Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

From Nahda to Nakba: The Governmental Arab College of Jerusalem and Its Palestinian Historical Heritage in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

From Nahda to Nakba: The Governmental Arab College of Jerusalem and Its Palestinian Historical Heritage in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt


The tie between the Arab Nahda (renaissance) and the geographical area of Palestine, or better, Qutr al-Filastin (the country of Palestine),1 has usually been underestimated and neglected or considered particularly abnormal: in the beginning, non-existent because absorbed within "Ottomanism" (Osmanlilik) and Pan-Islam ism; later, during the British Mandate (1920-48) as regionally nationalist and particularly addressed against Zionism and European imperialism; and finally, after the Nakba (1948-49), confused (from the sixties onward) with political struggles and displacement. For these reasons, even today it is hard to apply the term Nahda to the region which would become Israel in 1948.

At the same time, the famous, or rather infamous, sentence that Palestine was "a land without a people for a people without a land' became a political and ideological argument that Zionists exploited for their cause, literally speaking as if Palestine had been as empty and desolate as a desert.2 Even if this phrase was adopted more to define the unclear local boundaries of a nineteenth-century Palestine, still included in the Ottoman Empire, the literary image of a region scarcely populated and available to be dominated was deeply embedded within European diplomatic circles.

On the contrary, this "land without a people" was normally inhabited, and in particular during the British Mandate (1920-48), its population rapidly increased: Turkish sources estimated Arab Palestine residents at 600,000 in 1914, 580,000 in 1919,3 and in 1936, at 1,366,392 inhabitants, the Jewish percentage was 28.1, whereas, in 1946, prior to the war, of 1.94 million inhabitants, 1.33 million were Arabs (1.18 million Muslims and 149,000 Christians), while 603,000 were Jewish (plus 16,000 others, generally foreigners).4

If the term Nahda emeiged during the nineteenth century, following the Napoleonic campaign (1798-1801) in the Near East, and in particular afterward "La Commission des Sciences et des Arts" was able to instill, starting from Egypt, a chaotic melting pot of post-Enlightened principles and values;5 the situation in Palestine at the end of World War I (WWI) showed peculiar characteristics difficult to trace in a more general understanding of the modem Arab awakening.6

A Palestinian Nahda during the British Mandate, as will clearly emerge in this article, could be generally summarized using three adjectives that are able to identify it: intellectual (as related to a cosmopolitan intelligentsia), historicized (as particularly interested in historical subjects), and nationalist (concerning the affirmation of a national identity); a fourth characteristic, even if attributable to a post-Nakba phase, is refugee, because Palestinians were forced to abandon the homeland to survive and to increase skills and capabilities.

It is also important, to better describe the peculiarities of this Nahda, to discover the contribution that the Governmental Arab College of Jerusalem added in the first half of the twentieth century; this institution, called the Men's Teacher Training College until 1927, grew out of the British military administration's restoration of the Ottoman governmental school system that followed the occupation of Palestine in 1917-18.

Before WWI, in 1911, less than a quarter of school-age children in Palestine (17,000: 13,000 boys and 4000 girls) out of 73,000 attended school,7 and the majority attended private schools; despite the progress made by the Department of Education under British supervision, education facilities for Arabs remained inadequate, and in 1946, a scarce third of the school-age population (93,550 out of 320,000) were registered in elementary and secondary institutes.8 Enrollment was higher in towns, and more boys were in school than girls; at the end of the Mandate, the illiteracy rate was still unequal: Jews and Arab Christians were completely literate, while only 40% of Arab Muslims were. …

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