“Education has always been a source of hope and resilience for all Palestinians”: Interview with Tahani Al Dahdouh for the OLIVE Project (Part 1)

On May 22nd, 2024, Anaïs Duong-Pedica from the OLIVE project interviewed Tahani Al Dahdouh, an educator and postdoctoral research fellow at Tampere University. Originally from Gaza, Tahani’s research focuses innovativeness, digitalization and professional development in higher education. In Part 1 of this interview, Tahani talked about higher education in Palestine and the impact of Israeli colonialism and occupation on Palestinian education, online teaching and learning, and teachers’ resilience in Gaza. The second part of the interview will be published next week.

This exchange took place when there are currently no university left in Gaza due to Israeli attacks. This is part of what Palestinian Professor Karma Nabulsi called “scholasticide“, during the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, to refer to “systematic destruction of Palestinian education by Israel.” Much of what Tahani explores in this conversation is also echoed in the “Open letter by Gaza academics and university administrators to the world” published a few days later. The open letter notably underlines the importance of online teaching in the current circumstances and highlights that “the rebuilding of Gaza’s academic institutions is not just a matter of education; it is a testament to our resilience, determination, and unwavering commitment to securing a future for generations to come.”

Anaïs Duong-Pedica (ADP): Good afternoon Tahani. Thank you so much for accepting to be interviewed by the OLIVE project, and to answer a few of our questions on what you’ve been working on, and on higher education in Palestine. Before we start the interview, could you introduce yourself and say a little bit about the work that you’ve been doing?

Tahani Al Dahdouh (TAD): Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s my honor to be here and speak a little bit about higher education in Palestine. My name is Tahani Al Dahdouh. I’m Finnish Palestinian, originally from Gaza. I’m currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University. I studied for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) and came to Finland 10 years ago to pursue a PhD in education through an Erasmus Mundus partnership project between Europe and the Islamic University of Gaza. In 2020, I defended my article-based dissertation, which focused on investigating higher education employees’ innovativeness. After that, I worked as a principal investigator for two projects on developing digital pedagogies in higher education at Tampere University.

Tahani Al Dahdouh

ADP: Thank you so much for this introduction. Could you tell us about university education in Palestine? Specifically, how does the historical and political context of Palestine impact higher education there, whether currently, during the genocide that’s unfortunately happening and unfolding in Gaza, but also before this?

TAD: First of all, I would like to highlight that education has has been a source of hope and resilience for all Palestinians, especially after 1948, when most Palestinians were displaced and forced to leave their homes during the Nakba year. Students and teachers played a decisive role in rebuilding Palestinian society. The historical roots of the Palestinian higher education system go back to the 1940s when a relatively large number of students began to enroll in higher education institutions abroad, because there were no universities inside Palestine at that time. The main destination at that time was Egypt, the USA, the UK. And of course, the cost for study was relatively high, and getting admission was very difficult and not affordable to everyone. So higher education was mainly and largely limited to families with good socio-economic situations.

So higher education was built under occupation, and we have, in total, about 51 universities and colleges distributed all over Palestine, in the West Bank and Gaza. They grew and developed rapidly under the occupation. We have almost around 57,000 students who are enrolled in these universities and about 17,000 academic and administrative staff. During seven decades of occupation, higher education had to live through unjust and violent working conditions. Here I’m sharing evidence not only from articles or from reports, but also from my own experience when I was a student and an assistant teacher at the Islamic University, before coming to Finland.

I can say that most challenges of higher education were related, first of all, to a lack of funds and financial deficiency. In recent years, there has been a reduction in foreign aid and economic deterioration due to the occupation policies. This has led to significant cuts in the public sector budget, and in particular, salaries. I recall that when I worked there, and I also know from my colleagues there that they have been working at universities in Gaza for several years with only 50% of salaries, and sometimes less than this. So Palestinian universities rely heavily on income from tuition fees, which also have been harmed and affected by the increasing inability of Palestinian students to pay. The high rate of unemployment and high poverty rate affects the students’ ability to pay their fees, so it is like a cycle: each factor is affecting the other. This is one point.

The second point is about the blockade and lack of life basic needs, such as the infrastructure, electricity, fuel, internet connection, and so on, especially in Gaza. Universities in Gaza have been subjected to several attacks on infrastructure. This resulted in a cycle of destruction and reconstruction several times. The literature resembles the concurrent tension between construction and destruction as a de-development process of higher education where physical construction projects and educational endeavors are juxtaposed with the destructive forces of bombardment and resource scarcity.

The third point is the de-mobility: the high restriction of movement and mobility. I am one of the persons who was affected by this. I recall that in 2013, before coming to Finland, I won a scholarship to study in Spain. My husband had also won a scholarship to study in Portugal. We were very happy at that time because the two countries are near each other, and this could have given us the possibility to complete our doctoral study with my children there. Unfortunately, what happened is that I was denied travelling at that time. I was denied a visa to go out of Gaza and that forced me to give up and to cancel the scholarship. I was very very sad at that time. The following year, I applied again for the second round of European funds and scholarships, and I won another one to come here to Finland.

Concerning de-mobility, the complex system of checkpoints, barriers and separation walls, especially in the West Bank, and the permit system all create obstacles to the freedom of movement of many students and academics. So the educational process in Palestine suffers from the geographical fragmentation imposed by Israel. For example, from the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel has issued travel ban orders against academics and students. Now Gazans are prevented from completing their education in the West Bank universities. Also, the systematic arrests and detentions of Palestinian students, especially in the West Bank, does not only affect the students themselves, but also harms the whole academic environment as a whole. According to recent figures, in 2021, there are approximately 70 students from Birzeit University who are in Israeli prisons.

And now, during the genocide in Gaza, Israel bombed almost all Gaza universities, and killed thousands of students and hundreds of university teachers and academics. It is deliberately eliminating top scientists and academics to destroy the human capital, and to wipe out the intellectual figures. Such human capital is really difficult to be replaced and extremely difficult to fill in. It takes a long time to build a human. I’ve personally lost many, many colleagues who were working together at the Islamic University of Gaza, for example, Dr. Ibrahim Al-Astal, Dr. Sufyan Tayeh, Dr. Khitam Al-Wasifi, Dr. Refaat Alareer, Dr. Izzo Afaneh, all of these and many others more than 100 Palestinian academics  were killed by Israel during this current genocide in Gaza.

In a research meeting at IUG: Tahani, Dr Sanna Abu Dagga, Dr Ibrahim Al-Astal. Dr Ibrahim Al-Astal was killed by the Israeli military attacks. Photo: Tahani Al Dahdouh

ADP: Thank you so much for sharing this Tahani and I’m so sorry for the loss of your colleagues and perhaps also students that you must have studied with at the Islamic University of Gaza in the past. You mentioned some of the challenges to higher education in Palestine, which are due to the occupation. My next question is related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Something that happened following the COVID-19 pandemic was that it exacerbated a lot of inequalities that were already present but made them even more visible for everybody to see. After the pandemic, many universities they moved their teaching to online platforms, including in Finland, and that happened in many places. And I was wondering if online teaching was used much in Palestine before the pandemic, and what is the situation now that people believe that the pandemic is kind of over, but also now there is the current military attacks on Gaza and also on the West Bank that are going on?

TAD: Online teaching and learning were already used before the pandemic, of course, but it was not that common. We, in Palestine, have only one open university: AlQuds University, which had several branches in Gaza and the West Bank. This open university depends entirely on online teaching and distance learning. But what was common is the blended learning. It is a mode of learning where classroom teaching is combined with some online learning elements. For example, at the Islamic University of Gaza, each course had an associated Moodle page, which teachers activated with some digital resources, online assessments, group work, collaboration and so on. I remember even before the Moodle platform, there were there was another platform called WebCT. So this model was not useful only when the COVID pandemic appeared, but also when teaching was disrupted due to the closing of roads by Israel. For example, in Gaza, before 2006, when Israel was occupying Gaza, sometimes there were closing of the roads between Northern and Southern Gaza which hindered the accessibility to university campus between the north and south and disturbed education. So at that time, teachers were using elements of online teaching in emergency situation.

When the pandemic appeared in 2020, it was not the first time to deal with a crisis. Higher education in Palestine immediately outlined an emergency plan and shifted to online teaching setting. But due to the electricity cut and unstable internet connection, most of the teaching was organized in asynchronous mode. It means that it’s like a MOOC: the teachers prepare their materials, videos, and learning materials and upload them onto the course page. The student can then access and study the material depending on the their availability and the availability of the electricity and internet connection in every home. After that, they have online discussions for example. So yes, that was the situation of online teaching.

ADP: And right now, what’s the situation when it comes to teaching in Gaza? Are there some special arrangements that are being put in place or is this not a priority at the moment?

TAD: At the moment, I think the priority is for the ceasefire. Under war, there is no possibility for formal education. That concerns everyone, not just the students, but also the teachers, the administrative staff and so on. So what I think is that after the war ends and the ceasefire happens in Gaza, online teaching could play a crucial role, at least for the first two years after the war ends, in order to complement the fact that we don’t have buildings and we don’t have infrastructure for face-to-face teaching. But at the same time, we know that electricity is crucial, and the internet connection is very important for online teaching. So what I’m imagining is that blended learning also could be a way or a solution as part of this plan. For example, teaching can be arranged in caravans or in tents and some elements of online learning on Moodle can also be arranged.

ADP: Going back to the COVID 19 pandemic, you have an article that came out at the beginning of the year that you co-wrote with Nazmi Al-Masri, Sanaa Abou-Dagga and Alaa AlDahdouh, which explores the ways university teachers and Palestinian universities in Gaza developed their online teaching expertise during the COVID 19 pandemic. I was wondering whether you could share some of the findings from that research with us?

TAD: This study was part of a one-year project funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation. Because I have studied and worked in two different contexts, in Palestine and in Finland, and we all have witnessed how the COVID pandemic has disturbed higher education, even in most developed societies, I was wondering how the online teaching could be run in other conflict affected contexts and war-torn land like Palestine? We suffered from a lack of electricity and internet even before the pandemic, so how could the shift to online teaching be arranged under these difficult circumstances? The question specifically was: how do university teachers learn and develop their online teaching in contexts where essential needs are lacking in comparison to contexts where almost all conditions are secured? That was the title of my research project. I got funding and I was able to travel to Gaza two years ago. I did my fellowship at the Islamic University of Gaza.

Islamic University of Gaza campus before destruction. Photo: Tahani Al Dahdouh

I conducted the study and collected narrative interviews with university teachers. The findings of that article indicated that teachers developed their online teaching, even in difficult circumstances, and in several domains: in teaching and classroom management, assessment, technology use, and in theoretical conception. This development happened through different mechanisms, mostly through self-learning, depending on oneself, practice, trial and error, reflection, and also with the institutional support of the university, using the IT help desk training, and so on. They also developed through interpersonal relationships, collaborations, asking colleagues and even getting help from family members. I remember one teacher who got help from his son, who was a computer engineer, to help them fixing Zoom. There was collaboration with the students as well.

This development was driven by several motives and goals, such as social goals. Social goals mean the teachers have a desire to develop to serve their society and students. There was also a necessity-based motive. You know, most of the teachers were obliged and forced to teach online under these circumstances. There were also performance (e.g. “ I want to develop in online teaching to show others”) and mastery goals (e.g. “I want to develop in online teaching because I like to learn something new”). Other goals were related to religion or newness (e.g. keeping up to date with the technology).

Finally, the findings showed that the development process is accompanied by both negative and positive emotions: Negative emotions such as the confusion and the stress of online teaching, and positive emotions such as the satisfaction one gets when the job is done, and when one sees that students are satisfied with their learning, then one feels happy with this and the pride with what one has achieved.

The development has yielded several consequences on teachers’ behavior, perceptions, attitudes, and well-being. An example of perception change would be an attitude the teachers shared at the beginning of the pandemic: they refused the idea of online teaching. They knew that this idea would not work at all. But then, when they were forced to do this, they found out about some of the positive effects, and they started to change their mind gradually.

ADP: I also wanted to ask you about the social goals. You talked about teachers’ desire to serve society and their students. I was wondering whether you could say something more about this, as a teacher yourself and also as somebody who has been a student in in Gaza. Especially since you said earlier that many teachers only get 50% of their salaries, and so I am guessing many people would not continue their work if they were only paid 50% of what they’re supposed to be paid, so I wonder if you could say something about what drives teachers to continue?

TAD: That’s a really great question, because when someone thinks about financial issues, then one thinks “what makes me stay in Gaza and continue my profession, while I don’t get my salary and I’m living under the risk of being bombed and several wars?” So what drives teachers to do that? I think the answer to this question is the feeling of responsibility within teachers is very high. I am responsible as a teacher to spread the knowledge and to work in even in minimum working conditions. You know, they are academics, and they have the option to leave if they want. For example, they can work in universities in the Gulf and in other Arab universities, as well as in Europe, if they want. But those teachers chose to stay in Gaza because they feel that their contribution to their society is to teach there and to try to adapt to the situation even with minimum resources, even with minimum well-being facilities. So the feeling of responsibility, and we have a word in Arabic “الأمانة”. In English, it means “trust”, “sense of commitment”, “duty”. Trust is also something related to our Islamic religion, which encourages people to hold up and carry their responsibility for society and for those they care about. The reward will come later either in this life or in the Hereafter.

The main goal of higher education is to contribute to society after all. We want to raise awareness on the role of Palestinian generations in their society, especially when they are under occupation. If everyone goes away and travels outside Gaza, then who will teach those generations?

Tahani Al Dahdouh as a guest lecturer in the “Research Methods” course for Master’s degree students at the IUG. Photo: Tahani Al Dahdouh

One Reply to ““Education has always been a source of hope and resilience for all Palestinians”: Interview with Tahani Al Dahdouh for the OLIVE Project (Part 1)”

Leave a Reply