A visit to Al Quds university in the Palestinian territories

Claire Mathieu

The Holy Land is a special place for me. It is the country of many of my friends and colleagues in the academic world, and of my Christian roots.  But virtually everyone I know there is Jewish Israeli. What about Arab Israelis, and what about Palestinians? I was curious to meet them, so as to give a concrete reality to their existence, and to be able to associate faces of real people to the abstract "Palestinian population" sometimes mentioned in the news. On the occasion of a trip to the Hebrew university of Jerusalem in December 2009, I arranged to  give a seminar at Al Quds university in the Palestinian territories.

Wall of the Old City near Jaffa gate.
Separation wall near Bethlehem.

One Saturday morning, my driver, a short man with a mustache, picks me up in the hotel lobby. I climb into his light, unmarked truck, and off we go, him driving silently around the Old City and away into the mountains, me wondering where we are headed and feeling a little bit nervous. The campus of Al Quds is in Abu Dis, a few miles from Jerusalem. Since the wall has not yet been built across the road we take, the only barrier we pass on the way is a small roadblock on the other side of the highway. I watch the  dry  mountainous landscape and the Middle-Eastern towns, noticing a good number of construction projects and of brand new buildings. In one valley, we pass a "USAid" sign mentioning some water project. We may be in the Third World, but international help does seem to be arriving there! 

Once at Al Quds university, my host greets me in the very modern information technology center and takes me for a tour of campus, followed by a woman introduced as the person in charge of "public relations". She hardly says anything all day, but, because of her presence, I never have a one-on-one conversation with any one: is it chaperoning or a discrete surveillance? I am not sure. The campus is sunny and very pleasant, and everything is neat and well-kept. We hear the gentle sound of water trickling from the fountains. Scattered groups of students are chatting, studying or relaxing on the stone benches under the olive trees. Most of the women wear colorful silk scarves, and the peaceful scene would look idyllic, if my Western mind didn't remind me that scarves are supposed to be a symbol of oppression of women. Throughout my visit, to mark their deference for their guest, my companions are constantly stepping aside to let me go first through doors and lead the way, hence a rather complex ballet of foot movements. I am not used to such manners and it is a bit awkward for me, especially since I usually do not know which direction we are supposed to go next! I can only hope I haven't committed any serious breach of etiquette; if I have, my hosts were too polite for me to be able to tell.

Campus of Al Quds.

After meeting the dean of science, we go to visit the "museum of political prisoners" where I see a map of prisons (interestingly, I note that the 1967 borders are drawn on the map) and documents about Palestinians in Israeli prisons: photos, art created by prisoners, letters to family members. Although I try to keep in mind that this is one particular perspective of the conflict, it is rather striking. Previously, I had suggested to an Israeli pacifist-leaning friend that he, too, might wish to visit there, but now I am having second thoughts about that idea. It is one thing to want to be a peacemaker and wish to talk with people of goodwill on the Palestinian side, but quite another to watch an exhibit detailing exactions committed by one's fellow countrymen! We then meet the director of the museum, who offers me a cup of tea. Since he does not speak English, my host translates. He gives me various statistics. I ask: "How do you see the future?" What a question! A deluge of words follows, summarized by the first sentence: "The future is dark". I ask my host: "Do you have any students who have been to prison?" He smiles at my naivete: "Yes, of course", and then proceeds to give me an extraordinary quote: "Prison is a flower that every young Palestinian man should breathe"! I am stunned. But he adds immediately that, as for himself, by good luck he has  never gone to prison so far.

The wall is there, tall, dark, forbidding. It stands right next to the campus entrance, winds down into the valley and goes back up to block the horizon on the hill facing us. Its presence is a constant reminder of the political situation. No more rational reasoning on statistics, no more careful weighing of objective pros and cons: I am pained by its ugly, intrusive sight.

Separation wall seen from Al Quds campus.

I give a talk to an audience of a dozen students and faculty, in a well-equipped room. There are a few comments, including one by a woman with a scarf, in the back of the room: bravo! People seem interested to learn how search engines (such as Google) auction their ad slots, and I get some good questions. We then have lunch in a restaurant on campus.  I learn, much to my surprise, that in Computer Science the majority of the students are women. Apparently, this phenomenon can be traced back to the first intifada, when many young men went into hiding. In addition, the women also tend to get better grades, but after graduation their salary is much lower than men's - hardly a surprise. Most graduating students go on to teach, although low salaries often requires teachers to take on a second job. We discuss the problems of education at the primary and secondary levels, entirely based on rote learning and from which creative thinking is completely absent. Al Quds was the first university with a computer science department. I ask: does it have the best computer science students? Not necessarily. Because of the difficulty of traveling and going through checkpoints, that risk causing delays of several hours, students tend to choose their university according to accessibility. Hence Ramallah students tend to go to Bir Zeit, whereas Al Quds attracts students from the neighboring region. Most students are self-supporting  and work full time, so they only study part-time, one or two days per week, and naturally  that delays graduation by years. There are undergraduate and masters students  (no PhD program). Among the faculty, some hold a masters and some have a PhD. I am told that one is working towards a PhD in Math at the Hebrew university, and another is doing a PhD in education at the Weizmann institute.

Seminar room.

What do they need? They have long-term plans of reforming the high-school curriculum, with the introduction of problem-solving and of mathematical competitions, once teachers become receptive to the idea. They  are very interested in e-learning and have had contacts with CNAM in France on the subject. They are looking for scientific collaborations with opportunities for visits, student exchanges, etc. They wish to introduce their masters' students to research and would welcome long-distance co-advising on research projects, suggestions for good research topics, and other ways to help them develop their research. In short, these are the natural priorities of faculty who wish to better educate the youth of their country and foster advanced learning. In a way, in spite of the adversarial context they sound more optimistic about the future than the Israelis I have talked to!

Seminar room equipment.

We wait for my return taxi, standing near the wall that once again takes center stage. My host tells me that his sister, being married to a Jerusalemite, now has an Israeli ID, that makes it difficult for her to cross the checkpoints into the Palestinian territories. "She was born here and wants to come and visit her mother who still lives here. How can it be that the border patrols don't want to let her through, for her to see her own mother?", he sighs. But he carefully refrains from following up with political statements. As for me, when the taxi crosses the checkpoint I am simply waved through and, just like on my trip to Bethlehem, no one even looks at my passport. For a tourist like me, the borders are wide open!

In academia, we like to believe that in the long term education cures all problems. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much too complex for outsiders like me to even begin to gauge, but, where there are students trying to learn and professors trying to teach and to develop a knowledge of research, how can it not be a good idea to try to participate towards their general goal of academic learning?

Public Lecture; Algorithmic Game Theory        

تتشرف كلية العلوم- دائرة الحاسب وتكنولوجيا المعلومات

 بدعوتكم لحضور محاضرة بعنوان

"Algorithmic Game Theory "


 البروفيسوره كلير ماثيو من جامعة براون / الولايات المتحدة


وذلك يوم السبت 19-12-2009 في تمام الساعة الواحده بعد الظهر في قاعة الندوات في مبنى سعيد خوري لتكنولوجيا المعلومات


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