Palestine Twilight

Chapter One: That Day

ON THE MORNING of Sunday 19 January 1992, the day he was to be murdered, Dr Albert Glock went to church with his wife in the Old City of Jerusalem. Albert Glock was an archaeologist, and the Director of the Institute of Palestinian Archeology at Birzeit University, the main Palestinian university in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The church he attended, the Church of the Redeemer, was a sombre nineteenth-century Crusader pastiche, one of a number of religious institutions clustered tighdy around the Holy Sepulchre, the lugubrious and claustrophobic Christian shrine that is traditionally believed to contain the tomb of Jesus Christ and the site of his crucifixion.
        He left the service before the Eucharist; his wife Lois stayed to the end: he wanted to get back to his office at Bir Zeit to work on pottery. He walked through Damascus Gate, the monumental, grimy Ottoman construction at the corner of the Old City where the world of Palestinian Jerusalem rubs uncomfortably against the world of Israeli Jerusalem, where Palestinian women in embroidered dresses sell fruit and vegetables on the busy pavements, and where minibuses and shared taxis depart for the towns and villages and refugee camps of the West Bank. Grey winter clouds clogged the sky, but despite the weather Glock had on only his well-worn black leather jacket. At about 10.30 a.m., he climbed into his blue Volkswagen van and drove northwards out of Jerusalem in the direction of Ramallah, passing first through Bayt Hanina, the Palestinian village that had been absorbed into the northern suburbs of Jerusalem where he and Lois lived. He bought an Arabic newspaper, and then stopped at a local bakery and bought a ka'ak simsim, a ring of pastry filled with dates and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
        The checkpoint separating Jerusalem from the West Bank -- a roadblock made from slabs of painted concrete, with a small Gabin beside it occupied by Israeli soldiers --was open, so Glock was able to cover the distance from Jerusalem to Ramallah in about half an hour. He drove northwards through Ramallah, past the British-built prison inherited by the Israelis, along the road called Radio Boulevard, named after the array of three radio transmission masts built alongside it, also relics of the period of British rule that ended in 1948.
         Glock stopped again before he reached Bir Zeit, at a house on the outskirts of Ramallah, near the radio transmitters, where the road was muddy and gouged with ice-filled potholes. This was the house of Dr Gabi Baramki, the acting President of Birzeit, and his wife Dr Haifa Baramki, the university's Registrar. Nearly thirty years after first coming to Palestine, Glock still thought that it was an Arab custom not to make appointments, and Palestinian courtesy had restrained anyone from telling him this was not the case. When Haifa Baramki answered the doorbell and saw Glock in the doorway, she was not expecting to see him, but she was not surprised either.
         Haifa told him that Gabi was not at home, but invited him in for coffee. Glock declined, but said he would return after he had finished working at the Institute. He would come back at about four, he said. He wanted to discuss the allocation of teaching assignments at the Institute. Gabi Baramki and Glock were close friends, and allies in Birzeit's overheated academic politics. The conversation would undoubtedly touch on the problem that had been simmering in the Institute since the summer: Glock had turned down for a teaching job one of his longest-serving graduate students, who had reacted by waging a noisy, bitter and very public campaign to overturn the decision.
         Before he left, Haifa Baramki asked him if he planned to stop at the house of the al-Farabi family in Bir Zeit. If he did, she asked, he might remind Maya al-Farabi, who was Glock's teaching assistant at the Institute, to attend a meeting the next day of a professional women's group at Birzeit to which they both belonged. The al-Farabis did not have a telephone, and Haifa knew that Glock was a regular visitor to the house. This was an errand that Glock would have been happy to undertake. Indeed, he was probably intending to stop there anyway. Maya al-Farabi was Glock's closest colleague at the Institute of Archaeology, and his favoured successor as Director. He had guided and nurtured her academic career every step of the way, from under- graduate to PhD, and had done the same for her younger sister, Huda. If Glock trusted anyone to take over his position as Director of the Institute, it was Maya al-Farabi. On working days, Glock would often have lunch at the al-Farabi house. As a sign of affection- ate familiarity, they gave him a traditional Arabic nickname, Abu Abed. This meant 'father of Albert', which was also the name of Glock's eldest son.
         By now it was between eleven o'Glock and noon. Glock drove out of Ramallah and down into a valley where a bypass to an Israeli settlement crossed the road to Bir Zeit. Here there was usually an Israeli checkpoint, with a jeep, a strip of spiked chain across the road, and some surly young soldiers with machine guns slung over their shoulders stopping vehicles and checking identity cards. Glock was slyly proud of his skill at talking his way past these obstacles. Palestinian friends would marvel at how he managed to appear at their door on days when the tightest closures were in place, when no one was able to travel anywhere. He took full advantage of his appearance as a serious-looking, elderly foreigner. He was even careful to establish discreet but cordial relations with the few Israeli soldiers he saw more than once at the checkpoints, chatting with them, aware of their boredom. If this made it easier to go about his business he was willing to do it, though he was careful not to seem too friendly with the soldiers when he had a Palestinian passenger sitting beside him.
        Covering the distance from Ramallah to Bir Zeit took about fifteen minutes. The road winds around rocky, rubbly hills, and through a few villages. Just outside Bir Zeit, he drove past the new campus, built in 1980, and now closed by military order, a limestone quarry at the side of the road, and the houses on the outskirts of the town, including the ai-Farabi house. He knew that Maya had a dentist's appointment in Ramallah that day, and he assumed that she would be back home by the time he finished work at the Institute. He drove through the compact town, whose position on a ridge gave it a grand view of the valley below, with tiers of crumbling olive terraces, some in use, some not, descending to a narrow plain where, according to local legend, the Roman general Titus encamped with his army in the year 70 before marching on Jerusalem to besiege it. From this road you could look down into the valley and across towards Ramallah, at the blinking lights of the radio masts, and on the top of a distant ridge, the Israeli settlement of Beit El, site of the region's military headquarters, built on the traditional site of the biblical Bethel. On the slope below it one could see the Palestinian refugee camp of Jalazun. At night, these two enemy settlements, irreconcilable worlds of victor and vanquished, were visible only as streaks of light, the upper one brilliant white, the lower one yellow. When a power cut cast Bir Zeit and the surrounding area into darkness, Jalazun would seem to disappear, while Beit El, with its own source of power, blazed on.
          This winter had been the coldest anyone could remember. There had been heavy snow, which stayed frozen on the ground for days. The snow brought down telephone lines and power cables, cutting off electricity and telephones, and the ice caused water pipes to burst. The people of Bir Zeit had endured long, bleak spells without electricity, telephone and water. In the narrow, layered terraces of rocky soil sculpted into the slopes, the cold froze and killed thousands of olive trees.
The olive tree is the emblem of Birzeit University, which is the main university in the Occupied Territories of Palestine. It is a good symbol for an institution that prides itself on being the hearth of Palestinian nationalism. The olive tree embodies the virtues that Palestinians like to see in themselves: it is ancient, it is tough, it is native, and it has deep roots. The name Bir Zeit means reservoir of oil. In the academic calendar of Birzeit University, a day is added to a weekend in the middle of October, and this three-day break is observed as Olive-picking Holiday. The idea is that, on this weekend, students return to their homes to help with the olive harvest. In reality, the Olive-picking Holiday is a political and nostalgic gesture rather than a matter of agricultural necessity. Few Palestinians any more have olive groves big enough to produce an economically viable crop.
         In January 1992, Albert Glock was sixty-seven years old, and in his slow, perfectionist way was getting ready for retirement. He and Lois had been expatriates for so long, and were so deeply immersed in life among the Palestinians, that Glock felt he could never live in the United States again. For many years they had lived in a large, comfortable rented house in Bayt Hanina on the main Jerusalem road, with big airy rooms and a study full of the books and artefacts that Albert had accumulated over the years: everything they had was there, materially and spiritually. Now, on the verge of retirement, they were preparing to move to a smaller house in the same neighbourhood. The American way of life, a condition of comfortable ignorance of the rest of the world, as he saw it, had become foreign to Albert Glock. He called it 'living in the bubble'. He had been visiting Cyprus now and then on the three-monthly trips out of the country he was com- pelled to make to renew his Israeli visa, and favoured settling there, but he had done nothing about it. This academic year he had relinquished most of his teaching responsibilities so that he could concettrate on completing the long-delayed publication of his life's work, the excavation of an archaeologically complex site in the northern West Bank called Ti'innik.
        The Institute of Archaeology was accommodated in an old- fashioned family house with two storeys, built around a central courtyard that was entered by an ornamental iron gate. It stood on the edge of Bir Zeit's old town, a tight maze of dilapidated Ottoman buildings. To the right of the Institute, a car mechanic worked out of a dark cave of a workshop that had formerly been a blacksmith's shop. Down a narrow lane, among the tiny houses, there was a bakery where traditional flat bread was baked in a dome-shaped oven, and a small Greek Orthodox church in a poor state of repair.
        Glock worked alone that day. The shelves in his workroom were filled from floor to ceiling with the cardboard boxes, nearly marked, that contained the excavation material from his digs at Ti'innik and Jenin. The work tables in the room were covered with hundreds of blackened shards of burnt pottery, arranged in a state somewhere between order and chaos. The fragments were from Ti'innik, and Glock was working with Maya and a staff technician on the painstaking business of putting as many of the fragments as possible back together into their original forms as domestic pottery vessels. The pots bore a mysterious pattern of ridges that they could not identify. Several vessels had already been reassembled, among them a big two- handled water jar that dominated the room.
        Ti'innik is a hamlet in the northernmost part of the West Bank, a few kilometres north of the town of Jenin in the flat, green Jezreel valley, near the biblical site of Megiddo, better known as Armageddon, where the Book of Revelation prophesies that the batde to end all earthly batdes will be fought. The village stands at the foot of an ancient man-made mound called Tell Ti'innik, which is almost certainly the site mentioned in the Bible as the Canaanite stronghold of Taanach. In 1987, Glock and Maya ai-Farabi took the radical step of excavating, not the parts of the site that relate to biblical history, which had been the dominant interest of the archaeology of Palestine since archaeology began in the Holy Land in the middle of the nineteenth century, but the more recent Ottoman remains which had been largely ignored by archaeologists.
         Some time before three o'clock, he closed up the office and turned the key in the VW. He aimed to stop off briefly at the ai-Farabi house to leave the message for Maya about her meeting. He would not stay long: his appointment with Gabi Baramki was more important. Before he left, he scribbled a note to Maya on the copy of the Arabic newspaper he had bought in Bayt Hanina, that day's edition of al-Ittihad. He wrote across the top in block capitals, 'I may be late tomorrow. Al,' and left it where she would see it.
         That day, a funeral was taking place at the Greek Orthodox church. The town of Bir Zeit is unusual among West Bank towns in that its population is mostly Christian, and unlike better-known Palestinian towns that have traditionally had Christian majorities, such as Bethlehem, the proportion of its population that is Christian has increased rather than shrunk in recent years. The thresholds of the doorways of houses tend to be decorated with a carved relief of St George slaying the Dragon (a motif thought to originate with the Crusades), indicating a Christian household, rather than a Qur'anic inscription. Most of the Christians in Bir Zeit, in common with most Palestinian Christians, belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church. As Glock was leaving the Institute, the funeral procession, with its train of cars, came along the narrow road toward the church in the opposite direction. People in Bir Zeit remember that Glock patiently pulled over to the side of the road to let it pass. His VW van was a familiar sight in the area, and everyone knew it belonged to the American archaeologist. They remember that moment as a characteristically modest, thoughtful act of courtesy. They also remember it as the last time many of them saw him alive.
          After the procession had passed, Dr Glock drove out of the town and along the road to the new campus. The al-Farabi house was on this road, about a kilometre outside the town. It was built on a steep slope, below the level of the road, from which one looks down on the roof of the house, with its solar panel array, hot water tank and television antenna. Glock parked the van on the gravel verge, under a fig tree. It was a dark day, so he left the van's headlights on, not meaning to stay long. The time was just after three o'clock. Foreigners who knew Glock, that is people who were not Palestinians, were impressed by the fearlessness with which he drove around the West Bank during the intifatia , the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule that had erupted in 1987, going into areas where a vehicle with Israeli licence plates, like his, was almost certain to have stones thrown at it by children and teenagers. Glock had endured his share of stones, but he still went where he wanted to go, although lately he had begun to take precautions when he drove the van, aware that it was well known and that he was conspicuous driving it. He would vary his usual routes, and check underneath the van before he got into it. He was afraid of something, but whether it was a general fear for his safety at a dangerous time or whether he was afraid of something or someone in particular is unknowable, another blank in the narrative of history.
            He walked around to the gate at the top of the driveway, pushed it open and walked down the concrete ramp. If you put all the accounts together, this is what happened next. A young man with his face wrapped in a kaffiyah, the black-and-white checked cotton scarf the Palestinians wear to identify themselves as Palestinian, dressed in a dark jacket, jeans and white sneakers, jumped down from the stone wall built against the edge of the road. He landed in the al-Farabis' front garden, a strip of ploughed earth planted with olive trees. He could not be seen from the road. Glock probably didn't see or hear him. Inside the house they heard the shots, two together, then one: like this, Lois said later, imitating the sound with her hands: clap clap ...clap.