My Visit to Nablus - by Professor Luke Hodgkin

I’ve just returned from a visit of three weeks to the university of An-Najah in Nablus, Palestine; and these are some reflections on my time there.

Volunteers on the An-Najah campus

I applied to volunteer at An-Najah on the advice of Aimee Shalan of Fobzu; she advised me to contact Dr Alaa Abu Dheir, the organizer of volunteer programmes at An-Najah; and this was a very good choice. Alaa was friendly and welcoming. We agreed that I’d visit from 28th March to 21st April. I had some general impression that I’d help students who wanted to apply for graduate programs and (perhaps) do a bit of informal teaching.

From day 1, I found Alaa to be an extraordinarily impressive man. The programme which he runs from An Najah’s Public Relations Office, with a staff of about three and half a dozen student volunteers, runs an ambitious series of talks, exhibitions, and visits for the benefit of students. He seems to be always at work, always available; he and his second-in-command Afnan al-Sayyed combine to solve problems for students as well as for visiting volunteers and make the office a place where the visitor feels at home and looked after. I don’t know much of the rest of An-Najah, but the Public Relations office is a good advertisement for it.

In particular they planned a ‘camp’ for students interested in learning/improving their English starting on the 12th of April, and I suspect that from early on my main value was seen to lie in connection with this camp. On day 2, I gave  a semi-autobiographical talk on my life, voluntary work and mathematics; and about a fortnight later I took part in a question-and-answer session on voluntary work with another teacher. For the first fortnight, I found myself put to work testing the ‘level’ of English language in brief interviews with students who wanted to attend the ‘camp’.

From my experience of voluntary work, you’re unlikely to get what you expected; you do what’s asked and hope you enjoy it. This was true of the interviews. I hope that I did a satisfactory job of sorting the students by English ability; but since I was speaking to a series of them about their lives, their plans, their interests, I was able to learn something of the Nablus students. I found that almost all of them – particularly, of course, those whose English was above average – were lively, interesting, well-informed about the world and with open and liberal opinions. I developed a very good opinion of the an-Najah students as a whole; and a personal attachment to some of  those who worked as volunteers in the Public Relations office (between exams and classes). We’d go together to attend lectures and exhibitions; I have a particularly good memory, surprisingly, of a tour of Nablus factories which illustrated the causes of industrial health and decline in the area.

When the international volunteers who were the teaching staff of the camp arrived, the programme shifted gear. There were half a dozen of us, all young except me. Sometimes we’d attend arranged talks (on the Arab Spring, on political prisoners), sometimes we’d go on arranged excursions. Short ones to the old city and the big refugee camp in Balata, a longer one to Qalqiliya, a local town entirely surrounded by the separation wall.

I can’t say how impressed I was by the variety, range and thoughtfulness of Alaa’s plans for the students and volunteers. They brought in issues, social and political. If most of these related to the occupation it’s because that is a major defining condition of life for people in Nablus, although in varying degrees. They may have to go to lectures through the Huwwara checkpoint (sometimes closed); or, in an extreme case, have their family home taken over by settlers; or, like many of my friends, live a relatively comfortable family life in downtown Nablus. They are affected by it, and it good that we were told about it at a variety of levels – about what you can and can’t do in Oslo’s zones A, B and C of the West Bank and about the law’s ability to deal with human rights abuses.

In the afternoon, we’d take part in informal conversation classes, sitting outside, two volunteers and ten students. (The Nablus ‘old’ campus is an attractive one, if rather steep for me – modern, with steps and gardens.) I hope the students gained from them; again, I never stopped learning. 

The fact that I hardly spoke Arabic at all was a constant cause of regret for me, since it is so much – more I think than in Bethlehem, where I’ve previously spent time – the language in which everything is transacted. Alaa of course and my student guides were fluent speakers of English, and anxious to learn more. But I was sorry to miss, inevitably, so much of the content of their everyday conversations. Among things I learned from our interaction I’d include the variety of backgrounds among the students – some poor (from the refugee camps usually) some from families in Israel (e.g. Nazareth), the Gulf or even Italy. And I learned the unanimity with which they gave their national identity as Palestinian – which was not about the so-called Palestinian state as it’s currently defined, but about the history, about conflict, and about this specific land – Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus. They all are convinced of its beauty, and they have a point – Nablus is spectacular in particular.

I left Nablus with deep and affectionate memories, and with renewed invitations to return. In these days of Facebook, I’ve acquired more than a dozen ‘friends’ and so expect to have updates on what they are doing. If you’re considering spending time abroad in an academic framework, I strongly recommend an-Najah as an exciting and rewarding environment. But try to find out what you’re expected to do, and put in more time on spoken Arabic.

4 May 2016