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SESAME Field Trip: 'We pray for peace'

October 18, 2019

In Palestine's West Bank, Nablus is a world away from Israel in terms of science. Few scientists will go where their safety is on the line. This is part five of Zulfikar Abbany's Middle East diary.

On the road from Bethlehem to Nablus. Roadside trader sells colorful plastic toys.
Image: DW/Zulfikar Abbany

Go back to the start of Zulfikar Abbany's Middle East diary: A rocky road to science and diplomacy in the Middle East.

Day broke in Bethlehem as it had ended the night before, with a disquieting sense of weird.

Our meetings at the university had ended with time to spare, so we walked to the Walled Off Hotel. Its name is a witty play on the luxury Waldorf Astoria. It is styled by a British stencil artist-cum-activist called Banksy and famed for having "the world's worst view" — a wall that divides Israelis from Palestinians. There's art on the wall and it's okay as it goes. And free.

Deep in the distance, dividing the traffic, a large, monumental key greets drivers. The key is a symbol of freedom
Diminishing symbol of freedom: In the distance, dividing the traffic, a monumental key greets drivers on their way to NablusImage: DW/Zulfikar Abbany

After that we popped up to another West Bank tourist shrine: The Church of the Nativity.  

Read more: Reality checks in Jerusalem

Religious observers paid their respects in candles and selfies, while the heathen among us stood like boys, hands clasped in crotches, too tuneless to join the choir. Suppressing giggle fits.

I left the group to walk home, our half-empty hotel. They had quite a night of it, I'm told, supping a lemon-mint drink.

We were a band of merry science journalists on a field trip, organized by CERN and the EU's Open Sesame Project. We were headed for the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan — a science peace project in the Middle East. But that was yet to come.

Still in Bethlehem, and heading for bed, I bought a postcard and stamp, followed stars in the night sky, dodged stray cats, snapped makeshift alters with offerings of bread, and pondered the strange scene of a boy pushing a shopping trolley up a mound of rubble.

It made me wonder. Where was I and what was this? Did you know, for instance, that Palestinian postage stamps don't work in Israel? Even though Palestine is technically part of Israel. The same is true of my credit card, but in reverse — the company I use on trips sent a message at the Walled Off Hotel. It read: "Location: Palestinian Territories. Transaction declined: You can't use your card in this country."

And to think there are those who decline to even call Palestine "a country."

(Back) on the road  

The following morning (the one that just broke), it was as if that boy with the trolley had dumped all the rubble outside our hotel. That was the scene to which I woke. I rejoined the group after an interesting breakfast and we began a long drive to Nablus.

Selfie showing a group of science journalists, including DW's Zulfikar Abbany (left, front), on a field trip through Israel and Palestine on the way to the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan. The image shows also James Gillies of CERN (left, third from front) and Dr. Ahmed Bassalat of An-Najah University (right, second from front.
Science journalists, with DW's Zulfikar Abbany (left, front) and Dr. Bassalat of An-Najah University (right, second), in NablusImage: DW/Zulfikar Abbany

I'll spare you the minutia of the trip and fast forward to lunch in the Mediterranean-styled inner courtyard of our hotel.

Read more: Models of science and society

The place had been built, or rebuilt, around the shell of a bombed-out building on a bustling lane that led into a labyrinthine market. The market, I was told, still gets raided by Israeli forces looking for terrorists (or freedom-fighters — your pick). Intifada or no Intifada. 

Dr. Ahmed Bassalat of An-Najah University (center). On the left is Alan Boyle of GeekWire, one of seven science journalists on a Middle East field trip organized by CERN
Dr. Ahmed Bassalat of An-Najah University talking about life and science in Palestine and the daily challenges they entailImage: DW/Zulfikar Abbany

Our host and guide in Nablus was Dr. Ahmed Bassalat, an assistant professor in physics at An-Najah National University. He told us about life and science in Nablus over chicken and chips and more of that lemon-mint beverage. It tasted as though it had been invented for the perennially parched.

Bassalat said he wanted to take us to his father's farm for dinner, but that he couldn't be sure we would get through by car.

Come if you dare

An hour later we sat around an immovable conference table, drank rich Palestinian coffee, and interviewed An-Najah's acting president, Professor Maher Natsheh.

Cover of a newsletter from An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine. Headline reads: "19 years of occupation."
Occupation front and center: A newsletter from An-Najah National University, June 1986, leads with '19 years of occupation'Image: DW/Zulfikar Abbany

We heard how An-Najah aims to be in the top 2% of Arab universities, many of which have far larger budgets.

We heard how 40% of post-graduates in Palestine are unemployed. As a result, the university is reducing or closing admissions for courses where joblessness is a risk. Ironically, that includes education.

They are moving students into math and engineering and that byword of the free-world: entrepreneurialism.

Like other Palestinian scientists, Natsheh has traveled and returned. Born in Jerusalem, he worked in Cairo, Manchester, UK and Georgia, USA.

Professor Maher Natsheh, acting president of An-Najah National University in Nablus (DW/Zulfikar Abbany)
Professor Natsheh of An-Najah National University hopes more students will come from abroadImage: DW/Z. Abbany

But as acting head of An-Najah, Natsheh says he can't get international students to visit Nablus. Not for want of trying. But they can't even get Israelis to pop across the border.

"We can't invite Israelis because nobody can guarantee their security," Natsheh told me. "It's really complicated, and one of the major obstacles to cooperation."

Praying for peace

The security situation in Palestine hinders cooperation and holds local scientists back.

"This is raised as an issue by all Palestinian universities," says Natsheh. "We can't admit international students or employ international faculties, and this affects our progress, the development of our universities."

Students on a break at An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine (DW/Zulfikar Abbany)
An-Najah National University is a modern complex with a long history in PalestineImage: DW/Zulfikar Abbany

When asked whether Palestinian scientists, those who have traveled and return with global perspectives, should go into politics, he said "yes," but only after a fashion.

I'll skip the bit in my transcript where Natsheh suggests that some Israeli scientists have been "negative" when they have "interfered" in politics in the past, because it'll only leave you with the wrong impression. And perhaps it was just a language thing, anyway.

Perhaps he had meant to say that it was complicated for scientists of any ilk when they get into politics, and that scientists on both sides could use a little support from each other. Because, ultimately, he's says he wants peace like anyone else.

"I hope they put pressure on politicians because peace is beneficial for all of us," he said. "As Palestinians, we pray for peace."  

Being the non-religious sort, I find it hard to rely on prayer. Each to their own, of course. But what action can help? How about a collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli scientists on neutral ground at the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan? That being the aim of our field trip.

Market traders in Nablus, Palestine
A market like many others in the Middle East, but traders and residents are said to face regular raids by Israeli forces Image: DW/Zulfikar Abbany

"But, still," started Natsheh, "with this political situation, we cannot do it bilaterally. We could do it with three partners — Palestine, Israel and one other…"

ZA: And bilateral would be with Israel?

MN: No, no, not Israel [laughs].

ZA: That's my point. There are people who say there is "no collaboration under occupation." How do you feel about that?

MN: It is true. It is impossible to cooperate in this political situation.

ZA: And when you say "impossible," do you mean it is impossible for practical reasons, or that there's no will or heart…

MN: It is practically impossible. In the heart, we pray for peace. 

We shook hands, and departed.

Holidays in someone else's occupation

Man making and selling Kanafeh (a sweet dish) in a market in Nablus, West Bank, Palestine (DW/Zulfikar Abbany)
Sweet tooth? Got you covered. Try a plate of Kanafeh, a light Middle Eastern dish, best eaten... whenever!Image: DW/Zulfikar Abbany

Soon after that we were strolling through the market near our hotel, getting schooled in traditions of olive oil soap and a sweet called Kanafeh (also known as kunafa, knafeh…).

It was surreal. Not unlike John Lydon's line about a "cheap holiday in other people's misery."

Don't get me wrong. We saw smiling faces, people selling their wares. I bought a pound of coffee. And I don't usually drink the stuff.

But it was when we got to the other side and our guide, Ahmed Bassalat, stopped at a border — invisible to the untrained eye — between zones A and B or C… That, again, things shifted in my mind.

We saw Israeli troops, a tank or some other heavy vehicle, and something just hung in the air. Palestinian people going about their business. But what business?

Busy road intersection, Nablus, Palestine
It's easy to miss a border between Zones A and C at this busy intersection. It divides what's officially Palestine and Israel.Image: DW/Zulfikar Abbany

"When people see the reality, they feel it. Imagine the Israeli army passing through here," said Bassalat as we stood in the middle of the busy intersection.

"Imagine. The Palestinian is not allowed to be on the roads between midnight and six in the morning, each day, each night, because that's a good time for the Israeli army to come and do operations in [our] country, in Zone A," he said. "As far as you're concerned, Zone A is Palestine. But it is not. It's just on paper. This makes things difficult."

Giving something back

Bassalat is married to physicist Dr. Hadil Abualrob. They have studied and worked in France, and returned as firm advocates of the SESAME project in Jordan.

As with Professor Ghabboun of Bethlehem University, Bassalat, Abualrob and Natsheh are back in Palestine to give something back.

Coffee traders in a market in Nablus, West Bank, Palestine
Palestine, perhaps an unlikely tourist destination, given the political situation, but market traders are welcoming and warmImage: DW/Zulfikar Abbany

In 2016, the university held its first Winter School of High Energy Physics in Palestine, organized by Bassalat. It was an event for high school students and parents — outreach — and an attempt to inspire the next generation of Palestinian scientists.

Clearly, things do get done. Despite a lack of funds. Despite travel restrictions, even.

But it's still not long since the professors of An-Najah had to crawl on all fours to their lectures, and that memory lingers on. More of which in the next instalment.

Read more from Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME Field Trip Diary:

A crawl to university in Palestine (part six)

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