Home > Chapter 01 > Chapter 1 Roadblock Under Az-Zawiya Bridge

Chapter 1 Roadblock Under Az-Zawiya Bridge

Ya tik alaafia,” Captain Mustafa commanded Rania’s attention as soon as she entered the station. He used the greeting for someone who is working, so she tore her eyes from the coffee pot bubbling enticingly in the corner.

Every day, Rania told herself she would get up early enough to make an Arabic coffee before she left the house. But every morning when her alarm rang at half past five, she shut it off and did not get up until six. Then she was always rushing to reach the roadblock at Qarawat bani Hassan for the bus to Yasouf, where she would cross the roadblock and transfer to the other bus that would be waiting to take her to the small police headquarters at Salfit.

When she had first moved with her husband, Bassam, to his family’s compound in Mas’ha village, it had taken less than half an hour to reach Salfit. Since the Intifada, with the Israelis restricting Palestinian movement to a crawl, she often suggested they rent a little house in Salfit, for them and Khaled. But Bassam said he needed to keep a daily watch on his olive groves, adjacent to the Israeli settlement which was always trying to gobble up more land. She suspected he also did not want to sacrifice his place as the favored oldest son, center of his mother’s world, and let one of his brothers supplant him as head of the family.

Captain Mustafa cleared his throat. Suddenly self-conscious, Rania removed her head scarf. As soon as she did, the situation felt more comfortable. The men were still learning to accept her as a colleague. Traditionally, women were nurses, engineers and teachers, more recently a few were doctors. Women as police detectives was a new concept, which would take getting used to. 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 an equal. To her it was not important. Her belief in God, such as it was, did not rise or fall with her head covering. Growing up in Aida Camp, outside Bethlehem, few of the women she knew had worn it. Now she wore it diligently in the village and on the roads, where she might run into someone who knew Bassam and his family. In the city, and among men with whom she had a professional relationship, she took it off. 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.

“There is a situation in Azzawiya,” said Captain Mustafa.

“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. There must be some other reason why he was sending her.

“A car is abandoned on top of the bridge,” Captain Mustafa said. Rania waited. An abandoned car on an Israeli road was not something the Palestinian police would normally concern themselves with. “The Yahud say that the car is stolen,” he 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. 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 also know many of the people who would be gathered on each side by now, waiting to see when they would be allowed to go. She would be able to tell at a glance if there was someone who did not belong there, whose actions should be scrutinized. A woman could surreptitiously gather information in such a situation, while a Palestinian man, even a policeman, who was moving around and asking questions would be perceived as a threat and treated as a suspect by the Israeli authorities. 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 told 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 doubted his admonition would remain in her mind for more than thirty seconds once she left police headquarters.

She cast a longing look at the coffee pot on her way out.

* * *

She quickly found a service, or collective taxi, which took her on the winding hillside road through Iskaka and Yasouf to the roadblock. This 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, though that was illusory. The monstrosity of Ariel, the largest colony in the northern West Bank, loomed just on the other side of the town, but for those few kilometers, which took about twenty minutes to pass, you could imagine that Palestine was as it had always been.

Today, she was too apprehensive about her assignment to enjoy the drive. She generally preferred to work further from home, and avoided cases which involved people she knew. There was of course no reason to assume that anyone from Bassam’s family or any of their friends would be involved in this incident, but she could end up having to do something that could be used by people wanting something to hold over her husband. And in turn, his family would use it against her, to prove, once again, 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 the west, their olive groves would soon be theirs no longer, and if the planned Ariel Loop was built to the east, no one would be able to come from the nearby villages to shop at their stores. In this case, her income from the police might stand between her family and starvation, and it could be an advantage to have fewer mouths to feed.

She did not want to have this argument. She did not even want to have the thoughts. But she was someone who could not avoid facing reality when it slapped her in the face. That was a legacy of her childhood in the refugee camp. She had faced the reality that her brothers would go to prison, not to university. She had faced the reality that her sisters would have arranged marriages at seventeen, and that if she did not want to meet the same fate, she had better find her own way out. She had found it, she had worked hard for it, and she had been lucky to find Bassam, who loved her for her drive and independence (most of the time).

The van doors groaned open, and then the people groaned as they approached the roadblock and saw the army controlling their exit. She watched for a second before marching up to the front of the line. Two soldiers stood facing the line of about forty people, checking IDs, their guns hanging neglected around their necks. A third stood off to the left, where the cab drivers normally hung out, pointing his gun aimlessly at the crowd.

Though the soldiers were checking people’s IDs perfunctorily and letting most people through quickly, she swallowed an urge to snarl at them. If she made a problem for the army, they could make one for her and she could not afford that now. So she presented her ID and said nothing. The soldier waved her through without really looking at the ID, but after she walked through, he called her back.

“What’s in the bag?” he asked, pointing to the black leather bag in which she carried her work supplies.

“Things for work,” she answered.

He spoke English, for which she gave him credit. Most Palestinian men in the Salfit area spoke Hebrew, and the soldiers were used to barking orders at them in their own language. Most women understood the simple things soldiers said every day, but in a collective act of silent resistance, they pretended they didn’t.

“Work? What work?” asked the soldier, who hadn’t outgrown his teenage acne.

“I’m a policewoman,” she said reluctantly. Palestinian police were high on the Israeli army’s list of suspicious people. These soldiers might imagine she was armed and ready to start shooting at them any minute.

“A policewoman?” His high-pitched voice sounded incredulous. She might have said “Martian.” He apparently was one of those Israelis who believed that Palestinian women were kept barefoot and pregnant and home baking taboun bread all day.

“Yes.” She kept her voice even, without inflection.

“Open it.” He flicked his fingers toward the bag.

She unzipped it, but did not pull the sides apart so he could see. He did not glance inside; soldiers hardly ever did. He simply gestured to the next person to come forward. Rania rezipped her bag as she ran to climb into the service which was getting ready to depart. She did not find a service at Qarawa, so she took a private cab. They soon veered off the good paved road that led through Biddia to Mas’ha, onto a hard dirt track which went both ways around a circle. Inside the circle was a collection 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. After this circle was the bridge, really an underpass, where the Palestinian road went under the new Israeli road. When she could see the bridge, her taxi driver stopped and turned to her for payment.

About one hundred people and thirty or so cars, most of them eight-seat orange Mercedes or white Ford Transit vans, were parked pell mell on the Mas’ha side. Looking across to Azzawiya, Rania saw about the same number of people. Under the bridge itself, the army had set up a command center with four jeeps and two Hummers. Eight soldiers patrolled the dark underpass, fingers caressing the triggers of their M16s. On the dirt road between the bridge and the main Mas’ha road, two young soldiers drank Pepsi out of a bottle, smoked cigarettes and kicked a rock as if it were a soccer ball. She could barely make out their mirror images, on the other side heading toward Azzawiya, doing the same ritual dances.

She made her way to the demarcation line, where women sat on boulders, chatting while waiting for permission to cross. Many of them were people she knew, teachers and nurses on their way to work, students heading to the university. They uniformly wore the long dark jilbab and headscarf. Some wore sneakers or sandals, while others tottered around in high heels.

Sabah al-kheir, ya banat,” she greeted them, good morning, girls.

Sabah an-noor, Um Khaled,” they all murmured, using the nomenclature of respect for her as the mother of a son.

“Have you been here long?” she asked them.

Seateen, sea w nos,” two hours or an hour and a half, a woman called Salma answered. That probably meant an hour, but no matter; the ball park would do. It matched her guess from the size of the crowds.

“Do you know what is happening?” Her sister-in-law Maryam pointed to the car up on the road, rolling her eyes. Rania supposed she deserved that.

Above the bridge, she saw the dark blue car parked on the side of the four-lane Israeli highway, Road 5. All four doors stood open, as did the trunk and the hood. A white car and a van, both with “POLICE” inscribed on the side in big blue English letters, were blocking part of the road. She could see many policemen, in their light blue shirts. One of them was running back and forth yelling at people. From her angle, his gun looked as tall as he was.

She could see the cars whizzing past them, carrying settlers to their jobs in Petakh Tikvah and Tel Aviv. It was a clear day, and she could almost make out the Mediterranean sea coast, a mere half hour’s drive away.

“Did the jesh say anything about the car?” she asked Intisar, Um Raad, from the nearby large town of Biddia. Um Raad worked at the Ministry of Prisoners in Salfit, and Rania often met her on the road in the mornings. If the soldiers had shared any information, she would be the most likely to hear it, because she had been in prison during the First Intifada and spoke fluent Hebrew.

Walla kilme,” not a word, Um Raad said.

Boys of ten or twelve ran back and forth, selling coffee and tea from huge brass urns slung over their shoulders with leather straps. One of the taxi drivers gestured to one of the boys, who ran over to him. The man handed him a bill, and the boy ran off toward the village. A few minutes later he returned with a package of cigarettes, which the man proceeded to hand around to his friends.

Five years ago, no one in Mas’ha would have stooped to selling coffee at a checkpoint. Five years ago, Mas’ha was one of the most prosperous villages in all of Palestine. It was legendary in Israel for its furniture and marble fixtures, rugs, produce and cheap prices. On Saturdays, the influx of non-religious Jews and Palestinian Israelis turned the narrow streets of Mas’ha into a parking lot. The multilingual din of haggling, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian and English, one louder than the next, made the town a mini-Tower of Babel. The Intifada and the closure had changed all that, and now the kids were even trying to make a few extra shekels by selling it to the army guys.

“Do they say when the road will be open?” she asked the women.

Salma shrugged. “They said an hour, but it has been more than that.”

“Hey,” Rania called out to the soldiers, who looked in her direction. “It’s been an hour.”

“It will be a little longer,” one of them called back in a cheerful singsong.

“We have to get to work,” she complained.

“Yes, but we have to make sure it is safe. You see that car?” he pointed in the direction of the blue car. “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 muscled shoulders, sending his gun bobbing up and down, and smiled a little. “They don’t tell me that. They just tell me to keep everyone off the road.”

That was indeed the problem in dealing with the army. The guys on the street seldom had much information, and what they did have was usually fabricated, to make them feel like they were doing something important.

She turned away from the soldiers and started to walk toward the taxi drivers, usually the best informed people in any situation. A sharp cracking sound made her spin around. She didn’t see the stone, but she saw the look in the soldier’s eyes. He thrust the clip of live bullets into his gun and tore off up the hill.

Atah tamut hayom,” he 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.

This was not the same animal who had just spoken to her so mildly. He reminded her of the feral cats who used to troll the alleys of Aida Camp. Some of them would nuzzle against her leg, sit on her lap and purr, but the sight of a lizard or bird would turn them into tiny lions, hissing and arching their backs.

“Do you really want to kill a child?” she asked him, trying not to pant as she ran beside him up the hill.

He made a gesture with his 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. On the other hand, she could not simply move and give him a clear shot at the kids who, presumably, were the targets of his fury.

“You know you’re on film,” a clear voice rang out in English. Rania’s legs almost buckled with relief. The foreign woman who owned the voice was striding over to where the soldier crouched by a jeep, video camera pointed straight at his face. Rania quickened her step so they arrived at the spot in the same moment. Her eyes quickly took in the woman’s unkempt dark curls, black jeans faded in the knees and baggy gray t-shirt. The soldier didn’t respond, but a minute later, he unloaded the gun and strolled back to his post, as if nothing had happened.

“Good timing,” Rania said to the other woman.

“Thanks,” the woman responded with half smile. There was an openness about her that pulled Rania a step closer. Close up, she was older than she had appeared. There were lines around the corners of her eyes, and flecks of gray in her chestnut hair. Yahudia, a Jew, Rania thought. Maybe one of the Israeli women she had heard about, who watched at the checkpoints and helped the people pick their olives. But she had spoken English to the soldier, not Hebrew.

“Where are you from?” Rania asked in English.

“The States,” the woman answered.

“Which state?”

“California. San Francisco, to be exact.”

Rania had only a vague idea what San Francisco was. A few times on television she had caught an old series called “The Streets of San Francisco.”

“Like Michael Douglas,” she said.

The curly-haired woman laughed. “Never met him. I’m Chloe.”

“Rania.” Chloe extended her 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.”

Why so secretive? Rania wondered. But she had more important things to worry about.

Go to Chapter 2

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  1. Julie
    February 12, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    I read the whole book in an earlier version and really liked it. I am looking forward to reading it again and I highly reccommend it to anyone interested in mysteries and/or the Middle East.

  2. Hannah Mermelstein
    February 12, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Ooh, give me more! I love it now like I loved it when you started writing it…

  3. February 12, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Great story, Kate! Really takes me back to that area–you’ve captured the details and the atmosphere so well, and I love your main character. I can’t wait to find out what happens next!

  4. Francesca
    February 13, 2010 at 8:54 am

    I am so far intrigued by chapter one and am eagerly awaiting the next installment.

  5. Kathy Wistar
    February 13, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Kate, you are a woman of so many talents. I am looking forward to more. Reading mysteries in places and times I don’t know enough about is way high on my list of things I love to do to escape. Thanks for sharing this. Are you writing other stories?

  6. Arl
    February 13, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    OK, I want more! Now! I’ve heard about this book forever and now you’ve got me hooked. Speed up those posts, grrlfriend.

  7. Alex
    February 14, 2010 at 7:55 am

    very creative a reflection of life with a twist i posted it on my facebook

  8. Anthony Contana
    February 15, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    There never was a Palestine. Your book is just a load of crap. You are just a stupid anti-Semitic liberal.

    Freedom loving people are growing every day. Your kind will not be successful.

  9. Blue
    February 16, 2010 at 4:59 am

    Yes, and the world is flat.

    Loved the first chapter. Looking forward to the rest.

  10. Deni
    February 16, 2010 at 5:07 am

    Great story so far; am already wanting to know the main character more. It really makes me feel the place, and experience life/resistance under occupation in Palestine! Can’t wait to keep reading…

  11. Brenda
    February 17, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Fascinating, Kate. I’m really enjoying it.

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