Opening doors to the future

Ma'alii Hamzeh (20) takes a breath of air and looks around. The Drama room at An-Najah National University in Nablus is starting to fill with people. It´s time. This is her chance to show how much she wants to go on exchange.

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Students from An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palesine. Text/photo: Maria Gilje Torheim

Normally Ma'alii Hamzeh (20) studies the third year of English Literature at An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine. Three days last week she replaced her ordinary curriculum with books about drama, and her lectures were replaced by a drama and theatre workshop.

Along with 21 of her fellow students from different fields of study at the university, Ma'alii Hamzeh attended the workshop hosted by the drama section at the Department of Education and Sports Science at the University of Stavanger (UiS).

The workshop was a small part of a selection process, where students will receive Erasmus + - scholarships in connection with an Erasmus + International Credit Mobility project between the drama section at the University of Stavanger and An-Najah National University. Of the 22 students who attended the workshop, only six will receive an Erasmus + grant and the opportunity to travel to Norway and the University of Stavanger. The theatre forms and methods used during the workshop is called «The Theatre of the Oppressed», and is about how to use the concrete and perspicuous language of theatre for conflict and problem solving. In the Theatre of the Oppressed the participants are trying out alternate action models, linked to difficult and oppressive situations in the personal, professional and social dimensions of their lives.

«I had heard that drama can provide you the opportunity to explore yourself as a person, but it was not until I was in the role of a oppressor and suddenly had to play the role of one who was oppressed, that I realized how much drama can do and how it can make a difference», Ma'alii Hamzeh says, English student at An-Najah National University.

The collaborative project between the drama section at the University of Stavanger and An-Najah National University was put in place in 2015, and is an Erasmus + International Credit Mobility programme. Nablus and Stavanger are twin towns since 1996, and the University of Stavanger has had a memorandum of cooperation for many years. But it was only in 2015 that the University of Stavanger was granted funding in the first round of Erasmus + International Credit Mobility, promoting exchanges between program countries and partner countries. The cooperation has also involved Nablus Association in Stavanger as an active partner.

Around this time last year the drama section at the University of Stavanger was on an Erasmus+ visit to Nablus for the first time to strengthen the cooperation with the university and to recruit students and employees for exchange periods in Stavanger. As a result, one student arrived to an Erasmus+ exchange for one semester in spring 2016 to study "Drama and Intercultural Communication" at the University of Stavanger, as the first Erasmus+ student from outside Europe.

The main objective of last week's visit to Palestine, was to strengthen the cooperation with An-Najah National University, explore the possibility to expand the cooperation into new areas, in addition to recruiting new students and staff mobility. For employees, this involves scholarships to go on short exchanges to share experiences with their international colleagues, while the students are getting scholarships to go on a six-month long exchange program at the University of Stavanger. This year scholarships are available for four students on the programme «Drama and Intercultural Communication» and two students are getting the opportunity to study «Comparative Educational Studies» at the University of Stavanger.

In the selection of students who will be nominated for Erasmus+ grants, the drama/theatre workshop played a major role, professor Anna S. Songe-Møller says. Together with her colleagues associate professor Karin Bjerkestrand and assistant professor Hege Østmo-Seter Olsnes she led the workshop at An-Najah.

«Through a drama/theatre workshop students get insight into what the subject really is about, and they are getting a glimpse of what they are going to operate with as exchange students at the Drama and Intercultural Communication study», Anna S. Songe-Møller says.

She experienced several emotional moments in the process, and she says that the theatre forms of The Theatre of the Oppressed were something that engaged students on many levels.

«The Theatre forms really appealed to their emotions. They got the opportunity to express their own feelings through their own experiences. Further, there is room for analysis and reflection. By using the Theatre of the Oppressed, one can visualize challenges, revealing attitudes and values – discuss them and negotiate solutions that are not repressive», she says.

For Ma'alii and her fellow students the workshop comes with an opportunity to go abroad on exchange study. For them it’s a great opportunity since it can be difficult for Palestinians to obtain a visa to travel out of the West Bank. But there were also students that joined the drama/theatre workshop for different reasons. Many saw this as a golden opportunity to explore drama, and learn more about how to treat their emotions and not to answer violence with violence.

«Some of the students who came did not really seek the opportunity to go on a exchange study, but wanted to join the workshop just to get an arena where they could express themselves», Karin Bjerkestrand, senior Lecturer in Drama at the University of Stavanger, says.

For Ma'alii Hamzeh, an exchange programme gives her the opportunity to travel abroad for the first time. She has a strong desire to experience a new culture, get new impressions and learn new methods of learning. But first, she and her peers will perform what they have worked on in the recent days in front of their fellow students, teachers and the acting president of An-Najah, Dr. Maher Natsheh. She takes a deep breath and looks around. In a moment she begins to reflect on what she has learned in the recent couple of days, and she realizes how much she has left to learn.

During the visit at An-Najah National University, the delegation from the University of Stavanger met with the management of the Palestinian university. The university's acting president Dr. Maher Natsheh  affirms that he thinks of the cooperation as a great success.

«Norway is a country that most Palestinians want to visit. Largely due to the location and the people. This is also a nation with advancement that I think we can learn a lot from. We have experienced that many of our students apply for this exchange programme and would like to go on exchange to Stavanger. We have only had good experiences with this cooperation and I hope it continues in the future», Dr. Natsheh says, before adding that he believes the students will get a lot out of a stay at the University of Stavanger.

Although the management at An-Najah is pleased with the cooperation with the University of Stavanger, Dr. Maher Natsheh would like to expand their cooperation to include other academic areas. In addition, he hopes that students in Stavanger can get the opportunity to go on exchange study at An-Najah National University in the future.

«Media creates a picture of Palestine as a dangerous place to visit, but there rarely happens anything to worry about and it's mostly quiet and peaceful. We hope that more international students can come and visit us and even get to experience what it's like here, and learn more about our history and how we overcome the challenges we have», he says.

The cooperation with An-Najah has been such a success that the drama section at the University of Stavanger is hoping to establish a consortium with various educational institutions, centres and schools around Norway to strengthen international cooperation.

«We seek to establish a national consortium that can run its own mobility collaboration for students and staff within a strategic drama/theatre professional frame», Songe-Møller says.

The workshop and stay at An-Najah National University is coming to an end. Ma'alii Hamzeh is on the stage together with her fellow students. They experience different roles, and use the body to form images of bereaved people who must find a solution out of a difficult situation. People who just want peace. Fatima Hasheu (21) takes place entirely in the front, cleans  her troath, stops and says:

«There is no power in  oppression. There is no power in the oppressed. There is only power in freedom».

Text/photo: Maria Gilje Torheim