on knowledge

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there are so many challenges here on a daily basis. this is, of course, in addition to the challenges of living in a place that is invaded daily by israeli terrorists and increasingly by their collaborating partners in the palestinian authority. some of the challenges are good. for instance, in my postcolonial literature class this week my students had read an excerpt of edward said’s culture and imperialism. i love teaching this class, especially here, but it is always so disheartening to be confronted with my students’ gaps in knowledge. i talked about how european colonialism (and now, of course, american imperialism) uses culture as a way to justify its colonial rule and as a way to prove its superiority. said uses the example of edmund spencer’s the fairie queen, which helped to justify england’s colonial project in ireland. i asked them to think about what said says in relation to this superiority as it always comes with subjugation of indigenous culture. i asked my students to think about this in relation to their studies here. my students, who study literature in english, have been taught that shakespeare is somehow superior to abu nuwas. when i mentioned the numerous artistic achievements in arab and islamic civilization, over the course of centuries, they seemed shocked. i still can’t get over this, but they did. apparently they are not only missing out on palestinian history and culture in their educational system, but also ancient arab and islamic culture. and, of course, no one has told them–until they read said’s chapter–that all of this so-called great literature and culture in europe originated in egypt and came to europe by way of greece, a fact that was conveniently erased by europeans in the 19th century as yet another way for them to rationalize their imperialism across the globe. but my students didn’t learn this in school. and, equally problematic, they do not seek it out on their own. one student told me the other day that she watches lbc television and she asked me if all lebanese people, especially women, are just like what she sees on that channel. i thank god that this is so far from the truth, but again, what disturbs me is that although she has also watched al manar or al jadeed somehow she has not synthesized the information in a way as to get a more complete picture of the complex society that exists in lebanon. moreover, why doesn’t such curiosity lend itself to reading some of the amazing poetry or novels by lebanese authors to give her a more diverse picture? i mean, this is what literature majors should do. or at least what i wish they would do.

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this challenge–to help my students learn about and value the awesomeness of the history and culture in this region–is one that i welcome. i am happy to share such knowledge with my students. and indeed it seems to me that they are eager to learn these things. but other challenges i do not find welcome like when i taught lorraine hansberry’s a raisin in the sun in my drama class this week. when i write a syllabus–especially here–i spend hours, if not weeks, searching for the perfect texts to teach. i have so many things i must balance. first and foremost i want texts that will inspire my students to read. to want to read for class and to want to read beyond the class assignments. second, i have to find texts that will be accessible to non-native speakers (which also means i have to pay attention to length). third, i have to make sure that a text is compatible with/respectful to islam. this means, for instance, that my postcolonial literature class contains no novels by women as i cannot find any that do not deal with sex and sexuality. this is a time consuming process to say the least. but it is usually rewarding. one of the plays i wanted to teach this semester is a raisin in the sun because of the themes of poverty and racism, of family, and of the freedom to live where one wants to live. i choose texts, too, with themes that resonate with my students here, with the context in palestine. so i had wanted them to see such parallels in this play. after class on wednesday, one of my students–who took this class from me last semester and failed–came up to complain that there is sex in the play. i said, of course there is no sex in this play; there are a couple of kisses between a man and a woman who are married. and islam actually celebrates sexuality within marriage–far more so than any other monotheistic religion. he told me that the play is 7aram. that i should not be teaching this play here. after our argument about this several other students stayed after class to tell me how much they loved the play and were happy that i shared it with them. but i couldn’t help but feel disturbed by his reaction. aside from the fact that there is decidedly nothing 7aram in this play, fixating on two kisses which compromise about 1% of the play, if that, means that he missed the larger point of the play. but also: what plays don’t have kissing. shakespeare? his plays are far more bawdy than this play. but also this suggests to me not that this student is a scholar of islam and has some particular problem with the representations in the play. rather, i feel that this has more to do with resisting education. with being open to new ideas. when you couple this with the horrendous gaps in the education system here, i become very disturbed.

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i needed some kind of an antidote to all of this. a dose of reality. so after school yesterday i headed over to balata refugee camp. when i was in lebanon i got a stack of 17 village books and i’ve been photocopying them and giving them to libraries and refugee camp cultural centers here. these village books are amazing. they are created in palestinian refugee camps in lebanon, jordan, and syria. they are done by people from and about their original villages in 1948 palestine. they are incredibly detailed with maps marking water wells, where weddings were celebrated, everything about village life. there are title deeds reproduced, photographs, as well as the history of these villages. one thing i love about them is that the people who do them do not take any money or support from any political faction. these village books are entirely independent. this project has not really been done here–not by people from the villages, although some scholars have attempted to do this work. but it isn’t the same. these are precious oral historical texts that are unlike anything else. and indeed they were received as precious gifts, as gems. knowledge is welcome there. desired, required. though there are limitations there, too, like everywhere else.

one of my students from balata is working on her research paper about palestinian resistance. she gave me a draft to read the other day. it was not at all a research on palestinian resistance. it was a glorification of fatah and its resistance. i told her–as i tell all my students–that research means you have to be willing to interrogate a subject, even one that is dear to your heart. you have to explore various points of view and question all of them. i told her she needs to read yezid sayigh’s armed struggle and the search for state, which is the bible on the subject. yet another barrier to knowledge here: the glorification of particular leaders and the unwillingness to see faults and learn from mistakes.

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when i got home i received a happy call from my dear friend areej who was in ramallah. she called to say she was on her way to nablus with a friend. i was so overjoyed to see her, not because i think she is one of the most amazing women i know. but also because i admire her so much: her desire to always learn, read, understand, know. she is always reading, always wanting to know more about palestine and everything else. this is what most of my close friends are like here, but i have not met enough people in nablus who are like this. i met her downtown and we went out to dinner at my new favorite restaurant, saleem offendi. it’s a bit hard to find as there are no signs, but it is a stunning old nabulsi home that has been renovated. after dinner we went out for knafe, because you cannot come to nablus without eating knafe. but it was late and a lot of the knafe shops were closed. we found one on the verge of closing. their doors were open, but they were out of knafe. these first four photographs explain what happened next. areej’s friend had never had knafe so of course they couldn’t send us home. instead they made us coffee and invited us into the kitchen to show us how they make knafe. i had never seen it made from scratch before so this was a great treat. and to top it off he made us a valentine’s knafe with pistachio heart on top.

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we woke up to amazingly beautiful weather today, which was welcomed after intense thunder storms this week and really cold temperatures. after areej went back to deheishe refugee camp, i went to my new friend and colleague abdel sattar qasim’s house for lunch. we spent a lovely afternoon on his veranda enjoying the warm sunlight and his beautiful garden that is just beginning to show some blossoms on the almond and peach trees. he showed me around the neighborhood and the amazing view as he lives on one of the highest mountains in nablus. i asked him about that 60 minutes episode with bob simon a few weeks ago–specifically about the house that israeli terrorists occupy and take over, holding the family hostage on a regular basis. and that house happens to be directly next door to his house. and indeed you can see over the city from this mountain, though not really the old city. this is why they invade regularly. and the israeli terrorists graced us with their presence while we were out on the veranda (see photos above/below). they invaded for about an hour mostly, it seems, to observe what was going on in the city below. even a beautiful, almost-spring day they must disrupt. but in spite of this i had an amazing time and a delicious meal.

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abdel sattar qasim is, unfortunately, a rare kind of person. he is someone whose politics are pure. he believes in the liberation of palestine. he refuses to belong to any political party. he supports all forms of resistance. and as a result of his outspokenness on the subject he has been in and out of israeli colonist and palestinian jails. in fact, i found out later today that my dear friend ziad was in an israeli colonist prison with him and abdel sattar was his teacher there. he taught ziad to speak english in the jail. ziad–another one of my friends whom i deeply admire–is someone who loves to call his time in prison “the university.” and he is like a few of my friends who are my age and who are now pursuing their education because when they were younger they were in the resistance and/or in jail. but their desire for knowledge was never eclipsed.

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i could listen to abdel sattar speak forever. the way he describes the factionalization of palestine. the way he longs for a palestinianization of education and life here. the way he is completely unwilling to normalize with israeli colonists and the way he is completely unwilling to give up on liberating 100% of palestine. he is one of the rare people who has not sold out. and yet as a consequence he is alternately labeled in the media here as either an israeli collaborator or as hamas. it seems people cannot handle the fact that he is an independent thinker and actor; they want to affix a label to him. before the madrid conference the american ambassador wanted him to attend the conference that led to normalization and that killed the more unified liberation struggle. he refused. even the israeli colonial governor commanded that he go and he said he’d prefer prison. and before that he went to lebanon in the 1970s to join the resistance and even then found that the various factions did not meet his high standards. and he wrote about this–he has written numerous books. he wrote then–i think in 1979–a book about how yassir ‘arafat had been serving the interests of americans and israelis, which is what we saw when they agreed to leave lebanon as a prelude to the massacre of palestinians in the shatila refugee camp and the surrounding neighborhood of sabra; this israeli-kata’eb massacre was made possible by the evacuation of all the freedom fighters. he has so many other specific examples of fatah coordinating with the israeli colonial and american masters, especially the way in which whenever it seems like they are losing favor among the people they attack the pa or fatah or ‘arafat (think the muqat’a in 2002). this, in the end, makes it possible for people to consolidate their support for the pa. he read so much and has experienced so much. and he has written so much. his books are bestsellers here. and yet his critiques of fatah and ‘arafat and of the palestinian authority have not had an effect; i wish they would. his voice is so badly needed, but this educational system in place here, which serves the needs of the pa (think louis althusser’s ideological state apparatus) keeps people in the dark. indeed, it so much easier to rule over a people made ignorant. but it is more than this, too. the salaries fatah gives to people here are like bribes. so many families cannot live without that money and if you speak out against fatah or the pa your salary disappears. it’s like hush money. it maintains the status quo. i could go on and on. i hope that he takes a break from writing his political science books and writes a memoir because his life sheds so much light on all of these themes and i think he is such a role model.

3 thoughts on “on knowledge

  1. This was great to read, like I was almost there. I especially like reading the descriptions of your interactions with students, the choices in teaching materials, their reactions, the limitations and the quest to gain further knowledge. Also, this is the first time I have ever heard about “knafe” (I wonder if anyone makes it in Montreal, I’ll have to check). Just to learn a bit more: is it a sweet, dessert-like item, or is it more of a kind of pizza (which is what it slightly resembles in the photos)?

    Many thanks again, keep safe please.

    1. thank you. i realized just now that i wrote about knafe assuming my readers would know what this famous nabulsi sweet is! it definitely looks like a pizza, but it is nothing like one in terms of taste. it is very, very sweet for one thing. the top of the knafe (which is cooked on the bottom and then flipped over after it has been browned) is made of semolina. and while the semolina is browning (in ghee) the cheese on top is melting. the cheese is a mix of goat and cow cheese, but i don’t know the precise name of it, but it is nothing like the sort of cheeses used in other deserts like ricotta. and frankly i have never found this precise kind of cheese anywhere else. even in jordan where many nabulsis live and own knafe shops, the cheese used in knafe is quite different. sometimes it seems as though people are using something like a mozarella cheese. so the right cheese is essential. after it is flipped over a syrup is poured on top and then it pistachios are added. there are other versions of knafe, but this is the traditional one. it could be available in montreal, but i don’t know. i think it is far better to arrange a trip to nablus and eat the real thing at some point in the future!

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