Principal Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies at Coventry University, Professor Marwan Darweish discusses Fobzu, Palestinian education and preserving Palestinian heritage
Last month you retired from Fobzu’s Board of Trustees after almost a decade as a board member. What made you decide to become a Fobzu Trustee in the first place?
I had been active in the Palestinian struggle for national liberation for many years. When I moved to the UK I wanted to continue to contribute in a way that best used my skills and experience. I joined Fobzu because I deeply believe in the right of education for the Palestinians, their right to write their own history and to speak out about the Israeli oppression that they face. Fobzu brings opportunities and hope for many Palestinian students to continue their higher education and contribute to the building of their society. I also felt that Fobzu is a good organisation to lobby and advocate on behalf of the Palestinians for their right to access to education. It is a small contribution that I can make while I am living in the UK.
For many years you have worked in the academic field of peace and conflict studies, writing on popular unarmed resistance in Palestine and peacebuilding, among other topics. What are you currently researching?
My research addresses the question of how people can resist oppression and injustice in asymmetrical conflict. The last three years my research has focused on culture and oral history as a means of resistance. At the moment I am working with a team of colleagues from Coventry University and Palestinian organisations and communities in the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank to document and record their cultural heritage through a project called On Our Land. These Bedouin and farming communities have a rich cultural heritage linked to the semi-nomadic lifestyle that has historically defined their identity. This heritage includes a vivid oral tradition, pastoral and agricultural practices, food and drink, and traditional arts and handicrafts. The whole community is at risk of displacement. The creation of Israeli closed military zones and the imposition of severe restrictions on movement and confiscation of their land has threatened their existence. We trained a group of 30 youth from the area to become researchers in oral history techniques and then they interviewed older generations to document and record this cultural heritage. One of the youth, Fatima, hadn’t finished high school when she joined the project but over the last two years she returned and finished school with distinction and this month she was offered a place at Birzeit University to study oral history.
Covid-19 is having a big impact on higher education everywhere. How is it affecting your teaching and research?
It is difficult to meet students and colleagues face to face and all communication is through online video. Covid-19 has forced higher education to completely transform the teaching and learning experience. I cannot travel to conduct research or follow up on projects which means we are entirely relying on working with local organisations and researchers. This is an opportunity as well as a challenge in my view. This has also raised ethical questions about research and scholarship when someone else is conducting your research.
What have been the highlights of your time with Fobzu?
About five years ago Fobzu considered the future direction of the charity and decided to invest in the recruitment of a new director (Omar Shweiki). I am very pleased to say that we are in very good place today. The recruitment of a new chair Dr Donna Baillie and treasurer Mazen Arafat Nomura has been a turning point. I am very pleased and confident that I am leaving Fobzu in a very strong position and with a clear vision. In the last two years we have had fantastic donations and grants enabling us to expand our work. This year we are supporting more students at Birzeit University and in the Gaza Strip. The Education, Occupation and Liberation programme which marked 40 years since the formation of the Fobzu has been a great success. In cooperation with the University and College Union (UCU) we were able to host a number of lectures and seminars to discuss Palestinian education, and education and liberation. The establishment of a writing residency in 2018 to enable Palestinians scholars to write and publish and build links between Palestinian and UK researchers has been excellent. I hope that this initiative will grow further and give the opportunity of time and space for more Palestinian scholars to research and publish and become the voice of their society. Fobzu is close to my heart and values and I will continue to support it.
Why do you think supporting Palestinian access to education is so important?
Palestinians are proud of their education and educational institutions. Through education Palestinians empower themselves to tell their story and write their history and expose the colonial nature of the Israeli occupation. Through education Palestinians connect with other struggles for social and political justice and build solidarity. Education has played a significant role in the history of the Palestinians and has become a source of hope and pride. The skills, knowledge and role played by higher education institutions has helped to sustain the Palestinian social and political fabric, which is under attack from the occupation.