Knowledge exchange (beyond borders): some good news

After the sadness and frustration of the last blog post, here is some good news: tomorrow we will attend the Language, Translation and Migration Conference and Public Summit 2018, held at the University of Warwick and organised by the Migration, Identity and Translation Network.

We are delighted: this is a chance to share our learning and experience, to meet and exchange ideas with other people working in the field of education and to get more feedback about the OPAC project. Our happiness also has some sadness, though, because our colleague Dr Nazmi Al-Masri from Gaza will not be able to join us in Warwick as planned due to the brutal realities of travelling out of Gaza, and we don’t know when he will next manage to leave his country.

But, returning to the positive side of this news, we are ready for our presentation for Warwick. This will focus on the OPAC course as a  transcultural creative practice, a practical and useful way to challenge the siege which oppresses the Palestinian people, their culture and their language. Working on this is helping us to see again the wider context in which our project is developing, which at times we have lost sight of when caught up in the minutiae of lesson plans and IT problems.

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In particular we are re-discovering  the role of language learning and exchange as a key element of hospitality, in the context of  creating welcome and safety for Arabic speakers who come to Europe seeking refuge from conflict. We plan to highlight this use of our course in Warwick and look forward to meeting other researchers who are working to connect language education to issues of migration.

This news really has been a welcome reprieve after weeks of feeling a bit stuck and downhearted. This series of ups and downs really does prove the point that we will bring to the conferences: building this OPAC project is a creative practice, and like all creative processes it has its moments of clarity and moments of doubt. We know it will all be fine (more than fine) in the end – but we look forward to sharing and receiving support from like-minded people before we get to the end!

 

Teaching, learning, remembering

Today is the 70th Nakba Day, the ‘Day of the Catastrophe’. People are gathering in Palestine and across the world to  mark the catastrophic displacement, death and destruction suffered by the Palestinian people when the State of Israel was formed in 1948. They are also gathering to protest the fact that “…the Nakba is an extended present that promises to continue in the future”, as the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote in 2001.

Today is also the 7th week of the ‘March of Return’, confirming the truth of Darwish’s statement: people in Gaza have been marching to the border with Israel to protest against the ongoing blockade and travel restrictions and to demand their right to return to the lands from which they and their families were forcibly removed.

Today is a day in which we in Glasgow feel – more than ever – the urgency of supporting our colleagues in Gaza. So this is a blog about teaching Arabic with a Palestinian flavour in Glasgow as an act of creative solidarity.

In February we wrote about being invited to run a taster session of the OPAC course at the UNESCO Spring School.   Our preparations since then paid off: the session was a delight for everyone involved. We wanted to create a welcoming environment, so set the scene by setting the classroom up as a cafe, with Palestinian dates to welcome people and give them energy:

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Waiting for our ‘Arabic taster’

We started by explaining the background to the current situation in Gaza, using maps and statistics to try to describe a reality far beyond what any of us in the classroom have ever experienced. Our Palestinian colleagues were present in our thanks and acknowledgements, even if they could not be there in person.

Then we moved straight into the lesson, showing participants the video of Unit One, Lesson One: greetings and introductions. We were impressed by how quickly everyone picked up the key vocabulary! Very quickly participants was walking around the classroom exchanging names and greetings. They were equally quick in joining in the numbers game which helped them learn the numbers from 0 to 5 – a necessary step before mixing their very own recipe of za’atar and olive oil:

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Olive oil, mixing cup, ready for the za’atar

While teaching the words ‘za’atar’ and ‘olive oil’ in Arabic we also invited people to appreciate the smells and colour of the herbs, spices and oil as sensory elements connected to the capabilities of expressing senses and imagination. We spoke about the significance of olive trees in Palestine, of how they are seen as symbols of endurance and rootedness to the land that nourishes them and its people. They also symbolise peace, and planting olive trees in Palestine is a political act of resistance and hope:

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Hope is planting an olive tree

Za’atar is eaten with bread – another useful word to know in Arabic, and an element of Palestinian hospitality which is also highly charged and symbolic. We introduced participants to Mahmoud Darwish and his poem ‘Ummi’ (‘My Mother’), as put to music by the Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife.

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Bread, za’atar, olive oil and dates

The poem starts with  ‘I long for / the bread of my mother’ and  lists things the poet longs for and misses connected to his mother. Darwish is moved by the many memories of the homeland he has lost.

Which brings us back to Nakba Day, and how to remember a catastrophe that is still happening. We remember and protest with our bodies, but also with our words. We teach people words in Arabic so that the language spoken by Palestinians becomes real, a lived experience, a new landscape full of richness and beauty as well as protest and anger. We teach and learn languages because shared words help us to grow as humans in resistance and hope, despite destruction.

 

 

 

Olive tree image by Palestine Solidarity Project  https://www.flickr.com/photos/palestineproject/6099524658

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swift journeys

Post by Alison Phipps

White-rumped swift, Apus caffer, at Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve
Swift

It’s a strange thing, but every time I get a message from our colleague, Nazmi, in Gaza telling me that he’s dropped everything because the border is open, and he has valid visas to join us for our events, I ask myself if Taylor Swift is playing in Glasgow in the coming days.

On his first trip over to work with us after the aggression against Gaza of 2014, during which, according to UN reports 1,523 civilian – including 519 children – were killed, I received a text message from Nazmi to the effect that he was in the Sinai desert, and asking if we might book him a flight out of Cairo to London. It was a weekend, but we did. And then I began the trawl for a hotel room. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Taylor Swift was playing Glasgow.

But, to quote Nazmi himself, who is fond of this particular English language idiom, ‘where there is a will there is a way’. And after a lot of searching and waiting lists for rooms we managed to find a suitable room – calm, quiet, comfortable – for his stay.

We too dropped everything just as he has to do, time and again. We’ve got quite used to this very Palestinian way of doing out work, integrating into the patterns that the closures of borders require of us, improvising at every turn, ensuring contingencies. We’d all rather not have to work like this. It would be great for us all – in Gaza and in Scotland – to have the luxury other colleagues have, who work with partners in countries with straight forward and internationally privileged visa relations, to be able to book tickets in advance, for example, or not have to cancel leave or other meetings when we do manage a miracle between us.

When the message came two days ago from Nazmi, that he was at the border again, I smiled, and wondered if Taylor Swift was playing Glasgow. Perhaps we should invite her over again – it might be just the kind of luck we need. It’s certainly more reliable than the Home Office has been or the authorities making decisions at international borders, about our Gazan colleagues.

 

(image by Derek Keats, Flickr – cc by 2.0)