Ahmed Najar recently joined Fobzu’s Board of Trustees. Originally from Gaza, Ahmed is a Senior Financial Analyst who has worked in a variety of global companies over the past 17 years, covering different regions around the world. Ahmed holds a BA from Al Azhar University in Gaza and an MA from London Metropolitan University. He is passionate about dabke, traditional Palestinian folk dance, and is co-founder and artistic director of Al-Zaytouna dance troupe. Ahmed is also an avid playwright, director, and actor. He has written and directed several productions within the UK and Europe. Ahmed spoke to Fobzu about what drew him to contribute to Fobzu’s work and why supporting Palestinian higher education is crucial.
- You've enjoyed an exceptionally diverse career. What attracted you to being involved in supporting Fobzu’s work?
I have known of Fobzu for a long time. I initially came across Fobzu through friends and supporters who spoke to me about the impact of Fobzu’s work. I am very passionate about education and I am particularly keen to support education in Gaza as that is where I am from. It is very difficult to access higher education in Gaza and people can rarely afford to cover tuition fees as they are very high compared to the average salary. I have therefore always admired what Fobzu does and I think this is very important work. Over time, I heard more about Fobzu’s role in supporting higher education and eventually, Fobzu was looking to recruit a board member with finance experience and a friend suggested that I would be a good fit. People in Palestine are determined to get as much education as they can and this is extremely important. That is why I joined Fobzu.
- As well as leading a successful career in finance, you've also written and directed plays. Can you tell us about your creative work and what drives you to write?
I was always very passionate about dabke. I started Zaytouna dance troupe in 2005. I was also writing about the situation in Palestine and began attending events and demonstrations, particularly at critical times when there had been attacks on Palestine. My involvement evolved into writing and taking part in theatrical projects which led to me doing more dance and acting in plays. After that I moved into writing and directing. I produced a couple of plays through al-Zaytoun. I felt the need to express my feelings as to what is happening in Palestine. It is frustrating to hear what is happening from people at home who experience the ongoing violence first hand and then to see the ways that the mainstream media portrays the situation to audiences here who then go on to argue about two sides and who is right and wrong. Living here and watching the media’s presentation of the situation in Palestine is very demoralising for us as Palestinians. This is why I moved into some of my creative projects. In 2021 I directed a play called God’s Promise, and before that I worked on a play called ‘I have two names’ and another entitled ‘Mayyeh o Maleh’ which translates to ‘Salt and Water’; the latter was about prisons and other aspects of the Palestinian experience.
I work in finance, which is a completely different part of my life from the creative part. People in my line of work tend to watch BBC and source their information about Palestine from such platforms. Sometimes people ask me about the situation there. Having such conversations with colleagues is an eye opener for them, but it is surprising to hear what people think. I had an interesting conversation with someone who also works in the Finance sector recently, who said ‘you have to work twice as hard as anyone else would in order to have your voice heard’. This was very telling. This is part of what led me to taking on creative projects.
- You graduated from al-Azhar University in Gaza yourself. What was your experience of being a student at that time and why is it important for you that students in Gaza are supported today?
My experience at the time was positive. The university had a vibe, ambience and student life was good then. At the time, al-Azhar was one of the best universities in Gaza. I remember it was in competition with the Islamic University and the two institutions were right next to each other, separated only by a wall. As for my academic experience, it was intense. University education in Palestine is generally quite rigorous and, in my experience, studying in the UK is a lot more relaxed. Al-Aqsa University and Palestine University operated slightly differently to al-Azhar but in general the academic structure required students to do a lot of work and each university had its own requirements in addition to course requirements.
The situation in Gaza has gotten much worse since I studied there and academic institutions have been deeply affected by this. When I visited Gaza in 2021, I had some interaction with students from the Islamic, Palestine and al-Azhar universities. There is a lack of connection between institutions and because Gaza is severely restricted there is little scope for students and academics to interact with people outside. There is very little scope to connect with other Palestinian universities let alone international institutions. This lack of exposure was one of the main issues students spoke to me about during my visit. The outside world is alien to them and the academic experience is limited to the allocated course materials students have access to. Universities have little scope to develop new modes of teaching and learning now, institutional growth and development are limited and students continue to struggle to explore new ways of engaging in academia. The situation in Gaza has meant there has been a lack of modernisation of the way that courses are delivered. Although there are some attempts to do this, these initiatives are inevitably limited by practical issues so that students often struggle to prepare for life after university.
Technology is helping now, even though some difficulties inevitably still remain. However, given we cannot immediately solve the bigger political problems facing Gaza, it is important to use the tools we have in terms of technology to offer students some exposure to new ways of learning through online content. It is crucial for students to have opportunities to improve their skills and to think outside the box. Since the situation in Gaza is exceptionally restrictive – there is no real possibility for travel and student exchanges are almost non-existent – it is now more important than ever to offer students opportunities to connect with others and to explore what they might want to do in future. For me it was different, we had more exposure then. Although Gaza was always more isolated from the outside world compared to the rest of Palestine, we still had some contact with students from al-Najah University in the West Bank. I even remember a student from France studying at al-Azhar university. These opportunities are very important; we had international lecturers and were offered the chance to meet people from elsewhere. That is a key issue to keep in mind when supporting Palestinian students today.
- Why do you think it’s important to promote Palestinian higher education in the UK?
As previously mentioned, building links and giving Palestinian students exposure to other institutions and ways of thinking is crucial to the entire educational system in Palestine. It is important not just to sponsor students financially, but to broaden their horizons and to connect universities and institutions with others doing similar work. This is one of the most important areas of focus. This approach adds value to education in Palestine and since there are some amazing and powerful academic institutions in the UK, building these links is important. If we ensure that we continue building these connections, I think we can say that we are doing a good job.