Teaching in the West Bank

Bethlehem University, main gate

Bethlehem University

This year, every time I arranged a meeting with administrators or professors at the university, or set up lecture schedules, or discussed plans for specific classes, the final word of the conversation would be “inshallah.” Inshallah means “if God wills”: inshallah I will see you later this afternoon; inshallah the computers will be working for a power point presentation; inshallah there will be a translator available; inshallah the lecture we’ve scheduled for tomorrow will actually happen; inshallah the students will learn something.

Inshallah is a good summary of my experience at Bethlehem University this year. I’ve ended up offering lectures in other people’s classes, rather than having my own classes—which is not what I had expected to do. I taught on women in leadership around the world today, family structure in the modern United States, the history of feminism in the West—topics far outside my own field. Students have included undergraduates at the university, and mothers and grandmothers in the local community. And planned lectures, with the requested (and carefully prepared) accompanying power point presentation, have been derailed by students’ questions and demands.

From the administrative side, I’ve grown accustomed to lengthy meetings over tea or Nescafe or sometimes real Arabic coffee (the strong, sweet kind served in espresso cups half-full of coffee grounds), in which we talk about life, the universe, and everything in it, but put off making decisions or scheduling lectures “until next time.” Inshallah, of course. Halfway through the year I gave up developing my own ideas for lectures; it’s much easier to let the administrators and professors tell me what to prepare. And I also learned to call before leaving home to reconfirm lectures or meetings—because inshallah is a serious matter; who knows what last-minute emergency may have intervened to change plans?

In the classroom, I’ve found the undergraduates to be curious and eager and very, very talkative. Lecturing is not really possible; students want to jump straight into discussion, and they will (and did) interrupt a lecture to ask questions. Active engagement like this is something I appreciate in students—the problem is that the questions rarely related to the material. In a lecture on the history of feminism in America, for instance, the students were not all that interested in the philosophy and theory and social impact of the various waves of feminism in the States (the issues I had been asked to address by the professor of the class). So they interrupted the lecture (despite the lovely, meticulously-prepared supporting slides!) to ask about my impressions of Palestine, women’s position in society here and how it compares to America, my age and marital status and salary, and other important issues.

In general, the undergraduates are very practical. They want to know why a particular topic matters, how it relates to their life in Bethlehem or Jerusalem or Hebron today, and what they can do with the material. They are not interested in philosophies or historical developments as much as life in the world today. They are interested in hearing about America, and what Americans do, how they think, why they act in certain ways. They are interested in hearing about Palestine from an American’s perspective. And they are very interested in the private lives of professors (it’s not just me, either—my upstairs neighbor, a Palestinian who teaches in a local high school, says he also gets alarmingly personal questions from his students).

Lectures for the women in the local community were completely different. The mothers and grandmothers listened and took notes to lectures, and it was more difficult to get them to ask questions or discuss the material. They were taking time out of their days—away from children and husbands and mothers-in-law, possibly time away from family businesses or jobs—and they wanted to learn, not to talk themselves. They also did not challenge my authority or right to be teaching, like the (mostly conservative male) students did. However, once the lecture ended, the women were just as interested in my life, my family, and my impressions of Palestine. As my neighbor says, “privacy” doesn’t really exist here.

Of course these are broad generalizations. There were individuals who were engaged with lecture material, and asked insightful questions that furthered the discussion (rather than derailing it). There were broad ranges of opinions represented in classes—Muslims and Christians, men and women, those who hold more conservative and traditional values and those who want to challenge and change society. And there were mothers and grandmothers who played Candy Crush throughout entire lectures (in the front row, nonetheless). Overall, though, I learned to use “inshallah” as a mantra in preparing and delivering lectures—inshallah we will stay somewhat close to topic, inshallah someone will be interested in this material, inshallah the questions won’t get too personal.

My year at Bethlehem University has certainly not been what I expected before I came, but it’s been delightful in surprising, challenging, and occasionally frustrating ways. Can’t we skip the tea and talking and just make the plans? No! The relationship is what’s important here, not the business. Do I really have to explain yet again why I’m not married? Yes, yes I do, because the ability to be a single adult woman, living alone far from my parents, supporting myself, is a major cultural difference between Palestine and the States, and it opens up fascinating discussions on women’s roles in society and family, the opportunities for women in education and the professional world, and perspectives on “equality.”

I’m certainly grateful to the administrators, professors, and students who have been so talkative, curious, and welcoming this year. I said farewell to the professor with whom I’ve worked the most, and his assistant (perhaps the most helpful woman at the university), a couple weeks ago. The final word we exchanged? Inshallah, of course: Inshallah we will meet again.

Bethlehem University courtyard