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Letter from Birzeit, #3: Student Strikes

October 9, 2013
by Maya Rose Goldman Maya Rose Goldman is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, where she studies Human Rights, Anthropology, and Arabic. After a visit to Palestine in the Spring of 2012, she became passionate about understanding the situation in the Occupied Territories and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. In August, she returned to the West Bank to study at Birzeit University, from where she has been writing these letters.

Student Strikes

September 2 Today was supposed to be the first day of classes for Birzeit University students (and our second day in the PAS program). Instead of coming to school for their classes, however, students arrived in black t-shirts and kufiyas to go on strike against the university. Apparently this happens at least once per semester and can last more than two weeks. The strikes are in response to rising tuition fees; only 50 percent of the university’s revenue is currently from student tuition, and Birzeit is in debt, which is why tuition keeps increasing. The students, however, are barely able to meet the current fees. I spoke to one student recently who explained that her tuition is determined by her major, and if she gets below a certain grade, her tuition can increase by $500. For her English Literature major, she pays just over 500 Jordanian dinars per semester, which is half of what her father earns in a month. This is difficult enough when a family has one child, but most have more than one. This one particular student explained to me that families are now placing a huge emphasis on girls going to college. This is because a man can work several jobs (being a car mechanic, for example) without going to college, but “a girl needs her degree.” Because of this, families are really scraping together whatever they have — as well as borrowing money from relatives (it is extremely rare that people get loans from banks; I believe this is due to corruption and the tendency to get ripped off) — in order to send their daughters to university. However, once they graduate it is still extremely difficult to find a job due to the economic situation. She explained to me that many graduates are looking for jobs in NGOs, but all of those positions are already taken by internationals coming here to do that sort of work (foreigners “stealing” jobs — sound familiar?) She said that a lot of people will go abroad — often to the United States — in order to get a Master’s before returning to Palestine, and this is often feasible because the fact that they are Palestinian means it’s a bit easier for them to get scholarships. So despite the university’s debt situation, it is completely understandable that the students are angry and on strike right now. However, this means that the entire university is shut down. The students had initially told the PAS program that they would let the PAS students in to study, but they changed their minds today and kept the gate closed. The hope is that by tomorrow the program will have either negotiated with the students to let us in, or found another location for us to have our classes. Regardless, today is yet another day off for us. Hopefully we’ll be let back in soon.

Back from Hiatus

September 9 The student strike is still going on, but we finally got moved to an alternate location for classes. It’s an incredibly beautiful building, tclipboard9he Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, and the entire front of it is covered in an exquisitely painted mural of people playing musical instruments. I finally feel like I’m officially in school, which is great. The limbo stage was beginning to drive me crazy, although it did give me the opportunity to do a good deal of exploring. I have gone on two hikes in the past week, both of which were beautiful and rocky and exhausting; I have spent an afternoon with a large group of women, all of whom live together and who let us pick and eat fresh figs from their two large fig trees; I have explored the market of Al-Quds with my fantastic roommates; and I have of course spent some time in Ramallah, which is only about a 20-minute bus ride from Birzeit. img_0207The first hike was through what I think was a dried-up riverbed. It was extremely rocky and thorny, and on either side were tons of olive trees — and even a few fig trees, whose fruit we of course had to taste. The sun was intense, but it was really nice to get out and explore a completely new place with completely new foliage. Afterward, we met the family of the man who drove us to the location, and their neighbors were what must have been eight to ten women, all dressed in decorative leopard- or flower-print veils and all from the same family. We spent a lot of time just sitting and chatting with these women, and at one point it was revealed that one of them had just gotten married to her neighbor two weeks earlier. We all of course made a huge deal of this and congratulated her multiple times, but we were shocked when, just before we left, she removed her lengthy veil to reveal her long wavy hair, intricate dress, fancy red necklace, and the full extent of her make-up. I think she was still dressed up due to being a recent bride; she was so beautiful, and it was both shocking and meaningful for her to expose herself to us in that way. ismael-mom-and-catThe woman in the picture at right is our cab driver’s mother. Her family built a three-story home recently behind their own (for more family members, I think), but as soon as they’d finished it and put in all of the furniture, the IDF came and tore it down completely. And then they charged the family for the demolition costs. The family’s home is in Area C, so I guess this was expected (they would need a permit — which they would probably not be given — in order to build), but the IDF WAITED until the home was entirely finished and furnished before they destroyed it. img_0247The second hike we went on was on Saturday. It began in the old city of Birzeit, and as we set out a goat from a herd began to chase after us for at least five minutes, baa-ing all the way. It was pretty hilarious. We hiked through the hills of Jabal Idloob, which involved trekking through several basically non-existent paths and getting stuck with a lot of thorns, entering Wai al-Balat, hiking over Jabal Butros (jabal=mountain) until we reached the village of Jifna (pictured below), and then walking back to Birzeit. Jifna and Birzeit are actually next to each other and if you walk down the main road, it will probably only take you about thirty minutes to get from one place to the other, but with all the mountains it took us just over three hours to finish the entire hike. We all had such a good time, and I felt really invigorated and energized afterward. It was the most exercise I’d done since I got here (there aren’t exactly gyms here), and I was so glad for it. The hike was organized and led by a recently-developed group in Bethlehem, and most of the people on the hike were foreigners from Germany — something I have found to be the case in most situations involving foreigners here. They lead hikes every Saturday in a different part of Palestine in order to get to know the country in a more direct way. I think it’s a beautiful idea, and I hope to be able to join them again. img_0256I suppose I’ve seen a lot this past week, which I’m definitely grateful for, but it’s time to jump into my classes! I will report back on those in a few days, after I feel I’ve learned enough in each to say something substantial about them. So far, I’m really enjoying all of them, and I think my Arabic is already getting better. What a relief! I was really starting to get nervous about that part. Tomorrow night, my roommates and I are going to Ramallah for a garden screening of Casablanca, which somehow none of us has seen . . . Click here for all Maya’s Letters from Birzeit.