A Palestinian whose belief in his people’s need for education inspired a university
The prominent Palestinian doctor Shawkat Al-Kelani, who has recently died of cancer aged 73, was, in 1977, a co-founder, and later president, of the An-Najah University in his hometown of Nablus.
To Shawkat, roots were central to a man. Thus it was, after completing his graduate studies in Europe, that in 1964 he returned to northern Palestine, where he became senior medical officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, a post he held until 1989. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967 reinforced his resolve to work for and within his community.
Exile would never be Shawkat’s choice. He held unflinchingly to the view that the Palestinians would one day achieve restitution of their basic human rights. That the world had stood back while settlers expropriated and colonised his land, first in 1948 and later in the occupied territories, was, in his eyes, a temporary aberration. Rationally, legally, this usurpation of a people’s rights was indefensible. Shawkat believed that the Palestinians’ response to their situation would be best shaped by education. Folklore in his hometown has it that it was in his house in the old city of Nablus that the decision to establish a university was taken by a group of local community leaders. From its foundation, he threw himself into the service of the project.
The period following the Oslo peace accords of 1993 saw tremendous expectation on the part of ordinary Palestinians, as they came to believe that their moment of destiny had arrived. Indeed, Shawkat was one of many who thought that they were finally laying the foundations of the state of Palestine. His appointment as a special advisor to Yasser Arafat was a further source of pride, and a matter of national duty, although he may often have wished that his calm and rational counsels had held greater sway. If the progressive collapse of the Oslo process meant the shattering of a dream to men such as Shawkat, the return to the political foreground of the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was his worst nightmare.
In the past year, the Israeli army has rocketed the historic city of Nablus, destroyed the old Ottoman factories where the famous Nablus soap was made, established a military stranglehold on the city and made ordinary working life impossible. The university of An-Najah recently issued a report detailing the interference by the Israeli army into student life, and appealed to the UN to intervene.
Born into a leading Palestinian family, Shawkat read medicine and graduated as a doctor from Alexandria University in the early 1950s. In common with many educated Palestinians fleeing the worsening strife at home, he was drawn by the prospect of jobs in the newly rich Gulf States, and spent a brief spell at the Kuwaiti ministry of health. In 1962, he was awarded a fellowship at the academy of medicine in Vienna, where he also met his future wife, Mariana, from Salonika. Two years later, he took a diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene at Liverpool University, before returning home.
Alongside the tragedies of contemporary Palestinian life, Shawkat fought bravely against cancer for two years. This forced a family separation on him, as the difficulty of receiving proper treatment under Israeli military occupation led him to spend more time in Jordan, which was where he died. Shawkat’s family and friends carry a terrible sense of failure because, due to the occupation, they were unable to fulfil his last request, to be buried in Nablus. He is survived by Mariana. Shawkat Sodqi Zaid Al-Kelani, doctor, born September 28, 1929; died October 17, 2002.
and Yousef Al-Kelani
The Guardian, November 6, 2002