Living abroad can be very difficult, especially if you are an American in Palestine. To have a friend among the Palestinians who helps you through the process of confronting what your American national identity means in terms of the suffering of millions of Palestinian people is more than one should expect. However, that is just what the late Palestinian Dr. Adel Yahya did for hundreds of visitors to Palestine each year.
Originally from the Palestinian village of Inaba, and an archeologist by training, Adel was the founder and director of PACE (Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange), a Ramallah based organization that recorded oral histories of Palestinians, preserved and marketed traditional Palestinian arts, published about overlooked Palestinian historical sites, and led foreign groups around the West Bank. It is through the latter that I came to know Adel. In the summer of 2010, I participated in the PARC (Palestinian American Research Center) inaugural Faculty Development Seminar that brings American university professors to the West Bank for 12 days to deepen their knowledge of the region and help them build relationships with Palestinian academic colleagues.
I met many highly accomplished Palestinians during the seminar, and one of them, Adel, became my mentor for a research project on Palestinian children of the second intifada. The project brought me back to Palestine for the next two summers and then for 10-months as a Fulbright Fellow and PARC/NEH Fellow. Adel taught me how I, as an American whose government tax dollars support the continued occupation of the Palestinian people, can meaningfully visit Palestine.
Palestine is an occupied territory flooded with internationals, serving mainly in the capacity of aide workers. Interning in Palestine has almost become a rite of passage for young westerners seeking careers in humanitarian work. While aide workers bring much needed cash to the Palestinian economy, they are not grounds for long-term growth. Such money also obscures the fact that Israel does not sufficiently pay for its occupation. Further, in a place with 95% literacy and over fifty colleges and universities, there is no shortage of local skilled labor to do the work of the imported western “experts,” many of whom enjoy such international job perks as tax-free income, danger pay, and subsidized housing.
Regardless of profession, a genuine contribution any visitor to Palestine can make is to listen to the people. Academics call this oral history, or the collection of people’s firsthand testimony of past experiences. The beauty of oral history is that it does not require a PhD to practice. All people are natural storytellers, if we are ready to hear their stories. Oral history allows us to discover the sense of what it means for another person to be alive. It is driven by a readiness to ask even the most humble street cleaner questions such as: “And then what happened…?”
Adel was a master oral historian having recorded and archived hundreds of interviews with Palestinian refugees living in camps as far away as Lebanon and Jordan. He was also a master at teaching others, like me, to do the same.
Thanks to Adel’s guidance and support, my research on Palestinian children in the second intifada moves beyond the important, yet one-dimensional, approach of charting nightmares, bedwetting, and other anxieties. When you sit down and listen to the Palestinians who grew up during the second intifada, it becomes clear that high-pitched screams and explosions do not tell the whole story of war. For children, war destroys normalcy: the walk to school, volleyball practice, and birthday party. When an Israeli soldier occupies a family house and urinates on a child’s mattress, it takes away the safety of the bed, a place of daily rest and the proverbial maternal tucking-in. Oral history brings to light the stories of children who do not make the headlines for fatalities or stone-throwing. They tell the stories of children who study by candlelight during power outages and sleep with shoes at the bedside, ready at any moment to run.
In 2014, Adel and I co-taught an oral history course at Birzeit University, in which we told students the only device they needed to be an oral historian was a cell phone to record. Oral history is a modest endeavor, yet it opens a world of complexities. Many Palestinians might prefer for the visiting internationals to hear their story, as opposed to building another roundabout in a city center.
In his final months, Adel retreated from even some of his closest friends. Initially, I pushed and probed to find out the details of the death. He had unbearable suffering and pain from cancer. I quickly realized that hearing about this was not truly listening to Adel. He wanted us to remember him for his life, not his death.