Stories humanize. This adage inspired the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) from the end of the 1990s on, when it started to operate as a civil society organization in the occupied West Bank. Its staff invested in the systematic collection and educational use of stories from and about Palestine. The first projects included the use of Palestinian legends in moral and inter-religious education along with a research about people’s history of Bethlehem. Those projects led to the first publications of a new Culture and Palestine series edited by AEI.
During the second Intifada from 2000 on, AEI encouraged diary-writing and storytelling among its constituencies of youth, women and educators. The purpose was helping to give common people a voice in a world which had forgotten about Palestinian daily life and was focused on violence.
With the number of documented stories growing, AEI opened in 2005, in cooperation with a German web developer, www.palestine-family.net as an archive of a wide range of stories and visuals on Palestine. AEI’s growing number of youth and women groups contributed. A home-grown method cultivated in AEI’s groups – Read, Reflect, Communicate and Act (RRCA) – turned out to be highly effective in evoking life experiences and stories.
In 2008, Bethlehem and Palestinian legends and people’s histories were researched and collected in the context of a cultural tourism project. Local Palestinians told those legends and histories to visitors at not-so-known Bethlehem sites.
During this period, from the end of the 1990s until about 2008, AEI developed and applied activating methods in which the youths and women themselves researched stories. A main purpose was to “communicate Palestine” towards international audiences in order to challenge stereotypes of Bethlehem and Palestine, and in doing so to humanize the image of the Palestinian people abroad.
Sumud Story House
In 2008 AEI opened the Sumud Story House near the Wall in north-Bethlehem. The House brought together women from the neighborhood and the larger Bethlehem area. A major method to lower its threshold as a neighborhood house was to nurture the exchange about life stories. It thus became a place for Palestinian women to feel at ease and heal the traumatic experiences which were common everywhere in Palestine but certainly in this area where the Wall dominated people’s lives and views.
In this period the Arabic concept of ‘sumud’ became increasingly an inspirational guide to AEI’s work. Sumud or steadfastness/perseverance, meant to AEI more than staying on the land or in the home. It meant an acknowledgement that Palestine or the Holy Land is a ‘land of testing’, in the phrase of one educator. Palestinians face many moments of being tested in a situation of progressive colonization under occupation. Samadin – those who practice sumud – develop a life style which makes it possible to survive, if possible to resist but always to keep up the hope for a better, more just and peaceful future. What came out of a research about the meaning of the concept was that the women at the Sumud Story House did not associate sumud with just sacrifice and pain, but also with keeping up the joy of the culture that energizes Palestinian daily life. The various elements of sumud made the concept very suitable for the collection and use of human and humanizing stories.
In the years 2010-11 the Sumud Story House developed the so-called Wall Museum, consisting of large weather-resistant story posters attached to the nearby Israeli Separation Wall in the north of Bethlehem, near the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint. The women of the House jointly chose and discussed key moments from their lives, which then became in abbreviated form the stories used in the Wall Museum. It was thus the outcome of a joint women’s research. AEI’s youth groups added their own stories, and more stories from outside Bethlehem were selected as well. The Wall posters were mostly in English, targeting visitors of Bethlehem. They were funded by private individuals or institutions abroad that found it important that the Palestinian voice crossed the Wall to reach an international audience.
The Israeli army did not remove the posters, though fixing them was an activity certainly not without risk. At the moment more than 2o0 posters have been attached on the Wall.
Advocacy in Palestinian society
In the first decade of the 21 C it was mainly AEI’s inter-religious school project which had an outreach beyond Bethlehem, especially the Ramallah area. In the second decade, AEI’s project work expanded. AEI typically advocated story research at various schools and in the community.
In the abovementioned inter-religious school project, educators asked students to interview and collect stories of remarkable instances of inter-religious (Christian-Moslem) living together, of inter-religious sumud. This activity led to a book which showcased people’s stories, at home, in the school, with neighbors, and even in prison. The inter-religious project applied a range of story-related methods which were later on summarized in a methodology syllabus.
In other school-based projects too AEI applied the practice of youth research. For instance, in a recent three-year project implemented at 8 schools in the periphery of Bethlehem, 400 students were involved in collecting stories used for joint advocacy to overcome community-related conflicts and tensions. In a special magazine AEI gave an overview of the youth researches and their methodologies as applied in the schools (see under ‘literature’ below’.
AEI’s women groups also collected stories, but in a different way. One women’s project in villages in the Bethlehem area used the story method in order to encourage women to talk about women’s rights violations in their communities and at home. This yielded a magazine which analyzed and contextualized some dozens of such rights stories.
In another activity, women told their experienced ‘stories of the street’ to challenge representatives of PNA police and security to take more care of women’s needs in public security.
In a recent project (2018-2021), with some 600 youths, mainly young women and girls, from the southern West Bank, the participants presented their stories of “conflict” vs their stories of “hope.” The stories were collected in an e-book (see below) as well as publicized in a daily series of Instagram posts.
A new follow-up AEI project in Hebron focuses on an “Early Warning and Response System’, aiming at preventing or intervening in local conflicts. Some 140 young women are collecting and documenting stories of conflict as a base for interventions – hopefully generating new ‘stories of hope’.
Conclusion: AEI’s research and stories
In sum, AEI’s research on stories involves the following elements:
- Women, youth and educators are involved in researching and collecting life stories, or stories about key moments in their lives
- The stories cover both people’s real life stories/histories as well as legends
- They focus on the key ‘testing’ moments that people face in their lives
- They bring out the sumud or perseverance of people in connecting to the community and the land, and in resisting injustice and keeping hope
- AEI looks out for innovative ways of communicating the stories to local and international audiences.
Magazine “Hope is a Necessity, Despair a Luxury: Youth Research on Conflict in the Palestinian West Bank”
Published in Arabic:
Story e-book, with introduction about approach and method youth research:
“Never give up – and never stop caring”
2020 Citizenship and Diversity: Christian-Moslem Living Together in Palestine: A Documentation of Methods and Methodological Approaches. AEI, Bethlehem.
[Page through the publication]
Wall Museum: Palestinian Stories on the Wall
Rania Murra and Toine van Teeffelen, The Wall Museum: Palestinian Stories on the Wall in Bethlehem, Jerusalem Quarterly (2013) 55.
Sumud at the Sumud Story House
Alexandra Rijke and Toine van Teeffelen, To Exist is To Resist: Sumud, Heroism and the Everyday, Jerusalem Quarterly (2014) 59.
Arab Educational Institute
Bethlehem, May 2021