Friday, August 01, 2008

A visit to an Najah University, Nablus.

After leaving Cyprus I went to Israel, to visit a couple of friends and to do a few days sightseeing in the West Bank. After a couple of days in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I headed north to visit a friend; he lives on a Kibbutz in a little corner of Israel squeezed between Lebanon and the Golan Heights. It was very beautiful there and as he had to work during the days I got some work done too - thesis writing and some proofs, occasionally interrupted to cool off by swimming in the beautiful, and freezing cold, river Dan.

After a few days of this it was back to Jerusalem and straight on to Nablus, where, on the bus I met some very nice Palestinian guys, one of whom put me up for the night in Nablus. All of his house mates were students at the university, so I was taken along to a few lectures the next morning.

An Najah university is the largest Palestinian university and has 16,500 students in 3 campuses around Nablus. The campus I visited was very modern and the buildings were much nicer than, for example, Imperial College. Furthermore, as it is quite high on a mountain overlooking Nablus, it has probably the best views of any university I've ever visited. The facilities do not seem too bad either, plenty of computers, etc. Nicest of all it seems very relaxed, other than the slightly over-keen security at the gates, there is none of the background tension that permeates most Palestinian towns. Also, if you have travelled in Palestine, you may wonder where all the young women are, the answer seems to be that they are all at university, there seemed to be (and apparently this is the case) far more female than male students, especially in engineering and science, apparently - which makes a bit of a change from Imperial!

Mostly the place reminded me of any other university, lectures seemed pretty much like lectures anywhere else. There were a few differences: students talk a lot more in lectures than you'd get in England, the classes were a bit smaller, some lectures were in Arabic (although its amazing how much of an Arabic statistics lecture you can understand!), and there are probably more martyrs posters than you'd find in an English university.

I sat in on an English lecture and listened to a very nervous girl speak about colours. And was then press ganged into talking in English and probably confused everyone a great deal. Most students seemed more interested in chatting about why I was there and which football team I supported than anything about English, but I guess it is all practice.

After a late breakfast I knocked on the door of the head of Information Technology to try and find out a little about computer science in Nablus. He was a very nice guy and we were joined by a couple of professors who were also very nice, one of whom had done his PhD in program verification, so we had a little chat about my work and on PLT. They had the kind of problems you'd expect, not enough staff, not enough money, not being able to travel. Even though many of the lecturers have PhDs, they don't have time to do any research. In fact they seem to have lot of clever people (in contrast to say Addis Ababa, where all the lecturers with PhDs left to work in the states), but not enough time and money. They teach pretty much what you'd expect of a computing course, Java and C++ and databases, hardware, etc. Less maths and theory than at Imperial and more general options - the first year is a bit liberal arts like and they continue to do English and other options throughout.

Anyway, what was nicest was to meet so many friendly people, it was amazing how many people wanted to chat or say hello or were interested in this that or the other. Overall it was a great experience and I wish I'd had longer there; the staff wanted me to give a seminar on my research and it would have been nice to meet more of the staff and maybe sit in on some CS lectures.

After all this fun it was time to go back to Jerusalem, which entailed lots of waiting and queuing at checkpoints and very young and nervous (but always polite) Israeli soldiers pointing guns in my direction and general tension. I won't go into it here, but suffice it to say that the Palestinians really suffer for the security measures.

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