Below are brief videos about Bethlehem University and the conference held here this semester, Exploring Christian-Muslim Relations in the Middle East and the West. To view them, click the images. Additional interviews with conference participants are ...
(Roughly translated, the board reads, "We walk together until we have Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.")
I'm writing at 10:00 in the morning on Tuesday, November 13, and the campus is strangely quiet. On any other Tuesday morning, Bethlehem University would be bustling with activity: students would be chatting and laughing while passing to and from classes, and people would be congregating in the halls and the courtyards, talking animatedly.
Today, however, classes have been suspended and the students have been sent home. The reasons? An outbreak of violence in Gaza, and a series of strikes called by the Student Senate.
Three days of mourning have been declared throughout Palestine in response to an incident in Gaza City that left at least six dead and dozens more wounded. To commemorate the third anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death on November 11, 2004, tens of thousands of Gazans who support Fatah rallied on Sunday and Monday. Apparently (accounts of the incident vary), the injuries and casualties occurred after members of Hamas fired gunshots from the roof of Al-Azhar University. For stories on the rally and the accompanying violence, see the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera English, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
Hundreds of thousands attended the rally in Gaza City (HatemMoussa/AP)
Yellow flags denote support for Fatah (AP)
Gazans gather amid flags and posters (AP)
The vice-chancellor's decision to dismiss students as a result of the clash in Gaza might seem unusual to some Americans. To understand his choice, it's necessary to recognize how passionately many Palestinians--including many Bethlehem University students--feel about politics, and how closely some of them are aligned with parties such as Fatah and Hamas. It's also important to realize that here the "real world" (especially the political world) and the "academic world" are so strongly linked as to be often inseparable.
Certainly American students appreciate that events off campus (most notably, the attacks of September 11 and the Virginia Tech shootings) can affect life on campus; but in the United States teaching and learning continued, more or less as usual, in the wake of each tragedy. What distinguishes Bethlehem University from, say, Lewis University is the very different way in which the students here--and, in particular, the student government--respond to such events. To adapt a well-known slogan from the American feminist movement, here the personal is the political and the political is the personal--and both the personal and the political are entwined with the academic.
A couple of weeks after fall-semester classes began, and well before the current situation in Gaza and on campus developed, I received my first lesson in the political aspects of Palestinian higher education--and the (potentially) educational aspects of campus politics. Students in "English Writing Skills" were sitting in small groups discussing their essays, while I was walking around the room listening to their observations and keeping them on task. Suddenly we were interrupted by--of all unlikely sounds to hear through the open windows of a classroom at 9:30 in the morning--the bellow of a bullhorn. A young man was broadcasting something in Arabic that greatly excited the students--one of whom immediately bolted out of the room.
Since I know only a few dozen words in Arabic, I turned to my students for interpretation. "Classes are canceled!" they informed me, trying (and mostly failing) to mask their delight. I frowned at them skeptically. "No, really!" they assured me. Their attempt at deception was met with sarcasm. "So that was the Vice President for Academic Affairs on the bullhorn? His Arabic has certainly improved!" (Brother Robert's Arabic is even more limited than mine. What's more, it's colored by a distinctive Minnesotan accent.)
Restless, and frustrated by my obtuseness, they explained. "No, it was someone from the Student Senate. They've canceled the morning classes." I became even more confused. "You're saying the Student Senate has canceled our class?" They nodded, and I decided to play along with them to see how far they were prepared to take their prank. "Why?" "Because," they responded quickly, their eyes sliding from me to the door and back again, "some people were killed in Gaza." This didn't sound like a game, but it still didn't make sense to me. "They will be here soon," the students added ominously, and for an uncanny moment I thought they meant the deceased Gazans.
"Who will be here soon?"
"People from the Student Senate."
"To make sure we've canceled class."
This was simply too much to process, and I decided to seek guidance from another member of the department. "Wait here," I told them, taking a few steps toward the door before turning around. "And keep working on your essays!" I knew this direction would be ignored; but I felt obliged to make some attempt, however feeble, to restore order.
When I arrived in the English Department office, I found the administrative assistant and a couple of colleagues clustered around a computer screen. "My students claim that--" I began. "Morning classes are canceled!" they cried. "A message just came from Brother Robert's office!" I stared at them. "What's going on here?" They told me that the Student Senate couldn't officially cancel classes unless the VPAA endorsed their action. Because he had done so, starting at 10:00 there were no classes. I glanced at my watch: 9:40. "I see," I told them.
Of course I didn't see at all, but it was well past time to return to my classroom. When I arrived, the students were talking enthusiastically, their essays forgotten. "Can we go now?" they asked in unison. I decided to take a legalistic approach. "Well, classes aren't canceled until 10:00, and since our class ends at 10:15 let's just finish at the usual time." Everyone fidgeted unhappily. "But they're coming. They'll ask why you haven't canceled the class." A moment after these words were spoken, we heard a knock at the classroom door. "See?" several students asked, apparently quite satisfied that my obstinacy would at last be dealt with. "Here they are." "Fine," I snapped, feeling a little cranky. (Certainly the one cup of coffee I'd drunk earlier that morning hadn't fortified me sufficiently for the rigors of a student insurrection.)
I opened the door to face four young men, each wearing the black-and-white hatta (keffiyeh) that signified his membership in Fatah. Much to the frustration of my students, who were curious to see how their foreign professor would cope with this domestic disturbance, I quickly shut the door behind me and blocked the window in it with my back for good measure. The student senators addressed me first in Arabic and then, after I shook my head, in English. ("At least they're practicing their English," I thought. "That's something.") "Why haven't you canceled the class?" they demanded. "You must cancel the class!" I responded as reasonably as possible, given the surreal situation. "Well, the 10:00 class is canceled, and since our class ends at 10:15 I've decided to go on until then." They consulted with one another, decided the class could continue for a little while longer, and left.
As I re-entered the classroom and explained the homework assignment to my disappointed students, I wondered what on earth had just happened.
A student singer wearing a keffiyeh with photos of Yasser Arafat
A member of the Student Senate arranges his keffiyeh
FirasBader, the President of the Student Senate
In the next few weeks, after having talked with students, professors, administrators, and members of the Student Senate (including the president, pictured above in his office together with photos of Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat), I began to understand, albeit very imperfectly, how politics and education influence each other at Bethlehem University. The most eye-opening lessons: (1) the Student Senate comprises representatives of actual political parties (for instance, Fatah and Hamas); (2) members of the Student Senate at times negotiate (or fail to negotiate) with the administration and call official (or unofficial) student strikes in response to events occurring on and off campus; (3) weekly rallies organized by the Student Senate blend politics, entertainment, and traditional Palestinian culture in quite powerful ways.
The building housing the Student Senate
(Roughly translated, the poster reads, "The Student Senate of Bethlehem University welcomes the new students and wishes them a successful academic future.")
The Student Senate
This body is in effect a parliament made up of the Conference (the entire senate) and the Secretariate (the governing committee). The party in the majority elects the president and controls the senate. The majority party this academic year, as in years past, is Fatah--the most popular group not only among students at Bethlehem University but also among residents of the West Bank in general. There are thirty-one seats in the Conference: this year Fatah holds sixteen; The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, eight; Hamas, five; the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, two. It seems that the Conference rarely convenes, and that the work of the senate is done mostly by the Secretariate, whose eleven members include the president and the vice-president, the secretary general, and eight secretaries who are responsible for a wide range of areas: academics, art, culture, environment and health, folklore, public and external relations, socializing, and sport.
As of this past June, the Palestinians are geographically and politically divided: Fatah governs the West Bank while Hamas oversees the Gaza Strip. To varying degrees, this division and the conflicts that accompany it are anticipated and echoed on university campuses. At The Islamic University of Gaza the Fatah-Hamas rift became violent in May of this year, compelling its president to protest that "[u]niversities must be outside the circle of violence" and to implore "wise people on both sides to spare the university the agony of this fight" (1, 2). Likewise, in July at An-Najah University "students turned the campus into a real battlefield" between Fatah and Hamas (1, 2). In welcome contrast, at Bethlehem University the two factions co-exist peacefully if unequally. (As the majority party, Fatah keeps public attention focused on itself, occupying center stage at the large and boisterous weekly rallies but permitting Hamas to distribute pamphlets and stickers on campus.)
Initially, Bethlehem University's parliament-style Student Senate struck me as quite odd, especially when I imagined it operating at an American university: Republicans and Democrats would struggle for seats, votes, and control, while Independents and other minority factions would maneuver for whatever power remained. I also wondered about the extent to which the rough-and-tumble tactics of off-campus realpolitik might influence--and perhaps corrupt--student politicians. On the one hand, students become involved in governance partly to learn how things are done in the "real world" and to investigate post-college careers in politics and government. On the other hand, given that off-campus politicians are often not the best role models for their on-campus counterparts, it might be better to keep the "real" and academic worlds apart. Perhaps some lessons in politics are better learned later, if at all.
After being schooled in the history of Palestinian politics, however, I came to understand that while the link here between on- and off-campus politics is arguably problematic and detrimental to education, it is also natural and longstanding. Yasser Arafat was a politically active student at the University of King Fuad I (now Cairo University), where he served as president of the General Union of Palestinian Students. Long after Arafat's matriculation, Palestinian students continued to be politically active and aware, in part because under the Israeli occupation university campuses were among the few places where politics might be discussed in public. Indeed, according to the sociologist Lisa Taraki, "Palestinian universities during the latter part of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s were the prime site for the formation of a cadre of political activists who at important junctures were in the vanguard of the national resistance to occupation." Moreover, "[e]lected student councils succeeded in wresting a considerable degree of authority (and recognition of the legitimacy of that authority) from university administrations and became a powerful force in university life." At Bethlehem University the Student Senate is unquestionably "a powerful force in university life," and foremost among the ways this body demonstrates its power is the strike.
Students on Strike
Strikes at Bethlehem University have occurred for decades. Three times during the past week (and once earlier in the semester, as described above), the Student Senate has declared strikes. These may take place at any time during the school day, and they vary in length from one class period to several. Before calling a strike, members of the Student Senate consult the Dean of Students, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, and perhaps other administrators. If these parties fail to reach an agreement, a strike may result. Once it's under way, both students and professors await announcements--which I receive either through my office window, via bullhorn, or else from the campus grapevine--as to the reason for and the anticipated length of the strike. The VPAA's office also updates faculty and staff through the campus intranet.
Students are not the only ones who strike. In early October, unionized full-time faculty members throughout Palestine called a one-day strike to underscore their demands for better pay. (The salary scales for professors in Palestine, which are modest, don't vary across institutions.) Faculty members in Israel have also been on strike. The faculty and student strikes may be related: one member of the Student Senate observed to me that the striking professors served as role models for the striking students.
I've not yet heard of a strike called by university staff members or administrators.
Recent student strikes have been called in response to both external and internal exigencies. Students struck to show their solidarity with those who were killed in Gaza before and after the recent rally, and with a Palestinian man who died at the Negev Detention Facility. (See 1, 2, and 3.) They also struck to protest what the Student Senate perceives to be Bethlehem University's too-strict policies on academic probation, dismissal, and related issues. (As I write, this second matter is being discussed among the faculty, the administration, and the Student Senate.)
To serve as a recognized channel of communication between students and University authorities.
To foster loyalty and concern for the University among the student body.
To enhance the students' sense of responsibility and leadership.
To promote good relations among the students, as well as between students and staff, and between students and the administration.
To encourage interest in academic affairs and to strive constantly to improve the image and reputation of the University as a center of scholastic excellence.
How well are these aims served by strikes? As a newcomer to Bethlehem University who's here for only one semester, I feel more comfortable asking this question than answering it. That said, I've been here long enough to recognize that, in their current form at least, these strikes may well contravene some of the above objectives. For example, while the current strike--which is staged in part to compel the administration to relax academic standards--certainly does "encourage interest in academic affairs," it appears to work against the desire "to improve the image and reputation of the University as a center of scholastic excellence." Moreover, given the number of students who have told me and other professors that they would prefer remaining in class to going on strike, does the Student Senate truly "represent the general student body"? Most importantly, what lessons about "responsibility and leadership" are being taught by these strikes?
Whether or not the strikes accord with the aims of the Student Senate, there's no denying the fact that when viewed within the context of the Israeli occupation they are at once entirely understandable and sadly, even tragically, ironic. Over the years, Bethlehem University students have been harrassed and humiliated by soldiers, curfews, checkpoints, book bans, tanks, missles, and the Separation Wall. During the first Intifada (1987-1990), when the Israeli Defense Forces closed the school, classes met in homes, hotels, churches, and mosques. Small wonder that these beleaguered students have turned to strikes as a means of both protest and self-empowerment. Yet the strikes have achieved the same result as the Israeli military's tactics: shutting down the University, and disrupting the teaching and learning that are crucial to the future of the Palestinian people.
I am not contending that the students here ought to remain quiescent and passive. Quite the opposite: they ought to become more vocal and active, for their independence of mind and spirit are jeopardized not only by the occupation, but also by the emphasis that Palestinian primary and secondary schools place on rote memorization as opposed to analysis and critical thinking. Surely, however, there's a better way for them to explore their power and find their voices than walking out of the classroom. What's more, when strikes are called it seems that only a minority of students assemble in solidarity or protest; most either socialize on campus or go home. The goals of the faculty, the administration, and especially the students might be better served if, instead of strikes, the Student Senate organized campus forums within which the entire Bethlehem University community could come together to discuss the issues that concern everyone here.
Whether Bethlehem University students are striking or rallying, they mix politics with music, dance, and even poetry. When I attended my first student rally in the campus auditorium, I was pleasantly surprised to witness not a series of speeches but a few relatively brief remarks interspersed among several energetic performances--by far the most striking of which was the Dabke, a traditional dance.
Students in traditional dress dance the Dabke in the Auditorium
Keffiyeh-wearing students dance the Dabke in the courtyard outside Millennium Hall
Having now observed two official rallies, together with some strike-related gatherings, I'm led to wonder how closely the hybrid and performative aspects of these events reflect those of Palestinian politics in general. In Palestine, can politics, culture, and performance be separated?
The songs and poems included in the rallies feature nationalistic themes, and the Dabke is rich with political significance: the word "Dabke" means "stomping of the feet," which act indicates the dancers'--and the people's--connection to the land. Performed by a stateless people as an exuberant reaffirmation of their folk traditions, the dance can't help but function as a powerful political statement. That the Student Senate's Secretariate includes a Secretary for Folklore also argues for a strong bond between Palestinian culture and politics.
Politics-as-performance is of course not unique to the Palestinians, as the clichés "world stage" and "political theater" demonstrate. Yet some political actors are more virtuosic than others, and Yasser Arafat was among the most accomplished. His carefully maintained costume--a keffiyeh arranged in a triangle to suggest the outlines of Palestine, a safari suit rather than a suit and tie to remind audiences of his military bona fides--certainly helped him to maintain his leading role in the Palestinian political drama. Like the founder of their party, the Fatah members who run the Student Senate and who organize the rallies appreciate the theatrical aspects of politics. Among the more striking features of their first rally of the academic year was the large and well-lit banner of Arafat that hung on the auditorium stage, serving as a backdrop for the performances there.
For more photos and videos from rallies staged by the Student Senate, see the photo album here, or use the photos tab at the top of the page.
On a map, Jerusalem is only about six miles northeast of Bethlehem. In reality, the distance between the two ancient cities is considerably greater. Indeed, divided as they are by the Separation Wall (a.k.a. the Security Barrier), they might as well be worlds apart.
In general, Palestinians who work or study in Bethlehem and live in Jerusalem (usually East Jerusalem, where the Arab population is concentrated) can move between these cities without too much difficulty, provided they present their identification cards and travel permits to the Israeli soldiers who guard the checkpoints. In contrast, most Palestinians who live in Bethlehem need special permission to enter Jerusalem and can do so only during holidays. (Mobility is restricted for Palestinians and Israelis alike, as Israelis--tour guides excepted--are typically not allowed to cross the checkpoints into Bethlehem.) Hearing that I was planning a trip to Jerusalem, several of Bethlehem University's faculty members and students expressed regret at not being able to accompany me on my first journey there, thus causing me to consider the privileged status conferred upon me by an American passport--which serves not only as my ticket into and out of the West Bank but also as the means whereby I can move within it, circumventing the barriers that block my colleagues and students from traveling freely through their homeland.
(Above: a checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, together with detailed views)
As a foreigner, I was able to take the #21 bus (which is actually a van) rather than the #124 from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, thereby saving myself considerable time and trouble by traveling around the Wall rather than through it. That said, the #21 still moves through established checkpoints and is subject to stops at "flying" (i.e., mobile and temporary) checkpoints. I boarded the van at a busy intersection in Bethlehem, paid the fare of five and a half shekels (under $1.50, and a bargain by American standards if not Palestinian ones), and began my trip to Jerusalem. I was admittedly anxious--about the checkpoints, about the soldiers, about not knowing precisely where the van was headed or exactly which route it would take to arrive there. I clutched a map of Jerusalem that I had ripped out of an issue of This Week in Palestine, which I consulted every ten minutes or so. It wasn't particularly detailed, but I had found and circled the Jaffa Gate and the Damascus Gate: two of the eight gates in the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, the former was my destination and the latter was where I could catch the van back to Bethlehem.
I was told the drive would take forty-five minutes or so (to travel about six miles, remember), and it ended up being just over an hour long. (I've learned that when traveling in this region it's wise to allow "extra" time for trips, whose lengths are always more-or-less difficult to determine in advance.) As we approached the checkpoint, I saw the words "Apartheid Wall" spray-painted on a barrier along the road (not the Wall proper) and the soldiers awaiting us. I put away my already-crumpled little map and pulled out my passport (which had become a sort of talisman), preparing for my first real encounter with a checkpoint. Technically, the first time I crossed a checkpoint was when Br. Neil drove me from the Tel Aviv airport into Bethlehem early in the morning; but that time doesn't count, as the young woman soldier barely glanced at his ID, didn't ask for mine, and waved us through the Wall without delay. This time would clearly be different.
As we slowed down, we passed a lone male soldier who (somewhat improbably, it seemed) waved at us and smiled cheerfully. I was a little reassured by his display of friendliness, and I relaxed a bit--only to become tense again when I spotted the other soldiers, none of whom were smiling and all of whom were shouldering semi-automatic weapons. We stopped alongside them, the driver opened the van door, and everybody--with the exception of a young man, his wife, and their baby--exited the van and formed a line. Because I had been sitting in the back of the van I was at the back of the line--and just as well, since I wanted to see what was in store for us. The passengers presented their IDs and permits, the unsmiling soldiers inspected and returned them, and everything proceeded in an orderly fashion until the soldiers began to question the man still sitting in the van. I had wondered why he and his family hadn't gotten out with the rest of us, but I figured perhaps they had a legitimate reason for not doing so (e.g., maybe the parents didn't want to awaken their baby). After some discussion in Arabic, the man (who seemed upset by what was being requested of him) stepped off the van and presented for the soldiers' scrutiny his and his wife's IDs, permits, and travel bag. This last was opened and searched quite thoroughly; fortunately, it contained nothing more dangerous than baby clothes and a can of formula.
At last my turn came, and a female soldier carefully inspected my passport. I tried greeting her with "Shalom" (one of the two Hebrew words in my vocabulary), but she was all business and didn't respond. (Later, I would be told that some women soldiers feel they have to be particularly tough in order to compare well with their male peers. I don't know whether or not this is true, but I do know that it's odd to see men and women who are young enough to be among my own students in positions of such responsibility.) After a minute or so she returned my passport, I boarded the van, and we were on our way. I had crossed my first real checkpoint, and the experience--while certainly somewhat nerve-wracking--wasn't as frightening as I had imagined it might be.
Since then I've gone through several checkpoints, and doing so has become almost routine--almost, but not quite. Even though I feel fairly secure with my magic passport in hand, I still worry about those traveling with me--and with good reason, as Palestinians do sometimes seek to enter and exit Jerusalem without permits. One evening this past weekend, I was taking the #21 from Jerusalem into Bethlehem and we were stopped at a "flying" checkpoint (my first). A group of soldiers motioned to the driver to pull over, and those who had been standing in the aisle (these vans sometimes admit more passengers than they can comfortably accommodate) stepped off the van, while those of us who were seated remained so as a soldier boarded to inspect our papers. When the van got going again, half a dozen passengers were left at the side of the road for further questioning, including one elderly woman. These were people without proper permits. I asked the driver what would happen to them, and he told me that they would most likely be released after signing a document indicating that they would never again attempt to travel illegally. As a colleague at Bethlehem University later explained to me, such documents are not taken particularly seriously by any of the parties concerned; but if a Palestinian is caught several times without a permit, he or she faces a hefty fine and at least a couple of months of jail time.
Keenly--and somewhat guiltily--aware that most Bethlehemites couldn't (legally) make the short trip to Jerusalem, I determined to see as much of the Old City as I could and to describe it for my students and colleagues who hadn't seen it in some time, if ever. With a decent map, I figured, surely I could cover a good deal of ground.
As it turned out, I was quite mistaken.
(Above: the wall outside the Jaffa Gate)
Some cities, such as New York and Chicago, are map-friendly; others, such as Boston and London, are not. Cities in the former category are organized into neat grids, and their streets are broad, straight, and well marked. Cities in the latter one are made up of narrower and more sinuous streets whose names, to the confused and anxious pedestrian or driver from out of town, transform without warning or logic.
Jerusalem is definitely not map-friendly.
(Above: the Jaffa Gate)
I learned this lesson shortly after arriving at the Jaffa Gate and finding my way to the Gloria Hotel in the Old City, Jerusalem's ancient and walled heart. The first sign that navigating Jerusalem would mean changing my perspective on getting around came in the form of my room key--not a plastic card but an actual key attached by a short chain to a sizable wooden disc with my room number carved into it. As if the key itself weren't sufficiently surprising, upon leaving the hotel to begin exploring the city I was told, to my astonishment, that I should leave said key upon (not behind) the front desk, where--so I noted anxiously to the man at the desk--anybody might snatch it up. He reassured me that someone would always keep watch over the key, and that leaving it on the desk would protect rather than endanger me, since doing so enabled the staff to know whether or not I was in the hotel. The notion that they would keep track of my comings and goings was at once unsettling and reassuring. I chose to be reassured, thought, "When in Jerusalem..." and left the key.
In return, the desk clerk offered me a tourist map of Jerusalem--i.e., one with the main streets and sights but without the smaller (and, as it happened, crucial) side streets. At the top was written "The Most Recent Map of Jerusalem." This title puzzled me. After all, how often could a map of a city this old require updating? I later discovered that not all maps of Jerusalem are equally accurate, since construction is constantly changing the face of the city. I was also told--and this bit of information was especially revelatory--that some maps elided streets in (Arab) East Jerusalem and focused on those in (Jewish) West Jerusalem, while others did precisely the reverse.
Maps of Jerusalem, it seems, are mutable--and they can conceal as much as they reveal.
My own little map soon proved to be entirely useless--worse than useless, actually, since it promised the world (or at least the Old City) and offered nothing. I realized this fact minutes after I entered one of the souks (markets) and found myself lost in a labyrinth that would have given Theseus pause. I repeatedly consulted the map, only to discover that none of the streets I was wandering down were listed on it. Again and again I retraced my steps and looked at the map, searching for any street or landmark that did happen to appear on it. All my efforts at orientation were in vain.
Ultimately, I threw the map away.
This desperate act--performed, I'll admit, in childish anger and frustration--turned out to be wonderfully liberating. Now at least I didn't even have to pretend I knew where I was going, and I could abandon myself to whatever the winding alleys held--which, as it happened, were all sorts of unexpected treasures. At one point I turned left instead of right (why not?), and I found myself in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I didn't recognize it as such, but the building looked interesting and so I walked in. As luck would have it, the Patriarch was there and I had arrived just in time to witness a lovely and elaborate ceremony.
A few hours and many sights, photographs, and videorecordings later, I wondered where the Gloria Hotel might be. (It was a minute's walk from the Jaffa Gate; but of course I had no idea where that was.) Resigned to finding it sooner or later, I continued walking--and, after reaching the end of a little market street full of merchandise both exotic and mundane--found myself standing in front of it.
Having abandoned the tourist map, I left Jerusalem with a less-organized but more-useful cognitive map, and with some important insights. Exploring the Old City without a map taught me to be patient, to relish the present moment, and to enjoy whatever experiences might present themselves--three lessons that are crucial to living well in the Middle East.
For photos of my wanderings through the Old City (I hope to add video soon), click the photos tab at the top of the page or click here.
When I was a boy in the 1970s, my father would spend hours sitting alongside his shortwave radio. He would turn the dial, tune-in to stations from the US and abroad, and listen to what we today would call "talk radio." Sometimes these programs were in Arabic, sometimes in English; more often than not, they upset him. I didn't understand the source of his agitation, though I had a vague notion that he was keeping up with the situation "back home" (as the senior members of my family called Palestine), and that things there weren't going well. What captured my childish imagination was not what came out of the radio but the object itself: I was transfixed by its shiny silver casing, its warmly glowing amber display, its multitude of knobs and switches.
Today, while communications technology still fascinates me (I'm likely to slip back into boyish delight and wonder when contemplating, say, a Blackberry Pearl or an iPhone), I'm a bit more interested in the contents of news and opinion about the Middle East than in their means of transmission. Now I not only understand but also share my father's past concern over events in this region--though, having been born near Los Angeles instead of Jerusalem and never having been forcibly displaced from my childhood home (unless I count the time my parents decided to move our family from Costa Mesa, CA to Grants Pass, OR), I see things somewhat differently from the way he did.
Still, now that I view the Middle East in close-up rather than long-shot, our perspectives are not as widely separated as they once were. I live within a two-minute walk of the gigantic, extensive, and graffiti-covered concrete structure that the Israelis call the Security Barrier and the Palestinians call the Separation (or Apartheid) Wall. I observe how events on the world stage can shape--and distort--the everyday lives of ordinary people. Most importantly, I witness the resilience and grace with which Bethlehemites confront their many and serious challenges.
And I watch the TV news.
Lately I've been following Condoleezza Rice's visit here, and Madonna's. I've also watched Tony Blair's first efforts to help revive the Palestinian economy--which, in Bethlehem at any rate, is moribund if not yet actually dead. The former prime minster's new job as the Quartet's Mideast liaison is at once appropriate and ironic, given the British government's long involvement and many missteps in Palestine--both of which are detailed in Tom Segev's highly informative and readable history, One Palestine, Complete. (For stories on Blair, the Quartet, and the planned November summit, look here and here; for one on the Palestinian economy, look here. Reports on economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza have recently been issued by the United Nations and the World Bank; for those commissioned by the latter, see 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.)
Watching the news on TV is, like so many aspects of life here, new to me. Back home--a phrase familiar from the past that carries new meaning in the present--I received my news not from the TV but from podcasts, the Web, and newspapers. Here, I've become a regular consumer of the BBC News and Al Jazeera English, the latter of which is approaching its first birthday. (For more information about Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English, see National Public Radio's On the Media and the documentary Control Room.) These two outlets might appear starkly different: the former venerable, the latter brand-new; the former staid, the latter edgy; the former quintessentially western, the latter just as thoroughly eastern. But in fact they're more alike than different; and what's most striking about comparing them is recognizing how dissimilar they can be from "mainstream" (especially network) American TV news, particularly in their coverage of the Middle East.
Two caveats and an explanation are in order. First, while I did edit my high-school newspaper and graduate from college with degrees in both English and communications, I'm certainly not an authority in either broadcast communications or journalism. I'm writing from personal experience and observation, not from scholarly expertise. Second, I wouldn't claim that TV news in the US never covers non-violent aspects of life in the Middle East--though I would contend that such coverage is relatively rare. Third, I'm writing about this topic not because I've been watching too much TV news, but because a number of the people here have expressed to me their concerns about how their lives are (mis)represented in the US media. At issue is education: what we're learning about them, and what they're learning about us.
Speaking of the latter, I believe that in general Arabs and Israelis understand a great deal more about Americans than we do about them, and that all of us would be better off if our understanding were more mutual. That said, misconceptions do exist on their side as well as on ours. For instance, a substantial minority of Arabs (including one well-educated man with whom I spoke last week) believe that the September 11 attacks were caused not by Islamist radicals but by the US and Israeli governments; and, unfortunately, recent research indicates that such misinformation is not easily corrected.
While 9/11 conspiracy theories are among the most dramatic instances of the knowledge gap between the West and the Middle East, more subtle but equally pernicious misunderstandings might be generated or exacerbated by the broadcast media--even within the West. Consider, for instance, a story that the BBC News aired shortly after I arrived in Bethlehem. The piece focused on the aftermath of the shootings at Virginia Tech, and as an American I found it startling. Following a report describing the Virginia governor's response to the massacre, the anchor addressed the questions apparently at the forefront of her (foreign) viewers' minds: why do Americans shoot one another with such alarming frequency, and how could such awful violence possibly occur at, of all unlikely places, a school?
I considered how alien US gun culture must be to the British, and how they would view the Virginia Tech tragedy--to say nothing of the one at Columbine. A few days later, I investigated the BBC News website and discovered an eye-opening question-and-answer session related to the Virginia Tech story that begins, "Why are shootings at educational institutions so common in the US?"
Caricatures of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as gun-toting cowboys, together with shoot-outs from countless American movies broadcast worldwide, sprang to mind. Suddenly I understood.
The Brits believe we're gun-crazy.
I wondered whether the Palestinians thought likewise. Surely these people--who, after all, have been known to shoot rifles into the air not in anger but in celebration--would understand the American affection for guns. The few I asked, however, were as baffled as the British by the events in Virginia and Columbine.
Food for thought, especially the next time you turn on the TV news and (again) see something on fire or being blown up in the Middle East.
It’s impossible to conceive of (never mind to live in) the Middle East without giving due consideration to subjects Americans tend to consider off-limits in polite conversation, viz. religion and politics. This past week, events at Bethlehem University have started me thinking about how these two hot-button topics relate to a third, (somewhat) less controversial one: education. On Thursday, September 6, these three areas came together as the University’s five-day International Religious Conference, Exploring Christian-Muslim Relations in the Middle East and the West, entered its second day in Millennium Hall while, in the nearby Auditorium, students rallied for the political party Fatah.
(Above: the conference poster outside Millennium Hall)
That these two events occurred simultaneously, within a few hundred yards of each other, at a Lasallian school signifies and underscores not only the importance of religion, politics, and education in this region, but also the often-close relationships among them.
These relationships, I’ve learned, are organized fairly predictably. Speaking very generally, Christian and Muslim Palestinians, students and faculty members alike, tend to see themselves as Palestinians first, as Christians or Muslims second, and as students or teachers third. None of these identities is at odds with the others; indeed, the three tend to support one another. Aspirations for a Palestinian state mesh seamlessly with Christian and Muslim ideals of social justice, and education is seen as the primary means whereby such statehood might be achieved and such ideals realized.
(Above: a courtyard on the day of the Fatah rally)
Religion, politics (or, more accurately, governmental objectives), and education are also linked in ways that might surprise Americans. (1) The government’s curriculum determines the offerings of both public and private schools; (2) although private schools are typically founded and run by religious orders, these schools aren’t considered “religious” in the way Americans might think of, say, Catholic schools as “religious”; (3) religion—and by “religion” I mean only Christianity and Islam, as other faiths seem to be elided here—is taught in both public or “government” schools and private schools.
Moreover, religion is included in the Tawjihi, an exam somewhat similar to the American SAT or ACT that Palestinian students seeking to pursue post-secondary education are required to take. (Until this year the Tawjihi covered only Islam, as Christians of various sects couldn’t agree on how precisely to add their respective theologies to the test; but now that an agreement among them has been reached the Tawjihi will also cover Christianity.)
The educational system here is rather complex, and I’m only beginning to understand it. Please research it for yourself by following the blog’s many links to the websites of schools, news and opinion outlets concerned with education, and governmental agencies. A good starting point would be statistical data on Palestinian education, which are available here.
In an upcoming posting I plan to discuss politics on campus, and to describe the Fatah rally—which was quite memorable, and which I very much enjoyed. For now I’ll end where I began, with the recent conference on Christian-Muslim relations. It was perfectly placed and timed: although Bethlehem University is a Catholic institution, approximately 70% of its students are Muslims; Ramadan has just begun; and Christmas, the high point of the tourist season in Bethlehem, is only a few months away. Surveying the city from the University’s hilltop campus, I see a landscape dotted with both minarets and spires, and I hear the call of the muezzin mingling with the tolling of church bells. Here Christian-Muslim relations are much more than an academic subject; they inform everyday life, and their cordiality is a model of inter-religious harmony that the rest of the world would do well to follow.
What most impressed me about the conference were the presentations by Bethlehem University students, both Christians and Muslims, who described in striking and personal terms their experiences with members of the other faith. Within the next week or two, I hope to add the texts of those presentations to the blog. You may read about them here, visit the conference website here, and explore an overview of the conference here.