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Letter Dheisha from Larissa Shaterian

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 16.08.2007:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Would the Real Palestinian National Holiday Please Stand Up?

Rumors were flying. What day would it be? On Saturday when the results were not announced, people said with confidence, “It’s either Sunday or it’s Tuesday.”

“Really?” I asked, wanting to be absolutely sure. This period of waiting was killing me almost as much as if I was a Palestinian high school senior. At the end of high school, every senior takes six days of standardized tests that are issued by the Palestinian Authority.

These exams are called the tawjihi. To properly prepare for this test, the student must memorize textbook after textbook. Page by page. If a student does not have good tawjihi scores, any self-respecting college will simply ignore her application. The students had been waiting for over two months for the morning that their scores would be announced on television.

Sunday passed. I went to church and heard a sermon about listening to God. In order to hear God sometimes, the priest said, we need to turn off the TV, the radio, maybe even log off the internet–as hard as that may be! Sometimes, we even need to be silent in our prayers and simply listen, simply be present. In the silences, Scripture says, God speaks.

The sermon reminded me of one of the first lessons I remember my mother giving me: how to see deer. My mother and I would often go to Tilden Regional Park to go on walks. We had sometimes walked past a deer or two on these walks, her glassy black eyes pointed directly at ourselves, her overly-large ears seeming to balance her startled head. My four-year-old inner monologue would become ageless as I looked at the deer, transfixed, as she stared back at us, a brown velvet vision

until she moved and bounded away.

As far as I can remember, loquacious me was silent on those walks, walking through the proud aroma of California Bay Laurel or the sudden feeling of my shoe sliding in mud. My friend Chelsea, however, was not silenced by the aroma of Bay or by the concentration that walking

through mud took. She talked on and on. She wanted to see a unicorn. Or a deer at the very least. “If you want to see a deer,” my mother told her, “You must be quiet.” And so Chelsea was for a few minutes. Then she had to inform us and the aroma of Bay and the welcoming slip

of the mud that she wondered why we hadn’t seen a deer because we had been quiet. “You have to be stay quiet, and even then, it’s up to the deer.”

This episode was repeated several times.

We did not see a deer.

On 9AM last Tuesday morning, I could have simply lain in bed and known who had passed tawjihi. Dheisheh Camp resounded with firecrackers and celebratory volleys of gunfire. We switched on the radio and listened to the list of students who had passed the test that a female announcer was reading of school by school. Happy music played between the schools. The results had already been posted on the internet. About an hour later, local TV was broadcasting the page with scores

from the Palestinian Authority web page, while somebody from the news station read the scores off aloud. Everybody was in high spirits. Miyassar’s sister Rusaila called to say that her son Mohammed had

gotten a score of 93.5–two tenths higher than Majd had gotten two years before! “Now you aren’t the highest scorer in the family!” I teased her, but instead throwing something at me, as I expected her to do, Majd was jubilant, “No, his last name isn’t Hammash; I still am the highest scorer in the family!” she laughed, “However,” her voice suddenly became dead serious, “If anybody from the Hammash family scores higher than me, I AM RETAKING THE TEST!”

“My sweetie, no!!” I told her, remembering her sleepless nights spent

in preparation for the tawjihi. My gullible eyes caught hers and I burst out laughing. In my joy I haawee-ed her, which is a way that a woman traditionally speaks about a bride at her wedding except I was simply speaking about an event that happened two years ago. “Haawee, Majd scored 93.3!” I said, “Haawee, she studied so much! Haawee, she got the top score!” and then Majd and Sana joined me as I trilled my

tongue for joy. Then they insisted on dragging me out to the living room to preform the Haawee in front of her Aziz and Miyassar. I got embarrassed. I had just been playing, taking a Palestinian cultural ritual and using it to express my pride in Majd. Would they be offended that I was using it for a silly occasion, not only that, but an occasion two years past? After I preformed the Haawee a second time for Aziz and Miyassar, they all laughed and applauded. As I turned

around to head back to the girls’ room, there were so many explosions around us that the noise stopped my thoughts. I suppressed a strong instinct to crouch into the position that I learned as a child in earthquake drills in kindergarten. Body folded over legs, one arm protecting head, the other protecting neck. Then, in a second, my train of thought restarted: “This is tawjihi; they’re all neighbors.” I looked around at the bright faces of the family, and I had to laugh again out of elation: it was Tawjihi Day! It was Tawjihi Day and at

least three people in our immediate vicinity had passed!

In the streets of Bethlehem cars of tawjihi students rode by, each student with his or her body halfway out a window or the skylight, music streaming, horns honking, everybody shouting for the relief of having passed the test, of never having to take it again, shouting for the pleasure of wind careening along their skin.

While I was in Haifa, the grandmother of the family I was staying with had talked to me about West Bank Palestinians. “Just one degree is not enough; education is so important there. There is no economy, so in order to get a good job, people have to at least a Master’s. No Palestinian there,” she said, comparing Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to West Bankers, “has just a Bachelor’s. They value education so much there.”

As a young American coming to the Occupied West Bank, I have found that to be true. A kid earns respect by her grades. It is never looked upon as nerdy to stay home and study–I don’t even know if a word like “nerd” exists in Arabic. Whereas in mainstream America, intelligence is seen as a sign of insincerity and stupidity as a sign of honesty (if anyone doubts this mild generalization please note the fact that

some people voted for George Walker Bush). Among Palestinians, I have

noticed that in every social class, intelligent, educated people are

honored and popular. Educating one’s self is seen as a way to strengthen the Palestinian quest for statehood; education is the strongest, most dangerous form of resistance. At any moment in the Occupied West Bank, the Israeli Army or a Jewish settler (who will

later be backed by the Army) can take anything from a Palestinian: demolish her home, uproot her farm, bar her from crossing the checkpoint or the road, imprison her or her family, or even shoot her. Material things–including one’s life–can be turned to dust in

seconds. An education is immaterial. It is one of the few things no one can ever take away from a person once she has acquired it. The Army can certainly bar students from getting to the university, as it has often done in the case of Bir Zeit University. The Israeli high

court has recently banned students from Gaza from studying abroad–including in the West Bank. However, despite this, many, many Palestinians continue to pursue higher education, often at a great

cost to their families. “Resistance through education,” is my “uncle” Aziz’s motto, for slingshots do not build infrastructure, guns do not heal the sick.

To pass the tawjihi is better than any birthday party any Palestinian kid will ever have. Family and friends come from all over to congratulate you. Deserts after deserts are served with congratulations. There is at the very least one dance party with all your friends and probably another with your family.

My friend Murad had scored 81 on the tawjihi and Majd and I had gone to his house to eat his mother’s ambrosial deserts and to congratulate him. One of his younger cousins, Basem, was tasting the excitement of tawjihi success. “Come outside and look!” he told me. Night had

fallen; the fireworks were crisp against the sky. We were on a hill, and from there we could see all the fireworks across the valley and up the next hill, “If you get on the car,” Basem told me, “You can see the fireworks that are just over that tree,” he pointed up the hill. Although I got on the car and strained on tip-toe I couldn’t see the

fireworks, only hear their whistle and their crack. Basem and I spent ten minutes in the fresh Palestinian night, pointing out houses from which beautiful fireworks were bursting and blooming. “Look, look!” Basem said, “No, look over there!” This night there was nothing to be afraid of; on this night smiles stuck to people’s faces. No soap, no thoughts of the problems that faced them in the future could scrub them off. Laundry neighbors had neglected to collect did not wave in the breeze, it danced. One shirt turned into itself and giggled!

On this night, the fireworks told each other, we celebrate what it means to be Palestinian.

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