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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American Swagger: Have We Earned It?

swagger wagon

So I was watching tennis recently on TV (when I should have been making edits on my novel). Mary Carillo and Lindsay Davenport were calling a match between Angelique Kerber, the German player who is currently #1 in the world on the women’s tour, and Shelby Rogers, a 24-year-old American currently ranked #61. Carillo kept talking about how Rogers was so much better than Kerber, who has been in a slump since winning two Grand Slam championships (Australian Open and US Open) and an Olympic silver medal last year. She pointed out that Rogers hits so much harder, plays with more confidence, acts like she belongs there. Kerber wasn’t being aggressive, going for her shots, playing with risk.

Kerber won the match pretty easily.

Carillo announced to Davenport that other than Serena and Venus Williams, not enough players on the tour now have “swagger.” Read the rest on Medium.

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Why do so many activists commit suicide?

Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s book, Democracy In Black, begins with a meeting he had with three cofounders of Millennial Activists United, one of the youth groups that kicked off the uprising in Ferguson, which in turn catalyzed the nationwide Black movement. Before Michael Brown’s murder, one of the young women, Ashley, told Glaude, every day was about making a determination to stay alive, while “‘Counting down the hours until I’m going to shoot myself.’” According to Glaude, “Alexis and Brittany stared at her as she talked, as if Ashley was describing all of them.” Ashley continued, “‘Now it’s like … [Y]ou can’t kill yourself today, because you got to do this. You’ve got this meeting, you’ve got to go protest at seven o’clock.’”

Reading this account gave me chills. It was not only the realization, which maybe should not have taken so long, that the brilliant and charismatic young leaders of this movement teeter on the edge of suicidal despair, but the fact that I recognized their despair. I had gone through it myself. I read that as someone whose life has been saved numerous times by the chance to be part of a “movement moment,” and as someone painfully aware of how fleeting those moments can be.

Mayer Vishner would also have resonated with Ashley’s story, I suspect, if he had lived long enough to read it. Two weeks ago, at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I saw a documentary about Vishner’s life, and death. A core member of the Yippies, one of the most theatrical and glamorous elements of the 1960s political counterculture, Vishner committed suicide in 2013, after battling depression and alcoholism his entire adult life. An obituary on the website The Villager, reported that “Mayer was heartened by the Occupy Wall Street movement but was disappointed that his skills of ‘phone tree’ organizing were obsolete in the age of Internet social media.”

When the Vietnam War wound down and the huge social movement it catalyzed among young white people followed suit, Vishner seemed on his way to a career in the flourishing alternative journalism business. He became managing editor of the L.A. Weekly. But he was fired for alcoholism and never managed to either dig his way out of or manage his addiction. Or likely the addiction was a symptom of the larger problem, that he never figured out a way to live without the movement.

Justin Schein’s thoughtful film at one point flashes through other notable suicides among Vishner’s cohort: comedian Lenny Bruce, folk singer Phil Ochs, political leader Abbie Hoffman, underground journalist Tom Forcade. The film raises the question: Did the movement and its eventual demise lead its participants to suicide, or did it simply attract people who were likely to become suicidal?

I would say the answer is both. Vishner’s despair was rooted in isolation and loneliness. Many of us who are drawn to activism have poor social skills, or at least, we have trouble connecting with people through casual conversation. We’re intense. The subjects I’m most interested in discussing and most knowledgeable about (Palestine, queer liberation, radical feminism, reparations) seem like highly inappropriate topics of conversation to “normal” — i.e., nonmovement — people. It’s not that I don’t know that, but I can’t deftly shift into a nuanced debate about “Love & Hip-Hop” or “Dancing with the Stars” because I don’t watch them. (If they happen to be “Project Runway” aficionados, I’m in luck.) Even if we are talking about novels, I am likely to use examples or frames that don’t make sense to them. And since I’m not pretty, they have no particular desire to talk to me anyway. (Of course, not everyone in the movement has that problem.)

Our social awkwardness is both a cause and a product of our alienation from the dominant society, making it possible for us to see its flaws clearly, and drawing us to others who are passionate about its destruction.

Movement work throws people together in intense situations, where our deepest qualities and most useful skills quickly emerge. People learn how they can count on you (if they can). Sharing your opinions no longer sets you outside the group, but draws you further inside. We come alive, sparkle with confidence, and exude pheromones. As Ashley’s remarks to Professor Glaude suggest, the frenzied activity keeps your energy high and leaves scant time for brooding.

But movements inevitably fray. They fray because the passionate ideals that bring us there make us impatient and touchy when people don’t see the work in the same way as we. We put ourselves on display, give our hearts and souls and sweat to the group and it’s easy to feel unseen or underappreciated. And this brings us back to our sense of alienation.

They also fray because the emotions that keep us going at that fevered pitch, especially rage, are exhausting, as Debbie Gould’s excellent book, Moving Politics, illustrates through the case study of ACT UP. Rage is in part, though certainly not entirely, a shield against the intense pain that oppressed people carry, pain that is also a source of the alienation that drew us to the movement in the first place. As the movement frays, our alienation and isolation seep back in, often leading to further schisms.

Not all such fraying is fatal to groups or networks. Some are able to knit themselves back together and come out stronger. Others fracture. There is not only the interpersonal stress to overcome, but also changing conditions to adjust to. Sometimes the method or focus of the group becomes obsolete, like Vishner’s phone trees (although I think most groups I am part of these days could use some phone tree organizing). Movements can be victims of their own success, failing to find a new direction after a victory.

The Movement for Black Lives and its component groups and networks seem nowhere near burning out. In fact, by all indications, they are only now coming to full strength, with the release of their comprehensive platform. But while that may be true on a national or international level, it might not be true in every community or for every organizer and activist. I worry about the young people whose lives are so clearly dependent on the movement’s thriving. I worry that more of them will come to a day when, like MarShawn McCarrel, their demons win. I worry that government elements will exploit rifts between them and the stress of the work to push them to the breaking point. I worry that repression will beat down on them, as it did on Aaron Swartz, who apparently could not face the prospect of years in prison.

In periods of deep fracture, people are thrown back on the resources they came in with. Many white activists who committed to violent overthrow of the government in the late sixties and early seventies were able to move on to professional careers, like Bill Ayres, Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd and Kathy Boudin. Many of their Black and Native American counterparts, like Herman Bell, Mutulu Shakur and Leonard Peltier, received far less tolerance for their youthful misadventures. Even Vishner might not have lasted until his sixties, had his mother, whom he hated, not paid his rent for decades, turning the responsibility over to his brother when she died. During the Occupy season, I knew young people who gave up jobs and moved out of precarious housing, to live full-time in the camps. When I asked what they were going to do when the camps were busted or broke up, they waved off the prospect. The Movement would provide, they said vaguely. They couldn’t imagine that it wouldn’t last until the revolution. I don’t know where some of them ended up.

I also worry that the tools of today’s organizing, while allowing movements to swell and spread much faster than in previous eras, don’t provide as much shelter from the storms of depression. What has kept me going all these years, until I no longer feel like I’m on the ledge, is that the connections I made during those heady days of nonstop meetings and protests were deep and personal. I found lovers who became friends and family. We spent hours and hours together over years and years. We know how each other likes their coffee and what their favorite ice cream is. My movement friends were the ones who first taught me that my birthday was on the peak day of the Perseid meteor shower, whisking me off at 1:00 am on my thirtieth to go to Tilden Park and watch the stars streak across the sky, while debating whether we would go if the alien ship came to take us away. The same people organized protests when I was arrested in Palestine, picked me up at the airport when I was deported, cared for me when I was getting chemo and threw a party when my book came out.

For sure, I have seen some of those deep ties forming among the folks in the Anti-Police Terror Project and the Black Leadership Committee here in Oakland. I’ve read about couples, like Alexis and Brittney, and close friends like DeRay and Johnetta. But there are many others around the edges who are recruited and get engaged via the Internet who may not have a group in their community, and might not be the kind of person who can organize one on their own. Debbie Nathan’s excellent piece, What Happened to Sandra Bland, offers a picture of what that can look like.

This is not meant to be a downer. It’s meant to be a call to action. To solidarity, to support, to love. If you know people who are movement people, don’t assume they’re fine just because they seem so cool. Remember their seeming snottiness may just be those bad social skills. If you have the means and the inclination, follow the example of whoever created the “Stay In It Fund,” offering small stipends for women with kids to continue their movement work.

It’s up to us all to make sure both the movements, and the people in the movements, stay alive.

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