Palestine: Libraries for Peace (2/98)

When Naheda Abd Almajeed Yagi graduated from El Emam University in Saudia Arabia in 1990 with a degree in library sciences, she returned to the Gaza Strip, then under Israeli control. Unemployed for six years, she now works as a reference librarian at the College of Education, a teacher training institution in Gaza City. Almajeed Yagi hopes one day to earn a post-graduate degree in library service – if her English improves, in the US, where she can realize her dream of visiting the Library of Congress. "I’m ambitious," she said with a shy smile. "Someday I want to be a chief librarian."

Almajeed Yagi was one of many Palestinian colleagues I met during a field trip to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank last November, as part of an American Library Association (ALA) delegation invited by the Palestinian National Authority and US-based Gaza Governate Peace on Earth International Foundation. The foundation has been sending books, journals, computers, and other materials to the Gaza Strip, while working to raise awareness in the US about the problems facing Palestinian education.

"Dr. Fouad El-Harazin, President of the Foundation, had sent a letter to the American Library Association, which was actually a plea," recalled Dr. Ravi Sharma, a member of the ALA’s International Relations Committee, and my companion on the trip. "He said the Gaza Strip was in desperate need of books and periodicals because none have been added during the past three decades. We studied the letter and became interested in finding out more about the library situation."

As an ALA official, I was invited to report on the status and condition of Palestinian libraries. Terrorist attacks, the continued construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, and distrust between the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership have stalled the once promising peace process. Yet, when we met with President Yasir Arafat to discuss his aspirations for Palestinian libraries, he was remarkably upbeat.

Arafat saw us at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night after saying his prayers – and a long day in which he visited four countries, including Switzerland, where he met with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. An aide revealed that he hadn’t slept for three days. While obviously tired, the 69-year-old president patiently answered my questions.

"The peace process is facing a crisis, but despite the problems, disappointments, and obstacles, I have much faith that it will continue and succeed," Arafat told us. "In fact, I am confident we will have an independent state in two years."

The fact that the Palestinian National Authority is planning to build a $28 million National Library – or a Palestinian House of Books, as it’s called in the Gaza Strip – by the year 2000 is a clear example of Arafat’s confidence. "Culturally, we consider the National Library project to be of the highest priority," added Saleem A. El-Muyabed, a noted Palestinian historian who will become the state’s first national librarian.

When asked why, with all the problems facing Palestinians, the National Library is so important, Arafat replied, "A National Library can serve as a symbol of cultural pride. It’s important because it is the institution that preserves the record of the people. It will also serve as a foundation for the growth of our national library system."

Construction is projected to take 20 months, once the money is found. "The problem is we don’t have money," said Jrir Alqudwah, Arafat’s chief advisor for educational affairs. "As a poor country, we are going to have to appeal to the international community for help. We have already approached Egypt and the Emirates."

The Emirates may be a hard sell. Like many Arab countries, they stopped aiding the Palestinians after the Gulf War because of the PLO’s support of Saddam Hussein. Discussing educational aid from Arab nations, Arafat looked on the bright side: "We have opened a new page," he said, "and so we are starting to get some aid from the Arab countries, such as the Emirates. But it is coming in slowly."

Currently, international aid for education comes mainly from humanitarian relief agencies, principally Project Hope and the International Book Project. The latter has shipped approximately 9870 books (mainly technical and college level texts) to the Gaza Strip through El-Harazin’s Foundation. The Palestinian Autonomous Region "needs international help because they don’t have the resources to do it on their own," explained Tom Zamsky, a spokesman for the Project. "They don’t have their own publishing industry, so the only way they can get free books is through international help."

In 1996, the European Commission agreed to provide $3.3 million for upgrading libraries and computer laboratories at Palestinian universities. The Commission, the European Union’s administrative arm, stresses that future financial support of Palestinian higher education depends on a reorganization of the system and the elimination of some programs at its eight universities and 20 colleges.

Is the US providing aid? "Sadly, no," said Arafat. "The US backs Israel unquestionably, so we have gotten hardly a penny from the US. This is not good for peace. The US needs to be a fairer broker for peace in the Middle East." Arafat expects education to play an important role in the development of the emerging Palestinian state and the welfare of its people. "As the world knows, the Palestinian people have been an educated people," he explained. "We have been leaders in the Arab world in this regard. But saying we have an educated people does not mean that our people have a high level of education. For too long, our people have been denied the basis of a good life. Thousands are in refugee camps where they must survive under the worst conditions. A good educational system with libraries will help us rise above the terrible situation we are in now."

But building a "good educational system with libraries" won’t be easy. The state of Gaza Strip libraries reflects the realities of an emerging state that’s struggling amidst intractable political problems. An inspection of several libraries revealed sparsely stocked collections, cramped reading rooms, woefully outdated reference books, and few periodicals and microfilm readers. At the College of Education, we saw many periodicals with names like the Journal of Geriatric Dermatology and The Journal of Neurosurgery, which have nothing to do with elementary and secondary school teacher education.

"These libraries have absolutely no collection policy in place," Sharma noted. "They are so desperate for materials that they will take anything." The library at Alazhar University, which has 11,000 students, has just 1500 books, no budgets, and zero periodicals. "It’s really frustrating," complained Dr. Awni El Kayzoun, an Assistant Professor of English. "I have a hard time giving my students assignments because they will waste their time if they go to the library." Officials at the Islamic University of Gaza, the Gaza Strip’s leading university, said the university would need at least $100,000 annually just to upgrade the university’s periodicals collection.

The international library community can help the Middle East peace process by providing material, technical, and financial support to education in the Palestinian Autonomous Region. With such support, education can offer hope for young Palestinians, especially those living in the Palestinian Autonomous Region. Educational opportunity will give them a chance to work for the improvement of their emerging state, rather than becoming disaffected recruits for the region’s terrorist groups.

              – Ron Chepesiuk is a professor and Head of Special
                Collections at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC, and a
                contributing editor to the ALA’s American Libraries magazine.

For further information on the Palestinian library project, write:

Mr. Yousef Abudayh
Dean, College of Education, Ministry of Higher Education
Gaza City
Gaza Strip

fax, 009727865309.