Saturday, May 29, 2010
Al Quds University
Today we started out to see the Al Aqsa mosque, only to discover that it is closed to tourists on Saturdays! Dr. Shafiq tried his best to negotiate an exception to the rule, but negotiating with the Israeli police doesn’t work. So we stopped in the Arab quarter of the old city for Turkish coffee, and spent some time shopping before heading to the West Bank town of Abu Dis where Al Quds University is located.
Al Quds is a Palestinian university and it is very impressive. Nazareth College has recently negotiated an agreement with them for academic and cultural exchange and so when we arrived the ceremonial signing of that agreement was the first order of business. Then we were privileged to meet with students in the American Studies program who were there for classes. In the class I was in there were a number of students who are employees of the Palestinian government, who are studying in this particular program because they believe that an understanding of American culture and politics is critical for them in their jobs. Susan asked them what they think of America and Americans and one student, a woman who spoke fluent English, was quite frank in saying that for Palestinians, Americans are equated with Israelis because of the political and economic and military support that the US gives to Israel. She stated bluntly that most Palestinians equate the US with Israel, and Israel is most definitely the “enemy” in the eyes of Palestinians. Remember that these students live in the West Bank so they live daily with checkpoints, restrictions on movement within the West Bank, separate roads, permits required to go to Jerusalem which are routinely denied or, if granted, often ignored by soldiers at the checkpoints. Despite the difficult and oppressive conditions under which they live these Palestinians are very serious about education because they truly believe it is essential if they are to improve their lives and the lives of their children.
After our classroom experience we toured two museums that are on the university campus. One is a tribute to Palestinians who have been imprisoned in Israeli jails. That was an amazing exhibit as it chronicled the journey of those who are arrested by the IDF and imprisoned. For Palestinian families, it is normal for the men in the family to spend some time in an Israeli prison. An amazing section of the exhibit showcased the beautiful artwork that the prisoners do while in prison. In order to get the materials they need to do the artwork they have to go on a hunger strike, but apparently, when they do, they can negotiate these art supplies and the work they produce is spectacular. I’ve included a picture of a model of the Dome of the Rock that a prisoner made while in an Israeli jail. We then toured the Math museum and that was great fun.
We enjoyed lunch with the students in a local restaurant where we had a chance for more informal conversation. Most of us came away with great respect for these folks who are working so very hard to gain an education while holding down full time jobs in a place where life is very, very difficult. I participated in a lively discussion with a young woman who is an oral surgeon, currently doing her master’s in American Studies and who spoke quite eloquently about her issues with Israelis and her dismay at what she considers their complete ignorance of Palestinians and Palestinian culture. I’ve included a picture of her at lunch.
In the evening, after a couple of hours of shopping in the Old City, we went to the home of Dr. Mohammad Darjani a professor of American Studies at Al Quds. His home is beautiful, and just inside the Separation Wall between the West Bank and Jerusalem. He spoke to us about his work with Muslim clergy and the Muslim establishment, not only in Palestine but throughout the Middle East to promote the concept of “wasatia” which is a Muslim version of “the middle way” or moderation. He gave us an incredibly thorough lecture parsing out verses in the Qur’an and the Hadiths of the Muslim tradition that can lend themselves to a moderate, pluralist position towards other faiths, particularly Judaism and Christianity. I was fascinated to watch him doing what the theologians that I most often teach have done within the Christian tradition, which is to find a theological basis for an attitude of openness to other religions, particularly the other two Abrahamic faiths. He also shared with us a lecture he does all over the world called Big Dreamz and Small Hope which was truly brilliant as an analysis of the two competing narratives in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and of an approach that gets around the competition to the possibility of shared hope for peace. It was a superb lecture and I hope to find it on his website and spend more time going through it slowly. He then offered us dinner, which was a traditional bedoin meal of tabouli and a delicious beef dish in a cheese sauce with rice. We finally rolled out of his house at 10, exhausted, but intellectually and physically fully nourished. I’ve posted Dr. Darjani’s picture also as he was talking to us on his balcony overlooking the city.
Tomorrow we’re going to try to get to the Al Aqsa Mosque again before leaving for the airport. We move on to Istanbul tomorrow afternoon.