By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Palestinians are in the unenviable position of needing to know a lot about places and people that they have considered enemies for years. Many refuse, choosing instead to embroider on whatever rumors, exaggerations and pet theories are circulating in the occupied territories. I once sat for half an hour listening to a man tell me that 9/11 wasn’t really committed by terrorists, because how could they have made it through America’s supertight airport security? He was not dissuaded by my detailed, firsthand knowledge of what passes for security at America’s airports.
Most Americans, of course, couldn’t find Ramallah or Gaza City on a map if someone put a gun to their head. That’s irrelevant. Americans are not dependent on Palestinians to help establish their nation. Palestinians are not so lucky, and some have decided that ignorance about the U.S. is a luxury they can no longer afford.
For the last year, the first five students of the first American Studies graduate program in the occupied territories have been learning about American government, foreign policy, culture and literature. The program, through Al Quds University, is already overbooked for next year. This year’s students are finding that their newly acquired knowledge has made them experts in a subject that everyone around them feels they already know everything about.
“My dad works in politics and my mom works in law,” said a 23-year-old woman named Bayan, wearing strappy heels that only the tiniest among us can pull off. “There are always visitors at the house talking about America. It’s really amazing that even the elite and intellectuals in Palestine lack knowledge about America. They don’t know how the Congress functions, and how other parts of the government function. They don’t know about the Bill of Rights and civil liberties in America.” Jawad, an earnest, long-faced young man, said, “I have problems with my brothers when I talk with them about America. They say, ‘You are not tell the truth. You are just studying what they wrote. You are American.’”
The students meet four times a week (twice in the summer session) from 3 to 6 in the afternoon, in a small room with yellow curtains in an office suite in Ramallah. They’re all taking the classes for the same reason — they want Palestine to exist — and for very different reasons. Bayan wants to teach American literature to university students.
Mohammed, in tinted glasses, is an electrical engineer turned journalist in his late 30s who works with the Palestinian Authority negotiating team. “We don’t understand how to influence the American system,” he said, smiling in a way that was both sad and matter-of-fact. “I think we failed to affect the American people because we didn’t understand how the American people think, and that’s why the American people don’t know our problem here.”
Ghada has five kids, works in a bank, and has that lovely Lauren Hutton gap between her front teeth. “I don’t want to sit still,” she said. “I think a way of preventing the continuing occupation is through the United States. I don’t have a specific job in mind, but once I’m there, the picture will be clearer.” Jawad sells computers and Ayad writes software. They’re both in their early 20s and are smitten with capitalism and entrepreneurship.
“When we are talking about American studies, we are talking about business,” said Jawad. “I want to operate my own company in the future.”
At the end of their last foreign-policy class (“. . . and the Monroe Doctrine was a turning point in U.S. foreign policy . . .,” etc.), I sat and talked with the students for a while. Very quickly, we weren’t discussing the U.S. or Americans at all.
“It’s really amazing when you study this small book named the American Constitution,” said Mohammed, the guy who works with the Palestinian Authority. “It’s about 10 or 12 pages, very clear, very easy to read. You know your rights and you know your obligations. I went to study our constitution [he started laughing], and I found that there are about 200 articles, around 39 pages, and you know your rights at the beginning, then while you are reading you start to find that they’re taking it away from you. It contradicts itself.”
Ghada, the banker with the Lauren Hutton smile, said, “I keep comparing [the U.S.] with my society, myself, my family, and asking, ‘Why are we standing still? Why aren’t we moving ahead?’”
Bayan described a conversation with her father, a journalist, in which he told her that half the members of the U.S. Congress are Jewish, and she told him, no, that’s factually inaccurate. He told her she was wrong. They went back and forth.
“And I got the book to show him, and when he saw it, he said, ‘Really, I didn’t know that,’” she said. “I said, ‘You should start reading about America from now on.’”
A lot of the misconceptions about the U.S. floating around the occupied territories follow this pattern: exaggerations of Jewish power that are then sometimes woven into an implicit — or explicit — excuse for the missteps and unfettered self-interest that have characterized some of the Palestinian leadership. The students are bypassing that whole morass of deciding, once and for all, who is more to blame for which parts of Palestinian suffering, by trying to think strategically.