Gaza: the full picture

When doing a Google search for images of the Gaza Strip, Palestine, you may really struggle to find images that are not of rubble, explosions, smoke, young people (usually men) with their face covered, looking threatening. Below is a screenshot showing the first few images that came up when searching the word ‘Gaza’ on Google Images today.

Google’s Gaza

Since Google tailors its results according to previous searches, you may get images that are a bit different. However, whether they come from supportive websites or websites that are hostile, the images are almost invariably along the lines of the ones above. We know, because, when we were putting together the Online Arabic from Palestine language course, we had to scroll through huge amounts of these images to find some that were not of war, misery and destruction.

When our Palestinian colleagues in Gaza send us pictures for this blog’s gallery, the screenshot of the drive where the images were stored could not be more different from the one above. Compare the two!

‘Our’ Gaza

Life in the Gaza Strip is indeed hard: we do not wish to minimise this. But there are people in Gaza who are keen to show that hardship and pain are not all there is in Gaza, that people there are living their everyday lives in the best way they can under the circumstances. That Palestinians in Gaza are managing to hold on to their dignity, hopes and great determination to lead lives as normal as possible, even in the ‘abnormal’ circumstances of the situation they are in.

Kholoud Nassar is a young Palestinian woman who lives in the Gaza Strip. She uses her Instagram account to show ‘the full picture’ of life in Gaza, one which acknowledges that there is war and destruction, but that this is not all. You can watch how she portrays Gaza in the BBC documentary ‘The Instagrammer who wants to show a different side of Gaza‘.

The Khaldi Twins have also been making videos about the Gaza Strip and life in Gaza for a few years now. They too do not deny that life in Gaza is harsh, but they wish to show also all the good things that happen in Gaza. If you have access to Facebook, you may want to check out their page.

This Gaza of both suffering and strenght is the Gaza that our Online Arabic from Palestine shows too. Designed for total beginners, this course is taught by qualified, trained teachers based in Gaza. It will show you the many bright facets of life in the Gaza Strip. You can register through the ‘contact‘ button or by writing directly the Arabic Center at the Islamic University of Gaza.

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.



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.