Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Student daydreams

I’m teaching several English classes here for university students and young professionals. Among my students are two lawyers, several engineers, a few studying education, others nursing. One is an aspiring novelist. Another is a talented artist. In the evenings I’ve started tutoring a professional who commutes daily to Ramallah to work for the Palestinian National Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas. Since most of these students have a basic understanding of English, we use a lot of class time to read and discuss news stories drawn from a BBC educational website.

I've never lived more simply and felt more rich. Not only can I delight as my students grow in their language skills and connect through me to a larger world. Beyond this, class discussion opens for me a wide window on Palestinian and Arab culture. Their dreams for the future, personal loyalties, ethical perspectives, analysis of the news, expressions of anguish and anger—all this and more tumbles out in our discussion. They are teaching me far more about life here in Palestine than I am teaching them about subordinate clauses, popular idioms and proper (i.e., Canadian) English pronunciation.

Here are a few insights and observations, in no particular order, that I’ve gleaned from 1½ weeks of teaching:

  • The most desired superpower here is the ability to become invisible. (Try to guess why. Hint: think about passing through military checkpoints.)
  • My students do not think McCain, Clinton and Obama differ substantially with respect to their views on Israel and Palestine.
  • Students—ordinary, non-militant, non-violent university students—casually refer to the Israelis as the “enemy."
  • There is very little for young people to do here. They long for a change in the sameness of their daily routine. They express very little hope for positive change in the political situation.
  • Notwithstanding Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, and the political victory in 2006 of rival party Hamas, Arafat—whose picture is displayed prominently in the town square—remains an iconic figure among Palestinian youth. For them he is a father figure who epitomizes their struggle against Occupation.
  • Although most women on the streets of Nablus wear the hijab (covering their hair and often neck), my students make it clear that this is a choice, not a requirement as it is, say, in Saudi Arabia. They see the current popularity of head coverings, in Palestine and much of the Muslim world, as symbolic of a general conservative reaction to the influence of Western / American culture and values. (A generation ago Palestinian women did not cover their heads.)
  • Students here are extremely respectful and grateful to international volunteers and generally very serious about their education.
  • If students were granted one wish, most would wish to travel. None of my students has the proper ID to let them travel to Jerusalem, let alone beyond.
Palestinian IDs come in a green plastic case; Jerusalem IDs in blue. With a Palestinian ID (or huwīya), the only way to get to Jerusalem is with a special temporary permit. This system was introduced in 1993 and tightened at the outbreak of the 2nd Intifada. If a Palestinian does receive a permit, it is valid at only 4 of the 13 checkpoints between the West Bank and the city. A UN-OCHA report illustrates the challenge Palestinians face simply getting into Jerusalem:
“Since the election of the Hamas government in early 2006, the Israeli authorities have ceased all communication with their Palestinian counterparts and now individuals are forced to apply for permits in person to the Israeli DCL [Palestinian District Liaison Officers] offices. Applying for a permit often involves traveling long distances and waiting in line, only to have to return the next day or following weeks toreceive a permit if it is granted. Applicants who are rejected can re-apply and maybe accepted the second timebut the outcome is always unpredictable. Permits are only issued for a specific reasons i.e. to work, to study, for family reunification or a certain social event and the permit applications are often refused on the basis of security.” [The Humanitarian Impact on Palestinians of Israeli Settlements and other Infrastructure in the West Bank. UN-OCHA. July 2007, p.101.]
Listening to my Palestinian friends describe their lives, watching them dream about freedom and travel, I was deeply disturbed by the news this week that Israel has denied exit visas to seven Gaza students seeking to study abroad. The tragedy of their plight is compounded by the fact that each of the Gaza Seven has been awarded a prestigious Fulbright scholarship. These students don’t need money; all they need is for some Israeli bureaucrat to sign and stamp a form. But since education doesn’t qualify as a pressing humanitarian need (?), permission to leave their compound has been denied.

When the story broke, we learned that the US State Department simply canceled their Fulbrights. Serves you right for living in a war zone. More recently, perhaps to save face, they've changed the status of these scholarships to “deferred.” Assuming Israel lifts the siege of Gaza, next year the students may be able to pursue their advanced degrees. And their dreams. Perhaps. One never knows.

1 comment:

Fern said...

I live and learn vicariously through you! Thanks for all your posts... they have been quite enlightening.