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The Secret History of My Geography Teacher

This is not my geography teacher, or, more accurately it is not at all how I remember him. A series of APA images published by the British Daily Mail and other newspapers showed Hamad al-Hasanat lying dead in a mosque, surrounded by a group of Hamas fighters. On top of his lifeless body, as worshipers came to offer a final prayer before burial, rested an assault rifle.

Hasanat was buried among the refugees of the Nuseirat Refugee Camp, in the central Gaza Strip. He died on 2 March, at the age of 80.

“Hammad al-Hasanat co-founded the terrorist group (Hamas) on December 14, 1987,” wrote British tabloid by way of introducing the black Palestinian leader. I say ‘black,’ although, skin colour was never an issue worth discussing within the Palestinian Gaza political context.

But Hasanat had an affinity to Africa. I should know that. He was my geography teacher, and my favourite one throughout my three years at the Nuseirat’s UNRWA Boys’ Prep School.

Hasanat’s popularity stemmed largely from the fact that he “didn’t give too much homework” and that “he didn’t hit” as other teachers habitually did. In that way, his class was quite ideal: learning about the world at large and where winds come from and why, but the lessons included much storytelling. He was an agreeable character, and unlike our math teacher – whose name I am withholding because he still scares me to this day – who often came to class drunk and violent, Hasanat was a kind, fatherly figure to many of us.

But being teenagers and all, we exploited our geography teacher’s benevolence. Once we circulated a rumour that Hasanat naps in class because he was bitten by a bug while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

In a way, Hasanat asked for it, for he spoke disproportionately about that particular mountain. And whenever he needed to pronounce it, he would put less emphasis on the word “mount” and sharply increase the pitch of his voice when he phonated “Kilimanjaro”. It was as if the whole classroom would shake, as the thunderous voice of Hasanat would echo around the decayed walls of our UN funded refugee school.

We laughed at Hasanat’s expense, who rarely responded angrily at our snickering. Whenever he failed to mention Kilimanjaro, we would remind him with a sneaky question like “Abu Yaser, what is the highest mountain in Africa, you know, the one in Tanzania?” He would readily answer, then we would burst out laughing once more, and so on.

Hasanat was not a militant, even though an assault rifle was laid on his chest in preparation for burial. But, when stacked in the right order, historical circumstances could turn a kindly geography teacher, in the words of the condemnatory Daily Mail, into a “cofounder of a terrorist group”.

Hasanat’s oldest son is Yaser, thus he was “Abu Yaser” – father of Yaser. I have never met Yaser, but I knew Tariq Dukhan well. Both Tariq and Yaser, along with two other teenagers started the militant wing of Hamas, known as Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

Tariq went to my school in Nuseirat. He was the son of our Principal, Abdul Fatah Dukhan, a friend of Hasanat. Together, Abdul Fatah and my geography teacher, along with Sheik Ahmed Yassin, launched the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas on 14 December, 1987. Their children were also the founder of the Qassam Brigades.

That fateful decision by some teachers at UN schools in my refugee camp and other areas in the Strip had fundamentally altered Palestine’s political landscape, and set the stage for the rise of the strongest fighting force in Palestinian armed struggle, ending with Israel’s summer war against Gaza last year. Nearly 2,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians were killed in the so-called Operation Protective Edge, but also 70 Israelis, over 60 of whom were soldiers. The Hamas legend had never been more pronounced in Palestinian society.

Yasser, Tariq and two others were killed after a brief period of daring battle with the Israeli army. Tariq’s place was filled by his brother, Mohammed, who was a classmate of mine starting in the third grade. Back then, I liked him particularly because he gave me access to the UNRWA-supplied football after school hours. He stole the keys from his dad whenever we needed to get access to the storage room of the school. Mohammed was killed by Israel at the age of 20.

Although al-Qassam’s first cadre was quickly eliminated at the hand of the Israeli army, they managed to register their permanent presence through opening a platform for scores, hundreds and eventually thousands more to join in. The kids of the neighbourhood, despite limited means and access, founded an army-like brigades, disciplined, tough and unyielding.

But Ustaz Hasanat (“Ustaz” meaning teacher) as we called him, was never a militant in any stereotypical sense, nor was Abdul Fatah. He was and will always be my geography teacher, and truly passionate about geography. He had a degree from Cairo University that he received in 1963 confirming his passion.

The man was also a refugee from the Palestinian city of B’ir Sabe’, expropriated after the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe of 1948) to become the Israeli city of Beer Sheba. He, like the vast majority of the nearly one million refugees, was born in a simple “peasant” family – fellahin. The family was struck with another tragedy in 1951, when his two brothers Raji and Muhareb were killed by the Israeli army, both on the same day.

I wonder if Hasanat’s love for geography was compelled by the feeling of captivity one develops living in Gaza most of his life? The confines of life for a refugee can be overpowering. And why the fascination with Mount Kilimanjaro in particular?

One may never know. The current Hamas leader in Gaza, and the former Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement that Hasanat “was a brilliant leader of the Islamic movement, and one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas movement in Palestine”. He may have been a “brilliant leader,” after all he founded the Islamic Society in Nuseirat, which had an important role in the formation of Hamas, but, to me and many of his students he never came across as a “fundamentalist” or a zealot in any way.

When he was exiled to Lebanon’s Marj al-Zuhur, starting in the winter of 1992, I was still living in Palestine, and I remember the trepidation that many felt that some of these old men would die amid the bareness of the snowy mountains. He was one of 419 members of mostly Islamic leaders. Somehow, he survived the harsh winter of that mountainous region, before they were allowed back into the occupied territories, many of them back into Israeli jails.

My geography teacher, who took naps quite often during class, was much tougher than many had assumed. As most of the founders of Hamas were killed, he escaped drones, warplanes and much destruction that followed, to die from old age after a brief illness.

Hasanat’s story is that of most refugee families; typical in its origins, but also unique in how each family coped with exile. My geography teacher died with a rifle on his chest, although I doubt that the old man even knew how to operate an assault rifle. He was carried to his grave by thousands of refugees in a funeral procession that teemed with scores of fighters, many of whom must have not been born yet when Yaser and Tariq established al-Qassam some 26 years ago.

When I told Ustaz Hasanat why we giggled every time he pronounced “Kilimanjaro,” he laughed too. But I never told him that we were the ones who started the rumour of the African bug that made him nap all too often during class.

Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. He is currently completing his PhD studies at the University of Exeter. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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