We leave Ramallah, winding our way past vendors unloading cartons (with Hebrew names) lush with persimmons, bananas, pomegranates, grapes, and smaller boxes piled with lettuce, scallions, parsley, and greens. In the chaos and cacophony of this bursting city, shop windows stream by: faceless mannequins in tight jeans and low cut sparkling blouses, chains of gold jewelry catch the morning light, ridiculously pointy high heels vie for attention, coffee vendors dance at corners with tall plastic flowers above their heads. I catch a Pizza Hut, an ad for Betty Crocker, “Always the sweetest moment,” billboards for computers, smart phones, the latest IT whatever. Men and women of all styles jostle in a sea of cars, taxis, buses, and street vendors; roads blocked for construction, lots piled with rubble and trash, cranes hovering over the city. I remember a puff piece in the travel section of the New York Times calling Ramallah, the Paris of the Middle East.
We are heading north to Birzeit University, founded by Hanna Nasir, whose family fled Jaffa in 1948. Starting as a small campus, since the 1980s it has grown into a large national university impressively situated on a hill, with large cream white buildings dedicated to science, art, law, technology, a women’s center, and more. Birzeit is in the forefront of Palestinian education due to the quality and diversity of both its faculty and its 9000 students and it has also graduated most of the members of the leadership in the Palestinian Authority.
We gather in an auditorium, rows of tables and chairs, with a table in the front with chairs and mikes for a video presentation and discussion with several students. There is an intensity and seriousness amongst the different young men and women. They all feel compelled “to defend our country,” talk about the NGO, development bubble in Ramallah, the lack of jobs, and 21% unemployment rate in the West Bank. 60% of the students are women, 30% come from towns and villages beyond Ramallah. They differ from college students in the US in several important ways. They bear the history of living under occupation; since the first graduation in 1976, the school has been closed down more than ten times by the Israeli military, the longest for three years during the First Intifada when popular committees helped keep the educational system alive with professors meeting in homes, churches, mosques, rented houses, and sometimes outside under the trees. The Israeli government forbids students from inside Israel (’48 Palestinians) or Gaza from attending Birzeit, and has “deported” students that are caught.
They discuss the lack of a viable economy; they are only “rebuilding what the Israeli military has destroyed.” Those who study commerce often work in companies in Ramallah, engineers tend to go abroad to work in places like Saudi Arabia. Women find jobs more easily, often in an office work, in the service economy, banks, accounting and marketing. Living under occupation, visiting professors (from the US for instance) can only get three month permits to teach, cannot be guaranteed payment due to the dire financial situation, and may be deported at the will of the Israeli government. There is an active political life at the university which is a reflection of the politics of Palestine as a whole, with students joining Fatah, Hamas, or sometimes groups that cross lines like the Palestinians for dignity campaign. Most disturbing, there are currently about 80 students that are currently in administrative detention, most likely arrested for their activism but with no charges filed, their lawyers unable to have access to their “security files.” Because the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) cannot enter the campus, the students are arrested at the gates of the school, at flying checkpoints, or at home, often in the middle of the night. The entire university community endorses the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel (BDS), which functionally means they do not buy Israeli products unless it is the only alternative and do not communicate with Israeli institutions; many products come from Europe and Arab countries. “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
We break up into small groups for our campus tour. Our guide is a 23 year old former accounting major who is now in sociology. He is thin with a neatly trimmed beard, deep black eyes and a sincere manner. Despite the oppressive sun, he is determined to point out every building, library, and student union, as well as the memorial for the 20-year-old student who was killed by Israeli forces, Abdullah Khalil Salah. Our guide started his education at Al Quds (in Jerusalem), had some political differences with a professor and then missed a final exam because he was detained for hours at a checkpoint and was thrown out of school. He came to Birzeit where he majored in accounting as his father recommended, did not feel challenged, and after two years transferred to a university in Jordan. After a year he went home to visit his family and the Israeli security would not allow him to return to Jordan to complete his studies. He returned to Birzeit, changed his major to sociology, and returned to work on his father’s farm (mostly olive trees) as well as a host of other odd jobs to support himself. Because his father spent 19 years in Israeli jails and started his married life late, he is eager for grandchildren. As we begin to talk about more personal matters, the student’s phone rings. It turns out, he is in love and one of his friends is letting him know the location of his love interest. He explains that she does not have a boyfriend, “and that is good for me,” and he is attracted to her because she does not gossip and is focused on her studies. She is “very cute and beautiful.” He talks about wanting to marry her, the high cost of traditional weddings, and his desire to be able to support a family. When we ask how she feels, he confesses that she does not yet know of his feelings but he is hopeful she will notice him. She is majoring in sociology and when he signed up for his courses, he first found out what she courses she planned to take and then he signed up for the same. His optimism and yearning feel so quintessentially Palestinian to me; on the other hand, he may just be another young man, hopelessly in love.