One bizarre aspect about life in Palestine is the scrutiny to which we are subjected by journalists, researchers and political tourists who descend daily. Birzeit University is particularly attractive to researchers who come to “do Palestine.” At first glance, the benefits would seem great: publicity, access to the media and protection against institutional harassment by the Israelis. Indeed, this was important during the intifada, when the university was closed for four and a half years.
But there is another side to this obsession. There is a substantial amount of money available to people “doing Palestine,” especially if the focus is one of the current hot topics: Islamic fundamentalism, women’s movements, Arab-Jewish dialogue, economic development and health all attract legions of academic and semi-academic hustlers in addition to bonafide researchers. The thin line separating these two groups begins to blur as serious scholars, thirsty for funding, adjust their research to focus on areas that are in demand.
Within Palestine, an entire network of “service centers” have sprung up to cater to well-funded visitors with research agendas. These include data centers, academic escort agencies, car rentals and even research “stores” (dakkakin) that market scholarship. Some dakkakin are better funded than several Palestinian universities. It is possible to “rent” a Palestinian research assistant (what anthropologists used to call the “native informant”) to do the actual canvassing, interviewing and transcribing of research material, even to the point of writing it up. All this is available for a reasonable fee that can be added to fieldwork expenses budgeted in the research grant. For a few more dollars it is possible to get the same “assistant” with a chauffeured car. Recently two US doctorates were acquired in this fashion, with one of the authors knowing no Arabic except “i‘mil-li ma‘ruf” (do me a favor).
Thus a division of labor emerges in which “visiting scholars” are able to dictate the terms in which Palestinian discourse is packaged and presented, while Palestinian “consultants” serve a proletarian function in this scholarly multinationalism.
Increasingly, local Palestinian scholars are trying to subvert their disadvantaged position in this relationship, but in the wrong way: by adopting the paradigms and modes of operation utilized by visiting luminaries. This is because the agendas of international agencies determine where the research money goes and what the research priorities are. In their quest for legitimacy and a working relationship with the local community, moreover, these agencies employ staff consultants and administrators from the cadres of the local scholarly community. The temptations are great for Palestinian scholars to leave their posts in local universities, where the average monthly pay is considerably lower than a taxi driver’s, for jobs in UN agencies or European or American non-governmental organizations where salaries are double or triple this amount. The result is a depletion of the ranks of serious scholars (to the limited extent that they existed) within national institutions and their employment in the service of the research equivalent of fast food: opinion polls, sectoral surveys and the like. The blame, of course, cannot be laid entirely on the doorsteps of these agencies; Palestinian scholars, like their Arab and Western counterparts, are often ready to sell themselves and their work for the right price.