Educating the West Bank: A school trip to the Holy Land - Day 4
Yesterday the city; today, the desert. We took our pupils from Raine's Foundation School from the souks and the temples, and drove for an hour into the Judean desert, a rocky, blasted lunar landscape where nothing should survive...but it does. Bedouin still drive goats through the wilderness where Christ, driven mad by hunger, had a vision of Satan – or saw the real thing, take your pick. From the top of a hill, we looked down into a dusty valley and saw the remote monastery of St George, home to five monks, clinging to the side of the distant mountain. They never leave; charity sustains them, and they cling, physically and metaphorically, to life. I think that's what life does. It only knows how to do one thing: it clings to itself. Human ingenuity is like the goats, finding succour in limestone and impossible odds. As we went back to the road, merchants sprang from nowhere to sell us relics and tat: life endures by all manner of means.
Then, after another hour or so, deep into the West Bank of the occupied territories. Even here, Zionist settlers build citadels and guard their gated lands with soldiers and survivalism, clinging to their own form of life. Around one settlement I saw barbed wire turned out to repel intruders; on the wall of Separation around the occupied territories, the barbed wire faced the inhabitants. The symbolism was striking.
We were heading to the city of Jenin, where for the past few years we had established a partnership link with another school. Halfway there we stopped at Nablus, site of Jacob's Well, where Jesus is meant to have asked the Samaritan woman for water in a gesture of solidarity with outsiders. Around the well, of course, an Orthodox Church and a remarkable man: Abuna Ioustinosa, a priest who built, designed, decorated and ran the entire church – the frescos, the paintings, the gifts in the shop, the altar, the furniture. He had even built his own tomb for later; I can barely organise my diary more than a month ahead.This wizened renaissance man still worked the gift shop, and I have rarely felt like such an underachiever. In truth, next to him, we're all underachievers. Attacked many times by fundamentalist Zionists who object to Christian custody of a Jewish patriarch's shrine, his church has survived bombs, bullets and axes lifted against him personally. A priest, murdered by one such attack, is even interred on display within the church. That's devotion to your watch. And still Ioustinosa tends his church, on the edge of danger.
Some lives are bought more dearly, fought harder, than others.
Our first stop was at the office of the Governor of Jenin, where we met out international liaison, Joseph, and listened to a brief but passionate speech from the Governor – the Boris of Jenin – about the need for links to the outside world.
Eventually we made it to our partner school: the Birqeen Secondary School for girls. On arrival, we were treated to a Royal Guard, as a line of teachers and students acted as landing lights. Our boys were on strict orders: no talking with the girls, no Facebook exchanges. One false move and you don't get invited back. I needn't have worried – Dominic, Brandon and Alexei were incapable of discourtesy. Protocol demanded that I didn't engage too freely with women teachers with whom I hadn't been formally introduced (ie, all of them). It was strange to see my female students huddled with excited Palestinian students, chatting and whooping, while I stewed like a goat in a pot.
If the school in Bethlehem had been spartan, this was barely there. In British terms, it was the difference between austerity and poverty. Classrooms were – without embellishment – empty rooms with make-and-mend chairs, tables and little else. The library shelves were half-empty and the computer room was a suite of venerable PCs that would never know updates or the embrace of the internet. The science lab had one working Bunsen tap, one sink. We were being treated with the utmost respect and hospitality, shown the Crown Jewels of the school. I thought of my own school, buried in IT, BSF luxury, glass atriums, cavernous sports halls, and it seemed like the pleasure dome of Kubla Khan by comparison.
When I asked the Head Teacher how many girls from this remote village school could expect to go on to further education, one plucky Boudicca, no older than 14 piped up, "All of us", like it was ridiculous I should even ask. And it turned out to be true. Girls here didn't expect to watch the clock until marriage – the assumption was that of course they would go to university. Literacy levels in Palestine are astonishing. Something the students of Bethlehem taught me: when you have little, the little you have is treasured. Having few fish, they appreciate learning how to fish. Sometimes I despair at some British students, who can't move for fish, yet complain that the fish don't cook themselves.
The school treated us with the hospitality of the Middle East that astonishes. They turned out a lunch for us that would have choked a dozen Ofsted teams, and probably should. Our girls and their girls swapped emails, and we left feeling humbled and heartened that education was treated like a ruby in their world. With next to nothing, they created everything.
What do we have to complain about? And where is our ingenuity and ambition? Does a higher standard of living inevitably corrode perspicacity and the capacity to exploit our many advantages?
They left me with a lot to ponder, and like the best schools, it taught me a lesson.