A fine line between Palestinian remembrance, radicalization

Posted: January 22, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Jordan, UNRWA

The Canadian foreign policy newspaper/website Embassy has a thoughtful piece by Lee Berthiaume on UNRWA arising from his recent visit to an UNRWA school in Jordan. Lee has previously reported a number of times on Canadian Middle East policy, including Ottawa’s decision to halt funding to UNRWA’s core budget. In this latest article, he highlights the inevitable complex tensions that arise between UNRWA efforts to keep its services neutral and apolitical, and the very political views of the refugees themselves:

AMMAN, Jordan—The schoolyard teems with young girls in blue uniforms, some sporting headscarves, most carrying backpacks, all of them smiling. Shaded from the hot Middle Eastern sun by a structure of corrugated metal, one class runs around in circles, playing a game. Next to them, a teacher leads another class through morning stretches and jumping jacks.

Inside the two-storey building, the majority of the students at Nuzha Prep Girls’ School are in classes, but in one room, a special meeting of the institution’s Parliament on Human Rights and Women’s Issues has been arranged in honour of my visit. This student council-like body features many of the school’s top students.

As I enter, I am surprised to be greeted by several of the girls in English. I am led to a special seat at the front of the classroom. Then the nearly two-dozen girls who make up the parliament take their own seats, which have been set up in a horseshoe. The teachers, all wearing headscarves, take up positions in the background.

Unsure how to start, I ask what the girls think of their school. After a slight hesitation, a few raise their hands.

“I’m so happy when I come to school,” responds one 12-year-old in English. Another, however, complains in Arabic through a translator that there was a shortage of textbooks at the beginning of the school year. Then I get an answering I wasn’t expecting.

“I don’t care about the school,” says one girl. “I want to be in Palestine, my homeland.”

Other students have equally strong views on the right of return, on Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, and on the utility (or futility) of the peace process:

Sitting in the Nuzha Prep classroom, surrounded by smiling faces from the school’s Parliament on Human Rights and Women’s Issues, I ask the girls what human rights they have learned about. Hands shoot up and the answers come quickly: the right to play; to live peacefully; to security and equality; to protection from torture and slavery.

Yet one answer keeps coming up over and over: the right to return to Palestine. In fact, the girls invariably tie the other human rights they have learned about to the homeland they say they desperately wish to see.

“Here in Jordan, we have all the rights,” says one girl. “But I want to remember the children in Palestine. They do not have the ability to laugh.”

Ten-year-old Hala Mohammed Harb is clearly the smallest girl in the parliament. With her big brown eyes and a shy smile, she slowly approaches me and says through an interpreter that she would like to re-enact a poem. The name of the piece, says the interpreter, is A Child is Like a Blade.

What follows is unexpected and requires no translation. Hala’s young face takes on a surprising hardness, her body movements become militaristic and martial in tone as she mimics defying the Israeli occupiers, raising a flag over a free Palestinian state that she will call home. She is unwavering in her conviction, forceful in the telling.

When it ends, the other students erupt into applause and Hala returns to her shy schoolgirl persona. The teachers are beaming with pride.

Not surprisingly, the school’s teachers—themselves refugees—share many of these views:

A little later, I am led to a science lab. Two rows of long metal tables run down either side of the room, with high benches behind them, while the walls are covered with diagrams showing human organ systems. A computer has been set up at the front and is connected to a projector hanging from the roof.

An audio-visual presentation begins, and amid Arabic music, a picture of smiling children is projected onto the blackboard under the words: “My right to live a happy life!” A few seconds later, three more words appear underneath: “But in Gaza!”

Another picture of smiling children who look to be of North American or European descent. The words: “My right to play!” Then the image changes to show Palestinian children on the street, clothes ripped, skin covered with dirt. “But these people, where’s their right?” the presentation asks.

It continues like this. Pictures of happy white children and families give way to the image of an old Palestinian woman in tears supporting herself with an olive tree, an Israeli military patrol in the background. Another shows Israeli soldiers in a classroom, books and broken desks strewn around the room. The presentation ends with the words: “We will not give up!”

Judging by the video presentation, and the fact that it was put together at the school and clearly bears Nuzha Prep’s name on the credits, it would be easy to say the school’s teachers are responsible for the content, which some could easily interpret as borderline incitement.

Yet when asked who has told them about Palestine, the students offer a number of answers that revolve around the same people: Their families. Grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, fathers, mothers, brothers.

While the article itself is sensitive to the nuances at work here (the “fine line” of the article’s title) and the broader context with which UNRWA is embedded, I’m not sure that it will be read this way by many. Those inclined to see UNRWA services as artificially perpetuating the refugee issue will see in it further proof of the Agency’s nefarious effects. Others will see what he reports as inevitable and fully understandable, given way in which experience of forced displacement and diaspora are woven deep into the Palestinian national narrative. Certainly it is far from unusual that students hold rather black-and-white views of the conflicts that surround them and hostile impressions of the “other.”

The divergent responses that Lee’s article will likely generate highlight another issue in turn: the ways in which UNRWA itself often tends to be perceived through the prism of sharply incompatible paradigms. In other words, what the Agency is held to represent varies sharply with the eye of the beholder—an avatar, if you will, of much larger hopes, fears, and issues. What the Agency actually does sometimes has little remarkably little to do with the ensuing debates.

The final word, however, should perhaps be given to the refugee student that Lee’s piece quotes in his closing paragraph:

Meanwhile, for the girls in Nuzha Prep’s Parliament on human rights and women’s issues, there is no question of giving up on Palestine.

“In the West, they present an image of us that we are not educated, that we have given up our desire to return,” says one girl. “We don’t give up on our right. We know we have this right.”

Sixteen-year-old Wisam Mousa turns to me. “Imagine if you were living outside Canada and you weren’t allowed to return,” she says. “What would you do?”

Indeed, what would we do? In a sense we already know, for Canada has its own population of dispossessed, in the form of those First Nations who were marginalized by European settlement of the Americas. My very first teaching job was teaching university extension courses at a community college on a reservation in Alberta more than a hundred years after the signing of Treaty 7 between local First Nations and the British crown.

The situations, of course, were very different. Whatever the tragedies of the reservation system and its enduring social legacies, today aboriginal populations are at least full citizens of Canada, with full rights. But trust me: not one of my students had forgotten the injustices of the past.

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