My brother, Basheer, woke early, 6 a.m.. He walked out onto our verandah and looked over our neighborhood of stucco apartments knitting courtyard to courtyard, winding down a hillside to the court where the sounds of children’s voice already filled the air. He covertly lit a cigarette. He chose not to look out at the dusty morning light; instead, he faced the door to our kitchen. I broke his solitude. “Up so early,” I chided Basheer as I came onto the verandah smiling and excited. This was Basheer’s graduation day. Basheer smiled and put out his cigarette. “Better not let Mom catch me with this,” he said. I laughed and went over to give my only brother a hug. “You are happy, right?” I said.
“Yes,” Basheer answered.
Today was the climax or the beginning, depending on how you look at it, of the family’s ambition for this son among daughters. In a few hours, we would travel with him to Birzeit University where he would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Basheer had been reveling in his success, his imaginative mind seemingly fixed on the complexity of road building, concrete stress testing, water systems, irrigation. All lectures attended and finished, all exams passed, all grades recorded, Basheer was about graduate.
Gone, for the moment at least, was his preoccupation with cooking. “Are you sorry you listened to the family and went into engineering instead of becoming a chef,” I asked, concerned that pressure from others would leave him unsatisfied?
Basheer didn’t answer directly. He said, “Today is the second most important day in a man’s life. Today, I say goodby to school and hello to the world. Next comes the most important day, the day I marry. I better make myself look good, because the pictures taken today will tell who I qualify to attract tomorrow.” He beamed at me.
Before I could respond, the nephews, who live in our family compound, appeared pushing their way toward their hero. Basheer caught the first to reach him. “Up you go,” he said lifting our four-year-old over his head. “I have a surprise for you.” Basheer vanished into the house and returned with his cap and gown. Without a word, he dressed little Suhaib in his graduation gown. Next, he plunked his tasseled cap on the head of five-year-old Hamada.
“There,” he said, “You two are the graduates. Here, let me take your pictures. Then, everyone will think we have geniuses in our family. You won’t even have to go to school,” he teased. “We’ll prove that you’ve already graduated.”
At noon, Basheer ironed his gown himself, allowing no one to assist him.
Then, he disappeared. It seemed hours before he returned, but when he did, he was a new Basheer. His hair slick with lotion, his face perfectly shaved, his gradation gift, a new suit, elegant with maroon tie and dress shoes. My mother and father, the nephews, all of us stood in adoring attention, all smiles. We were aglow.
Birzeit University’s white stone buildings almost glittered as we made our way up a steep hill to the campus. The buildings seemed to radiate the pride we felt. Once in the auditorium, all the participants I could see from my seat were just as gratified as we were. I surmised that the happiness I saw all around me was a reprieve from, even a negation of, the power of occupation. A friend is always telling me that happiness is good.
At Birzeit University amid the reality of success, I understood what she meant. This was not hedonistic hilarity some equate with pleasure; this was head-held-high achievement. This was the mindful happiness that can only come when one has gone beyond all expectations, reduced all detriments to mindless rubble and made it.
Basheer’s graduating class is the 26th group to pass beyond the portals of Birzeit University, the first and most prestigious of the 12 major institutions of higher education established in the Israeli named Occupied Territories, our Palestine. Graduations have been held at Birzeit since 1976 in spite of Israel’s continual harassment including closing the institution as much as 60 percent of the time in the 80s and 90s.
Like the students who attend the university, Birzeit’s very survival attests to the indomitable will of our people. For 19 of the university’s 49 year existence, Birzeit’s President, Founder and native of the area, Dr. Hanna Nasir, a graduate of Purdue University in the US, lived in exile. Those who work in university administration in the US would be in awe of the cooperative effort faculty and administrators maintained to keep Birzeit going through intifada, Dr. Nasir’s banishment, the deaths of countless students who cared more about their country than their own lives or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As the daughter of an academician, I know that administrators everywhere must handle in-house politics. Imagine having to deal with all the standard complaints and problems of a university and manage an opposition government’s imposed curricular restrictions, curfews that interrupt and destroy class time, no money to pay faculty and staff, air raids, Israeli Defense Forces, ditches dug to hamper coming and going, endless check point harassment of students and faculty alike.
Truant officers in the US who chase down wayward youths hiding from the education mandated by their government would marvel at Palestinian students’ efforts to get to school on the West Bank and Gaza. This is especially true at Birzeit where the Israeli government often focuses its most ruthless offensives. It’s nothing for students who live less than 5 miles from the campus to travel over fields and through people’s yards taking hours instead of minutes to arrive at their destination. Nowadays, Birzeit has to shut down at 2 p.m. because students and faculty must arrive home by dark or risk being shot, trespassers on their own land.
In America, those who have not been to a war-torn country like ours have a hard time imagining what academic life here is like. Having lived with an American faculty family, I can imagine professors waking up early in the morning, eager to get to the university for some “contemplation time” before students arrive for their morning classes, driving out of the driveway only to find that all the roads leading to and from their homes have been blocked with mountains of dirt or ditches. For us, such roadblocks are frequent compliments of Israeli paranoia about security. It’s no wonder that the physical stamina of many Palestinian educators would put their American colleagues to shame. Our mentors have few state-of-the-art gymnasiums, but they know how to walk and walk fast.
My student friends, even in places as near as Tel Aviv, would have a hard time believing the frustration of being a student on the West Bank. Imagine studying for weeks, getting up early to arrive in time for one last review before a final exam and having to miss it, and maybe a whole semester of work, because a check point guard decides that “this kid is not going toget through today” and that’s it. To graduate from Birzeit means that you not only have to master the material and pass the tests, but you must risk your life simply to get there and to get home at the end of the day–everyday of every term of every year.
There are no gentleman’s “C’s” at Birzeit, let alone an easy “A.” Very few Palestinian students have ever heard of American university grade-inflation, a surprise to me when I studied in America. One parent told me, “If I have to pay $30,000 a year for Tommy to go to college, that college just better get him through and get him ready for graduate school.”
Another person told me, “In the future, a bachelor’s degree will not be sufficient for the information age. Everyone will need an advanced degree. We have to be sure our students make the grade so they can get into good graduate programs.”
At Birzeit, even if you’ve had nothing but exhausting struggle to get to school and to get home every day for four years, you’ve still got to meet stiff academic requirements or you don’t graduate. Missing a class because an Israeli check point guard hit you on the head with his gun butt is no excuse for not having read the lesson of the day. Having studied abroad and here, I’m amazed at the hard standards required of us. Through tough academic standards our teachers inadvertently teach us to cope with the life Israelis’ impose on us. No matter how hard the subject, no matter how long it takes us to graduate (sometimes 10 years for a four-year course), we Palestinian students leave the university knowing that we have what it takes to succeed in spite of occupation. Getting into to Birzeit is like getting into an ivy league school in the US and once in, a student is on the Palestinian fast track, even if that track seems like a plodders path rather than race track.
Basheer has a number of friends who came to Birzeit from Gaza, less than 50 miles from the campus. These students cannot invite their families to see them perform in a play, tour the campus or help them move into a dorm or apartment. Why? Most Gazans are not allowed to enter the West Bank. Students can rarely, if ever, go home at holiday times. Everyone knows that it’s a privilege to be at Birzeit. Our students give up a great deal for the honor. For many, going home becomes a dream. Home may be only 50 miles by road; for Gazans it is thousands of miles by Israeli rules.”
As Basheer passes down the aisle on the way to receive his diploma, he glances over at his family and winks. He gives us a thumbs-up. As he does,, I notice television cameras, more than those usually present. What’s this, I wonder, Israeli surveillance, even at graduation?
The ceremony ends with a graduate hat toss and families rush to hug their graduates and take the obligatory photos. “What’s with the cameras?” I ask Basheer.
“Oh, that,” he answers nonchalantly, “that’s so the families in Gaza can see the graduation in their camps.” He sees a friend and turns away to shake hands and offer congratulation.
“So the families in Gaza can see their children’s graduation,” I say to myself imagining the pride and the joy that will chase away this particular dreary day in a refugee camp, made more like a prison by Israel’s determination to destroy us. Cramped and unsanitary, the Gazan camps represent occupation of the already occupied. I imagine the pain of the families who could not come to be with their students on this special day. I know the frustration of the students. Still, Birzeit thought of a way to make things better through closed circuit television. “And the Israelis think they can bring us to our knees.” I smile to myself and feel a rush of joy. I understand the meaning of real happiness even in this time of catastrophe.
(Samah Jabr is a freelance writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)