And now… a book!

It has been a while in the making, but it is finally here: an edited collection on the experiences of collaborating online, and across borders.. The book is entitled Multilingual Online Academic Collaboration as Resistance. Crossing Impassable Borders and is published by Multilingual Matters. Authors from a range of academic backgrounds discuss, over nine chapters, an overview of online collaborations between universities in Europe, the USA and Palestine. The chapters recount the challenges and rewards of online collaborations which promote academic connections and conversations with the Gaza Strip , and which forge relationships between individuals, institutions and cultures.

The book’s cover

It took the book editors and contributors a lot of effort and a long time to perfect a manuscript that weaves together different academic traditions, styles and disciplines, one that was entirely planned, discussed and put together through online collaboration, precisely in the same way (and with the same challenges and rewards) the projects described in each chapter. The book also came together through times of worry and grief. Almost 200 people were killed and tens of thousands injured during the Great March of Return in 2019, as we were writing the book, and several our Palestinian colleagues experienced repeatedly frustrated (and frustrating) attempts to travel out of the Strip for work or personal reasons. However, the time during which the book was taking shape also knew moments of joy and celebration, such as when two of our Palestinian colleagues finally managed to leave the Gaza Strip and were able to visit us in Glasgow.

The book starts with a prologue, which reproduces a WhatsApp conversation as an example of the frustrations we experienced, and with an introduction by the book editors. Part 1 collects chapters on ‘English as an Additional Language and Online Technologies’; part 2 consists of chapters on the topic of ‘Finding Motivation for Language Learning in a Situation of Forced Immobility’; part 3 discusses ‘Palestine and the Arabic Language’; while part 4  collects chapters that focus on ‘Making Connections’. An afterword by Alison Phipps recounts the delight of being together in person, after many failed attempts.

The book’s content

As we were putting the finishing touches to our book, the Covid-19 pandemic – and consequent lockdown – meant that the online work we had learnt to rely on, in order to keep collaborating despite the blockade of the Gaza Strip, had become the only way of working for many people around the world. Our long experience of shouting “Can you hear me?” at a computer screen was, suddenly, the experience of most academics who had, until then, taken for granted the possibility of meeting colleagues and students face to face, of travelling to conferences, of taking up international fellowships, of shaking hands, and of sharing books, offices but also food and drinks with colleagues around the world. The experiences of working online which the book was discussing was suddenly an experience shared by many, many more people. Our colleagues at the Islamic University of Gaza, like academics everywhere, were stuck at home working remotely. But they were mostly unfazed. While the threat of a pandemic was especially alarming for a country with a health system much weakened by a blockade that has now lasted more than 12 years, the sense of alarm and panic and the need to suddenly – and radically – change one’s life and taken-for-granted practices was nothing new to them, and so they were sending us messages of solidarity and affection, and strength…

For anyone interesting to purchase the book, a promotional 50% discount is available until the end of August. Below you can download the flyer with all the necessary information on how to buy the book at a discounted price.

Gaza uncut

Images are an important part of our course, and we have already written two blogs about images, about the joy some pictures can bring, and about the frustration when looking for images online. These days, pictures of the Gaza Strip are unfortunately once again prominent in newspapers, TV and social media. The photographs we see in our media are very different from the images of Gaza that our team shares via WhatsApp, as though there were two Gaza Strips: the exceptional and the ordinary one.

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Of course, the Gaza of markets, libraries and life and the Gaza of fences, dark smoke and death are one and the same. However, Western media only display one-sided images of this land and its people, showing their suffering when it becomes photogenically excessive. The normality of life in such an ‘abnormal’ place is seldom seen and little known. Our course aims to offer, together with beginners’ Arabic language, a view of Gaza uncut: as under siege and cut off; as tiny and overcrowded; as angry and scared; but also as a place in which life thrives, where people still dream and hope and smile as they go about their daily tasks.

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The course’s videos are now coming together. We have been quite ambitious, but the results are rewarding indeed. The collaborative story line has been turned into screenplays, and the screenplays have been now turned into videos, with the skilful help of Moutasem Ghorab, IUG’s resident filmmaker. Our colleagues Sahar and Jehad have transformed into Sarah and Adam, Italian-born siblings of Palestinian descent. Meeting them in Gaza is their Arabic teacher Anas, played in the videos by Mohammed Esa, who works at the Islamic University of Gaza’s radio station. Together, they take us on a journey around Gaza city, with its cafes, shops and markets; at IUG’s library and a nearby park; and into a Gazan home.

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As the team in Gaza films and battles with technology (and power cuts) to upload the materials and be ready for our pilot curse, the team in Glasgow follows them via WhatsApp. Through the updates that we regularly share, the photographs and the bouncing back and forth of ideas and suggestions, we are challenged in our perceptions of each other and of each other’s worlds, developing even further our capabilities. Our ‘capability of affiliation’, in the imagining of others’ situations; our ‘capability of emotion’, in the attachment to things and people, and through the love and pride in the places one calls ‘home’; and our ‘capability of senses, imagination and thought’, in the collaborative production of works and events.
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We – the team members who live on the safe side of the computer screen, with electricity 24 hours a day and the taken-for-granted freedom to travel further than 45 kilometres – can never forget that our friends and colleagues in Gaza are working under very challenging circumstances. We admire their sumud, their cheerful attitude and their dedication and determination. And we are even more grateful, if possible, for all their hard work.

Shukran! 

 

The storyline unfolds

The video-story that will guide the Online Palestinian Arabic Course (OPAC) is taking shape. This will be filmed in Gaza, and the result will be one short video associated with each lesson, to act as a prompt for language learning, and as a thread that will guide the students throughout the Arabic course.

We have the main characters: two siblings of Palestinian background (but born and raised in Italy) and Anas, an Arabic teacher in Gaza. The first meetings between them are online, but then Sara and her brother Adam arrive at IUG to study Arabic with Anas. We will follow the three of them, as they explore IUG and take photographs; as they walk through the market and do their shopping; we will be with them when the go to the restaurant and when they visit each other’s homes. We will discover the symbolic meaning of a key for those who were left homeless by the occupation, and what it means not to be able to visit relatives who live so near and yet so far, beyond the tightly controlled borders of the Gaza Strip.

The storyline has undergone several re-writings so far. Practical considerations are shaping it, as well as cultural and linguistic ones. The need to ensure that the filming can be done within the time and the budget available; the cultural improbability of a single woman meeting her male teacher unaccompanied (as the Glasgow team had planned in the first draft); choosing names for the characters that are both easy to pronounce and contain letters of the Arabic script that will be introduced at the very start; the need to ensure that the videos can be understood even without a bridge language – these are just some of the considerations that have gone into developing the OPAC videos.

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At the heart of the storyline, however, is the wish to ensure that we build into the narrative the capabilities of emotions; the capability of senses, imagination, thought; and the capability of affiliation.    This is so that through the simple situations in which we encounter them, the characters can help learners to understand life in the Gaza Strip; to appreciate the love, grief and justified anger that are the result of living in this particular part of the world; to use their senses to share hope and beauty. We are aware that developing these capabilities with the limited language of a beginner’s course will be quite challenging, but we think that through our storyline, and the activities we are planning linked to it, we will manage to achieve this ambitious aim.

The work of co-writing the storyline is already shaping the team’s own capability of affiliation. As we put ourselves into each other’s shoes to see the storyline from each other’s point of view and shape it to suit both contexts, we are learning more about each other. The ‘abstract’, computer-mediated knowledge we have of each other’s worlds is rendered more real as we create this story together.