Shafeeq Ghabra: A Scholar of the Palestinian Cause Confronts Illness With Research and Hope
Early in life, Shafeeq Ghabra, a Kuwaiti scholar and academic of Palestinian descent, witnessed major transformations that greatly affected his 40-year-long academic career.
He knew the hardships of dislocation, as his Palestinian family fled to Egypt after the 1948 war and later moved to Kuwait. He knew military struggle as a fighter for the Palestine Liberation Organization, and he held administrative positions as founder and first president of the American University of Kuwait. But teaching and research are the work he prefers, and the work that sustain him now during a struggle with cancer.
His Palestinian family’s experience of exile motivated Ghabra to dedicate most of his research to the Palestinian cause, and to focus on Palestinian diaspora studies, besides studying the mechanisms of power and society in Kuwait, where he spent most of his life.
“The Palestinian cause still needs a lot of effort to fill the scientific vacuum to explain its details, like any human tragedy,” Ghabra said in a telephone interview. “Especially in light of the Israeli endeavor to falsify history and erase the identity of the indigenous people whose fates ended in the diaspora.” (See a related article, “Palestinian Diaspora Literature Resurges from Obscurity.”)
Through his studies, Ghabra sought to monitor and document the central role played by Palestinian families in the diaspora to revive their collective memory. He also studied ways to ensure the continuity of links between those inside and outside Palestine, and revealed how some members of these families bore the cost of educating their relatives and fulfilling all their financial needs to protect the Palestinian society from the disintegration caused by the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948, and the Israeli occupation’s policies.
From Armed Struggle to Teaching
Ghabra’s most impactful academic experience came from joining the Palestinian revolutionary factions, after graduating from Georgetown University in the United States. Early in the 1970s, Ghabra fought for the Fatah Movement’s “Student Battalion,” also known as Al-Jarmaq brigade, setting off from southern Lebanon to begin his first steps in confronting the Israeli occupation.
“My experience in the military struggle for about six years contributed to the development of my academic experience, as it taught me to delve deeper into reading events and to have a broader understanding of political movements of different ideological backgrounds and ways of interacting with reality,” said Ghabra. “It also contributed to developing a sense of asceticism in administrative or leadership positions, and a belief that the position of a professor suits my personal choices the most.”
Ghabra’s experience in armed struggle made him bold in his political and academic theses, but also modest, as “the combat experience made him belittle anything less than death.”Ahmad Jamil Azem
A professor of international relations at Birzeit University
In a phone call, Ahmad Jamil Azem, a professor of international relations at Birzeit University, said that Ghabra’s experience in armed struggle made him bold in his political and academic theses, but also modest, as “the combat experience made him belittle anything less than death.”
After obtaining a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Texas at Austin in 1987, Ghabra worked as a media officer at the Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington. Later on, he chose to work in academia and research over any other responsibilities. Thus, he returned to teach at Kuwait University.
Establishing the American University in Kuwait
In 2003, Ghabra was chosen to establish the American University of Kuwait. That was his first experience in building an academic institution from scratch, besides his academic duties.
The tasks assigned to him included supervising all details of the construction of the university, in addition to designing its academic programs for students and professors. All this had to be done in a year and a half.
“The university is like a biological organism; it is either ready to evolve or be inactive,” he said. “The factors that help such evolution include developing students’ critical writings, learning the skills of research and investigation, team working, and developing a culture of freedom on campus.”
Despite the academic cooperation agreements he concluded with Dartmouth College in humanities and arts programs and contracting American academics to teach, Ghabra was keen not to separate the university from its surrounding society, its teachings, traditions and social particularity.
Ghabra believes that establishing branches of foreign universities in the Arab region is a good thing. However, he notes that there are challenges that affect their educational quality, like the dominance of a commercial mentality seeking financial profits in some of them. Also, the lack of academic freedom in the region, and, most importantly, the political and economic turmoil that sometimes arise may negatively affect a university’s situation, as the American University in Beirut has experienced with the current crisis in Lebanon. (See a related article, “Lebanon’s Double Crisis Crushes Both Students and Universities.”)
“Laws do not protect university professors in most Arab countries, so most of them prefer an administrative position over research that may lead to imprisonment or dismissal.”Shafeeq Ghabra
Talking of the reasons for the increase in unemployment rates among university graduates in the Arab region, Ghabra believes that this is linked to problems in the political and economic systems of Arab countries, which limit benefits to specific groups. (See a related article, “In Iraq, Hunger for Jobs Collides With a Government That Can’t Provide Them.”)
“The economy in Arab countries does not aim at human beings and building their capabilities and happiness,” he said. “Instead, it aims at enabling the political ruling class and the groups loyal to it.” (See a related article, “Five Years After the Arab Spring, Report Warns of New Uprising.”)
To confront this structural crisis, Ghabra suggests that universities should have a greater role in creating awareness and building a relationship with society to implement capacity-development programs for low-income groups, and raise awareness of inequality in economic rights, job opportunities, and education among the people of the same country.
A Caring Professor
Ghabra believes that the lack of freedom in the Arab world has negatively affected the development of social sciences and led Arab professors to choose administrative work and abandon research on thorny topics. (See a related article, “Self-Censorship in Arab Higher Education: an Untold Problem.”)
“Laws do not protect university professors in most Arab countries,” he said, “so most of them prefer an administrative position over research that may lead to imprisonment or dismissal, amid the lack of various guarantees and caveats regarding research issues.”
He pointed out that many of his Ph.D. students in the United States and Europe refuse to have their theses translated into Arabic for fear of being accused of religious or security offenses in their home countries.
These ideas were reflected in the methods Ghabra used to teach political theories to his students, as he always pushes his students towards new horizons in research and choosing different topics.
“The main feature of Al-Ghabra’s teaching of political theories is the link between them and practical policies, He gives great importance to field research as a source of information in addition to academic sources.”Reham Al-Naqeeb
A professor of political science at Kuwait University
“The main feature of Al-Ghabra’s teaching of political theories is the link between them and practical policies,” said Reham Al-Naqeeb, a professor of political science at Kuwait University. “He gives great importance to field research as a source of information in addition to academic sources.”
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Al-Naqeeb believes that the way Ghabra deals with academic life is graceful and innovative, similar to his dealings with life in general and its challenges. His manner as an academic is not different from his nature as a human being, giving others space to express their opinions, and not skimping on others with information or experiences.
Research to Fight Illness
For the past year and a half, Ghabra has struggled with cancer. Yet despite the hardships he has endured, he has remained committed to fighting the disease by continuing to conduct research and teaching.
Recently, he published a book titled “Political Theories on Social Sciences.” He also finished, during his treatment in the United States, writing a new book on the Palestinian Nakba from its origins in the 19th century to the present time, to be published this year.
He is currently working on reviewing the English translation of his memoir, An Unsafe Life: A Generation of Dreams and Failures, whose first Arabic edition was published in 2012.
Decades of struggle and research work have helped him endure his illness, he said. “I will continue to work as long as I am able to write and think.”
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