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.


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.


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.


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.

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.



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.


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.

Photographs as bridges

As the course material develops we continue to work out ways to address the question of doing without a bridge language in teaching beginners, as outlined in a previous blog post

We have discussed how using body language and hand gestures across different cultures can work, but also how it can be problematic, especially when two people are not in the same place when they communicate.

We are now exploring the idea of visual flow charts to direct students over the first few lessons, until they become familiar with the structure and processes of the course and their language capacity expands.

We have investigated various online platforms which permit dual, synchronous writing on a virtual notepad, so that learners can begin using the Arabic script and teachers can guide and correct the learning.

We have also realised that a lot of existing teaching material which is low on text and high on visuals seems to be aimed at young children; while this makes sense for many reasons, it leaves us with the question of how to include visual, non-text learning material for adults so that they don’t feel infantilised or patronised.

While all these questions were being discussed, Sahar from the Gaza team uploaded some pictures that she took, of places that she likes and are important to her from her home. Sahar’s pictures are now on the ‘Our Gaza’ photo gallery that you can find on our main page. Do have a look at them, and see what thoughts and emotions they inspire in you.

Showing people these photos and listening to their reactions has opened up a whole new horizon of possibilities regarding photographs as bridges that people can use to build shared language and understandings. The images in the gallery are at the same time simple and complex, connecting straight back to the capabilities approach which is at the heart of the language course, in particular the two key capabilities of affiliation and emotions.

The capability of affiliation enables people to express elements of their home and while being able to imagine other people’s places of residence and belonging. Our language course is built so that learners can acquire and express these capabilities in Arabic, at a beginner level. The course is also built around enabling people to express and understand attachment to places and people, as well as justified anger about difficult situations such as the siege currently happening in Gaza.

All the photos sent by Sahar are connected to these two capabilities: the images are both simple and complex, resonating with familiarity to people from different parts of the world, while also being very particular to the reality that is Gaza.

Two Italian members of the Glasgow team immediately spotted the pizza. People who have long lived in Scotland were fascinated to see that thistles grow in Gaza; that one photo generated an email exchange between Gaza and Glasgow about national symbols and plant names which was not technically building a language course, but was certainly enriching and building of our affiliation capabilities.

One of the photographs shows a monument by with some Arabic writing, by the Gaza sea shore.


The sentence in the middle section of the monument

هذا البحر لي

is a line from a Darwish’s poem. It translates as: “This sea is mine”. It is a very simple yet powerful sentence, whose sound the non-Arabic speaker in the team has enjoyed tasting, and trying out for measure. She discovered the full poem online, recited by Darwish himself, and noticed how the sound لي (lee = mine) is woven throughout the poem. In the specific context of Gaza, this short, simple word repeated over and over, at times almost shouted, carries so much emotion, history, resolve…

A seven-year-old in Scotland looked at the images and immediately pointed out the delightfully familiar (“Balloons! Upside down balloons! Seagulls like here! Puddles too! A beach!”), before going on to notice the unusual (“Why is that drawing all covered in lines?'” referring to Qur’anic calligraphy).

Listening to a child express affiliation has brought our reflection back to the question of ‘childish’ teaching materials that risk ‘infantilising’ adult learners. If a child can learn and discover new things from a photograph, why not use photos for adults too? Why not incorporate the exchange of photos taken by teachers and students as part of the course itself?

Sometimes, it seems, complex questions have answers that are both simple and multilayered. We look forward to seeing where these photograph-bridges will take us to next.