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Rapturous applause, a movie screening and economy-sized tubs of grape leaves and babaganoush ushered into being Columbia University's Center for Palestine Studies last night, the first of its kind in the nation.

Rashid Khalidi, Columbia's Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies and noted Palestinian-American historian (not to mention Obama pal) introduced the center in the world's most famous classroom, emphasizing that the event was an "important moment in the history of Columbia," as the university's provost emeritus Jonathan Cole wrote him in an e-mail.

The center has been in the works for years at the notoriously Israel-connected university (full disclosure: my uncle is a co-director of the center). After several metamorphoses, the scholars behind the division laid its foundation on relatively neutral territory: the legacy of Edward Said, who taught at Columbia for 40 years before his death in 2003. It was at the school that he formed a "crucial dialogue" about the question of Palestine in the U.S. The center, as the night's program stated, will be "committed to the academic freedom of students, faculty and schools in the Occupied Territories, as well as among the refugee populations and elsewhere in the world where scholars and students carry out academic work on Palestine and Palestinians." Khalidi said they hope to provide opportunities for academic exchanges both local and global.

The event also served as the American premiere of Michel Khleifi's acclaimed film "Zindeeq," which follows the sleepless night of exiled (and curiously lecherous) Palestinian filmmaker "M" as he drifts in and out of consciousness and between the present and past of his homeland. Through M's lens, one sees the weight of historical injury on present-day Palestine, the so-called nerve center of history. Khleifi, speaking to the audience after the movie ended, said his work was an exploration of what Palestinians should do with their heritage. M, in the film, burned what was left of his -- although his memories remained sharp and haunting.

Khalidi said the center will focus on preserving and studying that heritage, along with promoting research and supporting scholarship among Palestinians. Already, the institution is stocked with history -- beyond Said's personal books and papers, the center's website hosts archives of Palestinian newspapers, posters and oral histories.

One thing they don't have yet -- financial backing. "I hope the enthusiasm shown tonight will continue," Khalidi told the packed auditorium. "We need it. We need to raise money. We have absolutely no money."


 

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