|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
3 - 9 December 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A longer view
Having just returned from a trip to attend an academic conference at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank it has seemed to me important to report on what, after an absence from Palestine of about six months, I saw and was impressed with. In the immediate aftermath of the Wye agreement I encountered no enthusiasm or surprise, just a kind of resigned but doubtless simmering anger that so many of our rights as a people had once again been handed away. If there were to be prizes for unpopularity surely Arafat's supine team of negotiators must rank very high on the list.
The notion that the CIA was to be the arbiter in matters of dispute between the Palestinian Authority and Netanyahu's government struck everyone I spoke to as perhaps the final irony. As for the established political class, its notables, middle-aged functionaries and the like, there was a great sense of indifference expressed by literally everyone I spoke to, as there was with all the political parties and currents. The landscape was dotted with new settlements, especially the hilltops; while I was there General Sharon had enjoined the settlers to seize what they could and of course, with the Israeli army to help them, they did.
The most striking physical change observed since I was there was the increase in the number and size of the by-passing roads, which are to be seen everywhere I went, cutting through the West Bank and the Jerusalem area, surrounding, punctuating, and of course destroying Palestinian land. The idea behind them is clear to see: to inhibit, if not actually to totally prevent the emergence of any Palestinian polity, despite Arafat's repeated threats to declare statehood. Most people greet his announcements about declaring statehood with considerable, albeit bitter, mirth.
Where there is considerable room for optimism is in the fact that institutions in civil society -- those that have little to do directly with the Authority or the Israeli occupation -- press on despite the grim encirclement all round. I have in mind one of these, Bir Zeit University, where I and a large number of academic participants spent the better part of a week deeply involved in research papers, discussions and lively exchange on the subject of Palestinian landscape, a topic of extraordinary interest given the history of many invading civilisations in Palestine of which the Zionist is the latest, the ugliest physically and the most invasive. What struck me is that if there is any hope for the future it is in such national institutions as Bir Zeit which under tremendous pressures and remarkable odds still functions, often brilliantly and always sensibly.
Founded in l924 as a girls' boarding school, the institution has always been associated with the Nasir family, whose senior member Butros Nasir and his sister Nabiha were the school's founders and earliest mentors. I remember Butros from my childhood: one of my aunts was his cousin and we knew the family -- they in the village of Bir Zeit, about ten kilometres from Ramallah, we in Jerusalem -- quite well. Butros was a civil servant who later became foreign minister of Jordan in l960. His oldest son Hanna, an AUB graduate and Purdue PhD in physics is now president. In l926 Bir Zeit School became a coeducational secondary school which some of my cousins attended, and whom I recall visiting as a child in the mid-1940s. Between l952 and 1960 a freshman year was added to the school: thus, students could get one additional year of university along with the four secondary school years; this was followed between 1962 and 1967 with the addition of a second (or sophomore) university year.
Five years after the Israeli occupation of 1967, during the graduation ceremonies of 1972, Hanna Nasir announced that Bir Zeit would become a university, i.e. an institution offering a four year course leading to the BA. The next day a member of the Israeli military authorities visited him and was told that such an intention was "illegal" and tried to restrict the institution from implementing it. A whole series of threats from the Israeli military followed the announcement. In l974 Nasir himself was deported for "incitement against the security of Israel", a ludicrously inappropriate charge, but one entirely in keeping with Israel's policy against the emergence of any Palestinian civil life. Blindfolded, he was summarily taken to the Lebanese border, from which he went to Amman and remained there in exile until l994.
Gaby Baramki, a professor of chemistry, ran the University, while Hanna directed it from Jordan. When the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem tried to intervene with the Israeli authorities he wasn't allowed to see Nasir's file. And to bring matters up to date the university was entirely closed under General Yitzhak Rabin's orders between l988 and l992, the intifada years. No other occupation regime in history declared war against educational institutions except Israel's: and still the country is celebrated for its "benign" occupation, which continues apace during the "peace process".
The sheer survival of Bir Zeit is of course one of the many stories of Palestinian resistance against outright Israeli oppression. In my opinion, that survival acquires added importance in the present because the political horizons are so bleak, and therefore the development of civil institutions, whose purpose is Palestinian development, the preservation of a vibrant national culture and identity, and the continued deepening of roots in the land of Palestine, is of the first importance as well as a safeguard against the fate of turning Palestinians into Red Indians being prepared for us by the US and Israel and to a great extent also by our uncomprehending and corrupt leadership whose main goal is its own survival and personal prosperity.
Bir Zeit has expanded as a university over the past twenty years. It now has a student body of about 4,000 men and women from all parts of the West Bank and, when they are allowed to travel there, from Gaza. In addition to the BA, the university offers MAs in international studies, education, economics, modern Arabic studies, water engineering, law and health education. Its curriculum is an entirely liberal and secular one, even though a simmering dispute between those ideals and some of the Islamist students on the campus continues. What I have found admirable is that Bir Zeit, which is one of eight universities on the West Bank and Gaza, sees itself, and is seen by others, as the national Palestinian university. This is by no means to denigrate or lessen the importance of Al-Najah in Nablus, for instance, or any of the Gaza universities: it is to say, however, that Bir Zeit alone has both the national and international reputation of representing Palestinian national life through education.
Not that its life isn't a hard one. Bir Zeit is in Area B, which means that Israeli roadblocks can and often do interdict students and faculty coming from Ramallah, and elsewhere in Area A. Occasionally Israeli soldiers make their way onto the campus, and make arrests, break a few bones, then leave. Yet the university's physical setting is more impressive every time I see it. A large number of handsome white stone buildings dot the gently rolling hillsides just above the village of Bir Zeit; there is a campus of quite substantial size, the land donated to the university by the Nasir family, all of the buildings the result of donations from wealthy Palestinian expatriates. Thus our conference, for instance, took place in Kamal Nasir Hall -- the university's main auditorium built in memory of Kamal Nasir, a poet and PLO spokesman assassinated in Beirut in l973 by an Israeli hit-team headed, it is widely believed, by none other than Ehud Barak, the present head of the Labor Party -- whose main benefactors are Abdel-Mohsin and Leila Qattan, a remarkable (and remarkably successful) couple who have used their considerable wealth to benefit their people in quite unprecedented ways. Such buildings as the new library, the engineering school, the recent college of business are similarly the gifts of wealthy diaspora Palestinians, who have turned to Bir Zeit the way many years ago prominent diaspora Jews promoted and funded the Hebrew University, well before Israel's establishment in l948.
Despite acts of individual generosity, Bir Zeit's graduates are very far from wealthy, and so the budgetary problems are immense. Bir Zeit has an annual budget of twelve million dollars, a little over half comes from tuition and from the Palestinian Authority; the rest has to be raised, mostly by Hanna Nasir, with results that are mixed. At least several times in the past few years there hasn't been money for faculty salaries, and library acquisitions have dropped to near zero (1,000 new books in the past three years). Life is hard, as much because the confinements and dispossessions imposed by Israel on Palestinians are hard, as because with no Palestinian state as yet in existence, the local and regional economy is in terrible shape, with most Palestinians in dire financial straits, donations to universities are given low priority.
Still, what is very impressive is that on campus at Bir Zeit there is an open and free exchange of ideas and opinions that simply doesn't exist anywhere else in the Arab world. Nasir and his colleagues are understandably proud of this, and very anxious to preserve it. Criticism of individuals and policies thrives, as does a boisterous debate between adherents of different political parties. When Arafat's Authority arrested some students two years ago, Bir Zeit took the Authority to court and got the students released. One hears a lot of complaining at the university, but the amazing thing from my point of view is that as an institution it thrives despite a large number of odds and innumerable obstacles. One reason why this is so, I think, is that even though the Nasir family founded it and is still involved in running it, Bir Zeit is not a family institution but in the minds of everyone associated with it as student, administrator or faculty, it is a public, national one. There is little of this sort of sentiment and activity in the Arab world except for such places as the American University of Beirut which, after all, is an American not a national or Arab institution. Bir Zeit's Board of Trustees is made up of 16 individuals from the West Bank and Gaza; their problems as Palestinians are also the university's. Many of the territories' most prominent names, from Hanan Ashrawi to Ali Jarbawi and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, three of the best-known Palestinian intellectuals, are associated with Bir Zeit and so it has been quite natural that the Israelis have viewed the place as threatening to their interests as occupiers.
Certainly in my opinion one of the university's main problems has been its isolation from the Arab world of which it is in culture and history a part. The languages of instruction are Arabic (mainly) and some English, but very few non-Palestinian Arabs have come to the West Bank, using the fact that they have to have Israeli visas as a pretext for not appearing. Egyptians can come via a permit from the PA, and that strikes me as an excellent way out of the whole problem of normalisation with Israel which few Egyptian writers and artists are willing to compromise. All the Bir Zeit people I spoke to said that in the current state of demoralisation they regard support by Arab academics and intellectuals as very important indeed. I could not agree more, and have stated my position to Egyptians when on a very brief visit to Egypt after my trip to Palestine.
In any event, Bir Zeit University strikes me as uniquely placed to constitute one of the foundation stones of Palestinian civil society as it tries to strengthen itself against the Israeli onslaught and the abortive peace process. That so many people in and out of Palestine regard it as a significant element in that society-in-the-making is a sure sign that collectively Palestinian life goes on, the obstacles and hardships notwithstanding. Bir Zeit, and institutions like it, have to be seen as part of the longer view of our history, which the seriousness and acuteness of the present crisis tend to obscure. Without these institutions our political life and survival would be virtually non-existent.