted the tick marks, as if she didn’t know them by heart. As if she had not already counted three times today, and it was not even noon. At least, she assumed it was not, because the policewoman had not come to bring her lunch. A lunch she would not want to eat, but probably would, because the boredom was too much to tolerate on an empty stomach.

Here came the young woman now: the one they called Tali, her freckled, copper face glowing with health and rest. From counting the ticks, Rania knew it was Sunday, Yom il ahad. Yesterday would have been the regular guards’ day off, the Jewish Sabbath. She tried to remember who was here yesterday. She could not conjure up a face. She could not keep the days from blurring one into the other, while she sat here, day after day, looking at these same four walls and wishing wishing wishing herself at home with Khaled and Bassam.

Rania turned her face to the gray wall before the policewoman got to her cell. She would not let the police see her crying for her former life, which seemed so far away now. She could barely remember what Khaled had looked like the day before they took her away. Of course she knew what her own son looked like; she knew his face better than her own, but, at seven, he was changing so fast, becoming more himself every day. Sitting here, she could remember how he had looked as a tiny infant in her arms, as a three-year-old soberly watching her separate the clothes for washing, last month at the party for his cousin’s engagement. But she could not remember exactly what he had worn the last day after he came home from school, or if his face had furrowed over his English homework.

“Hakol bseder?” Tali asked as she shoved the tray into the space between the bars. The unappetizing smell of overcooked beef quickly filled the little cell.

The guard didn’t wait for an answer, but moved on to the next cell even as the words, Are you okay?, were coming out of her mouth. There was no reason she should wait. Rania had never said a word in reply, in the weeks they had been bringing her the miserable Israeli hummus and the runny, tasteless cheese they served instead of labneh. The thought of it made Rania’s stomach lurch. They couldn’t even make salad right.

“Lo, hakol lo bseder,” she said suddenly. The words sounded so strange coming out of her mouth. Not only because she rarely spoke Hebrew, but because she had not heard her own voice in three long weeks. She, who seldom went three minutes without talking. When they had first brought her here, she had worried that she would break under interrogation, just because she loved to talk. She needn’t have worried. There had been no interrogations. No one wanted her to talk. They wanted to shut her up.

She was so used to being alone with her own thoughts, she forgot that she had spoken out loud. Now, the startled young woman was back and watching her with annoyance in her eyes. Rania vaguely traced the irritation to the fact that Tali had asked a question she had not registered, unused as she was to conversation.

“Did you say something?” Rania asked.

“You speak Hebrew?” The question sounded vaguely accusatory, as if Rania must have stolen the language.

“Ken, ktzat,” yes, a little.

“Ma habeayah?” What’s the problem?

What to say? She was not going to tell this Israeli cop that she wanted to see her son or that she wanted to know what was going to happen to her, how long she would be cooped up in this nothing place. She didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowing they had broken her down, and she couldn’t trust them with the knowledge of what was important to her. She thought of her friend Samia, back in the refugee camp in Bethlehem, who had been arrested when they were seventeen. She had been tortured and raped, but she had not named one member of their group.

“Nothing,” Rania said in English. “Sorry to bother you.”

“No problem.” Tali swung away from her, back to the cart of lunch trays she had to deliver.

When she was gone, Rania almost regretted her resolve. It had been nice just to be in the presence of another person, for those few minutes. That tiny bit of interaction had made her feel a little more human. What would it have hurt to have a little conversation with the girl, ask her about her weekend, about the weather, if she had a boyfriend? But, then again, what would it have helped? It would simply have postponed the inevitable agony, when she would be alone again, to sit here trapped with her own thoughts and recriminations.

Ten months ago, Rania had learned dangerous secrets held by two of Israel’s top military men. She thought she had outsmarted them, but, all this time, they had been waiting for their chance to lock her away with their secrets. When Hamas won the Palestinian legislative election, the Israelis had rounded up dozens of Palestinian police and others they considered dangerous. She should have been spared; she had been a member of Fatah, President Abbas’s party, since she was fifteen. Her enemies, though, had seized the opportunity to put away someone they personally considered dangerous. She had no idea how long they could hold her. If her enemies had anything to say about it, it could be forever.

That thought brought the tears to her eyes again, and she wiped them away with the back of her hand. However long she was going to be here, she would not spend it moping. She stood and stretched up on tiptoe, then bent and touched her toes. Her body felt uncharacteristically stiff, her back aching with inaction. In the normal course of her life, she got lots of exercise, but now she thought maybe she should do some of the calisthenics they used to do in school. She removed the heavy, dark jilbab, revealing a red, long-sleeved pullover and black, stretchy pants. She felt ridiculously exposed, though there was no one here to see. She did a few jumping jacks, ran in place for five minutes. While she ran, she hummed one of the marching songs that had played everywhere during the First Intifada.

“Singing is forbidden.” Tali was back.

“Why?” Rania was not in the mood to be conciliatory. What more could they do to her?

“Those are the rules.”

“If you care about rules, why do you break international law by keeping me here?”

The policewoman walked away, shaking her head. Rania felt surprisingly cheered. In those few minutes, she had recouped a little piece of herself she had been missing since the night they took her away. She would spend the day crafting a campaign of minor resistance.

Read Chapter 2

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About Kate Jessica Raphael

I have been fighting the power for 30 years, with limited success but a lot of passion and fun. From 2002-2005 I spent a lot of time living in Palestine working with a women's peace group, and while there got the idea for a murder mystery. So I set up this site to serialize this novel and its sequel, which I've been working on ever since I was deported in 2005.
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