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SESAME Field Trip: A crawl to university in Palestine

October 25, 2019

Imagine having to crawl on all fours to get to a university lecture on time — and you're the professor. Well, it happened in Nablus, as DW's Zulfikar Abbany discovered. This is part six of his Middle East diary.

Students on a break at An-Najah National University, Nablus, West Bank, Palestine
Image: DW/Z. Abbany

Read the first part of Zulfikar Abbany's Middle East Diary here.

If you've been following this diary (thank you!), you'll recall part five ended at a market in Nablus.

That was followed by a crash course — on a busy intersection, populated by Palestinian shoppers and traders and a small Israeli army presence — on the implications of a life dissected into "areas."

In the 1990s, the Oslo Accords created three areas in the occupied West Bank. It was an internationally brokered attempt at a solution to the Israel-Palestine question.

In each of the areas, certain types of control lie with the Palestinian Authority. But in practice, Israeli law and politics rule throughout.

The hills surrounding Nablus, West Bank. In the distance a Palestinian and an Israeli village, separated by politics.
The hills surrounding Nablus, West Bank — in the distance, a Palestinian and an Israeli village, separated by politicsImage: DW/Z. Abbany

Read more: Warning! You are entering Area A

Reports from the EU suggest that large parts of Area C are being annexed, taken over by Israeli settlers, or colonies.

They say land and other resources, such as water, are allocated "disproportionately."

One of the reports suggests "water consumption by Israelis and Palestinians reflects stark inequalities." [My emphasis.] And that's just in the summary.

Politics of science

You may wonder what EU reports about Israeli colonies have to do with science in the Middle East. There are times when I've thought the same, especially during the field trip I went on in July. We were a group of science journalists headed for a synchrotron in Jordan.

Science journalists on a field trip of the Middle East talk to researchers at An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine
Lab life: Science journalists on a field trip through the Middle East talk to researchers at An-Najah National UniversityImage: DW/Z. Abbany

So why were walking through markets, or visiting posh, arty-farty hotels?

And isn't water bottled, anyway?

Well, all this was brought into sharp focus by Dr. Ahmed Bassalat of An-Najah National University, and his wife, Dr. Hadil Abualrob.

They guided us through that market, stood on that intersection and weathered stares from those military onlookers, and then took us to Bassalat's parents' home in the hills near Nablus city.

But is it settlements or colonies?

They showed us a plot of land that Bassalat's father farms, producing the most delicious chickpeas and a cucumber-like zucchini.

"Just pull them out of the ground," he encouraged us.

I was thinking, but don't you need this to feed your family? No matter, he said. And we ate.

Dr. Ahmed Bassalat and Dr. Hadil Abualrob at family farm land
Dr. Ahmed Bassalat and Dr. Hadil Abualrob at family farm land near Nablus: "Just pull it out. Eat!"Image: DW/Z. Abbany

How they grew such succulent greens in this dusty, dry land was mind boggling.

Bassalat's dad is a genius. He's modified old plastic bottles to construct a custom irrigation system. And it works a treat.

The scene was idyllic, too. This could have been midsummer's evening in a European farming region, like Kent or the Allgäu. The sun set behind us, and it was… romantic.

But Bassalat was never far "off-message."

Palestinian tradition, he told us, dictates that land gets passed through the generations and is divided among siblings. But here, in the current political situation, there was no way of knowing from one day to the next whether the Israelis would colonize the area and take the land away.

Physicist Dr. Ahmed Bassalat talking to journalists and James Gillies of CERN
Physicist Dr. Ahmed Bassalat at his parents' farming land, talking to journalists and James Gillies of CERNImage: DW/Z. Abbany

As that thought sank in, we stood still for a moment discussing semantics. What was worse? A settlement or a colony? What was more an act of imposing your will and might over another?

It was the kind of debate that only "first-world travelers" could have. Does it really matter which words we use? No. Probably not. Not when we still don't really feel, or live, what it means.

The concrete treatment

"That house over there," said Bassalat, and I'm paraphrasing from memory, because we were just chatting, captivated. But the words are pretty close to the truth. "That house is on a border that's marked here, just where the asphalt stops."

If you didn't know it, you would walk right over it.

His father's farm was about 20 meters farther down the road.

"They've been told, they're on a list. Their house could be destroyed anytime," he said.

Some families in his parents' village know what that looks like.

"Sometimes they come and destroy the second floor of a house and then fill it in with concrete," he told us. "One house, they destroyed the second floor, and left it empty."

No concrete treatment.

"That family was lucky," Bassalat smiled. Sardonically.

You could tell he'd used that line before. But we all laughed, with a latent sense of terror and unease. We had a sense of wonder as well, because despite all that, life and science goes on in Palestine. The question is how?

Construction work in Nablus, West Bank, Palestine. One floor is ruins. One floor above is a restaurant.
Construction work in Nablus, West Bank, Palestine: One floor is ruins, one floor above is a restaurantImage: DW/Z. Abbany

If that's what life is like in Palestine — rightly or wrongly, no matter who feels who threw the first stone, or who has the right to whatever — how do you concentrate on theoretical things like physics?

Sure. Physics is nature and nature is life. But it's not daily life, or even about daily survival.

So how do you leave home to study special magnets in France, as Hadil Abualrob did, or high energy physics like her husband?

Perhaps there's a human sense of curiosity that just won't die. Perhaps there's an urge to use one's privilege to help others when you return. Who knows?

If nothing else, I was slowly beginning to understand why so many Palestinian scientists refuse (I was going to use a milder formulation like "are reluctant" or "would rather not" but actually they "refuse") to collaborate with Israeli scientists and universities.

They say it's not personal. It's politics. But the politics is always personal.

The following day, back at An-Najah National University, we met Professor Hikmat Hilal, who specializes in nanotechnology. I asked him whether he gets support from the Palestinian Authority to further his research. And his answers illustrated to me how Palestinians, both scientists and non-scientists, are forever fed through a maze of checkpoints ­— the political, professional and personal.

Professor Hikmat Hilal, a nano technology expert at An-Najah National University
Professor Hikmat Hilal recalls having to hold university lectures in people's homes and shops during the IntifadaImage: DW/Z. Abbany

"My colleague was supposed to be at his lecture this morning at 8," said Hilal. "And we were kidding with him, 'Why are you so late? Man, you don't work hard enough!' And he said, 'There were checkpoints. They made us wait.'"

Okay. Heard that, we thought.

"Another example. For several years we couldn't reach these laboratories. You know what I mean? We were just teaching," Hilal went on.

And Bassalat interjected: "We would meet at people's homes and professors would come there and give us our lectures. It was university at home!"

Hilal: "Sometimes it took me eight hours to reach Nablus. Not the labs. The labs were sieged. Believe me, there were times I went on all fours, we were in the hilly areas, and I walked like that because I was afraid of slipping down. Nobody can ever imagine how we did it."

"We changed cars three or four times," said Hilal.

And it went on for years.

"Back then I might get emails from Israeli colleagues inviting me to collaborate, and I told them, I appreciate your invitation, but on what ethical basis can I collaborate with Israeli scientists without seeing my chief technician? How can I? I'm not even able to…" he trailed off.

Inside a laboratory at An-Najah National University, Nablus, West Bank, Palestine
Palestinian university laboratories can look like any other, but scientists say their access to chemicals is restrictedImage: DW/Z. Abbany

"Now, there is no Intifada," he continued. "But they do it another way. They keep us from advanced technology. They follow what we publish. We can give you a list of forbidden things, a list of chemicals which we're not allowed to have, although we have a very good record on safety."

And on and on and on.

How do you do any science in conditions like that? Indeed, what exactly can you give back to your community when all that you have is taken away?

[A former boss of mine would call that last line "glib." But that's the score.]

For decades, there have been injustices on both sides. But the Israeli State is undoubtedly more powerful than the Palestinian Authority.

You could argue that the Israelis have more to protect, more to defend. The Palestinians, by contrast, have a lot to fight for, and very little left to lose. Whatever your take, there's no denying that all the deep sentiment and years of struggle on both sides have seeped into every aspect of life.

One last thing: Headscarves

I almost forgot to mention dinner. Hadil Abualrob and Ahmed Bassalat treated us to a generous feast of chicken and rice, a traditional soup — to warmth and generosity.

Dr. Ahmed Bassalat (right) and Dr. Hadil Abualrob of An-Najah National University, Nablus
Dr. Hadil Abualrob (left) of An-Najah National University, Nablus, and Dr. Ahmed Bassalat Image: DW/Z. Abbany

It was delicious. But that's not my point. It was what we discussed after dinner that matters.

Abualrob wears headscarves. She and her husband are Muslim. But Hadil wears them for fashion, rather than faith. The styles and colors change from season to season, she says.

Still, we discussed "headscarves" as a religious and political thing. Probably prompted by my unruly inclination to disturb any decorum, my incongruity.

Our Spanish colleague, Daniel Mediavilla of the daily newspaper El País, looked up at me from his plate, said he wanted to play Devil's Advocate, and suggested that any opposition to headscarves in Western society was surely there to stop any one religion becoming dominant and too powerful.

It was a fair point. But only when you handle all other religions equally, I said.

Inside a laboratory at An-Najah National University, Nablus, West Bank, Palestine
Science Deco: Inside a laboratory at An-Najah National University, Nablus, West BankImage: DW/Z. Abbany

In Spain, as in Germany, taxes are forwarded to the church. In Spain you opt-in, in Germany you opt-out. But these are technically secular nations — no state religion — and yet the Christian church is dominant in this way. No other religion claims taxes via the state.

Read more: Bavarian court upholds headscarf ban for judges, prosecutors

You can't wear a headscarf. But you can wear a cross.

Hoist be my own petard

"But isn't the real problem," I proposed, "that it's easy for the public, media, and politicians, to utilize headscarves as a symbol… of some kind of 'other.' A thing that's not 'us', whatever that 'us' is?"

The same as orthodox Jews, who mark themselves with particular dress and customs. But we never hear politicians and other soapboxers complain about that.

I was feeling quite righteous.

Students at An-Najah National University
All smiles: Students at An-Najah National UniversityImage: DW/Z. Abbany

Until Hadil asked what we had thought when we met her that afternoon and first saw her headscarf.

Most said it hadn't figured at all, they had barely noticed.

I, with the Muslim name but no religion, went on a bit too long. Protesting my innocence with stutters of "I was more attracted to the color of your jacket… blah, blah, blah…"

Conflicts of interest and discrimination

That night I lay awake knowing I had lied. How could I have been so disingenuous? Of course, I had noticed her headscarf. Hadil also wears dental braces and smiled broadly.

But it was the headscarf I saw.

I had found it a struggle to look away. And I told her so the next morning at An-Najah. She, quite understandably, was bewildered.

Yet I told Hadil that I felt ashamed at these shards of racism, this shrapnel from the day-to-day discourse about who's right, who's wrong, who's black, who's white, who gets to power and who serves.

Sunsets on Nablus and its surrounding hills
Sunsets on Nablus and its surrounding hillsImage: DW/Z. Abbany

I, with the Muslim name and no religion. I was unconsciously biased against my own people.

It was a shock to my system as we had developed warm relations with both Israelis and Palestinians on the trip. As a journalist, you should avoid warm relations altogether. They lead to conflicts of interest. But that aside, I could not reconcile the fact that my feelings of warmth towards Hadil and Ahmed bothered me more than those feeling of friendship towards Naama Shilony at the Israel Academy of Humanities and Sciences in Jerusalem.

And it still bothers me. I'm sure it's affected the way I have interpreted and written up this diary. Whether that's for the for better or worse, I don't know.

GeekWire's Alan Boyle kindly suggested later that I was overthinking things. Perhaps.

But this is why we, as a group, had to learn about daily life in Palestine.

Because if the political is personal, then in Palestine the science is, too.

That was part six of Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME Field Trip diary. Read the final part:

  Open-door policy at the SESAME synchrotron

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI, the mind, how science touches people, European perspectives
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