At its heart, Blood Betrayal is a novel about fathers and how they shape our sense of belonging. Two separate police shootings take place in the novel: that of Duante Young, a Black graffiti artist, and the killing of Mateo Ruiz, a gifted Latino musician who is shot during a drug raid. As my detectives, Inaya Rahman and Waqas Seif, dig into Duante’s life, they discover that his father’s early death unraveled him. He was angry in his grief, trying to adjust to a new life in Colorado where no memories exist of the father he cherished. Mateo Ruiz’s father, Antonio, grieves the loss of the son who was the pride of the family. Mateo was at home in his pluralist identities, grounded by the hard work and simple faith of the man who’d sacrificed to give his son a better life. Finally, the estranged father of a police officer implicated in Mateo’s death, comes to Inaya for help in clearing his son’s name.
As a counterpoint to the fathers of the two young men who are killed at the beginning of the story, the fathers of my detectives Inaya Rahman and Waqas Seif, also play an important role. I connected my American detectives to their fathers’ heritage because I wanted to write about places where alienation is a fact of life, and the question of belonging is disputed. Inaya’s father came to America as a refugee from Afghanistan, a land he loves and one that holds the key to the crime that unfolds in this novel. Both as a detective and as a woman who is proud of her heritage, Inaya questions her father about a past he is reluctant to acknowledge, eager to know her family’s history. His silence creates a void of knowing.
Similarly, Seif’s personal history is shrouded in mystery. We know from the first two novels in the series, that Seif’s Palestinian father was murdered abroad. The younger brothers that Seif has raised are adamant in their quest for answers about their father’s death, but Seif deliberately thwarts their plans to travel to Jerusalem, pointing out the dangers involved. Seif’s story unfolds bit by bit. In Blackwater Falls, we learn that Seif has suppressed his identity as the son of a Palestinian father, going so far as to drop his father’s surname. He’s all but renounced his faith as a Muslim, to the point that the Arabic language feels foreign in his mouth. But when he hears it spoken by a person of interest in Blackwater Falls, and then hears the call to prayer in Blood Betrayal, flickers of his past come to life, along with the pain and rage he’s worked so hard to suppress.
It was important to me that Seif be allowed to own his rage as an individual with a history mired in tragedy, and as a member of a community that has suffered under decades of military occupation. A sensitivity reader on both the Blackwater novels was perturbed by the fact that I had written Seif as someone whose anger simmers beneath the surface, and then overflows, rightly wary of a characterization that suggests a one-dimensional angry Muslim male or stereotypical angry Arab.
But I had planned for this in writing Seif by excavating the reasons for his rage: the murder of a father he cannot get justice for. The fact that he can only come to terms with the war against his people by denying the very gift his father bequeathed him: that of heritage. He takes his mother’s surname to spare himself the pain of witnessing the erasure and dehumanization of the Palestinian people. His struggle is not an imagined one. In recent days, cultural events that have come under attack or that have been suspended include the Palestine Writes Literature Festival at the University of Pennsylvania, an Islamic art exhibit at the Frick Pittsburgh Museum, and the Royal Ontario Museum, or ROM, censoring the work of Palestinian artists in a recent exhibit, among others. Even a Muslim Writers Festival that I have been part of organizing for the past year has sustained serious pressure to censor the creative expression of Palestinian Muslim writers.
Thus, as any Palestinian would be, Seif is faced with how cheaply Palestinian life is held, day after day, year after year. As a character, he would know of the unpunished murder of the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, at the hands of an Israeli sniper, and the subsequent attack on her funeral by IDF soldiers. Or the targeted killing of Rouzan al-Najjar, a young paramedic, during the nonviolent Great March of Return in Gaza in 2008. Or the shooting and killing of children by Israeli forces in Jenin in recent days.
A father is a link to history and identity, and Seif’s identity has been challenged since the day he was born, by virtue of who he is. As the former Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, once said, “There [is] no such thing as Palestinians.”
In making Seif’s rage specific to who he is as a man deeply affected by the loss of his father, I researched the issue of Israel’s detainment of the bodies of Palestinians, including children, who are alleged to have participated in attacks against Israeli forces or civilians. Many Palestinian bodies have been withheld from their loved ones after death, a practice sometimes referred to as “necroviolence”, meaning that Israel continues to exert control over Palestinians even after their death.
If Seif’s father was among those whose bodies are kept either in fridges or at Israel’s “cemetery of numbers”, where the dead decompose unidentified and unprotected, Seif would be among those Palestinian families who plead for the return of their loved ones, so that funerals can be held according to the deceased’s beliefs, a right protected by international humanitarian law. Seif and his brothers would have spent their lives wondering if it was possible that their father was still alive, or alternatively tormented by the thought that his body was subjected to terrible indignities, including the possibility of his organs being harvested without his family’s consent.
The fate of Seif’s father is a glimpse into the horrors associated with life as a Palestinian. The evidentiary record of the consistent and ongoing human rights violations of Palestinians is well-established by now. Three separate major human rights organizations, as well as the United Nations, have documented the apartheid laws that make life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza intolerable. Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian children without charge or trial is a key aspect of the Occupation, as is the indiscriminate dispossession or murder of Palestinian civilians, either by settlers or Israeli forces, without accountability for those crimes.
In the present moment, we have witnessed eight weeks of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, where 2.2 million Palestinians, a majority of whom are children, have been blockaded and under siege for the past sixteen years. This prolonged bombardment of Gaza is in retaliation for the heinous attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas on October 7th yet lacks any adherence to the laws of war that distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, and that are predicated on necessity, last resort, and proportionality.
The moral dilemma that is then posed is whether the appalling war crimes committed by Hamas justify a tenfold number of war crimes in response. It also presupposes that the violence began on October 7th, eliding the violence that the Occupation has meted out to Palestinians for decades, as if it is only Israeli suffering that matters.
The retaliation campaign waged upon not only Hamas, but on the imprisoned civilian population of Gaza, has resulted in the loss of an estimated 16,000 Palestinian lives, about 70% of whom are women and children (statistics as reported by December 5th). According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), nearly 1.9 million people are internally displaced, which is 85% of the population. Hospitals have been bombed to the point that the healthcare system in Gaza has collapsed, more than 200 medical staff have been killed, and Palestinian journalists—those who would document the atrocities on the ground—have been killed in disproportionate numbers.
Scholars of genocide and of international law have been debating whether in addition to war crimes and crimes against humanity, Israel’s actions in Gaza amount to a genocide of the Palestinian people.
It seems to me that given this history and these circumstances, Seif is entitled to his rage.It seems to me that given this history and these circumstances, Seif is entitled to his rage.
Writing Seif’s history as a Palestinian character into the Blackwater Falls crime series was personal for me, just as Inaya’s Pashtun roots replicate my own. With Seif, I’ve been reflecting on a lifetime’s experience of advocating for the human rights of the Palestinian people. In a recurring theme for me, my first encounter with the Palestinian struggle came through my father. When my father led family prayer, he would make dua or supplication for the people of Palestine, a people he strongly identified with because of the Indian army’s presence in Kashmir. As a man who survived the fallout from Partition, he understood what it meant for the people of Kashmir to live under the boots of a military occupation. And when as a teenager, I began to ask about him about his prayers, he had a library full of books to share with me.
The Palestinian struggle for independence has crossed my path many times in my life. As an undergraduate doing research on the first Intifadah, I interviewed a professor who showed me the rubber bullets advertised as non-life-threatening by Israeli forces. The bullets had a lethal metal core that I weighed in my hand, a real-life diary of a Palestinian wound.
I also spent long hours in the stacks at Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, reading the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis, who wrote in his poem “Afflictions”, “Why is every atom of Palestine’s ash an open wound?” I wrote essays about the plight of Palestinians, and a media content analysis of Yasser Arafat’s speech before the UN in New York. As an undergraduate, the first poem of mine published by the university newspaper was called “Haifa Dream”; it described a longing to return to the homeland that existed before 1948. In the only creative writing class I took at university, the portfolio I submitted for my final grade was a series of poems about Palestine, inspired by Mahmoud Darwish, called “Sand and Stones.” I would later make use of an untitled poem from that collection in my novel, The Language of Secrets, a novel in which I refer to the “Nakba”, meaning the calamity of the dispossession of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948.
In a final act of serendipity, I met my husband of twenty-three years at a lecture on Palestine given by Dr. Chris Giannou, the renowned Canadian war surgeon. His memoir entitled Besieged: A Doctor’s Story of Life and Death in Beirut, describes his time in the Shatila camp, site of the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon. Later, my husband would volunteer at a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, while I would go on to spend three and a half months in Ramallah, as part of a now-defunct study abroad program. The Palestine and Arabic Studies program was offered by Birzeit University, a cluster of buildings that appears against the stone-studded hills like a white rose in the desert.
I lived in a hostel called Qasr Al Hamra—the Red Castle—with Palestinian girls, and spent my time learning about the Occupation, while experiencing some of its realities firsthand: the bypass roads for Israelis that wound around the West Bank, the checkpoints that abounded, the arbitrarily demolished homes of Palestinians, the memorial at Kiryat Arba that venerated a man who murdered Palestinians inside the mosque at Hebron, the routine presence of guns and soldiers, the confusion of different license plates that denoted permissible travel zones, and the confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians in the Old City that seemed less lethal back then. The hardships imposed on Palestinians by the occupying Israeli power were evident everywhere I turned.
Then there was the striking wrongness of my freedom to travel the short distance from Ramallah to Jerusalem to pray at the Dome of the Rock, Canadian passport in hand, when my friends from Gaza couldn’t.
I’m reminded that I taught English to three classes of students at Birzeit, bright young people who were brimming with hope for the future. An experience juxtaposed against a rock-throwing demonstration I witnessed, where I ended up choking on tear gas, while a student turned to me angrily and said, “This isn’t entertainment for foreigners. We’re fighting for our lives.”
I’ve never forgotten that young man’s anger, never forgotten that I had more rights in Palestine than the Palestinians I lived with. Decades later my friend, Saeeda*, who had endured the siege of Gaza, would write to me and say, “I need to get my family out of this living hell.”
I remember Gaza well. The scent of jasmine in the evenings. The muted roar of the sea. The chain link fences and the rubble, the ominous barrier that was the Erez Crossing. I also remember that young girls from Gaza City welcomed me to the now destroyed Islamic University of Gaza, where I met another Asma who was glowing with pride as she showed me her science project. The innocent joy of those girls at meeting a Muslim from another part of the world has stayed with me through the years—it pains me to this day, especially as I cannot know if those girls grew up to leave Gaza, if they died under Israeli bombs, or are imprisoned there still. This pain would be familiar to Seif, with his unanswered questions about his father’s death.
For myself and for Seif, I believe that if we don’t feel anger at cruelty and injustice—at war crimes and crimes against humanity—then when are we entitled to feel it? Seif and I share the view that there cannot be peace and security for one people in the holy land without peace and security for the other. Freedom and equality cannot prevail under apartheid law.
This is a truth that Seif’s father held to that Seif must wrestle with in future books, a belief that could redefine his understanding of his past. As a character, he is due a reckoning with his own history, one suggested by a poem I wrote many years ago for a friend:
O homeland, o heartache,
When will we meet?