if prison is a university, is a university a prison?

Just to be clear upfront: I don’t really think that a university is a prison. But I have been thinking about this a lot because of a few things that I’ve been noticing among my students. It seems that many of my students are anxious about their first exam, which is coming up next week. At first this fear seemed to be couched in Ramadan excuses; as if all of us who are fasting are not also dealing with less sleep, less food and still managing to work. But then I realized what it was yesterday when one student revealed to me that she had not read either play yet: I suspect that she is not the only one. Aside from the fact that I think that students who are not fluent in a foreign language should probably not be taking literature courses–especially when they are required to study literary texts that are difficult for native speakers. What was disturbing to me was that she, as well as some other students, saw that it was difficult and just gave up. There was no evidence on the page that the play had even been engaged with at all–except for those passages we discussed in class. (NOTE: This student, after sharing with her many of the ideas expressed here today, just came to my office to show me that she spent five hours reading the first play last night and she is ready to go home and read the second one tonight. She has since become motivated and inspired.)

The student who confessed that she has not been reading yesterday is, like all my students here, very engaged in class, motivated to be there, delightful to be around. The other day the same student was in my office complaining about the reading again, but also Huwara checkpoint. She, like many of my students, must cross this checkpoint to and from school every day. As I have mentioned on many other occasions: this is the worse checkpoint in Palestine. She was speaking of a day about a week ago when it was closed down and students were effectively cut off from their university (as was everyone else from everything else). So I asked her why didn’t she use the time to read? It was as if I had asked her, “why don’t you travel to Mars?” To me it seemed rather logical: if the Israeli Terrorist Forces (ITF) are going to deny you your right to education by cutting you off from your educational institution, then you should resist that by using the checkpoint as a space of education. Of studying.

Of course thinking about this was in part informed by Ghassan Kanafani, my favorite writer, who stated, as quoted in Barbara Harlow’s Resistance Literature: “‘If resistance springs from the barrel of a gun, the gun itself issues from the desire for liberation and that desire for liberation is nothing but the natural, logical and necessary product of resistance in its broadest sense: as refusal and as a firm grasp of roots and situations.’ For Kanafani the ‘extreme importance of the cultural form of resistance is no less valuable than armed resistance itself'” (11). (To be sure, we can find the same important sentiment in the writings of Chinua Achebe, Frantz Fanon, among many others.) But whether or not Kanafani only practiced resistance in the form of reading, writing, education, painting (famously called the “commando who never fired a gun”) what we can learn from this martyr, assassinated by ITF (Mossad) in Beirut in 1972. We can say that his example of the value of resisting was not in vain. Indeed: why is it that Zionists are so terrified of Palestinian writers that they go to great lengths–cross international borders–to assassinate them? Why was it that until Oslo, when the Palestinian Authority was created, that literature representing Palestinian humanity, suffering, history, culture was banned? I spent last weekend doing research at the Al Haq library in Ramallah on Israeli Military Order 101 of 1967. This law stated, among other things that any person “who has in his possession or his control or in premises of which he is the occupier, any publication prohibited under this regulation or who posts, delivers or receives any such prohibition, shall be guilty of an offense against these regulations.” The law came with a list of over 1,000 authors and titles, including poets and novelists like Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish, Ghada Saman, Fadwa Touqan, Ibrahim Nasrallah. Other literary works from other countries–such as Christopher Marlow–were banned, too. Of course, anything related to Palestinian, Arab, or Islamic history, culture, philosophy was banned. This law was later expanded to include a provision which made it illegal to possess any publication int he West Bank without a permission from the Israeli military authorities. Indeed, one of the writers on the list is a poet named Sami Kilani, from Nablus, who was arrested in his village of Ya’abad, in 1983 for publishing a collection of poetry entitled A New Promise to Iz al-Din Al Qassam.

This censorship meant that for many decades most Palestinians had to smuggle literature and books into the country and hide them once inside. I have heard so many beautiful stories from Deheishe refugee camp about people digging a new foundation to build a new house and in the process a pile of books is discovered from the days when hiding books meant saving one’s life. Or stories of friends who spent their twenties in Israeli prisons, which most of my friends call their “university” as this is the place where they were educated. Because Palestinians are always political prisoners there is a wide cross-section of the population in the prisons. There are professors in the prisons, for instance. And especially during the first intifada, when most of my friends, who are of my generation, spent time in Israeli prisons their time was used very rigidly to ensure people’s education on a number of subjects. Book banning applied to Palestinian political prisoners, too, but one way people got around it was by having people on the outside send letters in which pages of poems, novels, histories were sent inside, handwritten. That way, little by little, Palestinians were able to read texts that were banned.

Given these contexts, I wonder why it is, or rather how it is, that a history of valuing reading, writing, education not only because Palestinians have been denied access, but also because Palestinians like Kanafani was assassinated for his writing, was censored for fear that others would read his words; or that Darwish was imprisoned for his writing. Is it possible to consider the risks of reading, writing, of educating oneself–of seeing that as empowerment–in a way that honors the memories of the martyrs as well as the memories of those who spent time in the prisons?

I am thinking that if we had some of the prisoners who have returned from jail–especially those who have been there the longest–lecturing at Palestinian universities about the ways they value education and knowledge that we could inspire our students and let them see that this, too, is part of resistance, part of the struggle.

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