“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” – Desiderius Erasmus
Images taken at the Qalandia checkpoint inside the West Bank, well beyond the ‘Green Line’ that was set up by the 1949 Armistice.
I became a designer in Palestine. In 2003, three years after we’d met during our graduate studies in New York, I flew with my wife to her home in Jaffa. We spent the Christmas holiday together with her family, then parted ways. I came back to New York, a newlywed without a wife. As a Fulbright scholar, she was required to spend two years at home, applying her new degree, before she could again enter the United States. This was the start of my three years as ustaaz (teacher) fanuun ou tasmiim (art and design) in the Arab world.
Through my remote search for employment in both the Israeli and Palestinian sectors of Palestine, there started a correspondence with a German designer developing the first ever design program in Palestine at Al-Quds University. It was all very informal and I begged the question several times as to whether this was an offer for employment. Yes, it was. “Sign me up.” Landing again in June 2004, my wife and I searched for apartments in East Jerusalem. The “security fence”, a 3 to 12 meter (approx 10 – 39 feet) high cold, grey and meandering concrete wall that divides the West Bank from Israel, and often the West Bank from itself, had not yet permeated every neighborhood we visited, and so we settled in Beit-Hanina/Al-Ram (House of Hanina/the Hill/Mountain). We furnished our apartment from our savings and made our longer-term plans to stay and work for the future of Palestine. We were hopeful.
I. Finding your way
As with any city where a wall divides (Berlin and Belfast come to mind), there is the rhetoric of the politicians in the air and the facts on the ground. Movement is possible, but not probable. Al-Quds University was a few miles to the southeast of Jerusalem in Abu Dis. The wall was there between them, as was the convent whose garden we trespassed daily to circumvent the concrete and razor wire. Old women busking their gardens’ produce over the wall, school children in plaid skirts, mothers handing their babies over to Samaritan strangers, young men detained hours for being a) young, and b) men, all with dust in their shoes and the wrong hawiyyeh (identification card). We were with them and among them, every morning at a checkpoint, then the wall, then on the Ford Transits shuttling us to the university. Every evening was the reverse of the same, ending on our balcony, shaking the day’s dust out of our clothing.
II. The classroom
In a land where the land has been taken out from under you, space is scarce. As a result, classrooms were overstuffed with 40-50 desks and a student body for each. I taught English my first summer, a compulsory course given to the willing and unwilling alike. From our window we could see the top of Al-Aqsa mosque peeking above the barriers between. We paused our lessons as the prayers issued from the campus minaret, and spent the first ten minutes of each session waiting for the young men who had either to steal themselves over the stony hills to avoid a checkpoint, or had faced one headlong and had been sitting guarded by Israeli soldiers on the side of the road since their journeys began near daybreak. It was a familiar game, one our Transit often meekly rolled past every morning, so no notes were required.
But the occupation aside, my students were your average 18-24 year-olds, your type A’s and B’s, those here to better compete for a handful of jobs and those whose destinies had forfeited them to loitering on the stairs over cigarettes and tea, some of them fresh from prison, others to disappear for weeks and return with their spirits quietly broken. How do you teach these young men and women, whose lives made them old but whose spirits longed for the promise of work tempered by youthful play? I was ustaaz, or teacher (sir), but I wanted to level any sense of hierarchy. I was a foreigner to them, already privileged, although the ace up my sleeve was being married to a Palestinian. I was foreign, but baladi (local). Humor, and a lot of it, was what we shared throughout our lessons. There is heart in humor, and intelligence – so it was the perfect vehicle to get us through our hours together, helping us to forget, or at least ignore, what drudgeries licked and sometimes breached the university’s gates.
III. Basement of a mosque
Imagine a small amphitheater, fashioned of concrete, each of its 12 steps a meter high and six across, with a raised platform at the foot. Complete this vision with concrete walls, a few fluorescent lights, and tiny windows near an impossibly high ceiling. In essence, a pit inside a vault. This was the art department, all of its studios in the one: drawing, printmaking, painting, ceramics, and history. This is where the students who had done less well on placement exams, and those with an earnest desire to pursue the arts, were half-heartedly encouraged to learn only those skills necessary to teach art in Palestine’s elementary schools. Meanwhile, across the campus, the Said Khoury IT Center of Excellence, a new facility decked out with the latest computers and software, was under lock and key to admit only engineering students. At its helm is a well connected plutocrat who was often flown to the U.S. to drum up support for his grand scheme of building such exclusive centers throughout the West Bank. Inclusion by exclusion, or something like that. Let them eat cake. From the vantage point of that basement I watched everything unfold. The chair of the department was a scheming pushover, placed in the position in order to insure maintenance of the status quo. He made disciples of some of his male students, gathering with them during my lectures at the top of the theater, smoking cigarettes and denigrating the pretty girls in the class. Another professor, when we first met, showed me several student projects, nails driven into boards with string wrapped around them to make ‘drawings,’ projects committed under his tutelage, and informed me that they had no talent and no future in art. All of the department’s professors were exhibiting artists, those whose names fill the registries of every Palestinian international exhibition. They were a small enclave in a cornered market, perpetually reminding their students that they were ‘not ready’, while they hoarded all opportunity for themselves.
Conversely, my students learned to draw and paint things other than the one ceramic pot at the center of the platform. We met at a gallery in Ramallah to discuss the work on its walls. For most, it was the first time they’d been exposed to art, so half of the attendants were welcome crashers from other classes. They did required research on contemporary Arab artists, learned about the foundations that supported art making both locally and internationally, and participated in critiques wherein the negatives were balanced with praise and ideas held as much importance as skills. We were forging a small revolution in a system where all learning was done by rote. Half of the students relegated themselves to the same motifs they’d learned to graffiti on the wall: Aqsa mosque, the symbol of Jerusalem, maps of Palestine, people in chains, and the saber, or cactus, plants, symbols of vitality and steadfastness. The other half embraced their given freedom, with trepidation, and created either reflections of the natural world around them, or invented and explored their own symbologies. Even as their unfired ceramics arrived half-crumbled from their journeys and the scrutinies of belligerent soldiers, these students were eager to embrace anything that reminded them that their world was not simply ‘the situation’, but rather ‘the situation’ coupled with their self-expectations and an unwavering desire for better.
There is a thing in Arab culture called “wasta”. In short, it is nepotism. In its wider reach, it is a way of life that takes opportunity away from the deserving, rewards selfishness and keeps the proletariat in its place: underfoot. This small, middle- and upper-class is a political and social powerhouse in Palestine, having won the hearts and minds of the West, many of them educated there. The university’s own President was a Harvard graduate and a guest-lecturer, and, I was told, a close personal friend of Condoleezza Rice, a pedigree rife with red flags. His family supposedly held the keys to the Church of Holy Sepulchre, and his son was being groomed to lead. His alliances were calculated and personally motivated to motivate his person. My term of endearment for such special people became ‘wastafarian.’ The heads of state and the heads of universities, many local NGOs and cultural institutions are cut from that metal, and they are a despicable lot, favoring long titles over humanitarianism and social progress. They are proponents of a peace process by whatever terms earn them the highest seats in the new regime. They are double-agents, treasonous supporters of false pacts and conciliations.
I mention these folks, not in passing, but to highlight the fact that ‘the situation’ has many facets. There is the bold face of the Israeli occupation, which we see in larger force in Gaza whenever an Israeli election is near, and there are the lesser seen faces of the native perpetrators of that occupation, those who gain from milking the politics of effacing their own people. They have been relegated by Dante to the ninth circle of hell.
Not that it matters, but it does. When one applies for residency in the great land of Judah, their faith is recorded and becomes the primary determinant of their parcel of the promise. Muslims finish dead last in this land. They are not typically wastafarians, being neither elite, monied, nor mobile. So when Hamas won the helm of Palestine in its democratic elections, Fatah, the thug and scoundrel party and dears to Israeli normalization schemes, and Abu Mazen, its leader after Arafat’s untimely death, were not impressed. That is to say, the puppeteers did not expect it, despite their interferences at the polls.
Armed by Israel and the U.S., Fatah fought and lost Gaza, whose control we may be reminded, was part of the package in the democratic decision. The media was quick to label Hamas as terrorists, as the U.S. and Israel conveniently had, placing them in the same category as non-traditional combatants, and therefore outside the realm of an acceptable ruling party (and the respects of the Geneva Convention). I can only report that when I encountered the student representative of Hamas on campus, it was a most congenial meeting of smiles, hellos, welcomes and handshakes. Call it PR if you like. It was a real welcome. The students of Fatah, on the contrary, nearly always sat in the back of the class, slouching in their chairs and passing answers to one another during exams. To an American professor, this might be a familiar scenario, but in the Arab world, where your respect is matched only by your hospitality, this was a cardinal sin. No honor in that, and that (Fatah) is what Washington’s demagogues are raising to lead, or half-lead, the nation of Palestine, raising the average American to believe that peace can be found at the bottom of the barrel. Hamas has not bought that deal, its ranks made from the commoner man, the one selling you bread for what bread should cost. But alas, the god you choose is your leverage if it is our god you choose, which is the god of payouts allocated over pauper’s graves.
VI. In the middle of this: designers in the making
Because of, and despite the obstacles to self-determination, our students were constantly looking for a way out. In retrospect, and even at the time, design wasn’t going to save any of them, but what it provided them was an alternative way of thinking and an outlet for their imaginations. And it was the best alternative to the subterranean lives of the other art students, as the lab was elsewhere on campus, comprised of ten new i-Macs, a few printers and scanners, and a G4 teacher’s station. All systems were new to them: the grid, hierarchies, typography, contrast, rhythm, balance and repetition. Well, repetition of a different sort. Half of the challenge was teaching in English and being uncertain of how it was being understood in translation. One student was designated the translator, and we repeated ourselves and their exercises as many times as necessary over several lessons until the results came out in their work. Aside from language, the real barrier was methodology. As stated earlier, students were used to following the Jordanian system which favored memorization over free thought. “What if” was not in their vocabularies; we were hard-pressed to evoke their confidence in testing untried paths to achieve multiple solutions. When the bulbs went on, however, it was contagious, and we found peer teaching to be a most valuable aid to improving the class as a whole.
VIII. Impasses and shameful intentions
I wish I could wax on about the brilliant students that emerged from the program, but at the end of a year in Palestine, I had drawn several conclusions for myself that forced me to move on: 1) the administration was thoroughly corrupt; 2) the design program was a pass-the-time for my co-founding colleague; 3) opportunity was rare and reserved for someone other than my students.
Driving examples to those points, my wife and I had to visit the university’s head of finance once a month to deliver a treatise on why we should be paid our contractually agreed-to salaries. On one such occasion, we were informed that he was on holiday in Monaco. Our students could hardly afford their tuition and this man, often on holiday, was sunbathing in a country reserved for imperial wealth. Never mind that the also-absent university President was a visiting scholar at Harvard, and the Vice-President, in his stead, knee-deep in orchestrating exclusive and cooperative projects with the very neighbors who were erecting a wall to cantonize the West Bank (preventing free passage of his students to his own classrooms). I was asked on one such project, an interactive science museum that needed a full exhibition design. After some initial meetings, I signed onto the project and then discovered, quite by accident, that it was not an independent initiative, but a cooperative project with Hebrew University. I withdrew in disgust, as such projects are initiated by the same Israeli institutions whose research helps develop the toxins and incendiary devices that were then and are now tested on the population of Gaza. They are public relations ploys meant to pander to the peaceniks and lend credibility to Israel’s claims that it is “building bridges.” What’s more, my colleague was developing his own grand scheme to use ceramic tiles manufactured in the old tradition by the Palestinians in Khalil (Hebron) in the design of café tables and other merchandise for sale in high-end markets throughout Europe. My first instinct when he shared this idea with me was to say, “That’s wonderful! It will provide a great source of income to them and expose their craft to a lot of people.” No, I was mistaken, this was for his own profit, something he envisioned retiring on, as his billable hours as a designer were too finite for comparable fortunes to be made. He will be retiring on this proposal, I’m sure.
The final brick in the wall, so to speak, was the realization that all forces were working against the students. The full program proposal that I had worked so hard to help flesh out would sit at the Ministry of Education under a generous pile of similar proposals while the fat men behind those desks read the paper, smoked cigarettes and drank tea to pass their days. The kiln, which I proposed be moved and properly enclosed in a fire retardant room of its own, was left in a corner to gather dust. The cooperative projects I had proposed to build a design community between Al-Quds, a European polytechnic and an American university found a similar audience with absolutely no one. And the students themselves, defeated by this system, were resigned to more of the same. One last ditch effort was made to petition for my most promising student, a double-major in art and mathematics in two separate Palestinian universities, to earn her a scholarship that would allow her to continue her studies. My letters to the university’s administration went unanswered and I eventually gave up on the matter. Rather than end this as a register of complaints about the one-eyed and the blind, I would like to thank the university’s administration for putting the fight in me, and my former colleague for helping me realize that there is no substitute for truth. I would especially like to thank my students, the ones who tried, for showing me that what matters most in an unjust world is not the resolution, but the struggle.
Raymond Prucher is a designer, artist, and writer. He has taught visual communication in Palestine, the UAE, and the USA.