Barber tells story of Gazan people

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

It’s going to take Brian Barber a while to get used to the word emeritus, but he will continue the work he’s been doing at the University of Tennessee for the past 30 years from his new home in Washington, D.C.

Barber, the founding director of UT’s International Center for Study of Youth and Political Conflict, studied a generation of Palestinian boys who grew up in the midst of violent political conflict in the territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. When he started, they were adolescents; today they are grown men, married with children of their own.

A longtime professor of child and family studies and an adjunct professor of psychology at UT, the center he directed also conducted studies on the effects of violence on young people in Egypt and Bosnia. The center’s work has been supported by the U.S. National Institute for Mental Health, the Social Science Research Council, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Jerusalem Fund, the United States Institute for Peace and the Jacobs Foundation.

And although the center closed Jan. 31, Barber will remain closely connected to UT, where he chaired the search committee to find his replacement and will return in the spring for a scheduled farewell party.

“I have nothing but good feelings and good memories of the University of Tennessee,” Barber said.

He is now an international security program fellow at New America and a
senior fellow, Institute for Palestine Studies. His work will be available on his personal website (http://www.bkbarber.com), and he is writing a book he hopes to finish by the end of 2017 about five Gaza men, now entering their 40s, who are a subset of the larger group of Palestinian youth in the 30-year study. The working title is “Gaza’s grit: beauty, tenacity, betrayal and yearning from an ostracized corner of the world.” Barber said those four conditions are crucial to the story.

“They’re all alive and healthy, and have been remarkably tenacious in making their lives work under clearly degrading conditions, both political and economic. They are suffering for sure, but they are also making it work. One of the main messages of the book is that people in general are resourceful and value life and love and dignity.

“They are doing well – as long as ‘well’ is understood as a very compact word, a single word that captures a very rich and deep set of conditions. ‘Well’ in this case does not mean carefree. It means survival.”

Barber has lost track of the number of trips he has made to Palestine over the years, but estimates it’s between 30 and 50, sometimes staying for a month at a time. He has become particularly close to two families whom he says are among his best friends in the world.

“I’ve been a guest in their home over two decades. They’ve treated me as a son and a brother – and a father in some cases – they are tremendously warm and welcoming people, and some of my best friends in the world are there. This is one of the benefits of being a social scientist. You get to do your work on humanity, and humans connect. And these are very connectable people because of their inherent warmth and sense of hospitality.

“Gazans feel very much lost and forgotten and betrayed, by everyone, and the only thing they’ve ever asked of me over two decades is to tell their story. And now, the book will tell their story to people across the world, I hope. Very few people will go to Gaza, so it’s my goal to take you there.”

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