Fox: Palestine Twilight
* The replacement of the main British title of the book, Palestine Twilight, by the more sedate Sacred Geography for the U.S. edition is a reflection of continued sensitivity of American publishers to all matters Palestinian.
This book is a whodunit--a murder mystery wrapped in a theological debate on biblical textualism and biblical archeology wrapped in a treatise on modern Palestinian nationalism. In every chapter, there is a revelation guaranteed to provoke, anger, and titillate the reader, and for that at least it is worth reading.
The story commences on a rainy winter afternoon in 1992, the fifth year of the first Palestinian uprising. A masked man in Birzeit village approaches Albert Glock, professor of archeology at Birzeit University, an fires three shots into his neck and heart at close range, killing him instantly. The killer never was apprehended or revealed. Palestine Twilight, published ten years later, investigates the circumstances of this murder and comes out with astounding conclusions.
The hero of this story, a reclusive and obsessively dedicated scholar, began his life as a Lutheran minister, preaching in the fundamentalist and literalist environment of the American Midwest. In the course of his career, Glock went through a tortuous odyssey of theological skepticism, toward the adoption of a materialist approach in archeology, and finally a joyless commitment to Palestinians and their cause.
In pursuit of his scholarly work, as in his earlier theology, Glock was relentless, even when he knew that his own life was at stake. In 1992, he wrote of his intellectual work what could be seen as a premonition of his own death.
The process of excavation is analogous to an autopsy (post-mortem) in which the pathologist attempts to determine the cause of death and the effect of the disease. . . . Assume for a moment that there was either objection to performing a post-mortem or simply that this process had never been done and the culture never produced a trained pathologist. The facts of death, particularly violent, would become an unverified story, perhaps growing to a legend.
Having abandoned, or rather feeling himself betrayed by biblical theology and biblical archeology, Glock saw himself as a pioneer in Palestinian academia, introducing to his institute the discipline of ethnoarcheology, a recent school of investigative archeology that combines the conceptual approach of ethnography and the techniques of archeological excavation. By its very nature, ethnoarcheology focuses on the most recent history of Palestine--Ottoman, Mandate, and Jordanian periods. Edward Fox calls it, not entirely inaccurately, "the archeology of garbage" because it involves sifting the remains of modern abandoned dwellings of refugee camps and deserted villages.
Glock led his students on two main Palestinian excavations--both with considerable political overtones. The first one involved the examination of refugee dwellings in the abandoned camp of Aqbet Jaber (Jericho), deserted after it was subjected to Israeli aerial bombardment in 1967. The second excavation was at the late Ottoman village of T'inik in the Jinin area. Both digs involved the reconstruction of modern Palestinian social history in the twentieth century and compelled Glock to make a clean break with his own intellectual and spiritual roots.
Paradoxically, it was precisely this intellectual rejuvenation in Glock's life that brought him the closure to understand and empathize with his Palestinian environment and also set him at odds with his Palestinian colleagues and students. For just as Israeli archeologists developed an obsession with biblical archeology as a means of validating a Jewish nationalist discourse, searching for a continued presence on the land, Palestinians were also interested in archeology as a means of countering the Zionist narrative, either by focusing on the Islamic archeology of Palestine or by uncovering the primordial putative roots of Palestinian heritage, Canaanite, Jebusite, and even Philistine. But Glock would have none of that. He thought of himself as a scientist, and he would clearly distinguish his political sympathies from his intellectual pursuits.
At Birzeit University, his intellectual and ideological home for the last fifteen years of his life, Glock remained an enigma. Perfectionist to a fault, he blocked the promotion and hiring of new faculty members because they did not meet his standards. He shunned the development of Umayyad and Fatimid archeology in favor of his Ottoman pursuits--giving the impression of exclusivity and abrasiveness. To complicate matters he, an American minister in his sixties, developed an infatuation with a young female student who also happened to be a political activist. From his diaries we now know that his affections were acknowledged but not reciprocated. However, in a small university located in a small town, gossip can be lethal. At this stage the book comes close to slipping into pulp fiction.
The displacement of repressed emotions into the national cause of archeology almost ruins the book; luckily, it is a short episode, and Fox steers us out of the mush and back to the main plot. More disturbing, however, is the author's divulging the most intimate diaries of a dead man, without the victim being able to respond. For those of us who knew Glock personally, there is the uneasy feeling that he was shortchanged. One gets to know the single-mindedness and the consequent fragility of the man, but not his dedication and utter devotion to his discipline and the country he had made his home.
Fox's pursuit of Glock's murderer takes us into a labyrinthine journey into the soul and mind of the victim. The intellectual setting is a strict Midwestern Lutheran environment in rural Idaho and Illinois, where Glock received his calling to be a minister. In common with many scholars of his generation, he sought an affirmation of his faith in the biblical geography of the Holy Land. Early in his career, however, he began to sow the seeds of his rebellion against the established (Lutheran) order. He adopted a modernist and antitextualist position that set him outside the circle of his flock and his church.
Edward Fox's narrative cuts back and forth between the formative background of Glock's intellectual evolution in the American Midwest and the bleak intellectual and physical landscape of the Palestinian highlands. His portrayal of the rugged Judean terrain is exceptionally vivid, recalling some of the best descriptions in the travel literature of the Holy Land. One should add that the ruggedness and the bleakness of the landscape induce in the reader a sense of locational paranoia that likely reflects the author's attitude. (Fox spent a year in Birzeit investigating his book.) He treats this background as the setting and context for Glock's assassination and its possible motivations. We see a dimension of Palestinian nationalism that is viewed sympathetically but critically. The parochialism of the local political culture keeps even the most ardent international supporters at bay.
The author sets up four potential scenarios for what may have happened, but only to demolish each one in turn: First, as an act of retribution by a conservative society for an illicit love affair between an elderly (and foreign) professor and his female student; second, as an internal struggle within the university over blocked appointments of a junior faculty member; third, as an Israeli undercover operation aimed at destabilizing the intellectual center of the intifada; and fourth, as a rogue Hamas operation that was aimed at "anti-Islamic" elements, but not sanctioned by the leadership of the movement.
Fox ultimately adopts, with some hesitation, a variation on the fourth explanation--hesitantly because the confession of the alleged assassins was indirectly obtained by Israeli intelligence from a Hamas operative under torture and, partly, through entrapment. The alleged killer was later eliminated by the Israeli Defense Forces, thus leaving no eyewitnesses to the event.
My main complaint against Fox's interpretation of the event is that it does not make any political (or even common) sense. Even if we assume that it was a rogue operation within Hamas--and one that even was condemned by the organization, not ignored as later suggested by the author-- the Israelis, always under suspicion for their role in this grisly affair, would have been only too glad to release this revelation of the killing in order to clear their name and to establish the culpability of Hamas during the first intifada. Additionally, one does not find convincing the reasoning suggested by Fox for the Israeli refusal to disclose this information, namely, that the Israelis were reticent about exposing their interrogation techniques and the use of torture to obtain evidence from prisoners. Both of these matters, and the use of torture, were widely publicized by the press at that time, when the General Security Services were seeking legal support from the courts for the use of "moderate physical pressure" on detainees (overturned by the Israeli High Court in 1999). Furthermore, it seems astonishing that the security services chose to release the interrogation protocols, on demand, to a left-wing Israeli lawyer whose sentiments were with the Palestinians and, through her, to Fox himself and not to the public.
To his credit, Fox ultimately questions his own conclusions and suggests that the truth never may be known. Notwithstanding this quibble, the book is an outstanding piece of writing. It masterfully weaves the polemical debates on biblical archeology with the deconstruction of police interrogation protocols and produces a thrilling work of investigation. The book's great merit is its sensitive treatment of Glock's saga in the context of his enduring commitment to the cause of Palestine and the tragic consequences of this commitment. In doing so he was no doubt fortunate to have had access to rich and varied sources: primarily, the victim's private and intimate diaries, lent to him by the victim's wife; secondly, the clandestine protocols of investigation that an internal Palestinian committee submitted to the PLO in Tunis; and finally, the Israeli interrogation records (also never released to the public) of a Hamas operative who was a confidante to the alleged assassin (the last item was a stroke of luck too good to be true). Fox was also able to uncover the records of Glock's early years in Idaho and Illinois through Lutheran Church archives and a huge volume of family correspondence and interviews with colleagues, friends, and opponents. The result is a profile of a tragic figure of near biblical proportions.
"I have always chosen the losing side," Glock wrote in his private diaries--first in the struggle against his fundamentalist colleagues in the Lutheran Church, then in academia by joining the minority tendency in biblical archeology that rebelled against the heritage of F. W. Albright and his school, and finally by aligning his career to the fate of Palestine, where he always was seen as an outsider in a civil rebellion against foreign rule.
Salim Tamari is professor of sociology at Birzeit University.