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:

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:

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:

planting tree.png
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.

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

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)

Not again…

It is a beautiful day here in Glasgow, with the trees finally waking up to springtime and the birds chasing each other across the park. As we drank our morning coffee and prepared to share lots of good news (we have been invited to share the OPAC course at two conferences as well as at the upcoming RILA Spring School), this was the view from our window:

Glasgow sunny day.jpg

We were also very excited because yesterday we heard that our Palestinian colleague Dr Nazmi al-Masri was on his was on his way again. The call had gone out in Gaza: the Rafah border was to be opened again: Nazmi dropped everything (again!), rapidly packed, and went back to the border from which he had only recently been turned back. Surely, we all thought, surely this time he will make it out. He will be able to see Scotland in its May-time beauty, he will join us at the Spring School and come with us to a conference, he will enrich the many events at which he is already booked as a keynote speaker. Our WhatsApp group buzzed with excitement and hope.


But then – unbelievably – he was turned back. Again. He managed to get out of Gaza but not to enter Egypt. And so Nazmi – our colleague, a talented man, an indispensable part of our team –  has seen again his journey stopped.

He is not alone in his frustration: many thousands of people in Gaza are trapped in the intolerable situation of having obtained visas (at great cost, both in terms of fees and months spent in bureaucratic wrangling) and yet being blocked at the border. He is not alone in his disappointment: we have spent the day shaking our heads, alternating between disbelief and outrage, getting on with things that need to be done to take the project forward while carrying frustration like a coffee cup we keep on drinking.


What can we do from here, in Scotland, as we wait and wait some more? Writing this blog post feels like a very small act of protest against an international system of borders and politics that treats people as numbers, keeping them in a cage that is their own country, opening the borders arbitrarily only to deny travel at the last minute.  We can’t imagine the level of determination that must be maintained, daily and indefinitely, to stay strong in such circumstances. We can only share our disappointment (again!) from a distance, and demonstrate our solidarity by continuing our work and making the OPAC course the best it could possibly be, making language learning a way of reaching across borders.