Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

What History Books for Children in Palestinian Camps?

[Dar al-Fata al-‘Arabi’s wall newspaper depicting Palestinian history. Courtesy of Dar al-Fata archive.] [Dar al-Fata al-‘Arabi’s wall newspaper depicting Palestinian history. Courtesy of Dar al-Fata archive.]


A curious paradox reigns in research and publishing on Palestine and on the Palestinian people. While the post-Nakba importance of education for the Palestinian people is widely acknowledged, and has even given rise to an extensive literature in which many prominent scholars have participated, yet the part played by knowledge of Palestinian history in the field of education has barely been touched on in this literature. Even those writers who have focused on the special educational needs of a “community in exile”—to quote Ibrahim Abu Lughod—do not deeply explore the relationship between national liberation struggle, identity, and historical self-knowledge. To this paradox is linked another: while an impressive body of historical and socio-cultural studies has accumulated over the last two decades, it has mainly targeted academic and Anglophone readerships. History books in Arabic for Palestinian children have been neglected to a point where, today, sixty-six years after the Nakba, there is still no single “self-determined” and generally accepted history book in Arabic available to children in Palestinian camps, or indeed anywhere else.

The absence of such a book is the more worrying because of the geo-political fragmentation of the Palestinian people across countries with widely different educational systems, curricula, and text books. Whereas the Palestinians might be said to stand in deep need of self-knowledge and cultural unity in this, the longest and most arduous of struggles against colonialist dispossession, yet because of external political pressures and educational fragmentation they lack this basic tool for reproducing a threatened “peoplehood.”

For example in Jordan, where the largest segment of Palestinians live, some forty percent of registered refugees, Palestinian history, whether taught in UNRWA or in Jordanian public and private schools, is “Jordanized,” as part of a Hashemite narrative in which Jordan is both savior and “guardian” of Palestine. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories a confused—and confusing—situation prevails: in the West Bank, until recently it was the Jordanian curriculum, as it was the Egyptian one in Gaza. Under the National Authority, however, a new history and civics curriculum began to be used, but not before it had been watered down through Israeli and American pressure—West Bankers say it does not differ much from the former Jordanian program. In East Jerusalem Israel is pressuring Palestinian schools to Israelize their curricula. In Gaza recent reports say that Hamas is introducing more material on resistance into textbooks. In schools in Israel, where around 14.5 percent of Palestinians live, history is taught in units, and while there are some units on Arab history, for example medieval Islam, there is no unit on Palestinian history after the British occupation of Palestine. In UNRWA schools in Lebanon only Lebanese history is taught as part of the curriculum. The only Arab country to include an element on Palestine in its history syllabus is Syria. And then there are the children of Palestinians who live outside the Arab world, around eleven percent of the total, in dozens of different countries, where school-books are unlikely to contain even the word Palestine. Though these scattered communities share a common dispossession, yet differences in curricula in the regions where they live can only deepen political and cultural fragmentation. A unified extra-curricula history textbook would go some way towards countering this situation. 

Why do I specify children in refugee camps as an important audience for history books? Around one third of all refugees registered with UNRWA live in camps, while out of the total Palestinian population (estimated to be 11.6 million in 2013) the proportion who live in camps is around fifteen percent. I consider this segment to be critical in two main ways: as “communities of memory,” hence as milieus of long term resistance to Israeli “silencing”; and, also, as structurally disadvantaged, marginalized in the host societies and—more seriously—in national movement politics. Ever since the Oslo Accords in 1994, when the right of return was relegated to final status negotiations, connections between the camps and the national leadership have become extremely tenuous. The Palestinian-ness of camp populations that was so vital to the Resistance movement in the period of armed struggle has become an embarrassment rather than a concern. Moreover camps are bases of self-determined cultural projects, most of which target children and youth—at least this is the case in Lebanon and was also the case in Syria—probably the same is true in Jordan and Occupied Palestine. Yet the people of the camps, and children in particular, still lack easy access to knowledge of their national history. To this point I would add that camps contain still unrecorded histories of political struggle and everyday life that need to be part of Palestinian history books.  

Friends and colleagues with whom I have discussed this issue respond by pointing out the existence of multiple informal sources through which children in camps learn history: from their families; from commemorations; from murals and graffiti; from TV news and programs; from incidents of discrimination; and from never-ending crisis. Indeed it has been said that “for Palestinians everyday life is a history lesson.” Yet even while history learnt in this way has an emotional impact that school textbooks do not have, and though text books carry their own dangers of omission and mythification, yet there is plenty of evidence that children in camps and their parents feel the need for history books. A mother of five school age children deplores current ignorance: “This generation, if their family haven’t told them about Palestine, they don’t know anything.” A volunteer who worked with camp teen-agers from 1993 to 2002 writes of their need for an explanation of their situation:

they really wanted to know what was going on, being orphans and coming out of war and total destruction, feeling Lebanese discrimination and at the same time obliged to study Lebanese history in school. They used to complain so much that UNRWA teaches them the history of Lebanon and they are not even accepted in the country. And they complained that the only history books available on Palestinian history were not on their own history or lives… they wanted to understand their own plight.

Rules and Practices in UNRWA Schools Regarding Palestinian History

Like history writing, education is always a field of political contestation. This has never been truer than in the case of the Palestinians. Before the Nakba Britain controlled the education of Palestinians, deepening the knowledge-power disparity between the Arab and Jewish sectors. After the Nakba, schooling of the destitute mass of refugees was put in the charge of UNESCO and UNRWA. “In this case” Ibrahim Abu-Lughod wrote in 1973, “Palestinians were subject to the international policies and decisions imposed by the United Nations, especially in terms of the resources that were made available for their educational activities and which ultimately determined the absorptive capacity and technical facilities of UNRWA schools.” Further “UNRWA’s role was also discharged largely in light of the educational policies of the states in which it functioned, in matters of curriculum, textbooks and organization.”

UNRWA’s decision to adopt host country curricula appears to have originated in the 1950s when its educational program was first established in partnership with UNESCO; this rule has remained in force ever since, uncontested by official Palestinian representatives even though “bent” in practice. Another mode of control exercised by the “international community” over the education of Palestinians is the memo of understanding, renewed yearly between UNRWA and its donors, that gives the latter the right to monitor policies and programs. Given that the United States is UNRWA’s biggest donor, followed by the European Union and UK,  the Agency is forced to avoid any appearance of partisanship. “Neutrality” is the key word UNRWA officials use to describe how the Agency must present itself to the international community in order to preserve a flow of funds. Given that history books of official Arab curricula give little space to Palestine, UNRWA’s adoption of these texts reassures the donors. Another reassuring point from the donor’s point of view, is that history is not taught in UNRWA schools until the ninth grade, and then only as part of a package called Social Studies that is mainly geography and civics. In the case of Lebanon in particular its history textbooks are not likely to be seen by donors as challenging because sectarianism has prevented the Ministry of Education from updating them since the Civil War.

However, research on the ground reveals fluctuation over time and variation across space with regard to UNRWA’s inclusion/exclusion of Palestinian history. A retired UNRWA teacher resident of Shatila camp recalls that he first learned about Palestine as a child in school in the early 1960s: “In fifth primary they took us to the border, we could see Al-Bassa. The Deuxieme Bureau permitted this. We had maps of Palestine and patriotic songs in school.” People also remember that, during the PLO period in Lebanon (1970-1982), it became possible to introduce more Palestinian history into UNRWA schools. Another speaker who went to UNRWA schools before the Resistance period, and taught in UNRWA schools during and after it, reflects this fluctuation. He said, “In those days (i.e. the 1960s) there were no histories of Palestine in schools but teachers had their own practices. For example before school each morning in the yard all students would sing patriotic songs. The administration must have agreed.” As a teacher in the 1970s he says “we influenced the students more about the revolution and about the right of return,” adding “History was in our hearts.”

The ‘PLO period’ in Lebanon enabled Palestinian history teaching at every institutional level, beginning with the Resistance youth training programs, the ashbal and zohrat, (scout-like Resistance group training programs for children) and going on to informal story-telling sessions in camps by members of the “Generation of Palestine.” Information material produced during this period, such as Resistance group magazines, contained some Palestinian history, as did books produced by solidarity groups. Though such publications are hard to find now they could be used to produce updated versions recapturing some of the history and atmosphere of that period. The ex-teacher quoted above remembers a time when the Teachers Union in UNRWA was strong enough to impose the teaching of Palestinian history and geography in schools. 

This twelve-year period of “history expansion” ended with the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the evacuation of the PLO. The ex-teacher I quoted before said, “UNRWA adapts to the current situation. When the resistance movement was strong, teachers had leeway to teach Palestine. Now this is difficult.” Yet in fact 1982 did not form a complete break with the past. Vetoes on manifestations of Palestinianism were strongest in the Beirut area under Gemayal’s Jaysh al-Ta’ifeh, but Raji who went through UNRWA school after 1982 remembers that they still had books on Al-Qadiyya Filastiniyya published by the Institute of Palestine Studies, though these were later withdrawn. Another speaker recalls about the same period, “…it was our teachers who taught us (Palestinian) history, without coordination with UNRWA, and they even bought the books themselves.” A retired UNRWA teacher in South Lebanon recalls that even under Israeli occupation, UNRWA schools continued to commemorate national munasabat with speeches and exhibitions. 

In UNRWA schools today all nationalist signs are strictly banned—for example posters of children throwing stones at Israeli tanks, and similar visual items are prohibited—a policy that a teacher attributes to the international community’s “peace offensive.” Yet there are intermediate schools in the Beirut area that teach Palestinian history as well as the obligatory Lebanese history textbooks. It is said that teachers can still introduce Palestinian history off-curriculum, but that only the more senior and job-secure teachers dare to do this, given Lebanese legal restrictions on Palestinian employment. There are some intermediate schools in the Beirut area that teach Palestinian history, yet the text book used only reaches the Balfour Declaration in the final chapter. What these discussions suggest is that UNRWA schools’ teaching of history not only fluctuates over time but varies between areas, depending on individual school directors, or cultural activism in local camp communities.  

It is interesting to note here that, in the context of a ban on political history, culture becomes a legitimized entry point to self-knowledge. UNRWA recently set up a Curriculum Committee to coordinate a program on Palestinian culture to be taught across UNRWA’s five fields. If implemented this will be an important breakthrough in two senses: first it will enhance the education of children who attend UNRWA schools, probably the great majority of registered refugees, especially those in camps. Its greater importance would be in its acknowledgement of specific Palestinian educational needs. Though what Abu Lughod wrote in 1973 about UNRWA education remains largely true today, that “it is clearly not a suitable vehicle for longer term strategies to provide Palestinians with a more politically and culturally relevant kind of education,” yet facts on the ground show that the Agency is not—and perhaps cannot be—rigidly closed to an informal insertion of slivers of Palestinian history into its schools.

In the context of UNESCO’s assertion of the importance of a culturally relevant curriculum for Palestinians, it is worth recalling that before UNRWA’s Teacher Training Institute was removed from Beirut to Vienna, it published geography and history text books produced by negotiation between local experts and an UNESCO representative. Palestinians could well claim the restoration of such negotiating rights, especially that Palestinians’ need for a relevant school curriculum is enshrined in UNESCO texts. Indeed the Arab host countries recently recommended that the PLO should take part in annual meetings on education between UNESCO, UNRWA and the host-states. How will the PLO use this opportunity to influence educational programs? What educational policies will it argue for? Will it press for a stronger slice of Palestinian history in the Social Studies package?

Given the primary importance of the Arab systems in schooling Palestinians, whether through UNRWA or in their own schools, Abu Lughod notes the weakening effects of cut-down Palestinian history on the identity of Palestinians: “As far as the curriculum was concerned, the Palestinian, Arab though he may be, became ipso facto a Jordanian, Syrian or Lebanese, etc. He was to learn the facts of his social, cultural, and political history and environment in terms of this ‘country’”. Abu-Lughod ends this passage by saying that the student “would remain unaware of the type and nature of the struggle which the Palestinian people waged to prevent the usurpation of Palestine” (1973: 96). 

Abu Lughod’s critique written in the early 1970s is still true today. In fact with regard to the Arab world, the situation is worse. Efforts to write Palestine into Arab education curricula have consistently failed. During the 1970s the PLO Planning Centre’s Educational Department wrote a course on Palestine that Arab Ministers of Education had earlier asked for through ALECSO. The course was never implemented. Later the Arab Ministers of Education decided to limit the teaching of Palestinian history to the university level. But today colleagues who teach in universities in the Gulf say that Palestinian history is not taught there at any level. A Palestinian university teacher writes:

No Arab university teaches or has taught a special or full course on the Palestine problem, history or geography. Only Syria and Iraq gave some material within a course on Arab nationalism. I taught in Lebanon, Libya, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, and there was nothing on Palestine, not even as an elective course.

This correspondent adds, “Even the Palestinian community schools in the Gulf countries do not teach this subject.”

From this brief glance it is evident that UNRWA and Arab educational systems are hardly teaching Palestinian history at any level, and certainly not in any sustained or coherent manner. Such officially installed ignorance threatens Palestinians collectively because of their need for Arab political support, and individually through their need for social and economic integration. It is also clear that these systems are politically contested arenas where powerful forces seek to dilute, if not to silence, knowledge of Palestinian history, and where Palestinian activists struggle to “bend” the official systems to include elements of their national past. A point to underline in this regard is that a majority of Palestinian children are being schooled in these systems, whether they attend UNRWA schools, government or private schools. The power asymmetry between the two sides in this struggle swells the importance of informal education as source of self-knowledge.  

Children’s Books and NGO Activism in Camps

In contrast to the absence of Palestinian history from official curricula we find a profusion of books for children incorporating elements of Palestinian history, produced for varying age groups by individual authors and NGOs in different regions, distributed commercially, through book fairs, kindergartens, and libraries in camps. This profusion is undoubtedly a response on the part of Palestinian civic society to the absence of Palestinian history in official curricula. In this section I will indicate some of the sources of this children’s literature, and assess its target readership, historical qualities, and the critical issue of its distribution. I have to confess that I have not read these books, and I have not done the ethnographic observations that would enable me to speak authoritatively about how teachers and children in camps use them. My aim is not to assess this literature in terms of the degree to which it conveys national history, but only to raise issues of reach and impact.    

The first to be mentioned, because of its authority as classic history textbook is the Institute of Palestine Study’s Filastin: Tarikhiha wa Qadayatiha, produced during the 1970s for three school levels: primary, intermediate, and secondary. This book was taught in UNRWA schools up to 1982 as well as in some Lebanese private schools, for example the Maqassad. However attempts to distribute it to schools and universities in the Arab world were not so successful. Response to a publicity campaign and even to free offers was poor, according to the director of the IPS Beirut centre. Rather than update these texts books, the Institute is seeking funding for an interactive history website, which will use multiple historical sources presented in a manner accessible and attractive to children. In the past the Institute has relied on Gulf oil money and wealthy Palestinian businessmen to sustain its work. With these sources drying up, IPS will have to mobilize the enthusiasm of a wider band of Palestinian society. 

Associated with the PLO yet autonomous, the children’s book series Dar al-Fata al-‘Arabi enlisted well known Arab writers and artists in an exceptionally attractive set of books mainly for younger age groups. Its books were published in English, French, Spanish, and other languages, as well as Arabic, and its Palestinian titles were widely distributed by the PLO outside the Arab world.  Palestinian history was a staple element in Dar al-Fata publishing, for example a ten thousand year history of Palestine in the form of a wall poster (now so scarce that it has become a collector’s item). Other historic topics were the Balfour Declaration, Palestinian stamps, national heroes and heroines, Jaffa, the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the first intifada. More such titles were planned but could not be carried out for lack of funds, and Dar’s closure in 1994. The reasons for its closure, given by a founding member, point to the difficult political conditions in which Palestinian educational projects exist: “Dar al-Fata… started suffering from the effect of politics from 1990.  It was equated with the PLO, so the Gulf states and Iraq stopped buying its books. The PLO stopped buying after 1993 when it started to focus on the Palestinians inside Palestine.” Before Oslo, the PLO used to order Dar al-Fata’s Palestinian titles to be distributed in the camps and through its representatives abroad.

Established in 1989, Tamer, an educational NGO in Ramallah, is the oldest and largest publisher of children’s books in the Palestinian arena. Tamer has specialized in the creation of children’s books by children themselves, and holds story writing competitions. Its publishing unit focuses on the history of Palestine, including culture, traditions, imprisonment, the Nakba, and the refugees. “Oral history is an integral part of its work, used as an interactive learning method for children and young adults to deepen their knowledge about Palestine”. Among its publications I note A Palestinian History Book for Youth—is it in all camp libraries? Tamer writes that its books are distributed to UNRWA schools and community centers in the West Bank and are supplied on demand to other areas. 

Lajee, an NGO in Aida camp, Bethlehem, is also a publisher of books for children by children. Here one of the initiators writes that “children are involved as much as possible in every stage of production. This includes the initial project work, as well as later stages of selection and design.” As to history, a program initiator writes,

The books I worked on were all…rights based...and related to the Right of Return, so they…included history via Nakba history and oral history. The Dreams of Home book followed a process of photography and oral history workshops, with participants collecting oral histories from grandparents about pre-Nakba and Nakba life, visiting the original villages for participants to photograph contemporary realities in their villages.

Lajee children’s books are mostly bilingual in Arabic and English, and are thus available for advocacy in countries such as the UK, US, and Canada. 

Al-Jana and Beit Atfal al-Summud, NGOs in Lebanon, have produced books for children. Al-Jana emphasizes creativity, its books are by and for children, and are intended for use in classroom through instructions for activities. The first of Al-Jana’s books grew out of a summer camp game influenced by drama therapy, in which children imagined they had just been expelled from their homes, and had to cope with this situation. The latest is about child refugees from Syria, and tackles the hostility they often confront in Lebanon. Al-Jana’s library contains a large collection of children’s books. Though this is outside the camps, books are made available to NGOs through its “books on wheels” program.

Beit Atfal al-Summood, one of the oldest Palestinian NGOs in Lebanon, established soon after the massacre of Tal al-Zaater to care for orphans, recently opened kindergartens in most of the camps, with a large intake of children. Its centers have libraries containing books used for after-school activities and the kindergartens. Among the children’s books in use at Beit Atfal is the Hanin series written by Najla Bashour, a specialist in education and author of children’s stories. Attractively produced with children’s drawings, photos, and archival material, the Hanin books include the first intifada, the Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity, the Judaization of Jerusalem, the siege of Jenin in 2002, and Gaza. These books have circulated commercially and at book fairs. They are currently out of print, and, as in the case of Dar al-Fata, there are no funds for re-issuing them. A point to note is that Beit Atfal kindergarten teachers have begun to create their own reading materials. One I saw recently produced jointly by Beit Atfal al-Summud and the Muessessat al-Ahaly al-‘Amila entitled Kitab Waqa’na had many color pictures showing Palestinian symbols; the flag; the shape of Palestine; Al-Aqsa; scouts; the kaffiyeh; a martyr’s funeral; and the dabkeh. 

BADIL, the West Bank NGO concerned with refugee rights to return, has produced a number of children’s books as product of their annual best story by children competition. These are not stories intended to convey Palestinian history but they are infused with the Palestinian themes. For example one is entitled Agniah min balady; another, Rihan wajniya al-ghayoum, depicts children in a refugee camp. Attractively illustrated and written in easy Arabic, they are well suited to use in kindergarten and primary school. Moreover they are downloadable. Given the quasi-universality of computers and television among people of the camps, this feature points a way forward for other NGOs. 

A visit to the annual Arab Book Fair reveals a great number of books for children incorporating varying elements of Palestinian history, written by children’s book authors. One of the most prolific and recognized of these is Rawda Hudhud, who lives in Amman, whose books focus mainly on pre-1948 Palestine. Other well-known authors include Ghassan Kanafani, Muhammad al-As’ad, Sonia Nimr, Salman Natour, and Naomi Shihab Nye. Here I want to highlight a connection between children’s books and oral history. For example Muhammad al-As’ad’s “Children of the Dew,” a story about the people of al-Tireh (near Haifa), is told through the voices of the dispossessed villagers. Sonia Nimr has used oral history with children for books about Palestine published by Tamer, and in her own stories for children. Mayssun Sukkarieh has created a history exercise book for Palestinian children while working on human rights with young teen-agers in Shatila camp. The children helped her to collect oral testimonies and to compile a set of readings intended for pedagogic use. We see that Palestinian children feature as authors, illustrators and subjects in this large, diverse, and multi-lingual literature. 

While all these books convey a sense of what it means to be Palestinian, whether under occupation or in exile, yet it is the nature of children’s books that the choice of historical elements remains improvisational. It is the well-known events, the well-known heroes and martyrs that tend to be selected, giving rise to repetitiveness and gaps. Children’s book authors lack up-to-date sources of Palestinian history; there is a disconnect between professional Palestinian historians and those who try to convey Palestinian history to Arab readerships. Moreover, the existence of children’s books does not tell us who reads them and who does not, nor how they are read and understood.

Distribution and Accessibility

Here I want to look at points of contact between Palestinian-produced books and children in camps: what gets through to them, in what forms, and through what channels? It seems that NGO-produced books do not move freely between different regions of the diaspora. For example books produced by Tamer and Lajee are not readily found in Lebanon. I doubt if books produced in Lebanon reach Jordan, the West Bank or Gaza. Factors that have contributed to this situation are: transport costs and the small market for such books, national security checks, and loss of the PLO as distributing agency. These books do move through book fairs, commercial circuits, the solidarity movement, and with travelers. But though important, these channels do not add up to a circulation capable of supporting new book production. 

Children who attend NGO kindergartens and their extra-curricular activities certainly have access to some of the books I have mentioned. Another important access point is the public libraries that most camps possess, at least in Lebanon. The Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation runs three of these—in Nahr al-Bared, Baddawi and Ain Helweh. The Welfare Association have established another nine. Single camp libraries also exist here and there. Some UNRWA schools have libraries but since the schools are situated outside the camps it is doubtful how much access children have to them. 

Recently I visited the Palestine Arab Cultural Centre library in Bourj al-Barajneh. This is one of nine camp libraries established by the Welfare Association, a major Palestinian donor to socio-cultural projects in camps. It is a general library, for adults as well as children, but the children’s section is well stocked, and has many of the history-relevant titles I listed earlier. The books can be borrowed. There are computers and a TV, and a young woman librarian. The director says the library was established in 2002, and was the first of the Welfare Association libraries. The level of use was very low in the beginning. Now they get around forty users a day while around one hundred people a month borrow books. He says, “Attendance fluctuates. There are more in summer when kids are not in school, few at exam times.” Summer activities include child-to-child stories, puppet shows, and making plays. A program they have done earlier is bringing old people from the camp’s Over 60s Club to tell children about Palestine. 

History is introduced through the books in the library, and through activities. Depending on their interests the children here divide up into different activity groups led by the librarian and teen volunteers. Fatima, the librarian, says that an activity children enjoy is making plays from books and acting them. She has taken a training course with As-Sabil, a Lebanese public library association. 

I ask the director what proportion of Bourj Barajneh children use this center? It is an impossible question, but I am curious to know whether NGO activities extend to all children in camps, or whether there’s a proportion that cannot attend for one reason or another. This issue was aroused for me by an activist who said there is a category of “NGO kids” who always get selected for special activities. The PAC director says access to centers depends partly on location and partly on parents’ preferences. He thinks there are possibilities for all. If a kid does not join it is because he/she does not want to.

To get a closer idea of camp children’s access to Palestinian history books I did a small poll of Bourj Barajneh youth in their early twenties whom I know through working on an oral history recording project together. These kids had mostly read a Palestinian history book, though they could not remember the authors’ names. Two said they had been taught some Palestinian history in UNRWA schools. One had taken a course in Palestinian history at the Lebanese university and had written her thesis on Palestinian marriage customs. Most had seen Palestinian story books in NGOs or in scouts. One said that there were Palestinian books in her home about proverbs, songs and herbal treatments. And one had read Ghassan Kanafani and written her own book at age fifteen about Palestinian weddings. All said, yes, for sure, Palestinian children in camps should have history books. I should note that these kids come from a better-off camp stratum; all but one have gone through some form of third-level education. The issue of accessibility throws into relief sharp socio-economic differences in camp populations.

Brief though it is, my survey suggests that Palestinian history does reach some children in camps in book form, and for all age groups from first readers to university students. A second observation is that the only level of education under Palestinian control, and where reading material is produced or chosen by Palestinian educators, is the pre-school level. However there are gaps here that need to be considered: is there sufficient space for all camp children in the NGO kindergartens? How many use the libraries? How is the distance between the book and the individual child bridged? The best librarian-training program is said to be that provided by the Abdul Mohsen Qattan Foundattion for work in children’s libraries in Gaza but unfortunately there are no plans to make this training program available to camp libraries in other regions. 

During my research I encountered a project that combines concern for Palestinian history with technological inventiveness. This is the Palestinian Cultural Club in Baddawi camp in North Lebanon. One of its initiators, Ammar, tells me, “Everything we do is related to Palestine.” Established in 1996 by students, the PCC makes live video films, and TV programs that are screened locally using cable satellite. Though made up entirely of volunteers, the PCC has all the equipment it needs to make its programs and to archive them. Ammar says “We borrow equipment from here and there….We are training year by year, improving technically. We want to extend our programs to all the camps but the technical problems are difficult.” They have kept records of their programs, and keep updating archiving techniques. 

Ammar continues, “Our kids don’t read much, so we are using a popular medium to reach them, for example TV and quiz shows. They enjoy the quiz show. Usually it’s in Ramadan… We work on books and libraries but mainly we try to find popular ways to get history through to kids.” The quiz show is popular because it includes prizes. The PCC also tries to reach youth in the places where they gather such as cafes and barber shops, using these milieus to leave information sheets. They plan to place reading material in taxis plying between Baddawi, Tripoli, and Nahr al-Bared.   

The PCC has also produced a book about Palestine. Ammar says, “We gave it to schools, and they are teaching it.” Now they have produced a more advanced and inclusive book of Palestinian history, which is in the last stages of production. Ammar scrolls through it for me on his computer. It begins in 1917 with the British occupation of Palestine. It talks about the refugees, and has all the various historic stages; I can see many dates and statistical tables. He tells me, “We’ll give it to clubs and schools.” Most camps in Lebanon have cultural clubs similar to the one in Baddawi, so that they have the potential to form a circuit of exchange of news and history programs. The use of more powerful satellite could extend their reach far beyond Lebanon. This is an interesting development that points on the one hand to the increasing localization of the production of Palestinian historical knowledge, and on the other to a level of technical know-how in camps that suggests a growing capacity for knowledge circulation.  

A friend tells me “What kids learn (about Palestine) is mainly from the parents and grandparents.” So how about the myriad kinds of informal education that children in camps are exposed to, outside NGOs and school? The family used to be the primary site for learning Palestine, but today the generation that remembered life in Palestine before 1948 has almost all passed away. The third generation, the parents of today’s young children, do not have the same grip on the past. The director of the library in Bourj Barajneh says, “There isn’t the same awareness of Palestine in the family as there used to be. Parents today often don’t know where in Palestine they come from. The sense of connection is lost.” Today children are more likely to learn about Palestine from watching TV, from news from Occupied Palestine, from Ramadan programs, or from internet. We know from studies that some children in camps go to sites such as PalestineRemembered, and it is estimated that a fairly high percentage of homes in camps are internet-connected. 

My inquiries suggest that it is the munasabat, the commemorations of historical events, that are the primary vehicle of historical knowledge for Palestinian children today. Each calendar year is filled with commemorations—almost all tragic—of the collective past: Balfour Declaration day, the Partition of Palestine, the Nakba, Yawm al-Ard, and various massacres. Political scientist Laleh Khalili notes that “In Palestinian settings, institutions use ceremonies to encourage of reenactment of stories and histories, proffer semiotically rich performances which powerfully evoke the nation (dabke, wearing of embroidered dresses, music), disseminate pedagogic materials, and invoke the sacrificial dead.” (2007: 88). Khalili also evokes the power of images: the banners, martyr’s photographs, and wall murals, that turn camps into living museums of Palestinianness. Art work that children themselves produce is yet another commemorative form, with rich reproduction of Palestinian symbols—the key, the flag, the weeping mother, the bird, the shape of Palestine itself. These surely leave a deep impression on children both as artists and audience. The profusion of the munasabat and the energy that the major NGOs invest in them leaves few months in the year unmarked by these historical performances.  Part of their power derives from the way they attest to a legacy of culture, just as the cultural forms—songs, dances, folk tales, costume, special dishes—give emotional and mnemonic depth. I have heard complaints about the repetitiveness of munasabat formulas, but the power of rituals does not depend on innovation. 

The multiple informal channels of history we can find in camps build identity, there is no question about it. “History is in our hearts” as a teacher said. But what about history as information, history as understanding of the present, and history as understanding of the world system? Or history as the knowledge needed to argue with antagonists? A friend tells me of a nephew who is exceptionally watanee but who found himself abroad without the facts and analyses needed to refute pro-Zionist positions. I have no desire to turn young Palestinians into propagandists for the cause, but the degree of ignorance and bias in most Western countries requires at least the knowledge to be able to “talk back.”  The production of books for children in the Palestinian “informal sector” is impressive in its energy, creativity, and quality, yet it raises several questions, among them what proportion of children in camps benefit from these books? What are the shortfalls in terms of their access or understanding? What kinds of history do these books incorporate? While the autonomy of the pre-school sector and the quality of story books produced within it make this arena important for culturally relevant Palestinian education, yet it cannot compensate for the absence of school history text books at later ages.


A final point for reflection is based in the nature of history writing and teaching, its potential for orienting children towards the world they live in, in brief its politics. One of the effects of Great Power silencing of Palestinian rights to justice and restoration has been a reactive prioritization of nationalist consciousness that retards the articulation of other oppressions. This paper has pointed to the absence of national history books for Palestinian children and the way this absence abets structures of political and cultural fragmentation. Yet awareness of this problem is only the beginning of a more difficult discussion of what Palestinian history books should contain, what new kinds of material should be added to the already packed chronology of national history. 

I have been engaging friends in conversation about this, an exercise that has opened up new and interesting perspectives. I feel that the suffering of the Nakba and post-Nakba should be there, but several discussants disagree. Dr Muhammad thinks memories of Palestine before 1948 are more important because they give people a baseline for demands for a better future; Mayssun fears that a history of defeats and tragedies will discourage young Palestinians from identifying with it; and Diana thinks that national commemorations of the Nakba bear unfairly on the people of the camps. Nidal, an UNRWA teacher, says “We need to understand our mistakes, why are we so disunited?” She wants to know more about agriculture in pre-48 villages because she would have liked to be a farmer. Rabi’a says there should be more about the tool-making skills that men like his grandfather had that show that pre-1948 Palestine had a manufacturing sector. Raji says “We should know more about the struggles of other peoples who were colonized.” I ask Ahmad, “Shouldn’t we collect the stories of ordinary people in the camps who lived through all the battles?” With anger in his eyes he answers, “Our people were trodden down twice, once by the Nakba and the second time by the national movement leaders who didn’t listen to them.”  Such voices are a necessary input to safeguard future Palestinian histories from over-zealous nationalist “policing.” Since knowledge and power are linked, the self-respect of silenced and oppressed strata cannot survive without knowledge both of their oppression and their resistance. 

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T