Visiting Ramallah and Birzeit University in June 2022 came unexpectedly and took place within the framework of Erasmus+ staff exchanges. The prospect of the trip shook the still waters of lockdowns of the previous winters and, although it came when work overload had already piled up, I saw it as an opportunity to meet up with colleagues again and get to know the actual place and its life and vibes.
This means that a big part of the visit happened on the move.
Normally, this does not have to be a very long journey, especially when you come from Europe and have a EU passport. Then, you book a flight (direct or transfer) and land in Tel-Aviv. However, after landing, the simple can become complicated. To get around things and manage to stay true to the main purpose to develop the planning of the project, I chose to spend a night in Jerusalem and then head to the West Bank from there. Soon I realized that my plan might have to freeze, since it happened that the day after was a Sabbath, which complicated movement and transfers.
Fortunately, my good friend and colleague Dr Ahmad Fteiha, who was going to drive to Birzeit on the same day, offered to give me a lift there. And the journey to Ramallah turned into a road trip in many ways.
Birzeit is located in one of the surrounding hills of the city and commuting to the University meant that, after crossing the lions in Ramallah’s central square, I had to get on a service-taxi twice a day for about 20-minute-long rides each time. Service-taxis have about 10 seats that were always full, mainly with Birzeit students who were taking their final examinations during that time. Eventually, using the service-taxi was not only about commuting but an experience of sociality, since many of the passengers were curious to know about where I was from, why I was visiting, and how I found life in Ramallah. I was asking questions about their studies and our conversations, although interrupted by arrivals at Birzeit, they went on, on the way back, with different discussants.
These ‘road trips’, then, were more private and more communal experiences with education being a recurrent theme. With Ahmad, for instance, we shared views about how to integrate different aspects of pedagogical leadership into the training of OLIVE and how to make these efforts to be meaningful experiences for all the interested parties. We agreed that it is pressing need to think of pedagogical leadership as a quality and initiative that both schoolteachers and principals should undertake to deal with the challenges of the current era.
Not only the foci of conversations on education varied during the different types of my road trips in the West Bank. So did the landscape and the architecture of the transportation network. According to a Census published in 2018, Ramallah has an increasing population of about 322,193. The city is also expanding with new buildings and establishments that appear in, what seemed to me, a spiral arrangement. When you are at higher layers you can see parts of, for example, the main market or the Palestinian flag at Al Sa’a Square and resume your orientation in space.
In a similar way, the busy roads unfold in spiral configurations, differently from the more linear Hizma road leading from Jerusalem to Ramallah. It was early in the morning and an easy trip, with the talks about learning and educational development making it a pleasant ride with open horizons on a sunny day.
This took me a few years back, when traveling with colleagues across regions in Greece (when I used to live there) to the area of the school where I was working as a teacher of English. To get there, we had to pass through toll stations, which were sometimes more crowded, some other times more quiet. Although the greyish constructions of metal and cement were similar, these were by no means toll stations. This was the establishment of the first crossing point in the Separation Barrier, on Route 437. Being the first checkpoint that you come across on the way to the West Bank, it is staffed around the clock by Border Police and private security companies.
I was going to cross checkpoints again a few hours before the way back to Helsinki, but this would be a different story. Passing through the Hizma road checkpoint happened on the move and took a few moments for us. It does not always happen like this. Having crossed, it was a short cut before reaching the campus of Birzeit University where I met with colleagues again, those who had visited Helsinki and our Faculty earlier during the Spring. Dr Abdallah Bsharat and Dr Ayman Rezeqallah were two of those good friends and colleagues who continued the thread of a first day road trip, enriched with background details about the history and development of Ramallah and the surrounding areas.