It is a time of preparation. Our colleagues in Gaza are getting ready for the Eid al Fitr festivities to celebrate the end of Ramadan, while putting the finishing touches on the IT elements of the online Palestinian Arabic course. In Scotland it feels as if the light is gathering strength as days lengthen towards the Summer Solstice. We are finalising reports from the pilot sessions, compiling a course glossary for learners, putting things in place for final reports and evaluations. It feels as if we are gathering pace alongside the season, steadily moving towards the (now very near) day when this course is publicly available, out in the world for people to learn and benefit from.
We are also excited about preparations for our slot at SOLAS festival, “Scotland’s Midsummer festival of arts and ideas”. This year, the SOLAS open-air festival has partnered with the UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration Through Languages and the Arts (RILA), and the Online Palestinian Arabic Course is part of this. So we are delighted to bring a taster session of the course to the festival! We will cover basic greetings, some numbers, and how to make some Palestinian food. We are planning a fun, interactive session involving food, guessing games, music and poetry because it is just not true that learning languages has to be boring.
Looking ahead, in September we will be heading to Bolzano in Italy to present our work at a European conference on education. We will also host the official launch of the Online Palestinian Arabic Course in Glasgow, which will be held in parallel to a launch in Gaza. Watch this space for more information about both these events. In the meantime, back to writing reports, finishing glossaries and looking for those tent pegs that surely must be somewhere…
Tent peg image by Jan Uthoff (Wikimedia Commons) GFDL and CC-BY 2.5
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
Despite the tension and anxiety caused by the Israeli response to the demonstrations; despite the ‘normal’ power cuts and logistic difficulties; despite having to experiment with different tools and new materials; despite everything, the pilot lessons for the Online Palestinian Arabic Course have now started. Finding the right online platform and the right digital tools to do justice to the materials is proving more challenging than anticipated. As an online course with multimedia material, designed and developed with very modest financial resources, elaborate and costly solutions are not an option. However, technicians at IUG are doing wonders with the software they have available and, although not without glitches and setbacks, the word documents we designed are slowly but surely transforming into an innovative, engaging, creative, multimedia online course.
Managing a team of course developers, technicians, filmmakers, teachers, photographers requires constant presence and coordination. As we write this, Dr Nazmi Al-Masri, our wonderful colleague and project partner, is managing the Gaza team while sleeping rough at the border crossing. He has a UK visa (and this already meant several hurdles) and invitations from a number of British universities. However, the queue of people waiting to leave the Gaza Strip from Rafah, in the few days during which the crossing is open, is incredibly long. Having to camp just to get a chance to leave the Gaza Strip does not stop Nazmi from working to ensure that the technicians at IUG upload the materials, and the piloting course can continue. This is just the latest example of the Gaza teams’ wonderful commitment to our common project.
As the pilot lessons take place, we are asking the volunteer learners and teachers for open-ended feedback. While we will be assessing more formally the pilot at the end of six lessons, for now we ask them just to let us know what they liked (so we can do more of it) and what they did not like or found tricky (so that we can redress this in preparation of the final version of the course). Unsurprisingly, all learners agree that the main positive element of the course are the Arabic Center teachers. Their pleasant and capable attitude is regularly remarked upon, and this does not surprise us: all of IUG’s Arabic Center teaches are trained and experienced, and while the materials are new to them, working online is not a new experience. Several of the teachers in the pilot have already worked in online collaborations with colleagues at the University of Glasgow: with team members Giovanna and Grazia in the context of the RM Borders project, and/or in Grazia’s doctoral study.
The materials themselves are praised by the volunteer learners, including our videos (that are our pride and joy). The biggest challenge is making sure that the different platforms we are using for the self-study and the face-to-screen parts of the course work well together. As we are aware, successful e-learning depends heavily on the technical resources or tools used to deliver the course. The tools need to be easy to use, reliable and up-to-date if the lesson is to work. As the financial resources available to the team to design, develop and deliver the course do not allow us to buy sophisticated, state-of-the-art digital tools, all of IUG’s technicians’ creativity and knowledge are needed to make the course work for both teachers and learners using as much as possible free software. This is not without some serious issues, but we are confident that we will have soon a course that is ground-breaking in approach and content, as well as one that is sustainable in the long term by not relying too heavily on expensive software to function.