A visit to Bir Zeit University in the West Bank
On Monday April 8, 2013, I gave a talk at Bir Zeit University on approximation algorithms for minimum feedback arc set and correlation clustering with noise.
Computer Science at Bir Zeit. Bir Zeit University, a few miles North of Ramallah in the West Bank, is considered the best of Palestinian universities. It prides itself on its small class size: at most 40 students in lectures, at most 20 in labs. The highly competitive admission is determined by an exam, similar to the French baccalauréat, that is taken at the end of high school by all students in the West Bank and Gaza. The students work hard: during a typical semester, their course load consists of five or six courses, translating into 15 to 18 hours of instruction per week, plus about two hours of study time for each hour of instruction, for a total of 50-hour workweeks.
In addition to the undergraduate computer science and computer engineering degrees (with the latter somewhat more prestigious, because of the "engineer" label), which are taken by full-time students, there is also a Masters' program, followed by students who are working at the same time as they are studying (so it takes them a number of years to obtain their Master's degree). Some then go on to do a PhD abroad. The best ones get accepted to prestigious institutions: ETH, La Sapienza, MPI, etc. The hope is that after their PhD they will come back to the West Bank and join the faculty body there. Unfortunately there is no PhD program at Bir Zeit (or anywhere else in the West Bank or in Gaza). Every year at Bir Zeit about 10 students receive a Masters' degree and about a hundred undergraduates receive a degree in computer science or computer engineering. Some students have gone on to take jobs at prestigious companies such as Yahoo or Google. Others stay in the area and work for local companies, or sometimes do some coding outsourced by Israeli companies to Palestinians.
If incidents disrupt instruction, people adjust: when I visited, they had just changed their schedule to lengthen each class from 50 minutes to 60 minutes, to make up for earlier cancellations. Sometimes they also lengthen the semester, reorganizing their schedule to add an extra few weeks. The university calendar is prepared only one year in advance, and is apt to being revised three or four times during the year. Palestinian students are resilient, and ready to sacrifice a lot to get a good education!
Computer science faculty teach three or four courses per semester, much more than institutions I have attended in the US or in France: during the semester, there is no time for research. But in the summer, if they do not sign up for additional teaching they normally have three months of freedom, and could in principle reconnect with the research world, if they had opportunities to join research groups abroad for a visit. They all have Masters' and a number of them have PhDs, representing many different areas of CS, (but none doing Algorithms.) In computer science there are about ten faculty, all men, and somewhat fewer assistant faculty, of which many are women (some working towards their Masters'.)
I gave a seminar to a full lecture room. It is always a pleasure to give a presentation when so many - over a hundred - are in attendance! The faculty sat on the first row, and the students filled the rest of the room. My lecture was received politely, but no one there does theoretical computer science, so the interest was probably somewhat superficial, and my talk might have aroused more interest if I had given it to mathematicians. Women among the students were a large minority, and I was told that the university has a majority of women.
Most of the women wore scarves, and many had an ankle-length robe, but even though it covered their body fully from foot to neck, many were shapely, fitting tightly around the waist for an attractive look. The scarves were colorful and there was a clear sense that they must be fashion-conscious. Certainly, their clothes looked much better than the shapeless skirts, dark stockings and flat-heeled shoes worn by some orthodox Jewish women!
Bir Zeit: the setting. The campus sits on a hill on the outskirts of Ramallah, and the countryside around it is dry but with a lot of green: it's the time of year when everything in the region is at its greenest. Computer Science is in a brand new building, that was going to be inaugurated officially just a few days later. The building is made of beautiful stone, with an impressive, wide stone staircase leading to the entrance, spacious hallways, and the dean's office is quite large, with lovely marble-like stone on the windowsill. The day was quite dusty and wind brought in sand from the desert, but I was told that the view was expansive that that on clear days one could see all the way to Tel-Aviv. On the other hand, the female staff bathroom is locked: to go to the bathroom you have to ask the secretary for a key, just like it used to be even for students in Jussieu when I studied there!
As I walked in, I saw some gardeners working in front of the building. Everyone cares about trees in that part of the world, so tree-planting is important. The gardeners had previously planted trees of a different species, but the person who donated money for the building insisted on olive trees because of their high symbolic value, so they removed the previous trees and were now planting olive trees instead. When I left the building, a couple of hours later, a fairly large olive tree was standing there as though from times immemorial, and there were flowers in the flowerbed around it.
On campus, the other buildings also look like high quality construction. Unlike in Tel-Aviv, I didn't see any modern glass and metal constructions. I was told that many materials were blocked from entering the region, so perhaps that includes modern construction materials, and so people may resort to materials that are available locally: the result is impressively harmonious. I was told that they have little trouble obtaining funding for buildings because donors want to leave their mark on the land, but that it is much harder to obtain funding for the things that the university needs more of: money to support research, to alleviate some of the course load for example.
I stopped by the French department, where I met a French consulate employee and some French-speaking faculty. French is relatively popular as a foreign language to learn apart from the ubiquitous English. Since there is no PhD program in the region, I am told that the best place to get a PhD in Islamic studies is the Sorbonne! (Or perhaps they mean the Institut du Monde Arabe)
For lunch, we had reservations at a fancy, brand new university restaurant, where I had some tasty grass soup - a local specialty -, a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers that looked and tasted just like what I ate at every meal in Tel-Aviv, another salad, and a large dish of delicious stuffed chicken. At that point I felt stuffed myself, but we were still treated to dessert. I have to say that for desserts I prefer French baking to anything I had in Bir Zeit, Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv. For a drink, I had lemonade with mint. Unusual and wonderful! Throughout the day, I was treated like a guest of honor. Whenever I sat down somewhere I was offered some tea, coffee, juice, usually served by a quiet, nonintrusive secretary.
It was a special week in the life of the university: the time of the elections to the student council. It is a very important event for the university and even for all Palestinians: the leaders of their political parties most often come from Bir Zeit, and the student council is a way for them to get trained. The elections are watched all over the country and the results are published in the newspapers. The various student groups receive funding from corresponding political parties. Events were planned throughout the week, with the agreement of the administration: for example, Tuesday was Debate day, reserved for debates, and on that day there would be a period set aside with no classes. Monday was Flag day, and every tree, every pole on campus carried some flags put up by volunteers, thousands of flags, green, yellow or red, depending on the party (green for Hamas, yellow for Fatah, red for Left). Organized groups of students were preparing to march. Some were carrying a gigantic map of a hypothetical Palestine country whose borders, if I am not mistaken (I only caught a glimpse of it), more or less corresponded to the Greater Israel dreamt by some political parties in Israel. There was a group of woman head-to-foot covered in black, obviously partisans of Hamas. (Why women would actively campaign for a party that would restrict women's freedom is a mystery to me.) There was loud music and songs, and each party had its own song; there were speeches on loudspeakers, young leaders working on heating the crowd. My companion translated a few words: "This is our country… this is our land… we will never give it up!" The atmosphere was partly festive and partly like a demonstration, but I was told that it was all done according to the rules agreed upon with the administration, in a very civilized manner (each party had access to the loudspeakers for one hour, and they took turns peacefully), that opposing factions never got into fights, and that the flags, allowed for only a single day, would disappear overnight. I am told that Bir Zeit is the university, in all of the West Bank and Gaza, is where there is the most involvement with politics, and I did see how important politics is for everyone there.
Bir Zeit: the surroundings. To get to Bir Zeit from Jerusalem, in the morning I met the dean, a Jerusalemite, who drove me there in his car. There are about 20 kilometers from his place in Jerusalem to Bir Zeit, but he has to cross the separation wall. The most direct route goes through the often jammed Ramallah checkpoint, so instead he takes a circuitous route that doubles the distance but keeps the commute time under one hour. We were waved through a small uncrowded checkpoint and did not even have to stop. The road was good, and I was told that it was built by the Israel government to get to Jewish settlements, but that Palestinians used it as well. Then we turned into a road headed by a large red sign saying: "This road leads to Palestinian villages. For Israeli citizens using this road can be dangerous."
On the way to Bir Zeit, at one point the car followed a school bus and I could distinguish rowdy high school students in the back. A boy grabbed a girl's scarf and playfully waved it above his head just out of her reach, taunting her like a torero with a bull. So much for proper, dignified Moslem scarf-wearing!
On the way back in the afternoon we went through Ramallah. I saw a big flock of sheep on the street. Everywhere, lots of water tanks on the roofs of the buildings. At one point we were along a high wall that I was told encircled a Jewish settlement (Why would a settlement be built right next to Ramallah? I cannot think of any good reason...). At the Ramallah checkpoint, there was a slightly chaotic but not too long line of cars that delayed us by perhaps fifteen minutes - that was before rush hour, and the comment was: "One thing Israel has taught Palestinians is how to be patient." While cars were stopped and drivers waiting, some vendors went from car to car to sell water bottles and other items. Our ID and passport were checked briefly, and then we were back on the Jerusalem side of the fence.
There are two kinds of IDs for Palestinians: those with a Jerusalem ID are essentially free to travel anywhere, and those with a Palestinian ID cannot cross the separation wall unless there is a good reason. The existence of friends or relatives on the other side is not a good reason. For example, a valid reason can be work, or sometimes it can be for medical services. But there are many arbitrary, unpredictable decisions taken at checkpoints, and they can never know in advance if they will be let through, or how long it will take. To travel abroad, Palestinians cannot go to Ben-Gurion airport, so instead they cross the border to Jordania and fly from Amman. There are only 80 kilometers, but because of delays caused by the border crossing, traveling between Ramallah and Amman can take anywhere from six to sixteen hours, I am told. One of my companions told me that a little over ten years ago, when she was about to defend her degree, laptop computers were not yet so common and all her experimental data was on her heavy desktop computer. Then there were political troubles, and the checkpoints were closed to all vehicles. Still, she needed to bring her computer to Bir Zeit for her defense. So, she got a donkey, and crossed the checkpoint with her computer on the donkey! Mobility is a major, major issue for Palestinians. The separation wall follows a line that, in places, looks a little like a space-filling curve, and crossing the wall is often a major hassle. Gaza is isolated, and a student from Gaza who would study in Bir Zeit might not be able to go back and visit their family for four years. To my mind, this calls into question the claim that Bir Zeit is obviously the best university for Palestinian students: it was true before, but currently, because of the difficulty of getting around, the majority of the student body comes the region of Ramallah. I would think that that would have to have an impact on the level of admissions; but we did not discuss that.
Bir Zeit: the politics. After lunch, suitably mollified by a very full stomach, we sat around a large oval table for a meeting with the faculty. The main topic was scientific collaborations: existing and potential international collaborations. At one point, I mentioned that, although the names of many countries had been voiced, no one had suggested collaborating with Israeli computer scientists. One man then told me that Bir Zeit university is boycotting Israel, refusing to collaborate with them until political relations are normalized (which I think means until Israel recognizes the state of Palestine). He added that for the same political reasons, they also refuse to apply for or receive funds from USAid: he would have to sign an agreement rejecting terrorism, but why should he sign such a thing, when there is no terrorism, therefore no need to reject it? Taken aback, I pointed out that that attitude might hurt them professionally, by removing some opportunities, and suggested that one might set politics aside while doing science. One man answered that, given their situation, the practical difficulties and impact of politics on their daily lives, it was not possible for them to separate politics from science. Several nodded in agreement. An angel passed... but they quickly added that their boycott was not recursive: they did not want to work with Israelis, but had no objection to working with people who themselves worked with Israelis. Whew!
Another person launched an aggressively anti-Israeli speech: Israelis, they are arrogant, they think they're superior to everybody else, they have all sorts of character defects. Thinking of my friends in Israel, in fairness to them I could not leave those sweeping statements unanswered and had to interject that, when he said "they", he surely could not mean "all Israelis". Many, perhaps, but not all. I pointed out that there exist some Israelis who do not correspond to his description, of course. (However, ironically, a friend in Israel later echoed that criticism by expressing his astonishment at a poll showing that people in Israel were against equal rights for all!) Another professor said that he wanted to make sure that I understood that they had nothing against Jewish people themselves, only against Israelis. Still, the meeting was a bit tense. So much ill will! Such bitterness! It is understandable, given the many anecdotes I heard of the difficulties they encounter because of the Israeli government, and of some patently unjust decisions, but still worrisome for keeping alive the dream of an eventual peaceful resolution of the conflict. It reminded me of homilies on evil begetting evil; faced with so much barely repressed anger, it's hard not to feel pessimistic.
One silly detail I had trouble with throughout my visit to the Holy Land: what should I call that region of the world where Palestinians live? The Palestinian Territories? Palestine? I saw that Bir Zeit university wrote "Palestine" on its official address, but was that the internationally recognized name for it? On the day before my travel, I searched the website of the United Nations to try to find the official, approved appellation, but could not find the information I wanted. So, during my entire travel, I took pains to turn my sentences so as to avoid using the name. (Since then, I found a French government web site in which a list of countries includes "Palestiniens (Territoires)", so I now know that such is currently the terminology to be used by the French.) It's funny: I have sometimes made efforts to avoid calling people by name when I had forgotten their name, but never before had I had such a problem not with a person but with a country!
Here are some of the stories I heard. A man coming back from a trip with his pregnant wife was let into the country, but his wife was arbitrarily stopped at the border and had to stay in Jordan with relatives and give birth there, so the father was not present for the birth of his baby daughter. Why was she stopped ant not him? It's arbitrary. It used to be that Palestinians were only allowed to leave the country for trip longer than 6 months, why? Because Israel was hoping to thus incentivize them to emigrate. The separation wall around Jerusalem makes some crazy detours, why? Some are designed to include desirable industrial areas, others are designed to avoid undesirable Arab neighborhoods. People in Gaza only get electricity intermittently, a couple of hours per day, why? Not by resource scarcity but on purpose, because Israel is trying to make their life difficult. Imports for Palestinians come through Israeli ports, who levy taxes and fees on behalf of Palestinians. At the end of the year, if Palestinians "have behaved well" (as I was told with bitter irony), then the Israelis give them their taxes (minus a fee for the work they did); if not, they withhold the taxes. Going through a checkpoint can take a few minutes or many hours, why? Because Israel wants to keep things unpredictable, maintain the uncertainty, and keep Palestinians on their toes, so that many will finally decide to emigrate to countries where they can have a better life. Palestinians are not allowed to produce their own electricity but are forced to buy it from Israel at a premium. They are paid third world salaries but have to pay for goods at first world prices, set by Israel, why? Because they are a captive market for Israel. Tourist buses in Bethlehem and Nazareth make short stops right in front of the holy sites, give tourists little time to visit, then quickly shuttle them away again, thus depriving the local economy from precious tourist income. The Bethlehem economy is thus being strangled, why? By design of the Israeli government... Such was the pattern of the stories I heard: according to the prevailing interpretations, everything bad can be traced back to Israel.
Conclusion. In general people were very welcoming and hospitable (as Israelis also are with me always, I haste to add.) Here are a couple of the people I met during my visit. Dima Damen is a Bir Zeit alumnus who works on Vision, she is assistant professor at Bristol University in the UK. She comes back to her country once a year for a visit. She would like to see returning Palestinian maintain research ties with institutions abroad. Ali Jaber is the dean of the faculty of IT. Holder of a PhD from Lehigh University in the US, professor of computer science, he is one of the lucky Jerusalemites, the ones privileged to have an ID with which they can go anywhere they want, the ones who, by virtue of living in Jerusalem, automatically get access to free healthcare. He is eager to strengthen the computer science department at Bir Zeit. Very welcoming, but when he lets himself muse about the future, his subdued pessimism eerily echoes identical thoughts from my friends in Israel.
Bir Zeit University is eager to develop collaborations, its students are hard-working, and interactions with them for teaching or research could potentially be of high impact. The big question remains: realistically, is it possible to make friends with politically active Palestinians while staying friends with politically active Israelis who hold opposite views? The cynic's answer: the situation is hopeless, and one should just forget about Palestinians until some stable political solution happens. The politician's answer: educate oneself and stay abreast of the news in that part of the world, getting politically involved if a compelling case is made for it. The academic's answer: put on blinders, focus on science and keep one's eyes firmly away from political issues. Other alternatives remain to be invented.