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.
“When I came to American studies,” said Bayan, “I learned about how the Israelis were able to make friendship with the Americans, and since then I started thinking about how I, as a Palestinian, could make friends to the Americans — a real and loyal friend. And then this American friend will be ready to defend me one day.”
Mohammed said, “People say, ‘American support for Israel, that’s what we see. It’s not our problem to inform the Americans.’ But I think it is the problem of the intelligentsia, it’s the problem of us. How can we who are sitting here, and others, influence the people in America? I think the Arabs didn’t do that in the last 50 years, at least.”
Everything they’re saying is heresy. To even hint, as Palestinians, that there could be better strategies for approaching their own predicament is also to suggest that the current leadership has not always made the best decisions, and from there — many Palestinians feel — it’s a short leap to letting Israel off the hook, which no one wants to do.
Even to raise these issues with family and friends, as the students are doing, is not easy. People don’t like to be corrected — not fathers and especially not people who’ve been under occupation for over 30 years.
“They need facts, and it’s not easy to give them the facts,” said Mohammed.
The students do not, for the most part, have a starry-eyed vision of the U.S. as The Country That Does Everything Right. But in articulating their ambitions for their own country, they do see the best parts of the U.S. more clearly than a lot of Americans do.
So does Dr. Mohammed Dajani, who started the American Studies program. He has an intense, unshakable love for the U.S. that probably only a foreigner who grew up hating it could have. At American University in Beirut in the 1970s, he was, he said, “extremely anti-American. I was the first president of the student council who declined to accept a B.A. degree from the university, as a protest against the war in Vietnam and against the university not giving a degree to people who could not afford to pay,” he said. “My message was that America doesn’t care for poor people.”
Mohammed ended up in the U.S. after his younger brother talked him into going to graduate school there, first in South Carolina, and later in Texas. They stayed for 10 years. They got used to living in a democracy with a free press and occasionally great movies, and Mohammed found, to his surprise, that he really liked Americans: “Generous, frank, practical and outgoing.” Then once he started liking Americans, all sorts of weird doors started opening. “I was taking a class with a Jewish professor,” he said. “One day he invited me to his office. He said, ‘Do you think I’m prejudiced against you in the class? Have you made any complaint against me to the other students?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t know the other students.’ This professor used to ignore me if I raised my hand, cut me off as I was speaking. He said, ‘Some of the students from your class complained to me about my treatment of you.’ I was shocked that the students cared and that he cared.”
The professor invited Mohammed to his house for dinner with his family. He told Mohammed that this was his first experience with an Arab and that his father was an Orthodox rabbi who had brought him up as a vehement supporter of Israel. “Then I started to study Jewish culture in the States,” said Mohammed. “I still kept away from Israelis — that didn’t change until later — but my experiences in the U.S. shifted my thinking from ‘us or them’ to ‘us and them.’”
A few of Mohammed’s students have experienced a similar shift: becoming more open to talking to Israelis after learning about the U.S. “Before American Studies, I couldn’t go into an organization calling for peace and sitting down with Israelis,” said Bayan. “I never knew why, but I was always afraid. Now I’m ready to be part of a peace organization, even if it’s war. I’m ready to sit and talk to people.”
I wanted to ask the students what they were hearing people say about the road-map peace plan, and what they themselves thought of it, especially Mohammed — not the teacher but the one who works with the Palestinian Authority. But the day I went back to talk to them about it, Mohammed was absent, visiting his sick father. I e-mailed him later, and his response laid out clearly what he and the other students are up against when it comes to selling the road map, or any other U.S.-backed peace plan, to their friends, family and strangers.
“The [Palestinian] people don’t know the impact of Sep 11 on the U.S. foreign policy,” he wrote. “The people don’t understand how much Israel benefits from creating the image of similarity between the American war against terror and her war. I have to explain that many times, whether face-to-face to friends, colleagues at work or to members of family. And I have written articles advocating stopping violence [suicide bombings and other attacks] to win the U.S. support and to take that winning card from the Israeli government. There are also steps concerning reform in the authority and dismantling the violence groups [i.e., Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc.], and these are not clear to the people. They think it’s possible for example to jump on some of that, or that these are not important, and again we have explained that this is not possible. But honestly this a big work, need more people to be involved, better access to media and resources.”
A big work indeed. Another 16 students start the program in the fall.