A brief history of Fobzu

A Personal Memoir by the Reverend Deacon Doctor Duncan Macpherson

A chance encounter in the streets of the old city of Jerusalem led to a enduring friendship with Bir Zeit University. In 1981, I was following a short course on “The Palestine of Jesus” at Saint George’s College in Jerusalem. Walking in the Muslim quarter of the Old City in the dizzy atmosphere that follows nightfall during Ramadan, I was invited first to take coffee with a shop keeper and then to enter the home of the shopkeeper’s friend and neighbour, Hazem Qutteneh, a student at Bir Zeit University who asked me if I would like visit Bir Zeit.

Some days later I was brought to the old campus in Bir Zeit village and introduced to Albert Aghazarian who was responsible for public and international affairs. We talked about the possibility of bringing students from Saint Mary’s College (now Saint Mary’s University College) where I taught, to participate in at a Bir Zeit international summer camp. I then asked if I could bring a group in January or February of 1982.

Helped by the generosity of a charitable trust, a group of 33 students and teachers eventually set off from Heathrow. But we learned that the day before our departure the University had experienced its third closure order. The ad hoc programme that followed was an eye-opening experience, leading to several years of exchange visits between Saint Mary’s and the Bir Zeit students.

In 1983 and 1985 Albert and I organised tours by Bir Zeit dancers bringing dabkeh to universities throughout the length of England and Scotland and even across the North Sea to student audiences in Amsterdam and Bremen. My colleague and friend the late Father Michael Prior contributed his own unique dynamism to these expeditions, serenading us on the guitar with Palestinian patriotic songs freshly translated into Irish!   

I was soon co-opted onto the committee of the Friends of Bir Zeit University, a British Charity established in 1979 by the redoubtable Eleanor Aitkin and headed up Roger Hardy. I became the chair of the charity and, over the years, largely thanks to some superb coordinators, Fobzu went from strength to strength, successfully obtaining corporate funding for University projects, organising visits, recruiting for work camps and engaging in advocacy for academic freedom in Palestine. After 20 years I resigned as chair and have since become one of Fobzu’s academic patrons. I am delighted to still to be associated with an organisation based on genuine friendship and solidarity with a university which, alongside other Palestine universities, has been preserved learning and national pride in the face of the relentless pressure of Israeli military occupation.