Café La Vie, Ramallah. Chat, chink of glasses and beer bottles. Sweet apple smoke narghila and the tang of lemon trees shading the café garden and the adjacent refugee camp. Real Madrid v. Barcelona on an outdoor screen, projected from the laptop of café proprietor Saleh Totah who moves genially amongst the tables of his varied clientele of all ages and classes; many locals, a few foreigners. Students, builders, musicians, white-collar professionals, poets, activists, NGO workers. Elsewhere, individual punters in the lonely company of a glass of arak or whiskey. Looking either deeply contemplative or vacant, bewildered—lost. Each has a story: ejected from their ancestral village; injured; family members killed or dead from broken hearts; home destroyed; jobless; refused entry into Jerusalem; separated from wife and children in Jordanian camps; or—further afield—the U.S., by whom they’ve been refused re-entry to rejoin their families after 9/11.
Broken and whole, all life is at Café La Vie.
It’s April 27, 2011, and I’ve just finished a long interview de-brief with the first graduates of the Palestine Writing Workshop (PWW). We’ve reviewed our journey of the last eighteen months together and their experience of this new creative writing program, the first in Palestine. We’ve reflected on the Palestinian education system of the past 18 years since the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education came into existence in August 1994 following the transfer of authority agreement between the PLO and Israel, a result of the Oslo Accords. Students explain to me the impact of the recent Egyptian revolution on Palestinian curriculum reform. This group of students are the new generation, inheriting the failed spring and bankrupt promises of the Oslo Accords of 1993-4—born on the cusp of the 90s. They now look to Egypt and the Middle Eastern civil uprisings for a revivification of Palestinian politics.
Lingering over the last heavenly crumbs of shared cakes, we praise the magician in Saleh’s kitchen. These are the generous and insistent treats of Adila Habib, just promoted after a few months in her first job at the Ministry of Education and Culture. Her promotion rests on her reading, writing and critical skills. She edits and redrafts better than anyone else in the ministerial office. Tia Issa and I have just confirmed the next title for the “Cloudwalkers Book Club.” Tia runs the group, and oversees the circulation of books to the burgeoning spin-off book clubs; all share the same precious set of books. Tia clasps my hands gently—“Ahleen! Thanks PalFest for making it possible for us to meet and work together.” We celebrate Egyptian writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif, founder and chair of the Palestine Literature Festival.
It’s because of Ahdaf and PalFest that we are all here now.
Suad Amiry arrives. We have a dinner date. She has the charismatic presence of a great movie star. I introduce Tia, Adila’, Lubna, Kanza, Abra, and Safa as 6 of the 12 first graduates of the Palestine Writing Workshop. Suad knows of PWW through her involvement in PalFest.
PalFest was launched in 2008, bringing world class cultural events to Palestinian communities that would otherwise have no access to them; supporting Palestinian cultural life; and creating active, nurturing cultural links between Palestine and the UK. Over the past three years the festival has initiated, midwifed, and inspired a number of innovative and promising educational and artistic activities, the Palestinian Writing Workshop amongst them. PWW works to foster a community of emerging writers in Palestine through an array of programmes in both Arabic and English. I’m here to conclude my current research into education and civil society in Palestine for Writers Bloc, an independent, international writer-run collective of which I am a founder member with Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Nick Laird, and Hari Kunzru. Writers Bloc is funded by Open Society Foundation. I want to see for myself what impact reading, writing and literary culture have in the context of resistance and redress to cultural occupation. And can an extra-curricular literary festival of eclectic, insubordinate international writers contribute to creative education and civil society development in Palestine? What, in short, are the roles and responsibilities of writers—if any—in solidarity with or just curious about Palestinian politics and society?
The whole culture is desperately reliant on aid, NGO and foreign-agency employment. You can get a job in a heartbeat if you can write a funding proposal.
I’ve read the documentation on the Five-Year Education Development Plan (2001-2005), the subsequent Education Development Strategic Plan (2008-2012), the review process of the pre-tertiary education sub sector, the World Bank funded sector study of higher education, and the in-depth analysis of the Technical and Vocational Education sub-sector. They have lots and lots of tables and graphs. I’ve sat and listened attentively with courtesy and feigned patience through discussions with charming men in interchangeable suits with interchangeable nameplates on their interchangeable doors and desks—Dean of… Vice-Principal of… President of… and so on. Mostly, I’ve come away from these meetings delivered of hospitable coffee and an on-message executive summary restatement of the executive summary statement of Palestinian Authority endorsed review processes and policies. For which please see list above. But what I want to know is what these education policies mean in practice, for Palestinians of all ages in the education system? What kind of students do these educational policies seek to produce? How does this system nurture artists, political thinkers and comedians? What can young Palestinians expect from their existing education system?
There’s a warm breeze and fragrance of thyme and roses in the garden of Café La Vie. Suad and I are joined by Sophie De Witt, Director of PWW. Sophie and I tell Suad the story of the windflower bush and the big yellow watering can we took to Birzeit Village today for Safa Zabib to plant in the garden of the newly donated premises of the Palestine Writing Workshop, Beit Nimeh—Nimeh’s building. Safa, a graduate of the first PWW cohort, is developing the gardens of the program’s first designated home.
Beit Nimeh is named in honour of Nimeh Nasir, brilliant feminist pioneer of Palestinian education and cultural development in the 1920s. The building is shared collaboratively with PalFest, and in time will house partner cultural and community projects. Sophie and I show Suad our lopsided photos snapped at arms length on our mobile cameras in front of the freshly painted bookshelves in the Reading Room.
Framing our big smiles, the multicolored spines of Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks, Shamsie’s Kartography, Amiry’s Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, Calil’s Bad Faith, Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin, Aboulelah’s Lyrics Alley, Bidisha’s Venetian Masters, Yassin-Kassab’s Road From Damascus, Kricorian’s Dreams of Bread and Fire, Younge’s Who Are We—And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?. Blockbusters by Kate Mosse and Henning Mankell. Poetry collections by Nathalie Handal, Suheir Hamad and Najwan Darwish. Biographies, histories, philosophy and politics. Every copy has either been brought into Palestine by the author themselves, or sent via a circuitous route supported by angels who spirit them away from confiscation by the Israeli customs and postal services. Books don’t arrive if they are sent by post. Even from the mighty Amazon.
Shortly, more workshops for students, and residencies for local and international writers, will be announced. Sophie and I banter about our tree-planting, competing for the worst puns about the deep-rooted need for this garden as a hotbed of flowering creative space in which students of all ages can sow the seeds of their talent, cultivate the diverse branches of their abilities, harvest the skills to challenge, persuade and speak truth to power. Can the yellow watering-can quench the fire of a country burst into flames?
“How did you two meet?” Suad asks.
We tell her the story of how we were thrown together by a military raid on the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem on the opening night of PalFest in May 2009. Armed Israeli troops occupied the auditorium, ejected us onto the street and closed the theater.
The Birzeit students are passionate, perceptive, absorbent—evidently sucking in information and inspiration from wherever they can garner it. Their brains are also, I realize immediately, starving from lack of access to good books, struggling to construct coherent argument, and unable to project beyond the conditions of their immediate lived existence. Pretty much like university undergraduates the world over, then? Not quite. Unlike students in, for example, Western Europe or America, they can’t get regular, affordable access to recently published books to read, or easily plug in to robust, counter-cultural media. And by recent, I mean books published in the last forty odd years, since—not un-coincidentally—the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. It’s not a question of cost or class; the books are simply unreachable. Their course materials are all photocopies.
Sophie, who observed the PalFest workshops at Birzeit University, observed my seminar. She told me she wanted to start a creative writing workshop. “In my humble opinion, we need a creative economy here. There’s a particular value placed on poetry and the poet, but not on youngsters learning poetry or engaging in a wider literary culture. From a life and career perspective, there’s this attitude: why would you want to write poetry, fiction, history or political thoughts? The whole culture is desperately reliant on aid, NGO and foreign-agency employment. You can get a job in a heartbeat if you can write a funding proposal. Why write to challenge, or to persuade, or to imagine? And if you do, where do Palestinians get published? There’s barely any publishing industry in Palestine; Palestinians are published mostly from outside of the country. And if you do, who will listen?”
So during the week of the literature festival—at Birzeit and workshops at other universities, I learn about the hunger for new books and the urgent need for transferable creative skills in Palestine. Storytelling. Analysis. Editing. Public Speaking. Satire. Comedy. The weapons needed to fight cultural occupation of the mind and soul. Studies for action. Looking at the Lunatic Separation Wall in all its complete absence of metaphor, I begin to think of these tools as springboard skills—Olympic pole vaulting for the imagination; to jump the multiple barriers, blocks and obstacles of the military occupation; the walls inside heads. For there is no more natural justice, truth, logic, or rationality in this evil situation than there was in the deformed inventions of apartheid. To challenge fiction or manipulated facts you have to know how they are constructed. Wafa Darwish at Al-Quds university explains:
“War on culture is more dangerous and important to resist than physical war, because it is more discrete and intricate. In addition to its actual physical war of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians, Israel more quietly and more dangerously conquers our culture. PalFest solidifies and reinforces Palestinian literature and culture thus helping the Palestinian people resist Israeli conquest of Palestinian literary and cultural identity.”
The Separation Wall constructed by Israel in the West Bank led to the isolation of communities and… the separation of children from the schools closest to them.
In a Jerusalem restaurant on the last night of the festival, Sophie unclasps from her neck the silver olive tree pendant with a Palestinian flag embedded in its branches and refastens it around mine. “Would you come back to teach a pilot creative writing course?”
I returned later that year, in November 2009, to teach a 20-hour, week-long pilot course called The Writer’s Tool Box, followed up by a Continuation Course in May 2010. The continuation course supported the students by creating practical opportunities to further develop their skills and engagement in global culture with practical experience of further training and voluntary work in the cultural and artistic sectors.
Following the inaugural workshop, Palestinian-American spoken word poet and activist Remi Kanazi taught the second course in February 2010, followed by Jeremy Harding in July. Last year, Robin Yassin-Kassab conducted the first workshop to take place in Nablus and Nancy Krikorian broadened the student base with a very successful residency in November. So far, all programs have been organized and run on a voluntary basis. As yet, there is no funding.
Lubna Taha, who recently won a journalism prize for a published article on the PWW, describes the PWW creative writing workshop as “my sesame gate”: “This experience never ends. I’ve learned that you can write if you possess a feeling for the language, for meaning and words, as well as a willingness to liberate the mind from imprisoned language and thought. One of the most distinguishing characteristics about this workshop was the fact that it was taught through a creative methodology, unlike in our schools and universities where teaching and lecturing is based on old and didactic teaching methods. These methods imprison our ability to challenge, ask difficult questions, criticize and fantasize.” (You can read Lubna’s full award-wining article for Filisteen al Shabab in Arabic here.)
PalFest participant writers, invited to Palestine as guests of the festival, reciprocate the hospitality by returning to teach on PWW on a purely voluntary basis. All of them have jobs, families to support, and homes to run. Their teaching time has been taken from annual holiday, and the routes into Palestine are complex and potentially emotionally and physically taxing. I ask Sophie what has mostly characterized the writers who have taught in the course so far. “Apart from flexibility, cultural sensitivity, a proven ability for creative teaching? A sense of adventure and a sense of humor are essential.”
The biggest complaint of the students is the narrowness of the curriculum. “In Palestine,” says Kanza Said, “[the official curriculum] is treated as more of a fundamental text than the Quran or the Bible. Like a religious book. We are made to stick to every word at school & at university. The teachers don’t create new techniques.”
I ask why new techniques are needed.
“Because the educational system is based on didactic rote learning. Educational institutions are concerned about quantity not quality. The teachers are poor, because they’re a product of these schools and universities and have limited resources. At the end of each semester of drilling in the syllabus, all students go through a national exam. They don’t teach you how to think, they teach you how they think.”
Adila’ Habib confirms the didactic structure of the curriculum: “Take for example Arabic and English language teaching. I always hated these classes because you had to sit down and copy what the teacher wrote. It was all the same. The same olive trees. The same transition of winter into the same spring. The perfect composition is by a student who can transcribe and follow the technique on the prescribed subject. There’s no creativity.”
Abra Awad concurs. “I think education in Palestine is a weak system. We learn ABC and 123, but they don’t also give us enough space for our imaginations to get wider. We are made to concentrate on memorising rather than being creative. School and university are totally closed fields; we need activities to widen the borders of our minds.”
This passionate and urgent desire for the broadening of their imaginative and critical reach is something I hear repeatedly. “One of our main problems is the total separation between education and society. There’s no integration. Why don’t teachers at school and university talk about what’s going on here? Why are they so scared? Do they think they can protect us from this reality? The political conditions we live in are part of all of our lives.” There’s a consensus amongst these students that they have been discouraged by the educational system from learning how to use language to reflect and critique. And there’s an overwhelming craving to express themselves and tell their own stories.
Adila’ believes teachers should try to develop the critical thinking skills and imagination of their students. “I don’t believe the Palestinian Authority want to encourage people who will criticize the society. They are closed-minded. At university you are presented with limited options from which you are expected to print your personality—you will be Fatah, Hamas, or al-Jabhah (the Front). But actually what happens is that you are exposed to insight into who really works, who doesn’t, and what people do rather than what they symbolize. We’d like better courses in philosophy and cultural science with instructors to open and extend our minds to different things.”
Why the diffidence and weakness of a Palestinian state education system that started with hard work and the best intentions?
The Palestinian Curriculum Centre operates under the Palestine Ministry of Education. The national Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PRDP) of 2007, maintains the position that education is a basic human right, but all state-run education suffers from two factors that have determined the shape of contemporary school and higher education in Palestine: rushed development and political timidity.
The years 2001-2005 were dominated by emergencies caused by the second intifada. The West Bank and Gaza were bombarded by relentless Israeli military incursions, border closures, multiplying checkpoints, draconian restrictions on movement and travel and an array of other obstacles to normal life imposed by Israel. The Separation Wall constructed by Israel in the West Bank led to the isolation of communities and, in a growing number of cases, increasing as the construction of the wall spreads, the separation of children from the schools closest to them. In these adverse conditions, the Ministry of Education tried to maintain a long-term strategic view and hold onto its cooperation with donors and other development partners. The Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006 and the rise of Hamas to power in the Palestinian Government led to a formal withdrawal of most donors and development partners with the Ministry of Education, jeopardising the completion of the second five-year plan—the Education Strategic Plan 2008-2012. A return to donor investment in late 2007 in tandem with renewed interest in the peace process brought the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan back on track. Education is central to this impetus. It positions education as a basic human right, a vital tool for socio-economic development, and for instilling moral values and civic responsibility. The plan tries to guarantee equitable access to a comprehensive education system consisting of preschool, basic and secondary education; formal and non-formal education; technical and vocational education; and higher education. The strategic plan summary stresses, “The focus is on the modernization of the education system and better preparing Palestinian citizens, particularly the youth, for the future. This will include modernization of the curriculum in line with the PNA’s vision of a future Palestinian state—a state with a knowledge-based economy, connected to the global community that embraces humanistic values and is tolerant.” The report goes on to make all the right noises about training, capacity building, sustainability, better coordination with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), NGOs and the private sector.
The national development context is fraught with complex challenges, yet the plan is committed “to restore good governance and the rule of law to the West Bank, which the Palestinian National Authority aspires to replicate in Gaza.” The Vocational Training Initiative Program, central to the thrust of the plan, focuses on the provision of vocational and technical training at the secondary and tertiary levels, to better prepare young Palestinians for the job market. I put all this to the PWW students. The effort, the work, the determination of the Ministry of Education to deliver an education system and project into the future, against seemingly impossible odds. “Aren’t you being unfair? This is a determined attempt to deliver a universal access, multi-faith and secular, rights-based, tolerant education program under extraordinarily complex and challenging circumstances. Cut the Ministry of Education and Culture and your university tutors some slack, guys.”
Tia sips her marshmallow hot chocolate thoughtfully and sighs. “They are really trying what they think is their best. But there is a lot of fear, and they pass on that anxiety and fear. The big problem is that the system was developed far too fast. And it’s stuffed with stuff; we call them ‘stuffed subjects.’ In primary school I took 10 subjects instead of just learning language, basic science and civil education. My head was so stuffed with stuff I lost concentration. It was all memorization. No thinking. Then high school. More stuffed subjects. Get good grades. Go to university. Then graduate. Get married. Get a job. Whatever limited choice of job the occupation allows you.” Tia’s comments represent the prevailing view of these students that they are uncomfortable with the way their education system is trying to inculcate a sense of normalisation into what they know is a wholly abnormal situation.
The problem of getting contemporary Arab writers and poets as Writers in Residence and to conduct workshops remains. Israel won’t let them in.
When I suggest they are being too hard on the education authorities, and their parents and community elders, all of them respond that they want a politicization of the school and university system, and an upgrading to make it more contemporary and relevant—connections with other civil society and cultural organisations, focus groups with students, workshops and further trainings for teachers to improve their skills and, concomitantly, the environment of the schools and universities.
“The Ministry of Education want people to be static—they don’t want people to revolt. There’s a fear of the unknown; and a great fear of resistance because of vested interests,” Kanza explains. Recently, a process of changing the curriculum has been implemented in direct response to the Egyptian revolution. “I think this is one of the main successes of the Egyptian revolution,” she says, “because when Egyptian children and students have a curriculum that doesn’t have Hosni Mubarak’s image on every page, a new space of mental freedom is created. Our minds are colonized by the logo of the Ministry of Education on every page of our text books, and tired old repetitive nationalist stories that do not inflame children’s imaginations.”
Inflaming imaginations is one of the objectives of the Palestine Writing Workshop.
There were twelve graduates of the pilot Writer’s Tool Box course. So far, six of this initial cohort have gone onto further placements. All are now volunteers on the program, in PalFest or other related literary and cultural initiatives. Almas Bayt and Safa Zabib were selected for internships at the Southbank Centre Poetry International 2010 festival that focused on poetry from the Arab world. They described their week of shadowing programmers, interviewing writers, blogging, visiting publishers, and inhaling the cultural life of London as, simply, “life-changing”, as did their host families. Incidentally, Almas and Safa were penalized—not rewarded—for their internships on Poetry International by being summarily issued with unexcused absences for all their missed classes by the administration of their university English Department. Both were sanguine about the bureaucratic punishment. Almas shrugged, “It was worth it.”
Four other students were nominated and selected for the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Summer Writing Institute. As well as enjoying the fiction workshop, they were fascinated by their experiences visiting a Gulf city. This week-long course focused on training to develop their skills as teachers, equipping them to go home and teach workshops in Arabic. Lubna Taha, who went to Qatar, takes up the story, “When we came back to Palestine after the Bloomsbury-Qatar workshop we started directly preparing for the 10 weeks summer training. A lot of students registered. The training was conducted one day each week. This experience was different because now we were the teachers. We felt the responsibility of transforming and sharing our experience with other emerging writers. I learned that knowledge should not be monopolized because if we do not share it, it will die like a poet who refuses to write metaphor. After each workshop, the PWW family grew more and more.
We now have a great number of volunteers and we are expanding our activities to reach more people who dream, like I did, of writing and being heard.” In under two years, the graduates of PWW have taken ownership of the project, and partially solved the problem of access being open only to those who have English. The collective possessive nouns in Lubna’s article say it all. The problem of getting contemporary Arab writers and poets as Writers in Residence and to conduct workshops remains. Israel won’t let them in.
There are now just over 100 graduates of PWW workshops. All the writers who have taught on the program who are not Palestinian or of Palestinian heritage are alumni of PalFest.
At Beit Nimeh this summer these students are organising and tutoring teacher training and creative writing workshops in Arabic. Safa, who as a child used to go with her grandmother every year to harvest olives from the family orchard in the hills of Ramallah, is supervising the development of the garden and shady arbours for the students to read, think, reflect and debate in a peaceful, safe space. And, I hope, showing them how to make good use of the big yellow watering can to cultivate the windflower bushes.
At Café La Vie, the conversation continues.
Photograph by Tamara Azizian.