SESAME Field Trip: ′We Palestinians pray for peace′ | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 18.10.2019
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Occupied science

SESAME Field Trip: 'We Palestinians pray for peace'

In Palestine's West Bank, Nablus is another world away from Israel in terms of science. No one will go where their security is on the line. This is part five of Zulfikar Abbany's Middle East diary.

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.

We had walked to the Walled Off Hotel, its name is a witty play on the luxury Waldorf Astoria, styled by a British stencil artist-cum-activist called Banksy. It is famed for having "the world's worst view" — a wall that divides Israelis from Palestinians. The art'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 (DW/Zulfikar Abbany)

Diminishing symbol of freedom: Deep in the distance, dividing the traffic, a large, monumental key greets drivers on their way to Nablus

Then 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.

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

Having bought a postcard and stamp, I 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.

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Did you know that Palestinian postage stamps don't work in Israel? Same as my credit card, but in reverse. The company I use sent me a message at the Walled Off Hotel: "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 the boy had dumped all that rubble outside our hotel. That was the scene there and then. I rejoined the rest of the group 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. (DW/Zulfikar Abbany)

Science journalists, including DW's Zulfikar Abbany (left, front) and physicist Dr. Ahmed Bassalat of An-Najah University (right, second), in Nablus

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 building on a bustling lane that led into a labyrinthine market, which, I was later 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 (DW/Zulfikar Abbany)

Dr. Ahmed Bassalat of An-Najah University talking about life and science in Palestine and the daily challenges they entail

Our host and guide 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 a lemon-mint beverage invented for the perennially parched.

He said he wanted to take us to his father's farm for dinner, but 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. (DW/Zulfikar Abbany)

Occupation front and center: A newsletter from An-Najah National University dated June 1986 leads with a story about '19 years of occupation'

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 abroad

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

"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

It hinders cooperation and holds Palestinian 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 Palestine

When asked whether Palestinian scientists, those with global perspectives, should go into politics, he said "yes," after a fashion.

I'll skip the bit where he 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. Perhaps that was just a language thing. Perhaps he meant to say it's complicated for scientists of any ilk getting stuck into politics, and that scientists on both sides could use a little support from each other. Because, ultimately, he's says he's a dove.

"I hope they will 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 (DW/Zulfikar Abbany)

A market scene like many others in the Middle East, but traders and building occupants are said to face regular raids by Israeli forces

"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. 

Holidays in someone else's occupation

We shook hands, departed.

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!

And soon after 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 even drink it.

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…

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 (DW/Zulfikar Abbany)

Blink and you'll miss a border between Zones A and C at this busy market intersection. That's the border between what's officially Palestine and Israel.

"When people see the reality, they feel it. Imagine the Israeli army passing through here," he said as we stood in the middle of a 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. Together they have studied and worked in France.

They are advocates of the SESAME project in Jordan.

And they returned to Palestine, same as Professor Ghabboun at Bethlehem University, or Prof. Natsheh at An-Najah seemingly to give something back to their community.

Coffee traders in a market in Nablus, West Bank, Palestine (DW/Zulfikar Abbany)

Palestine is perhaps one of the most unlikely tourist destinations, given the "political situation," but market traders are welcoming and warm

In 2016, the university held the first Winter School of High Energy Physics in Palestine. It was an event for high school students and parents — outreach, we'd call it — an attempt to inspire the next generation of Palestinian scientists.

So, clearly, things do get done. Despite a lack of funds. Despite travel restrictions.

But it's not long since professors at An-Najah had to crawl on all fours to their lectures, and that memory lingers long and hard.

More of which in the next instalment.

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

SESAME Field Trip: Warning! You are entering Area A

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