So you won a prize. What do you want, a medal?

One Monday in March, in a break from work, I glanced at Facebook and got some lovely news. Murder Under the Bridge: A Palestine Mystery had been named a finalist for the IndieFAB awards.  I am a finalist in both mystery and multicultural fiction, so I have two chances to win.  I was over the moon.

Since the email I dug out of my spam folder telling me of my good fortune had scant details, I went to the website to see what finalisthood gets you.  I hankered for one of those shiny “FINALIST” stickers I’ve seen.  And of course, I can get them – 500 of them for a mere $100 (you can’t get fewer than 500); with that comes the right to print the finalist artwork right on your cover, which is good for a book that’s going to be print-on-demand from here on out.  I figure I’ll wait to see if I win because I wouldn’t want to pay twice.


A couple weeks later I got even better news.  I had actually won an award – the silver medal for mystery in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, also known as IPPY, not to be confused with the Independent Book Publishers Association, the IBPA, which gives out the Ben Franklin awards, the IBPA-BF and the IBPA-BFDA, the Ben Franklin Digital Awards.  If you’re thinking “Life of Brian,” you’re not the only one.

I opted not to go to the awards ceremony in Chicago, which is being held at this week’s Book Expo of America.  Had I chosen to go, I could have gotten free tickets for myself and a guest – not for the expo, not to display my book, and certainly not for travel or hotels, but only for the awards cocktail party (business casual).  If I wanted any extra people to come see me honored, along with over 250 other authors, we could have paid $75 per person for that privilege.  IPPY is, however, mailing me a medalist’s packet containing a dozen stickers.

I was also offered the opportunity to have my book displayed along with other IndieFAB finalists in the Foreword Reviews booth for only $190, or to be part of a group ad for $305.  I can only imagine how big my book cover would have been in that ad.  (To be fair, it is a 15-page ad.)  I passed.

I had never heard of any of these awards until I started getting ready to publish my book.  There are literally dozens of awards open to small press, university press and self-published books.  I only entered the competitions for IPPY, IndieFAB, and the Lambda Literary Association LGBT book awards.  I could have entered at least twenty other competitions including NextGen Indie Awards, National Indie Excellence, USA “Best Books” Award, and my favorite (for which I am sadly ineligible), the Shirley You Jest Awards.  There are the International Book Awards and the Global eBook Awards.

Pretty much every competition has an entry fee.  For the prestigious National Book Award, the publisher must pay $135 to submit a book; the chairpersons of each judging panel may “call in” titles that have not been submitted, but if the publisher wants those called-in books to be considered, they still have to pay the $135.  These less well-known competitions usually charge $50-75 per entry, but if you want to be considered in multiple categories, you pay for each category.  Most give you a discount on the extra categories, like $75 for the first and $50 for each additional category.  Since my book is a multicultural mystery with lesbian content, I submitted in Mystery, Multicultural Fiction, and LGBT Fiction, but I could have also submitted in women’s fiction, Middle East regional fiction, and since it has such great literary merit, literary fiction.  Small press authors typically have to pay all these expenses themselves.  Someone who wanted to, or whose publicist convinced her she should, enter all the contests for which her book is eligible could spend thousands of dollars to win awards that don’t even come with cash prizes.

With so many contests and so many winners, what does winning bestow besides the chance to spend more money?  Opinions vary, but most experts seem to agree that winning the right contests matters.  How much, though, and even which contests are the “right ones,” is very open to interpretation.

Book publicist Scott Lorenz, who has represented quite a few best-selling authors, says “‘Do book awards matter?’  YES!!! … one of my clients won the prestigious Los Angeles Book Festival award. That then led to a flurry of media interest, which subsequently led to a major New York agent deciding to represent the book and pitch it to all the major publishing houses.”

Lorenz lists 37 awards that authors should definitely apply for (last year it was 35, two years ago 32, which tells you something about the way these awards are proliferating).  You’ll notice that IPPY and IndieFAB are at the very top of his list, above National Book Critics Circle, Man Booker Prize, Pulitzer, National Book Award and the Nobel Prize.  Not sure if that means something about how seriously I should take his advice.

Speaking of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, even those, according to a 1983 New York Times article, have little impact on book sales.  “[T]he Pulitzer Prize … usually has little effect on the sale of hard-cover books, both because it tends to be awarded to books that are already successful and because by the time of the Pulitzer announcement the hard-cover sales have largely run their course.”  More recent information gives a different picture.  In 2012, reported Publisher’s Weekly, “Four weeks after the four National Book Awards winners were announced… [a]ll four winners have experienced sales spikes. Fiction winner Louise Erdrich’s The Round House (Harper) sold 30,000 of its 47,000 copies since its victory.”

Then again, maybe not so much, especially if you don’t actually win the prize.  A lot of people I know read (or tried to read) A Brief History of Seven Killings after it won the Man Booker Prize, but according to blogger Wendy Fox, “the least-selling of the Man Booker dozen short-list clocked in at 604 copies.”

Those short-listed authors may get their revenge.  “Literary prizes make books less popular, study finds,” proclaims a 2014 article in The Guardian.  Researchers compared books that had won prestigious awards with ones that were shortlisted but didn’t win. The prize winners got much more negative response from readers.  But, the authors concluded, that may be because more people read the winning books.

I, for instance, bought the IPPY gold-medal winner in mystery to see if it’s better than my book. Hopefully the bronze winner will buy mine for the same reason.  I have long suspected that writing is a pyramid scheme.  Probably the majority of books sold at group readings are to one’s fellow authors.

So, back to my question, does winning mean anything?  Sarah Schulman, author of 17 critically acclaimed books, says, “It means someone liked your book.”  I have noticed that the same books seem to be winning many awards, which conveys some level of critical consensus.

My publisher, Brooke Warner, says the best thing about prizes is that they give you an opportunity to hype a book that’s been out for a while.

“The life of a book is surprisingly short, after all. You get three to six solid months to push it out the gate. After three months, your book is backlisted, and ceases to be new news. So anything that breathes fresh air into your campaign should be seen as a positive—and winning gives reason for your existing fans to rally around your book, and creates buzz that will hopefully result in new readers finding you.”

So, that’s what I’m doing.  Read my book.  It makes great beach reading.  Recommend it to your book club and your library.  Tell them it won a prize.

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Do Fiction Writers Need to Be Honest?








What responsibility do fiction writers have to tell the truth?

On its face, the question is ridiculous. Not only is “fiction” the literal opposite of truth, but it’s increasingly accepted that “truth” itself is a subjective and pretty suspect concept.

When you’re trying to write fiction that captures experiences that are not only your own but are important to many people you care about, it feels important to be true to life. But a story needs to be satisfying and make sense, while reality has no such obligation. Nowhere is this a thornier problem than in fictional stories situated in political or social movements.

Political movements usually have an identifiable beginning, but they often have no clear end point. A story can’t just end with the protagonists staring into space, wondering if they will ever accomplish anything. It can’t be filled with march after march at which everything goes like clockwork, a few hundred or a few thousand people show up, everyone has a nice day and they all go home without having made a discernible change in their conditions.

So we pick the most dramatic moments to build our stories around, compress the timeline, amp up the tension. That’s no different from what other writers do. As Tolstoy observed, happy families don’t make interesting subjects either. But there are two reasons it seems more problematic to make those adjustments in activist fiction.

First, most of us who write about movements are in movements, and we want people to get involved. While making the work seem more exciting and faster acting might be helpful in drawing people in, they’re not likely to stick around if it seems a lot more tedious and less productive than they imagined. Second, our core audiences are going to be other activists, often people who were involved in some of the same movements as we, and people are notably intolerant of different perspectives on the things they know intimately.

When I read Sarah Schulman’s fictional account of AIDS activism, People in Trouble, I was furious that she made it seem much easier to get national press for a routine direct action than it ever has been, in my experience. From a remove of twenty years, I ask myself why I thought it mattered so much. But at the time, with the chants of “AIDS = Genocide, Silence = Death” fresh in my ears, I hated the thought that people might think all you had to do was take over a hotel lobby for a few hours to have CNN at your door. If that was all it took, would we have stopped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge? We led a march into a struck hotel the night the first Iraq War began in 1990 and barely got 2 minutes of local press.

A friend who also writes political fiction objected to Sunil Yapa’s new book, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, about the 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, because he felt the characters were too much archetypes and the story line too predictable. I agree with those criticisms, but didn’t mind because ultimately, I felt that he accurately captured what it felt like to be there – impressive since he was not there. He also stayed pretty true to the level of violence that we encountered – bad but not too bad. If someone had been killed in the book, I would have been really angry because no one was killed at those protests, even though someone was killed just a few months later at a similar protest in Genoa, Italy. But writers fictionalizing activist moments often inject deaths that didn’t occur as a way of upping the stakes, and many writing teachers would say that’s a good choice to make.

Some of my friends enjoyed the film, The East, which painted fairly sympathetic portraits of anarchists taking militant direct actions. I hated it because it made the group into a type of cult in which each of the members has some personal score to settle, as if the only reason someone opposes corporate greed is to get back at their parents or avenge the death of a brother. That’s not my experience, it’s not the experience of the activists I know, and it’s not what I want people to think. The ending, in which the FBI agent turned anti-capitalist crusader goes around the world, armed with nothing but a handshake and a story, convincing powerful people to switch sides and spill their beans, is the treacly icing on the stale cake.

Starhawk (The Fifth Sacred Thing, City of Refuge), China Mieville (The City & the City), Ursula LeGuin (The Dispossessed) and Pat Murphy (The City, Not Long After) successfully avoid the truth dilemma by setting their stories in fictional times or places. I can accept that what might not work in 2016 San Francisco might work in the San Francisco dreamed of by Starhawk or Murphy. But for the books I write, about contemporary Palestine, that doesn’t provide much of a guide.

A radio host recently asked me, “Which is more important to you, to teach people about the situation in Palestine or to write a good mystery story?” I answered without hesitation, “I don’t think there’s a conflict, but if there were, I would have to choose good storytelling.” A fiction writer’s first obligation is to entertain, to write the best story we can. And that is more likely to get people interested in our issues and our movements than telling the literal truth. Even Emma Goldman, the early 20th century anarchist and feminist leader, warned that her two-part memoir, Living My Life, is more inspirational than strictly factual. At the same time, I think those of us who write politics should opt for the real over the ideal whenever possible.

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Three Reasons to Worry About President Trump

Professor Helmut Norpoth of Stonybrook University says Donald Trump has a 97% chance of being the next president. That’s if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, which all the major US media have declared an unstoppable outcome. If Bernie Sanders should pull out an upstart victory (a result predicted by a Reuters poll that went unreported in the mainstream US press)? Norpoth says Trump’s odds go up to 99%.

Most of my friends say it can’t happen. I’m not sure why. Seems that they have an irrational belief in the rationality of the US electorate, or at least of the US political class. Neither, in my opinion, is well founded.

Professor Norpoth has, according to himself (and Fortune magazine), accurately predicted the outcome of every election since 1912, with the technical exception of 2000, when his statistical model predicted a Gore victory. 

But of course, we know what’s wrong with that exception.

There’s a school of thought that says this election is so wacky that a statistical model based on past primary results is irrelevant. That might be true, it might not. But let’s just assume Mr. Norpoth is right and Trump is the next president, which is by no means a long shot. How worried should I be about what that means?

A. Very worried – make an exit plan (Denmark, anyone?).

B. Not worried – they’re all the same.

C. Impossible to tell because no one knows what Trump really stands for.

I pick A, but not because both of the other rationales are not accurate. Here’s what we know.

1. Unlike Rubio and Cruz, Trump is not a right-wing ideologue. He’s pro-choice (, in favor of some form of universal health care, and might even secretly be pro-gay. Well Mitt Romney was pro-choice too, until he was running for president, and was the architect of one of the most successful universal health coverage examples we have. What people like that have said in the past doesn’t really matter once they start running for president.

2. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Yes, Trump opposes free trade agreements, but not because they give too much power to multinational corporations or because they’re going to be bad for international labor. He doesn’t want to see smaller countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have the opportunity to develop with democracy and without displacement. Trump says he doesn’t want people dying on the street. Well Gavin Newsom, former mayor who brought “care-not-cash” to San Francisco, didn’t want people dying on the street either, he wanted to move them somewhere else to die. No one wants people dying on the street. Trump says his great new plan to make sure everyone has health care “is not single-payer” and won’t cost any money. Which means he has no plan. Just because Trump talks about “a few people on Wall Street” who are not paying enough taxes, I can’t ignore the fact that apparently, 20% of his avowed supporters think slavery should not have ended. Or that he didn’t want to refuse the endorsement of former KKK leader David Duke without doing research because “I know nothing about white supremacists.”

3.  No one keeps their campaign promises, or even intends to. Remember, “On Day 1, I will shut down Guantanamo”? Remember, “I can end the ban on gay soldiers with the stroke of a pen”? Contrary to claims by Trump and Romney, the president doesn’t get to eliminate Obamacare or abortion rights. There is this little thing called Congress and this slightly bigger thing called the Supreme Court.

Campaigning is by definition lying. Hillary Clinton was mercilessly hazed a couple weeks ago for saying she “tries not to” lie. Any ten-year-old, said Stephen Colbert, with a live 10-year-old to prove his point, knows that when asked, “Have you ever lied?” the only answer is, “No, never.” By the same token, voters don’t want to hear, “I will attempt to get this or that bill through Congress, although I realize the odds are against my being able to accomplish it.” Maybe back in Calvin Coolidge’s day or something, but in the age of television and Twitter? No way. You’re supposed to promise the moon with a wink. Trump is great at that because it’s how he’s made his fortune. Or several, some of which he also lost, but we’re not supposed to talk about that or even notice it.

Trump will not be building any walls on the Mexican border, with or without Mexico’s money. He will not be deporting 11 million immigrants or even banning Muslims, although that he might manage because honestly, it has not been very easy for Muslims to get visas for a long time now. He won’t be creating great jobs for US workers, forcing China to stop devaluing its currency or making America great again.

So all those angry white guys (and gals, sad to say) who are voting for him in droves are gonna be mad. Even if he were doing what he said he would do, they’d be mad because even if someone really tries to fulfill their promises, changing social policy takes a long time. Economies do not turn around at the stroke of a pen. If Trump (or Sanders) did all the wonderful things he says he is going to do, it would probably take a couple or more years before people who have been out of work for a long time started getting hired. And what is Trump going to fall back on to keep that formidable anger and sense of betrayal from landing on him?

Misogyny and racism. Trump’s not an ideologue but he is a macho, woman-hating, racist. A lot’s been written and said about his “tough guy” act, and how important this aggressive form of machismo is to his appeal. (For an amusing example of this literature, check out Friday’s Washington Post article, “Has Donald Trump Actually Punched Anyone?”.) We’ve seen how he has wielded vile sexism against Megyn Kelly (someone I don’t normally feel that much sisterhood with) and Hillary Clinton and racism against Jorge Ramos and President Obama. There’s the comment about how he would like to date his daughter and and the more basic one, allegedly made to a friend and quoted by New York Magazine, “You have to treat ’em [women] like shit.” There’s his fat-shaming of Rosie O’Donnell and others), and the simple fact that he owns the Miss Universe pageant. The list goes on and on.

We also saw how Arnold (“Girlie-Man”) Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush utilized the swagger to distract people from what they were not doing to improve their lives. We can expect more wars, more militarized policing, more ruthless rhetoric about people who aren’t making it. The divisions that gave us a weekend of stabbings and Klan rallies in California and the murder of Sudanese immigrants in Indiana will intensify, as will verbal and physical abuse of women and kids. And unfortunately, it works. When white men have nothing else to feel good about, feeling like part of the biggest, baddest, toughest team on the planet seems to appease them. And eight years of that I cannot abide.

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Who Killed Fiction (and Why)?

If you want to feel really good about your community, publish a book.

That’s what I learned last year. I thought releasing my first novel, after such a long process, would make me feel good about myself. But instead, it made me feel good about other people. I have been so gratified and amazed by how eager people are to help me, how much they want to see me succeed. I do believe that is in part because I wrote a good book, and because people see it as useful to social justice movements, specifically to justice for Palestine. But many people reached out before they’d ever read the book, and that includes people I never thought liked me, people I’ve had ambivalent political relationships with over the years, and even some people who don’t agree with my politics on Palestine. Coworkers bought multiple copies to give to their families and friends for Christmas presents, while some of my good friends had private book signings (Tory bought more books than we sold at the Modern Times reading). Local bookstores have promoted it and let me know when there were problems in the supply chain.

I’ve also gotten some wonderful nuanced feedback from writers I respect, which will help me as I delve into Book 2 of the Rania & Chloe Palestine mystery series (pleased to have editor Elana Dykewomon back on board for Murder Under the Fig Tree). I’ve gotten used to talking about my writing process, how art differs from life, and had opportunities to reflect deeply on the events in my life that led to embarking on this project. I even remembered what I was working on before I went to Palestine, and made a commitment to get back to it before too long.

One of the less encouraging things I’ve learned is that fiction is out of favor in US culture right now. I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have told me, “Oh, I don’t read fiction.” I’m not sure how I missed knowing this, since as early as 2004, commentators were reporting that “Although fiction still sells in great quantities … the attention of publishers and booksellers has moved elsewhere. Everyone in publishing agrees it is getting harder to sell a new novel, even by a distinguished name, in this country; book buyers seem interested only in non-fiction.” “The top 10 non-fiction books on the bestseller list always outsell the top 10 fiction books, save an occasional mega-seller,” wrote Anthony Chatfield in 2007.

Blogger Scott Esposito suggests that this trend reflects a desire for instant gratification: nonfiction offers the appearance that we’ve made an immediate gain in terms of useful knowledge. Another reason nonfiction might work better for people in this overscheduled information age is that it’s easier to pick up and put down, or read parts of, requiring less commitment than a novel. Who, after all, really read Thomas Pickety’s bestseller on capitalism from start to finish? I really liked Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of the Islamic State, but it didn’t exactly make me miss any bus stops because I had to find out how it ended.

At the same time, alarm bells have been sounded by those worried about gaps in our kids’ education – the same ones unwilling to address the elephant in the room, poverty. Researchers claim that high numbers of graduating students “may be able to compute a math problem or analyze a short story but they can’t read a complex non-fiction text.” To remedy this perceived weakness, the Common Core Standards “calls for a shift in the balance of fiction to nonfiction as children advance through school. According to the CCSS guidelines, by the end of 4th grade, students’ reading should be half fiction and half informational. By the end of 12th grade, the balance should be 30 percent fiction, 70 percent nonfiction across all subject areas.”

I seriously question whether students can in fact analyze a short story if they can’t “read a complex text.” The key words “analyze” and “complex” are not defined, at least not in any of the metareports I looked at; I didn’t see the original data, which is attributed to the creators of the ACT college readiness exam. If by “analyze,” we mean anything beyond describing what happened (which is not analysis, but reporting), analyzing a work of fiction should require more complex thinking than reading even the most difficult nonfiction work because the information in a remotely well-written nonfiction text should be communicated directly, while the themes and lessons of fiction must be intuited or derived by careful attention to the symbolism of events and characters. A more likely explanation of the disparity between students’ ability to analyze fictional versus nonfictional texts, if it exists, might be that the fiction they are reading is chosen, by themselves or their teachers, for its relevance to their lives, while the nonfiction is simply presented as information they need to know.

I remember when I was in graduate school complaining to my teacher, the always brilliant Michael Rogin, that I couldn’t remember dates and characters in history.

Can you remember the plots of novels?” he asked.

Sure,” I replied. (The same might not be said today, when I can easily read half a mystery before realizing I’ve read it before. But that might have more to do with the books than my failing memory.)

That’s because you attach symbolic significance to the events in the story. If you can do the same with historical events, you’ll remember them too.”

It was good analysis, good advice and it helped me become a better nonfiction reader. It might well work for students who are having the same trouble today. More to the point, if the “complex texts” are about things they think they need to know about, they will probably figure out a way to understand them.

The solution may well be worse than the problem. A series of studies that came out a few years ago found that reading literary fiction increased readers’ empathy. One study used “a variety of Theory of Mind techniques to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. Scores were consistently higher for those who had read literary fiction than for those with popular fiction or non-fiction texts.” Of course, once again, key words like “literary” and “popular” fiction are not defined. Examples of the literary works included books by Don DeLillo, Charles Dickens and Louise Erdrich, while popular fiction included Gillian Flynn and Danielle Steele. One hypothesis about the difference was that the characters in the popular works were not as well defined. I might offer some other hypotheses regarding Gillian Flynn (a friend and I just watched “Gone Girl” on TV) – such as that her characters are so unpleasant, one would not really want to get inside their emotional worlds. And yet, as I have previously mentioned, Flynn is often included among genre writers who have “crossed over” (a review of her book, Sharp Objects, says, “this is more literary novel than simple mystery”).

I haven’t seen studies proving this, but I don’t need any to know that fiction also helps us stretch our imaginations. Reading fiction is essential to the creation of revolutionaries, because if you can’t imagine something that doesn’t exist, you cannot help to create it. Is that perhaps a reason why these education reformers are so determined to limit the time that kids spend exercising their imaginations? Or is it simply that their own imaginations are so starved, at this point, that they can’t remember the joy of being transported into another place, another time or another person’s reality?

I went to see ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens” the other night. I enjoyed it, especially the 3D effects. But there was a lot less to the story than in the 1970s episodes, which is not saying that much. There’s almost no character development; it’s two hours of nonstop battle scenes. The best mainstream movies I saw last year, “Spotlight” and “Trumbo,” along with some I didn’t care for like “Bridge of Spies,” were barely fictionalized versions of true stories. Among the 12 top grossing films of 2015, nine were installments in multi-film franchises, two were based on old television shows, one was based on an alleged true story and one was a remake. Only two, “Inside Out” and “The Martian,” were original fictional narratives.

Those of us who write fiction might need to start fighting for its place in our culture, for the sake of the culture as well as ourselves.

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Writing Down: Cultural Appropriation and the Fiction Writer’s Dilemma

Today I was a guest on The KillZone, a wonderful blog featuring some of our best mystery writers. Thanks to Clare Langley-Hawthorne for inviting me to a really full and thought-provoking conversation.

Please welcome Kate Raphael to TKZ as my guest today, continuing the discussion we started on diversity and cultural appropriation in fiction….

Where is the line between imagination and cultural appropriation?

Actors and musicians have faced that question for decades, but until recently, fiction writers seemed to have license to become, behind our pens, whoever we could convince readers we were. In the 1930s and 40s, Pearl Buck and James Michener won Pulitzer Prizes for their portrayals of Asian countries and the people who inhabited them. Tony Hillerman not only won several Edgars and a Nero, he received the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friends of the Dineh Award for his series starring Navajo policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn.

In the last few years, however, cultural activists and writers of color have begun to raise the issue of who has a right to tell their stories….Continue reading on the KillZone Blog.

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Goodreads Giveaway of Murder Under The Bridge Starts Today

For the next week, I’ll be running a giveaway on Goodreads. That means you have a chance to win a free copy of Murder Under The Bridge. Enter now

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Murder Under the Bridge, Sample Chapters

Chapter 1

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.

tree tops with woman lookingTo 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.

“Which state?”

“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.”

Chapter 2

Abu Anwar picked his way carefully along the rocky path.

“Watch the thorns,” he said to the donkey, who whinnied in resigned acknowledgment.

azzawiya trees barbed wireAbu 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.

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