To most Americans, Palestine and Palestinians are abstractions, victims of a brutal occupation — or terrorists. In Murder Under the Bridge: A Palestine Mystery, longtime Palestine solidarity activist and first-time novelist Kate Raphael uses the familiar form of a murder mystery to bring readers into intimate contact with daily life in the West Bank. We get a feel for its rhythms, visit homes, listen to private conversations, smell the food cooking. Israeli occupation comes in the form of daily obstructions and insults as people go about their lives, as well as the continual possibility that any encounter with an Israeli soldier can escalate into disaster.
As with any good mystery, the search for the murderer is the vehicle, but what’s really interesting is the country you’re traveling through and the people you encounter. In Murder Under the Bridge we are privileged to meet Rania, a young Palestinian cop very serious about her job and also about being a good mother to her four-year-old son. Her search for the murderer of a young woman she finds dead in a field brings her gradually into collaboration with Chloe, an American solidarity activist who’s living with a family in a nearby village.
The two women’s lives are very different – a young Palestinian working mother and a middle-aged lesbian from the US. But they share a determination to discover the real murderer, especially after a young Palestinian man is arrested for the crime and tortured into confessing. Rania and Chloe also share an appealing but dangerous tendency to respond to injustice with impetuous action and/or wiseass comments. When an Israeli authority who’s a semi-ally tells Rania he tried to prevent settler violence and has Palestinian friends, she says, “You want a prize for that?” There are times when each of the women recklessly jump in to intervene when an Israeli soldier is harassing a Palestinian.
The quest for the real murderer, entangled with the actions of Israeli authorities working on the case, provides the reader with windows into many aspects of Palestinian life and the occupation. We see the warmth as well as the irritations of Palestinian village and extended-family life, as rumors spread instantly and Rania feels pressured by her mother-in-law, who lives upstairs and prods her to have another baby. We see Rania’s reaction when she first enters a nearby Israeli settlement and contrasts the American-style luxury and abundant (profligate) use of water to the life in her own village. We enter Israeli prisons. In one we observe the unfortunately common practice of targeting a young Palestinian man and subjecting him to days of torture until he confesses to a crime. In another we see the treatment of an international solidarity activist the Israelis want to deport – an experience the author can describe first-hand.
These themes are well-known to people familiar with the situation in the West Bank, but will be new to most readers. In addition, Murder Under the Bridge illustrates the complexity and subordination of the Palestinian Authority’s relationship with its Israeli rulers. Rania has to negotiate her way through sometimes conflicting layers of bureaucracy in order to keep working on the case after Israeli police have decided to take it over. And as Rania and Chloe get closer to the truth, they uncover an underworld of sex trafficking in foreign women, hidden within Israeli society.
When I first read this book, in draft form, I immediately loved Rania. Her constant self-examination about her role in a mostly-male occupation, her conflicts between work and family responsibilities, her rebellious nature – all very engaging. In one scene she gets home late from work hoping her husband has made dinner. She goes into the kitchen and finds a tomato, a cucumber, and a chopping board on the counter, showing that “he thought about making dinner but that’s as far as he got.”
Chloe I found irritating – she’s always so self-consciously second-guessing herself about whether and how she should enter situations where she’s an outsider. Will she be perceived as meddling or will her intervention be helpful because as an American she can get away with things a Palestinian could not? Is her presence superfluous or helpful? What the hell is she doing here anyway?
On my second reading I realized that the description of Chloe’s inner struggles illuminates a very real issue. They are struggles any solidarity activist faces in any community not their own – unless they are so arrogant they don’t notice. These issues are further complicated when Chloe falls in love with a Palestinian women who grew up in Australia. In some ways Tina is more authentically part of the society, although Chloe has been living and working there much longer. The development of their romantic relationship adds another dimension to Chloe as a person and to the complexity of the political situation.
The author readily acknowledges that her motive for writing the book was to explain the occupation in a way that’s accessible to Americans who might not read a political tract or attend a meeting. She has succeeded in creating a valuable resource for helping Americans understand the reality of the occupation. It’s a beautiful novel that works, with no jarring didactic overtones. It’s a well-constructed mystery, starting slowly and picking up the pace as Rania and Chloe get closer to figuring out what’s going on. The narrative provides clues and false leads that all end up contributing to the solution, ending in a dramatic climax. And it’s an absorbing account of two very real and complicated women as they work their way into both the discovery of the killer and a friendship with each other.