We were not in the West Bank solely to visit villages and cities; the main reason for our groups stay was to teach English classes at Al-Najah University in Nablus. As one with no teaching experience and a low responsibility threshold this was probably the most nerve-wracking part of our entire trip.
We were housed in University accommodation, about five minutes away from the main campus by bus. Every morning we would breakfast across the road before entering via a metal detector-surrounded doorway at the entrance. Walking to our rendezvous area we would always be greeted by students. We mostly stuck out like sore thumbs but in general this could be any campus in the world, full of the usual activity and relaxed atmosphere one would expect. The students rarely appeared different in manner or appearance, aside from dark complexion and that maybe one in three of the girls were veiled.
The buildings themselves are impressive, white stone everywhere, surrounding gardened social areas and a large outdoor amphitheatre. Many of these tall buildings bear a dedication on the wall, usually to some Sultan or other from one of the Gulf States who has donated it. A supposedly altruistic gift that potentially has rich rewards for them. With half the world’s Palestinians living abroad, largely in Arab states, it makes sense to contribute to Palestinian higher education. With the prospects here so low, the students who work in them may well end up planning and engineering building projects in those generous nations, at lower pay of course.
The University’s appearance is too pristine and ordered to give a full impression of its often turbulent history. Founded as a school in 1918 it slowly evolved up to become the University in 1977. It continued to grow in size and importance despite setbacks, such as the deportation of fifteen professors in 1982, but became a focal point of the Intifada in 1988 when, due to the prominence of Nablus in the uprising, and heavy politicisation amongst students, it was closed by Israeli military orders. Education continued in secret in and around the University despite constant attack and attempts to break up meetings, until the University was finally reopened in 1991. Not that this brought any peace here as only the next year the University was itself under siege for four days with 4,000 students and staff inside it, a confrontation caused by the demand for deportation of University election winners.
Since then a relative peace has existed around the University, now educating over 20,000 students. The atmosphere of disruption and uncertainty that tainted many of their lives due to the conflict was what had motivated exchange programmes like ours. It largely consisted of teaching two English classes per day for a week, more or less the same lesson for each separate class. These lessons would take place in the afternoon, one after the other, leaving the mornings and evenings free to view the city of Nablus as well as visit the various sites around the West Bank. The second class would usually be less full than the first, as many students had to go home early to avoid trouble getting back via checkpoints if they lived outside the city.
Planning the classes proved to be more difficult than anticipated, quite foreseeable considering many of us had no experience of teaching anything. We were separated into pairs and placed in charge of a certain area of learning English to specialise in. Some groups took Basic English, for students with little or no knowledge of the language, and the classes advanced upwards from there, although sometimes there were overflows between groups due to numbers, so advanced classes could have one or two students who barely spoke any English. As my pair were taking Communication Skills this could make things difficult but not impossible. Often I would find myself floundering and stalling for time, standing isolated in a circle of chairs. All of our students had come here voluntarily to learn so our responsibility felt as heavy as the heat.
Our curriculum consisted a lot of activities designed to promote confidence in one’s use of English, as well as how to write CV’s, hold an interview and understand Western cultural etiquette. This field proved particularly revealing, with its fair share of culture clash and misunderstandings. My attempts to explain how one should deal with a Western policeman if necessary were accepted with some confusion. Probing further I found that the concept of being read ones rights or being given a reason for arrest were alien concepts here. Assuming they meant this was the case for military arrests I asked about civil police instead, only to be informed that they largely made arrests on behalf of the Israeli army.
Our class were otherwise loath to discuss politics. While some were quite passionate about it many preferred to avoid the subject. The most advanced group in the course were studying journalism, having grasped English well and focussing on this specific application. This class focussed much on effects of the media and how to apply oneself in the modern age of journalism. I was often informed by their teacher of their passion, going so far as to set up a blog to voice their opinions, ranging from local recipes to essays challenging the world’s view of their people. In the case of at least one student this passion was founded in tragedy. Near the end of the project he approached his teacher, revealing to him how when he was young his mother was murdered near a checkpoint, shot in the forehead, along with another man, by an Israeli soldier. According to around thirty witnesses, both had their hands in the air at the time. With the experience from this course he hoped to tell her story to more people outside Palestine than a few young internationals.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the trip and often more scary than any other moment there, teaching a group of students my age and older in a decent University gave a new angle to this nation. One of potential, but potential that could easily be stolen away by self-interested states, or pinned down by the tragedy behind and surrounding it.
Written by Giles Longley-Cook