by Esther Yen
“Stop! Student ID?” The security man greets us at the gate, while Palestinian students pass by. We roll our eyes, search for the little plastic card and explain that we are international students here, like we did the last two months on a daily basis. In moments like this, it is hard to believe, that there is a more than 20 year old tradition of having international students at the Birzeit University close to Ramallah. Maybe it is the blond hair of one of my friends, maybe the political situation, but we have to identify ourselves before we can enter and head towards the PAS building.
1: Weapons and students without their student ID must not enter the university
PAS is the abbreviation for Palestinian and Arabic Studies. It is targeted to students from all over the world. This fall we are just 30 students, apparently the political situation and the application deadline having been before the ceasefire was declared scared people away. We are thankful and start to bond especially during our Arabic classes four times a week. Internationals can chose to do up to four courses, Modern Standard Arabic, the local dialect and two social science classes. This will leave them with 24 weekly hours packed into four days, exceeding the university student’s normal hours. This is no surprise since the university sets the program for three months only instead of the normal duration of one full semester. After students have been denied entry to Israel after stating their plans to study, especially when aiming for their second tourist visa, the university decided on a program fitting into the three month stay of one tourist visa.
2: The program also offers Arabic courses outside the university. Former PAS students also use the note board to find new roomates.
The important words – "occupation, checkpoint, settlement"
So there we sit in our classes, starting at 8 plus a few additional minutes in the morning, introducing us slowly to a more local Middle Eastern time concept. The room is filled with the smell of Arabic coffee and the omnipresent instant Nescafe, on the board the verb “I want” conjugated in all its different persons. Twelve students are enrolled in level 1 of the local dialect and listen to their teacher, while he makes an example, demonstrating at the same time, that countries and cities are female in the Arabic language. “Falistin bidha hurriyya!” he nearly shouts, his arms raised to the ceiling, looking enthusiastic. Palestine wants freedom. We are all beginners in the dialect, ordering a coffee in Arabic is still not easy and more than one of us struggles still with the word for eggplant. At the same moment our vocabulary consists of all the important words: Ihtilal (occupation), Hajiz (checkpoint) and Mustautana (settlement) being only three of them.
The class finishes and we leave for an early lunch break, chatting about the last weekend and upcoming private parties, a mixed group of young persons in their twenties. Some already have a job, but most of us are still in universities all over the world. US-Americans and Germans are the two dominant groups, but also people from Norway, Spain and Sweden are represented, all mixed with Palestinians who grew up abroad and now try to find their roots here. We others are moved by different motives, a few are members of the country’s solidarity movement, many are required to visit a Middle Eastern country in the course of their studies at home or some simply travelled through and heard about the program.
We head for our next class, Modern Standard Arabic, where we tackle the challenges of the Arabic grammar. The young energetic teacher tried to explain everything in Arabic during the first two weeks, but after many clueless looks, she changed to English mixed with hand gestures and Arabic. Even though we took a placement test at the beginning of the semester, the levels within the course vary and therefore we move ahead only slowly. Often we do not finish the declared goal of the lesson and have to postpone it to the next lesson. Additionally we watch a movie nearly every Tuesday, always with the (needed) English subtitles and their topics mainly focusing on the Palestinian question. This week’s quiz is also shifted to next week after complaints and also since we did not finish our agenda. It is a slow lesson, one half of the class spacing out because the learning pace is too slow, the other half because they feel too challenged. Our class ends not really surprising with us not finishing, leaving us with no homework.
3: Parts of the university in Birzeit about 11 km from Ramallah
The Palestinian or the Israeli narrative
At 2 o’clock our last class starts. It is in turns either about the Palestinian Question or Modern Contemporary Arab Thought, both taught by Sa’d Nimr. His lecture is often based on his personal experience, telling us about his treatment in prison, where he spent eight year because of his political activities. He encouraged us to read (mainly the prepared texts we purchased at the beginning of the course) and to discuss in the first lesson. Mr. Nimr knows a lot and always adds to the student’s presentation at the beginning class, but probably already after the first week we stopped asking anything critical, only questions in order to understand further. Especially one girl, who had lived and worked in Israel close to Gaza for one year, and would start a discussion with the lecturer at the beginning of each lesson. Many discussions ended with two different narratives, one Palestinian, the other Israeli, and the problem of accepting both of them as equal.
The discussions continue after the class, where many of the students express opinions considered to be “Western” ones. We exchange articles we read and realize that we certainly need to broaden our horizons, since some facts are presented very differently in other perspectives.
4: One of the activities after class: Hiking and camping in the desert close to Bethlehem.
Birzeit – an inside view of education in Palestine
All of these things are the reasons which led me to finish my three months at Birzeit with some mixed feelings. We had an amazing time, especially during the activities outside the classes: We cooked, we danced the traditional Palestinian dance “Dabke” and we visited Hebron and the Salfit area. But at the same time I could feel, how my views grew black and white during the courses. Even though I read even more on the topic, I found myself sometimes doing it solely because I have my issues with trusting some of the statements of my lecturer. Many facts presented were very vague and needed further reading. In addition, there is the problem of my being a German. Our education, especially in history is influenced by the guilt issue, the Holocaust is omnipresent. This has nothing to do with “Israeli propaganda” as it might seem from the outside, but is simply a guilt issue. This complicated many of the discussions I had with my lecturer.
5: Internationals learn how to cook traditional Maqlube, a Palestinian dish consisting of rice, chicken and different vegtables. The name actually means upside-down, describing the process of turning the dish over before serving it on a plate.
Studying at Birzeit was certainly a good experience, since I got an inside view of education in Palestine and was additionally able to reflect my own education. But sadly, it also left me frustrated. I wish, there would have been more time for a more two-sided discussion. On the other hand, it inspired me to learn even more about this region and the conflict.