Black Tequila: Love and Drama with Patterson suspense and Grisham intrigue
by J.D Bernal

Published: 2018-11-14T00:0
Paperback : 485 pages
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For fans of John Grisham, Stieg Larsen and Jeffrey Archer, Black Tequila is an intriguing and poignant thriller. From the political and religious tensions of the Middle East to the financial intrigues of New York, this is both an intimate tale and one that explores the treacherous world ...
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For fans of John Grisham, Stieg Larsen and Jeffrey Archer, Black Tequila is an intriguing and poignant thriller. From the political and religious tensions of the Middle East to the financial intrigues of New York, this is both an intimate tale and one that explores the treacherous world that we live in today.

Rania, a Palestinian whose mother was American, lives in Jericho where she tends the family small vegetable garden and on occasion serves as a guide for tourists visiting the local holy sites.But when she finds herself both a victim and key witness to a horrifying event, she is forced to leave her quiet life behind. Resurfacing in New York she becomes involved with a group of successful media and finance executives. And then danger strikes again.

Black Tequila, Bernal´s first novel, is an exhilarating story full of intrigue and suspense that explores the pain of injustice, and the compassion of love.

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Jericho, January 2010

The day it all happened, after a breakfast of date biscuits and her usual cup of mint tea (always with sugar), Rania walked over to the house of her soulmate, Yasmin Sid Alam, and Yasmin’s brother, Abdul. The trio had been inseparable since childhood. The Sid Alams were one of the oldest families in Jericho, as old as the city itself according to them, and given that the city dated back thousands of years, if not tens of thousands, it meant that they had been there, as they put it, forever.

Rania was not born there. When her father was a young man, he’d left home to enlist with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had led to a tour in Beirut, after which he went into hiding in Cairo for a time. It was there that he met and married an American volunteer worker named Samantha. Rania, his only daughter, was born soon after, and they moved back to Jericho when Rania was two years old.

Her mother, a convert to Islam and a careful observer of Koranic teachings, nonetheless instilled certain American values in her daughter: individualism as a way of avoiding dependence on others; a sense that everyone is equal, regardless of ethnicity or religion; competitiveness in the sense of always working toward a goal; and a lack of regard for tradition. Most people struggle to manage life’s usual torrents of ideas, sensations, and feelings, but it is altogether a challenge, almost an art, to rationalize, understand, and go through life while reconciling two such opposing cultures. Rania sometimes felt suffocated by the constant contradictions in her thoughts and feelings, as though she were caught out in the middle of a terrible sandstorm. This generated a tendency in her to question everything and an eagerness to learn, for the only way to placate those dust devils was to try to understand them. The final result was a lucid mind, and with it, a generous, happy disposition.

Samantha always spoke with her in English. Rania’s father, a descendant of the Abdallahs, a family with a longstanding history in Jericho, was far from enthusiastic about this, having little love for Western culture, but he knew deep down that knowledge of English could one day be useful to his daughter and, though reluctantly, he never prohibited it. There was just one condition: they were never to speak it in front of other people.

Rania, Yasmin, and Abdul had been educated at one of the Palestinian National Authority-supported state schools in Jericho, where they studied Arabic, the basics of Hebrew and English, mathematics and the natural sciences, and the principles of honesty based on the teachings of the Koran. The school had no windowpanes, and some of the walls were crumbling; people said that in years past, during an incursion of enemy forces, a 120-mm missile had hit the building, partially destroying it. The truth or otherwise of the story was neither here nor there, and the windows and walls were rebuilt to the extent that funding allowed. In Jericho, the most prosperous town in the world in centuries past, a dilapidated house was now more than sufficient for a school.

The trio, a single unit since infancy, grew up with the same hope- fulness as children in Paris or San Francisco, but it was in this eternal city that they happened to have been born; its location at almost one thousand feet below sea level seemed almost an expression of the weight of history bearing down on the place. There was something about it, something unique—perhaps it had to do with the salty wind that blew in from the Dead Sea nearby, that strange body of water, or perhaps it was rather the fragility of life. A place of war, a place of faith—or of faiths that led to war. The Holy Land of the Christians, a Sacred Land for Muslims, and the Promised Land of the Jews. It was also a place of uncertain futures for the young.

Rania had questions about these beliefs. Why had Jews, Christians, and Muslims spent so many centuries engaged in bloodshed, and all in the name of their respective Gods? Why, if these Gods preached kindness and promised heaven to their followers, and for what heaven, indeed? Heaven was already here, she thought, here with her family and friends in a humble but divine land. She did not understand the hate that surrounded her on all sides.

A long, dark head of hair was concealed beneath her hijab, and she had her father’s almond-shaped face, as well as his large, black eyes and full, fleshy lips. From her mother’s side, she had a pair of prominent cheeks, a small, slightly upturned nose, and long legs; standing at five foot nine inches tall, she towered over most local women. These exotic features combined harmoniously to make her ravishingly attractive; men and women alike agreed. As the most beautiful young woman in Jericho, Rania was quite magnetic.

Her mother shared her love of art and music, and she showed Rania the importance of looking after her appearance, especially her skin, given the punishing sun in those latitudes. Rania’s skin was very taut, with no wrinkles whatsoever, unlike most girls her age in Jericho, whom the devastating sun made look older than their years. She never went out without a little mesdemet eyeliner, a dark crumbly ore derived from galena, a mineral used since ancient Egyptian times to protect the eyes from the sun and as an effective mosquito repellent. Rania simply liked the way she looked with it on; she felt it made her look more like her mother. Her mother also showed her how to sleep with a washbasin next to the bed for morning and evening ablutions, after which they would apply sweet-smelling ointments made from Dead Sea minerals. Finally, she would coat her lips with a drop of olive oil to stop them from cracking in the dry air. These were her beauty secrets, shared with her dear friend Yasmin alone.

She lived surrounded by poverty and yet felt fortunate. She loved this land so much. And she loved her life.


Some afternoons, when foreign tourists gathered at the ancient tree beneath which the Christian Messiah had preached, Rania would go down and offer to help, to guide them around, or to take photos of them with their cameras—anything they needed.

Visitors would be taken aback at the sight of this attractive Pales- tinian girl, so tall and speaking such good English with her markedly American accent. She would offer to accompany them on walks around the shops and stalls, where she could happily interpret for them. She asked for nothing in return; she merely wanted the chance to speak to them. She occasionally encountered couples who argued a great deal, not seeming to care they were out in public; this she didn’t like, nor did she like when she saw them openly holding hands or even kissing. She would blush and look away, knowing that kind of thing wasn’t right. And yet she couldn’t stop herself from stealing a look; though she knew it was improper, such overt affection was nonetheless somehow pleasing. Such were the contradictions among which she was constantly caught up.

Most of the tourists, grateful for her help, would give her a tip, almost always in dollars or euros. She didn’t want the money, but they tended to insist.

One spring afternoon, one of the rusty old cars that masquerade as tourist taxis in Jericho pulled up in the small square where the tree stood. Before it came to a complete stop, the back door opened and its sole passenger stepped out, a woman of about forty years old. She had shoulder-length hair, dyed light blonde. She wore an elegant black blouse and a beige skirt with outsize black buttons down the front. A pair of very large sunglasses with thick, ostentatious frames obscured much of her face. Judging by the energy with which she strode forward, it seemed she was in a hurry.

Before the driver—who, with his rudimentary command of English, was attempting to act as a guide—even had a chance to tell her about the history of the ancient tree, she exclaimed pointedly, “Is this the Jericho Tree?” and then, under her breath, “What a letdown.”

“Sorry?” said the driver, using the word he most often had recourse to in his limited English vocabulary.

“That’ll do,” she said. “I’ve seen it. Now let’s get out of here.”

The man, who wanted to help but understood nothing, had begun to sweat. He then caught sight of Rania looking on from other side of the street and called out to her in Arabic, “Hey, get over here and help! I have no idea what this lady is saying.”

Rania, who by this time looked very much a woman, made her way across the road in a few gazelle-like strides. She was wearing jeans and a dark grey tunic.

The female tourist arched her eyebrows as far as her latest Botox treatment would allow and tipped her sunglasses. She looked Rania up and down; she was like a mirage stepping forward out of the dust, so tall, and with that elegant demeanor...

“Hi, can I help at all?” said Rania cautiously in her perfect, American accented English.

“Yes, please. Tell this man that I’ve seen the tree now, and that I’d like to move on.”

Rania quickly translated for the driver who, satisfied, gestured at the woman. “Listen, this lady is staying in one of those enormous hotels by the Dead Sea. An Israeli guide brought her my way—I picked her up at a gas station at the Jericho junction. She came through the Israeli checkpoint with me, and customs too. I have to get her back to the drop-off point in three hours. She’s paid to visit the tree, the city, the ruins, and the caves.” Shielding his eyes against the dazzling midafternoon sun, he went on. “She’s an odd one; they always are, these New Yorkers. Travelling alone, talking nonstop though she knows I can’t understand a word. She may as well be talking to herself. Why don’t you come with us and interpret? I’ll share the fare.”

Rania wasn’t needed by her mother that afternoon, and her friend Yasmin, with whom she usually spent any free time, was sick in bed. It was an easy decision to make; she would go with them. There was also the fact that this woman, though slightly intimidating, piqued her interest; she was different from the usual couples that came through. Rania was bound to learn something new.

“Of course,” she said, and then, addressing the woman, “If you like, I can come with you and act as an interpreter.”

“Fantastic!” said the woman, offering her hand to shake. “My name’s Anne.”

Rania returned the handshake, but hesitantly; it wasn’t the proper way for people to greet, but...

“Your English is excellent,” said the woman. “Where did you learn?”

“My mother was American.” She always said this in the past tense, as though her mother, by becoming a Muslim, had also renounced her nationality.

“And you?”

“I’m from Jericho,” she said with some pride. It was the one lie that Rania allowed herself to tell. She didn’t like going into her parents’ exile in Cairo.

They visited the ruins in the old town, with their beautiful, well preserved mosaic floor tiles, and Rania took great pleasure in recounting the stories of that most ancient of cities.

“In the Bible, Joshua tells us that the city was founded seven thousand years before Christ, meaning it’s over nine thousand years old now. Some excavations have even suggested it could date as far back as eleven thousand years.”

The woman was watching her with great interest, sunglasses again lowered. On Rania went; by this point, having repeated the story so often to tourists, she knew it by heart, and her delivery was measured and serious, as though she were a professional tour guide. “Originally there was an oasis here, then a village of stone huts, and it eventually evolved into the most populous settlement of its time. The first inhabitants were the Canaanites, and over the course of history, many different peoples have passed though: Jews, Ottomans, the English, Jordanians... Currently, it is one of the principal West Bank cities, in what is known in your language as ‘territories under the administration of the Palestinian Authority.’”

Rania had her mother’s blessing to go out and do this guide work, and the tips she brought back home were very welcome, but her mother had warned her to be careful when explaining things. Objectivity was paramount, she had said, because although tourists might seem the same as them, the places they came from were very different, and it was better not to delve into religion or politics. Rania had no interest in politics and hated violence, something she had seen so much of in her life, so she was only too happy to avoid potentially divisive comments.

As the taxi drove them toward the rickety cable car that they would ride up into the caves where Jesus had undertaken his forty days of fasting and prayer, Rania took a careful look at the woman. She dressed simply, but at the same time very attractively, with great allure.

“Your clothes are very stylish,” Rania said without thinking. “What do you do in your city?”

The woman answered at length, going into great detail about her life. She ran a television channel. She was divorced and had a daughter the same age as Rania. She had come to spend a few days by the Dead Sea to decompress from work. She lived in New York. New Yorkers always did strike Rania as the strangest of the tourists she met—always here to take time out from the manic lives they claimed to lead, and yet always in such a hurry when looking around the ruins, like they were constantly late. This woman was no exception.

Finally, they came to the perilous cable car—built partly with funds donated by the Norwegian government—which ascended vertiginously up to the caves. Rania was very familiar with the descriptions of the place in Christian scripture, and standing at the top of the one thousand-foot-high cliffs, she recounted it for the woman. “This was where Satan tempted Jesus Christ. He offered him food when he was hungry, he offered him great power, and finally, he invited him to throw himself off the edge, saying that God’s angels would catch him.” Rania had the sensation that the woman wasn’t so much listening to her as simply watching her.

“You are very beautiful, Rania,” the woman said, interrupting the story. “You could easily be a model in America.”

“What’s being a model?” asked Rania.

“A model is someone who puts on clothes and outfits and shows them off to lots of people.”

“What for?”

“Well, so people see the clothes and then later on, when they go to the shops, they might buy them. Models earn good money. The top models, very good money.”

Rania had never been outside Jericho, and the idea of women making a show of their bodies for money seemed utterly wrong.

The woman added, “Plus, if you were a model, you could live in New York.”

“Why would I want to do that? I love it here,” Rania said proudly.

“Look, you are much more beautiful than most of these girls,” Anne replied. Reaching into her large Louis Vuitton handbag, she took out a copy of Harper’s Bazaar, that year’s New York Fashion Week special. She laid the magazine out on a small metal table next to the cave entrance; there was the table, a rudimentary guardrail, and the thousand-foot drop. The view was amazing, but the woman wasn’t looking. Rania was immediately captivated by the magazine with its sexy, elegant models in their flamboyant outfits, the all but palpable abundance of beautiful colors and textures.

In turn, the New York executive was captivated by young Rania— by the way she carried herself, her manners, and how magnetic she was. The woman was moved by it; Rania was just as beautiful, if not more, than the TV stars and actresses she had dealings with in her work, but there wasn’t one iota of malice or envy in her. On the contrary, Rania emanated calm and tranquility. She had not failed to notice how interested Rania had seemed in the magazine, so once they had descended in the cable car and as she was about to get back into the taxi for her return ride, she said, “Here, you keep it.” And then, without the driver noticing—he was following several paces behind with a bored look on his face—she took some folded bills out of a small, gold Dior purse, and with a wink whispered, “Take this. It’s two hundred dollars. My name is Anne Ryce, and here’s my card. When you get to New York, call me and I’ll be your guide.”

Rania could not believe it. She had never seen so much money all in one place.

“No, ma’am. I can’t accept this. It’s too much.” And she went to hand it back.

But the woman pushed her hand away, putting a finger to her lips and saying in a low voice, “Keep it, but you have to promise me one thing: it’s for you and you alone. You’ll keep it for spending money in New York.” Then, with a smile, “Now tell this man to get me out of here. I’ve had quite enough of messiahs and caves.”

Rania laughed wholeheartedly; this woman really was quite extraordinary.


She hid the magazine under her bed as if it were a gem, keeping the money tucked inside its pages. She often found herself taking it out at night, lighting her small bedside lamp, and leafing through the pages. While Jericho slept, cradled in its ancient silence, she read the magazine from cover to cover, including the adverts, which meant she also learned the different brand names. If what they seemed to say was true, life over there was a different thing entirely. If you wore perfume, you’d find love. Women could actually become younger by putting ointments and lotions on their skin. By decorating themselves with sumptuous watches and accessories, they could become instantly more beautiful...

The magazine was endlessly fascinating, and some days she shut her eyes and had the sensation of being in one of those fashion shows, in that enormous city with its soaring buildings. A city that was the talk of the entire world.

She owned very few clothes herself—an old coat of her mother’s, three loose-fitting tunics in dark colors that she often wore with one of her two pairs of pants—one pair of jeans and one of olive-colored linen—and four blouses, two in white, one (her favorite) in pink, and another in pink with a pattern of small blue blotches. She also had several thin scarves to use as a hijab. Her family didn’t have money for shopping trips; it was always a struggle just to make it to the end of the month. Just as her father’s business had begun to go well, he had died of a heart attack at the age of forty-five; Rania was eleven at the time. To make ends meet, her mother grew vegetables in a small garden allotment she had inherited, selling them at the local market. Rania helped her dig and hoe; the backbreaking hours in the sun did not bother her in the slightest.

Her mother would urge her not to stay too long in the garden, to go home before the day was out. Rania’s reply was to lower the cloth she wore as protection against the fierce sun and give a white-toothed smile. “No, Mama. My place is here.” And on she went, plowing and sowing, sometimes until sundown.

Samantha wouldn’t insist. She knew how single-minded her daughter could be and that it was pointless trying to force her to do anything. She wouldn’t be able to change her mind; plus, she really needed the help. Without Rania, she simply wouldn’t be able to generate enough produce to support them. They would walk home together at day’s end, with Rania talking endlessly... She always wanted to know more about her mother’s life in the United States before her departure to Cairo and also about her father—how they met and fell in love, what the reaction was among her American friends and family when the wedding was announced... She was all questions, constantly curious, constantly eager to learn. This was Samantha’s favorite part of the day: walking along arm-in-arm with her daughter chatting away. She sometimes worried that, upon her husband’s death, she should have sent Rania to the US to be with family there; there wasn’t much of a future here, but Rania was such a happy, smiling girl, always trying to help people, whoever they might be.

Rania was only too happy to help out in the garden, yet there was one thing she hated: the soil that constantly got under her nails and into the skin of her fingertips. Of course, she never mentioned this to her mother. She carefully studied the hands of the girls in the magazine, so dainty, so pristine. But she didn’t let it get to her, merely going back to the same ritual, morning after morning. Before setting off for school, she would patiently remove the dusty soil with a sharpened toothpick, scraping it away until her fingers were spotless, every morning without fail.

The girls in the magazine showing off their bodies remained scandalous to her. She found it impossible to imagine herself ever wearing a short skirt in public. Then again ... the outfits were so unbelievably wonderful! She could understand people wanting to wear them, but she herself would never do anything so obviously contrary to the principles she had been brought up to believe. Well, perhaps one day, at home with a husband...

In time, the thing that stood out to her most about that magazine was an article about an American woman from the past. She struck Rania as both fragile and strong, cheerful and serious, classic and modern. Many of the photos were in black and white, but she had such magnetism that one could all but feel the colors of her beautiful dresses. It was as though the woman herself, living and breathing, were looking out at her from that glossy paper. The article contained a description of her life, the time she had spent working as a reporter, and her first encounter with a young, brilliant politician who would go on to become president of the United States. Her name was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, but people called her Jackie. The magazine talked about her as the most elegant woman in the world at the time. Rania felt captivated by the woman’s life. So many wonderful highs but so much suffering as well. She tried to imagine overcoming something like the assassination of one’s husband. It induced a kind of vertigo when she tried putting herself into those people’s shoes, yet something of those stories called out to her. Then, suddenly wishing such thoughts had never occurred to her, she would shut the magazine. Her own life was so calm, so clear. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the author:

Is it possible to live and be happy in the midst of two such different cultures, morals?

Is it possible to coexist with juxtaposed beliefs?

How would Rania react if her world collapsed within hours?

Is there hope after the darkest episodes in a young girl's life?

Will Rania ever be able to forgive?

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