Interview: Palestine a rich landscape for a mystery

Kate Raphael is a Palestine solidarity activist who is currently publishing a mystery novel entitled Murder Under the Bridge one chapter at a time on its own blog (http://murderunderthebridge.wordpress.com/). The Electronic Intifada contributor Hannah Mermelstein interviewed Raphael about how the novel came about and where she hopes it will go.

Hannah Mermelstein: You have been a Palestine solidarity activist for many years, and have written a number of both descriptive and analytical nonfiction articles about Palestine. What inspired you to move into the realm of fiction writing?

Kate Raphael: I’ve been writing fiction for about 15 years. I wrote half a mystery back in the late ’90s, and then put it down because I had an idea for a literary fiction work, and when I went to Palestine in 2002, I had written about a third of it. I actually took it with me, thinking I would work on it when I had breaks in my work there, but it just didn’t make sense.

I’ve been an avid mystery reader for years, and I especially love mysteries that introduce me to cultures or places I don’t know anything about. It’s also a really good way to raise political issues in a non-polemical way, to humanize issues. Sara Paretsky’s Blacklist, for instance, which I actually read in Palestine, deals with the USA PATRIOT Act and compares it to the McCarthy period. Walter Mosely writes about racism in a way that white people can hear, because it’s entertaining and his characters are so likable. Tony Hillerman has introduced a generation of Americans to the Navajo culture.

So one night I was riding with some friends on a Palestinian dirt road that passes under an Israeli settler highway, and I looked up and saw a car that seemed to be abandoned up on the bridge, and I told my friend, “That would be a great way for a mystery to start.” So the next time I had a break, I just started writing, thinking of characters you might find in that place, and what the mystery of an abandoned car on the bridge might be. It’s a great spot for a mystery because it is, or at least at that time it was, a place where all the different types of people who come into the West Bank cross paths. The Israeli anti-wall activists would use it to come and go for demonstrations, so the army and police wouldn’t stop them. Palestinians used it to sneak in and out of the ‘48 territories [the territory considered “Israel proper”] for work. Of course settlers are traveling on the highway, the soldiers who protect them, the international activists in that area, and of course, the farmers and villagers just living their lives, or trying to. It provided a very rich landscape for me to build my story.

HM: Murder Under the Bridge touches on a number of seemingly disconnected issues, including the Israeli occupation, Eastern European sex trafficking, Palestinian women’s empowerment and queer love stories. How does it all fit together, and why was it important to you include all of these themes in your novel?

KR: The first person I started to write, the first character who came into my mind, was a Palestinian policewoman. She’s the only female detective in the northern West Bank, and while I don’t think there actually were any women in that particular job at that time (there may not be even now), she felt very real to me. I got into her head right away. So then the question was, what kind of case would she be investigating that would draw in all these other types of people who are in the area. I didn’t think the murder victim should be a Palestinian, because I thought it wouldn’t make sense for the Israeli forces to be involved (although in my next book, the victim is a Palestinian). I didn’t wanted it to be an Israeli, because that’s the stereotype of what the conflict is about, Palestinians killing Israelis.

Then I was arrested at the first demonstration in the West Bank village of Bilin and I ended up in immigration prison for a month, and all of the other women were foreign workers. That gave me the idea to have the victim be a foreign worker in one of the settlements, and I think that added depth to the story. It led to some very complex characters, like the daughter of a settler who is high up in the Israeli military. She’s 13 and just starting to question the values she’s grown up with, so her contact with my heroines, Rania and Chloe, give her a chance to individuate and become more of a rebel. A good friend of mine grew up in a settlement and is now an anti-Zionist, and she was incredibly generous about sharing her life with me. I basically borrowed whole chunks of it to make Malkah’s character.

The role of human trafficking in Israel’s economy is a piece of the apartheid puzzle that people are quite unfamiliar with. It’s one of the leading destinations for trafficked women in the world, and Israel is using foreign workers, many of whom are trafficked — both men and women — to replace Palestinian labor, so that they can accomplish segregation and ethnic cleansing and still have a cheap labor source. So one reason I decided to foreground that issue, with occupation as the backdrop, is that even people who know a lot about Palestine already will learn something they didn’t know.

HM: Who do you think will read Murder Under the Bridge? Who are you hoping will read it?

KR: Well my goal in writing it was to appeal to people who would not otherwise be drawn to a book about Palestine. There are so many people who love mysteries, like me, and who get most of their history and geography from them, and I hope that some of them will find and like my book. But as I said, I think people who are interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or in that part of the world in general will enjoy it too. I definitely hope that it finds a readership among feminists and lesbians — that’s part of why there’s lesbian romance. I had a few lesbian friends of friends who don’t know much about Palestine read the last draft, to see how it plays in “lesbian Peoria.” And they said they enjoyed it and would like to read another in the series, so it seems like it is doing what it’s supposed to do. I guess right now I’m hoping that my acquaintances and other Palestine activists will read it and think, “This is something I could give my relatives or friends to try to get them interested in the issue.”

HM: You are publishing the novel chapter by chapter online. Why did you decide to this?

KR: I started thinking about online serialization quite a while ago. It just seems like an exciting way to publish a mystery. I remember when I first moved to San Francisco, Tales of the City was being created for the San Francisco Chronicle, about 500 words every day. But there was some rewriting and editing done before they were published as books. I hope to publish Murder Under the Bridge on paper at some point, either myself or with a publisher, but one of the exciting things for me is to get feedback from readers that will make the story stronger. So I really encourage people to leave comments on the website about what they like and don’t like.

It makes art a more collaborative process, which I think is going to be the wave of the future. It also takes it out of the realm of art for profit’s sake and makes it about sharing the experience of writing and reading (which is not to say that I don’t hope to make a profit on it at some point!).

HM: You yourself have been deported from Palestine by the Israeli government, and banned from returning for at least ten years. Has this physical distance affected your writing about the place?

KR: Well fortunately, when I was arrested in 2004, I was almost ready to leave anyway, and I had taken a bunch of video and photos of the area where the story begins to remind myself of the geography and the feel of the place. That’s been invaluable. I also have over 1,000 pages of journals that I wrote while I was in Palestine to refer to. This book is set in early 2005, just after I was deported, so for this one, it was really not a problem that I couldn’t go there. And of course, I wrote the first draft right after I’d come back, when it was fresh in my mind. Now I’m working on the second in the series, which is set in 2006, and I was not there then. I’m definitely finding it harder, because I know both the geographical and political landscape had changed a lot, with the wall nearer to completion in the Salfit area of the West Bank, and the change in the government. So I’ve had to rely on things that other friends have told me about the situation at that time, as well as things I’ve read and photos on the net, and I actually used Google Earth the other day to check out a landmark. But I’m sure when I give this next one to friends who have been there recently to comment on, they’re going to say that certain things are not accurate. That’s the great thing about having friends.

HM: What can we expect from your next work?

KR: The second in the series is Murder Under the Fig Tree, and it’s trying to introduce the issues of honor killing and sexual orientation, which is very challenging for me as a westerner. I don’t want to play into stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims, especially with all the “queerwashing” that Zionists are engaging in right now. But I did want to play with some of the changing mores that are actually happening in Palestine, and also to use some conversations I had with Palestinian feminists when I was there. I hope I am doing it sensitively, and I’m sure people will tell me if I’m not. Hopefully by the time I’ve finished serializing Murder Under the Bridge, I will have enough of Fig Tree ready to start posting on the website.

Hannah Mermelstein is an activist and aspiring radical librarian based in Brooklyn, New York. She has lived in Palestine for two of the past six years, and is co-creator of Birthright Unplugged and Re-Plugged, Needle in the Groove and Students Boycott Apartheid. In New York, Hannah works primarily with Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel and the Palestine Education Project.