"May Allah, the almighty, bless all of us here and in the Hereafter."
Not many Penn Ph.D. students praise Allah in the acknowledgements of their dissertation.
Aziz Al-Dweik did it twice.
Now, having spent four months in an Israeli prison, a year as a deportee on the south Lebanese border and three years sharing an office in the McNeil Building on Locust Walk, he's taken the reigns of the Palestinian legislature as Hamas' new Speaker of Parliament.
The former Penn student attached himself to the radical Islamist group in its infancy in the late 1980s and rode its wave of popularity to a legislative seat during this past January's election. Eighteen years removed from Penn, the political novice could play a decisive role in determining the future course of his fledgling party, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
It is difficult to read which way Al-Dweik will swing. As on the one hand he calls for peace and on the other he supports terrorist actions, including those of Osama bin Laden.
On April 8, for instance, Al-Dweik said to the National Journal's William Schneider: "I think this government is meaning really to put an end to any kind of bloodshed, for the Palestinians first and for others as well."
Just over a month earlier, though, Al-Dweik -- who did not respond to repeated requests for comment -- told the New Yorker's David Remnick that "Bin Laden is a fighter for the cause of Islam, and this man has his way of serving his God ... He has offered the West a truce many times, saying that he will put down his arms if the West stops interfering in our affairs. We have no right to hate bin Laden. We respect him. Hiding this fact does not serve the truth."
Complicated as he may be, the starting point for any understanding of Al-Dweik has to be 1948: the year of both his birth and Israeli independence. He may have been born in Cairo, Egypt, but the story of his life truly begins that same year somewhere outside of Tel Aviv on his grandfather's old farm, lost as a result of the Israeli war for independence.
"We only had one political conversation that I can recall," says Laura Huntoon, a former classmate of Al-Dweik's in the now defunct Penn Regional Sciences program. During that conversation, Al-Dweik produced a copy of the deed to his grandfather's farm. "He said that that's what he was fighting for. That they wanted to get that land back."
Shortly after his birth, Al-Dweik's family -- his mother an Egyptian and father a Palestinian -- moved the family to the West Bank city of Hebron, where he was raised during the formative years of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite the chaos around him, Al-Dweik developed into an academic under the tutelage of his father, a secondary school teacher. He earned a B.A. in geography in Jordan and went on to pick up a master's in education at Bethlehem University. Studying on a U.S. grant, he gained his second master's degree -- this one in Urban Planning -- from Binghamton University. All the while, he found time to get married and have six children.
Even though it meant leaving his family behind in the West Bank, by the mid-1980s, Al-Dweik had decided to head to America to pursue a Ph.D. in regional sciences, a mixture of urban studies, sociology and economics. Other schools accepted him, but Al-Dweik was drawn to Philadelphia for its history and because of the fact being on the east coast made him feel closer to home.
"I said Philadelphia is the best. It was the first capital of the United States," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer's Michael Matza. "So let me go there."
Still on scholarship from the American government, Al-Dweik arrived on campus in 1985 at the age of 37.
During his time at Penn, Al-Dweik could often be found in Sociology Professor Janice Madden's office, seeking guidance on his dissertation. She remembers him as a hard-working, though not spectacular, student.
"He wasn't a star, but he was solid," she says, "In fairness to him, the stars didn't have a wife and six kids. He had pressures on him that the other students did not."
He may be long gone from the office now, but his image remains, posted to a wooden closet door in a picture collage of Madden's colleagues and former students. The smiling Al-Dweik appears in the photo standing alone. With his hair graying on the sides, he looks older than the typical grad student. Still, he appears relatively at ease -- the rest of his hair is black and wavy, and he's wearing a breezy, blue shirt with the top buttons left open.
Al-Dweik's facial hair defines the picture, though. Thick and bushy as it may be, the religious beard only represents the tip of Al-Dweik's devotion to Islam.
Anthony Andrews, who shared an office with Al-Dweik in 1988, recalls that as part of his religious duties, Al-Dweik used to visit local prisons to minister to the inmates. Hesham Abdel-Rahman, another fellow student and officemate, says that Al-Dweik prayed regularly five times a day. On Fridays, he also led the Egyptian Abdel-Rahman and a group of approximately 25 other Muslim students (apparently all that there were at the University then) in prayer. They didn't go to a mosque, but rather "a hole" on the second or third floor of a building close to McNeil, as Abdel-Rahman recalls it.
As deep as his religious devotion ran, Al-Dweik was equally committed to his family and spoke constantly of missing them. In the preface to his dissertation on the Palestinian labor market, he wrote, "My deep debt to my family is acknowledged with respect and affection," continuing by thanking his "beloved children" for their "understanding, faith and patience which they displayed during critical periods of my absence from home."
The outbreak of the first Palestinian intifadah, or uprising, in December 1987 was one of those critical periods. Huntoon says, "I remember him telling me that his oldest son joined the intifadah... As a parent, he's picturing his son in jail.
"To him, this was a normal part of life, that you would have this type of situation where one of your children would be at risk in a violent confrontation, and he didn't like it."
Within a year, Al-Dweik would sign on with an organization willing to send other people's children to martyrdom. Still, his colleagues in the Regional Sciences Department perceived him as an easy-going guy.
In the two years that he shared an office with Al-Dweik, Abdel-Rahman says that he can never once remember hearing the Palestinian raise his voice. His professors and fellow students knew that he felt deep passion for the Palestinian cause, but insist that they never got a whiff of any militant sentiment during his three years in West Philadelphia. When he left Penn in 1988 to establish a geography department at Al-Najah National University in the West Bank, most of his old peers probably assumed that Al-Dweik would spend the rest of his career in academia.
Then one day, he showed up on CNN's Larry King Live, his face beamed in from a barren hillside in Southern Lebanon.
In December 1992, the Israeli government arrested Al-Dweik along with 399 other Hamas activists in retaliation for the killing of six Israeli soldiers and policemen within an eight-day period. He had previously spent four months in an Israeli prison for speaking out as a member of Hamas, but this time, Al-Dweik and his fellow activists were deported to Lebanon. The government there rejected them, and the activists ended up forming a refugee camp on what an American journalist described as a "desolate hill of frozen mud and scorpions" in a no-man's land near Lebanon's southern border. Because Al-Dweik spoke English, he became the media spokesman for the deportees.
Seeing his old officemate on CNN answering Larry King's questions "shocked" Abdel-Rahman, who frequently talked politics with Al-Dweik and thought that he understood the Palestinian's views.
The two had a friendly relationship, as Abdel-Rahman often helped Al-Dweik with the more mathematically technical aspects of his work. On Fridays, the two Muslims not only prayed together, but went out to dinner with each other, chowing on Italian food and hamburgers with their fellow graduate students and professors as part of a Regional Sciences Department seminar program.
"When he was at Penn," Abdel-Rahman says, "I knew at that point in time he was working hard. He wanted to finish his dissertation, so he did not have time to devote to politics, so I didn't expect him to be involved with Hamas."
Abdel-Rahman was not alone in his surprise. A few years after Al-Dweik returned from Penn to the West Bank but still before his deportation, Regional Sciences professor Tom Reiner traveled to Israel for a conference. Like Madden, Reiner had worked closely with Al-Dweik on his dissertation, so the professor had sent his former student a letter saying that they should meet. Al-Dweik had by then already enlisted in Hamas, but that didn't stop him from responding affirmatively to the Jewish Reiner.
The pair met in Jerusalem's Old City, the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Starting out at the Jaffa Gate, as Reiner recalls it, they strolled through Jerusalem's Arab Quarter, winding up at a shop owned by Al-Dweik's uncle. There they sat, had tea and reminisced.
"It wasn't very dramatic one way or the other," Reiner says, "Nothing that he said gave me any indication that he was politically active or angry at the U.S. or Israel."
"The next thing I knew, Janice [Madden] tells me that he turns up as the spokesman for Hamas."
Media flocked to the camp, and with Al-Dweik as the sympathetic face of the deportees, the episode turned into a public relations coup for Hamas.
David Schenker, a Senior Fellow in Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that the deportee camp played a crucial role in Hamas' development.
"You had these sort of disparate members of Hamas and I think ideological fellow travelers. This really gave these guys an opportunity to establish structures and build these ties that made them a more effective group when they returned.
"They became these folk heroes for a lot of people in the region," he adds.
Spending an entire year isolated with 399 other Hamas activists also hardened Al-Dweik's politics.
As Schenker says, "It's a long time sitting on the side of a mountain."
Al-Dweik's political views may have solidified on that hillside, but their intellectual basis resides on the fourth floor of Penn's Van-Pelt Library in the form of his dissertation. Clad in a navy blue binding, the dissertation examines the movement of labor between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel, finding that the less skilled Palestinian workers tended to migrate to Israel for work whereas the more skilled ones stayed at home. Both Madden and Reiner insist that the dissertation is entirely credible -- far from being a polemic, they say that it is grounded in solid evidence.
But upon hearing one of his recent New Yorker quotes, Madden instantly recognized the connection between Al-Dweik's dissertation and his current politics. Laced with rhetoric, The New Yorker quote oozed controversy:
"Please stop asking us to recognize the occupier and not the needs of our own lives," Al-Dweik said. "This is slavery, slavery of a kind that did not even happen in Africa or in any other country! The Jews suffered the Holocaust, but it only happened for a short period of time. The Palestinians have been living a whole century in a holocaust."
Al-Dweik often refers to this same "slavery" in his dissertation, only using less boldface terms. Leafing back through the text, Madden points out a section on page 212 where he levies blame against Israel. "He is talking here," she says, "about the occupation and the underdevelopment of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip which is responsible for the economic suffering he's seeing.
"Page 213," she says, flipping the page and quoting the text: "'Structural underdevelopment which has been steadily aggravated in the territories since the 1967 occupation.'"
Earlier on the same page Al-Dweik had concluded that "the economic role of the two Territories is as a dormitory for workers in Israel." Essentially, Al-Dweik identifies the Israeli occupation as the major cause of his people's economic hardship.
"The Palestinian people will be our leaders," Al-Dweik opened the first meeting of the Hamas-controlled legislature by saying. "And we will want to follow the path of the great Palestinian people, who have showed us how to resist."
Where that path will lead, nobody is yet quite sure, for Hamas or Al-Dweik. He is currently regarded as a moderate within the party, but in truth, relatively little is known about the political rookie.
On March 25, he called for all Palestinian prisoners to be released from Israeli prisons, including those in jail for planning suicide attacks. Calling these people "freedom seekers," he told the Inquirer's Matza that they should be let go because "Israel has no right to keep us under the slavery of occupation."
Just three days later, though, he gave an interview to The Age, an Australian newspaper, saying, "We deplore any action where civilians are killed, yes, including Israeli civilians. We are a moderate Islamic movement. We are not terrorists."
Hamas gained power by crusading against corruption and providing civil services, but now that it controls the government, it must choose between its radical ideology and a more pragmatic approach to dealing with Israel. As the key agenda setter in the legislature, Al-Dweik could have a large say in whether Hamas turns out to be a "moderate Islamic movement" or a terrorist organization. Just how much say depends on how forcefully he asserts his personality.
Hillel Frisch, a Political Science professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, for one, doesn't think Al-Dweik will be particularly influential. He says that because most of Hamas' other top leaders hail from Gaza, Al-Dweik's appointment as Speaker of Parliament represents a sop to the West Bank. He says that the party leadership simply wanted a non-threatening political novice like Al-Dweik to serve as a figurehead and that because Hamas so overwhelmingly dominates the legislature, Al-Dweik will wield little real power.
Schenker says that this will only be the case if Al-Dweik chooses to walk in political lockstep with the rest of the party and take orders from "the Hamas politburo" or Prime Minister.
"I think if that the past is any precedent for the future, the Speaker of Parliament plays a significant role in determining the legislative agenda of the PLC," says Schenker, who wrote the only English language book on the Palestinian parliament.
"If you have a majority and you have a strong speaker, you can really control the legislative agenda."
What role the Penn Ph.D. will play in the future of the Middle East remains uncertain. Without doubt, though, Al-Dweik's life has played out in a way that nobody at Penn would have imagined when he first set foot on campus in 1985.
Holding up the thick, blue-bound dissertation, Madden says, almost in disbelief, "This is what I knew of him and his attitude toward Israel, which is certainly that of having done harm to the Palestinians, but I thought he would pursue that with science and evidence and exchange of ideas.
"This is how I expected him to make the fight," she says, still waving the book.
She gazes now at the picture of Al-Dweik, taking one last look at her old student, a world away from the West Bank.