Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation

Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation

by Tom Sperlinger


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Is 'Romeo and Juliet' really a love story, or is it a play about young people living in dangerous circumstances? How might life under occupation produce a new reading of 'Julius Caesar'? What choices must a group of Palestinian students make, when putting on a play which has Jewish protagonists? And why might a young Palestinian student refuse to read? For five months at the start of 2013, Tom Sperlinger taught English literature at the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds University in the Occupied West Bank. In this account of the semester, Sperlinger explores his students' encounters with works from 'Hamlet' and 'The Yellow Wallpaper' to Kafka and Malcolm X. By placing stories from the classroom alongside anecdotes about life in the West Bank, Sperlinger shows how his own ideas about literature and teaching changed during his time in Palestine, and asks what such encounters might reveal about the nature of pedagogy and the role of a university under occupation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782796374
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 06/26/2015
Pages: 157
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Tom Sperlinger is Reader in English Literature and Community Engagement at the University of Bristol. Romeo and Juliet in Palestine is his first book.

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Romeo and Juliet in Palestine

Teaching Under Occupation

By Tom Sperlinger

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 Tom Sperlinger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-637-4


Romeo and Juliet in Palestine

Just before 2pm, on a warm day in March, three students came into the office and told me that campus was being evacuated.

I had finished teaching just after noon and walked up towards the English Department office. Al-Quds University is on a hillside, levelled into a series of plateaus connected by steep concrete steps. When I reached the top, I heard a shout and I caught a glimpse of movement in the square below. Recently students had gathered there to support Samer Issawi and other Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli gaol. At first, I thought it was another protest. But a gang of twenty or thirty boys was marching across the square. They were mostly teenagers, although some looked younger. They were shouting and brandishing bats, sticks, and strips of wood torn from fences, as they marched up the steps in front of me.

'Don't be scared,' someone whispered. I was standing with a few other teachers. 'You should go inside,' a woman who sounded American told me: 'You have an English accent.' I discovered later that students at nearby Birzeit University had confronted a British diplomat a few days before.

When I heard that campus was being evacuated, I was waiting to meet students who were due to take an exam. I found a colleague, Ahmed, who also lived in Ramallah, and we left together. Security guards had closed off the glass doors at the end of the building, which we would normally have used. A fight was taking place on the road outside. We made our way back down the steps, at the bottom of which there was now a Red Crescent ambulance. 'The problem is that people think they will be martyrs if they die,' said Ahmed, who told me that he had heard gunshots while he was teaching. Later, he said that some boys fought to impress girls.

Outside campus, people were streaming in every direction, trying to leave. Ahmed and I eventually got into a servees, one of the minibuses that are used as shared taxis. I was wedged in behind the gap between the two front seats. It could take up to an hour to get back to Ramallah, and sometimes the servees went terrifyingly fast. But it was an unusually quiet journey home.

On the morning of the fight, we had finished reading Romeo and Juliet. The Shakespeare course I was teaching was a slow pleasure. At home, on a module of this kind, we might read nine or ten plays, skating the surface at a rate of one a week. Here we spent several weeks reading each play aloud, almost line by line. The closing scene of Romeo and Juliet worked well as a finale, partly because it requires so many voices. There were 40 students in the class.

I asked the students how the play might be adapted as a film in Palestine. One young woman said she would set the film in the present because the Palestinians are at the peak of their troubles, economically and politically. Another said she would set it in the late 1940s or 50s, when there had been a famous dispute between two families in Jerusalem. A third said the play could be set at any time in Palestine because of the violent context. Most of the students thought that Verona ought to be Jerusalem and that Romeo might be banished to Ramallah or Gaza, or somewhere in Jordan, in place of Mantua. One suggestion was that Juliet might be from Jerusalem and Romeo from the West Bank: their difficulties would then arise from the fact that they have different ID cards. The Oslo Accords of 1993 divided Palestinians into different 'groups' with separate forms of ID for the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. My students wrestled with similar practical difficulties. One told me he was engaged but didn't know when he could marry because he had a West Bank card and his fiancée had a Jerusalem one. Other ideas were that Juliet should be a Christian Palestinian and Romeo a Muslim, or Romeo could be Israeli and Juliet could be a Palestinian. ('That happens a lot,' one young woman said.) Another student said that if it were an Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the ending would have to change, because the Montagues and Capulets would never join hands.

I wondered what the students would cut or add in a film version of the play. 'I'd cut the kiss,' said one woman, 'because of their age.' 'More kissing!' retorted several men. 'Cut Rosaline,' another woman said with a sigh. (She'd earlier lamented how fickle Romeo could be.) 'Make them older,' someone said. 'Cut the Nurse!' 'Cut all of the long speeches!' 'Put in a song.' One student said the play should be in modern slang, with the Nurse speaking in dialect. A man said he would draw out the action over a month, rather than five days, to make the love story more plausible. 'Give it a happy ending!' But if Romeo and Juliet live, I suggested, the Montagues and Capulets can't be reconciled. So would they want Romeo and Juliet to escape together into exile? 'Yes!' a few roared. 'To Gaza?' I asked, to general laughter. 'To Jordan,' they suggested.

The students continued to re-imagine the play in a piece of homework. In a rewrite by a student called Qais, Romeo was Rami, a resident of Ramallah, and Juliet was Juweida, from Barta'a, a Palestinian village in Israel. Qais set the play towards the end of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising in 2000-2005, during which it was nearly impossible for young men like Rami to go into Israel. Rami and Juweida can only meet on the internet, and 'as if the existing political issues aren't enough, their main problem is surprisingly family tradition'. Both families are Arab and both feel 'bitterness' about the Palestinians' plight. But Juweida's family are Israeli citizens and think 'they are privileged and live within a modern, stable "country" and view Rami as a broke loser.'

Qais re-wrote the scene in which Romeo hears of Juliet's apparent death. In his version, Rami is visited by his friend, Ameen, who tells him that Juweida has transferred her affections to a rich Israeli Arab, the term applied to Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. Qais noted that 'for a big minority of Palestinian youth, using English as one third of their daily speech is normal' and that the lovers are 'fans of foreign dialects of English and are particularly obsessed with a rapper from Liverpool.' And so he used a mix of Shakespearean verse, Arabic and Scouse for the encounter between Rami and Ameen:

Ameen: Allo, my kidda.

Rami: Marhaba Ameen, what hath made you such a beanie this morning? Is my Judy well?

Ameen: She is well, better than thee and I!

Let it bother you not, she may have been a sloobag ...

Rami: Ya kalb! Mark your words, for you be speaking of my beloved!

Ameen: I would've ne'er spoken ill of someone I've not seen doing ill. Your Ju was with a smile next to a soft lad with a Merc ...

I had lived in Liverpool for several years and was surprised to see familiar Scouse terms — 'kidda' (young guy), 'judy' (young woman), 'beanie' (annoying person), 'sloobag' (promiscuous person), and 'soft lad' (idiot) — alongside Arabic words I was learning, such as 'marhaba' for 'hello' and 'kalb' for 'dog'.

Another student, Woroud, set her version of the play during the Six Day War in 1967. In her version, Romeo is Saleem and Juliet is Jamila and there are 'no fights or disputes between the two families'. Instead, they are separated by the events of the war. In the scene that Woroud re-wrote, the two families are hiding in a deserted cave in Jericho, having walked long distances to escape 'Israeli bombs and explosions' and to protect 'their daughters and kids from rapes and kidnappings'. Saleem and Jamila must part from one another — as the lovers part after their only night together in the play — because Saleem's family is leaving for Lebanon.

Saleem: Habibtie, by the blessed moon up there That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops, I swear to look for you the seven earths.

Jamila: O, don't swear by the moon, the inconstant moon, That monthly goes through changes in her circled orbit, For fear that your love prove as variable as the moon.

Saleem: What shall I swear by?

Jamila: (crying) Don't swear at all

Or if you will, swear by Allah,

Which is the god that we worship,

the god who sees us right now

And I'll believe you.

Saleem: I swear by Allah; Al Qadeer.

Jamila: Although I have joy in you,

I'm very sad this night;

Look at this bud of love that, ripened by summer's breezes, May become a beautiful flower when next we meet.

Saleem: Insha'Allah

Jamila: Insha'Allah

Woroud's version was not the only one to offer glimpses inside Palestinian history. Other students set the play during the first intifada in the late 1980s, in present-day Gaza, or in 1948, when Israel was founded and many Palestinians were expelled from their land.

In our first class on the play, I'd asked the students: why is it dangerous for Romeo and Juliet to fall in love? 'Because their parents hate each other,' they replied. 'Why?' I asked. The lack of an explanation for this hatred may be one reason the play is so effective. It is typical of the gaps in Shakespeare's plays, which leave them open to interpretation. However, there is also an absence of authority in the play. As Hannah Arendt has written: 'Violence appears where power is in jeopardy.' In one discussion, the students probed the relationship between the Prince and the two families. Why does he struggle to be heard by the families, or to impose his will on them? Is he, as in the Baz Luhrmann film version, something closer to a chief of police and thus an agent of the law rather than a man in power?

Over the weeks that followed I picked up anecdotal scraps of information, sometimes contradictory, about what had happened that day on campus. The boys who had arrived were from Sawahera, a village next to Abu Dis, which is divided in two by the Wall. Apparently they'd been pursuing a dispute with a boy from Abu Dis, who was studying at the university. I was told it was about a girl, but also that it was part of a series of skirmishes between two families. Nobody seemed sure about the origins of the feud, which had been going on for several years.

The West Bank is carved into three administrative areas, with 60% in Area C, under full Israeli control. Area A, which makes up 18%, is under Palestinian Authority civil and security control. It includes Ramallah, and other cities in the West Bank, and Israeli citizens are forbidden from entering these areas (although during military crackdowns the Israeli Defence Force has invaded them). The Abu Dis campus is situated in Area B, which is under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control, but which is effectively lawless. There is often tension in Abu Dis between Israeli forces and the local population. On several occasions, our classes were disrupted by tear gas, fired by Israeli soldiers at local teenagers. Amira Hass wrote in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in 2011: 'Palestinian police are unable to operate in the area around Abu Dis, but Israeli forces don't appear interested in stopping the villages from becoming a breeding ground for drug dealers and crime.' As a consequence of this power vacuum, she noted, a 'conflict between two families' in the area can spin 'out of control'.

Whenever 'trouble' erupted in the West Bank while I was there — when there was a modest rise in the tension, for example after a Palestinian prisoner died in an Israeli gaol — the most visible sign was young boys and teenagers on the streets, armed with stones and catapults. On the way home from campus one evening, in a servees, we passed a boy of about ten who was standing at the centre of a mini-roundabout, hurling stones. As we turned right off the roundabout, in the direction he had thrown them, we passed a burning tyre. A hundred yards behind it were a couple of Israeli soldiers. As we moved parallel with them, one of the soldiers tossed a stone up in the air and caught it. Hillel Frisch, an expert on the conflict from Bar-Ilan University, told The Guardian in February 2013: 'The people being wounded in [the current] clashes are 13 and 16-year-old kids, not the 17 to 32-year-old men [who] have been either decimated or incarcerated since the second intifada.' In the same week as the fight on campus, UNICEF released a report on the treatment of children in Israeli military detention. It stated that children aged 12-13 years old can be imprisoned for up to 6 months for throwing stones, or 5 years if they are 14-15, and those over 16 for ten years. The report concluded: 'Ill-treatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized.'

For a couple of days after the fight, the university was closed. I kept in touch with my students by e-mail and through a Facebook group they had started. There were lots of rumours about the fight. One student, called Haytham, wrote to me to explain that there had been another fight of a similar kind a few months before:

The guy who died [in the earlier fight] was my friend, and he's from the same village [as me]. The guys who did this were his cousins, and best friends. They wanted to take revenge of him but never kill him but it went bad and the knife managed to work deeper than expected. He was killed in front of my eyes. The ones who killed him are in jail now and one of them is crying till this moment as he never wanted to kill his cousin. He was one hell of a good friend and we all got shocked of the fact of his death but yet we're kinda used and always ready to lose close friends.

* * *

In this book, I try to tell the story of the semester I spent at Al-Quds. It is a story about the particular students and colleagues I encountered and is not intended as a general account of life in Palestine or at the university. I rely on anecdotes drawn from memory or adapted from a diary I kept while I was living in the West Bank. I said to a student during the semester that the worst kind of class is one in which the teacher knows how the discussion will end. I suspect the same is true for a book, and I hope that the reader can interpret these anecdotes in his or her own way.

However, any book about Israel and Palestine involves engaging with a complex political reality, so I will begin by saying something about the experiences and perspectives that inform this account. My father, David, was born in London in 1948, the same year that the state of Israel was founded. His parents, Tibor and Lisl Sperlinger, had fled Vienna in 1938. They were Jewish and throughout their adult lives they were committed Zionists. I will occasionally draw on an interview which my father recorded with Lisl in the late 1990s, in which she talked about her life.

Zionism emerged as a political force in the late nineteenth century. There were suggestions early on that a state in Palestine might be shared between Jews and other faiths, or that a Jewish homeland might be created elsewhere. In the early 1900s, the British Government had explored whether the Zionists could be offered a portion of British East Africa, an idea called 'The Uganda Scheme'. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration, written by the-then Foreign Secretary, committed the British Government to 'view with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people' in Palestine, which was then under British rule. Balfour noted equivocally that 'nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities'.

The urgency of the Zionist cause quickened in the 1930s and 1940s. Israel's narratives about itself are inextricably linked with the Holocaust, as are the stories of those people, like my grandparents, who supported the cause for a Jewish homeland while being persecuted by the Nazis. In May 1942, when Zionist leaders met at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, they wanted to offer 'a message of hope and encouragement to their fellow Jews in the Ghettos and concentration-camps.' The conference was the first time that the Zionist movement clearly defined its aim 'that Palestine be established as a Jewish commonwealth.' In 1944, the American Zionist Organisation went further, calling for a commonwealth that would 'embrace the whole of Palestine, undivided and undiminished.' Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish thinker who had fled to the States, wrote that this was 'a turning point in Zionist history': '[It] goes even a step further than the Biltmore Programme, in which the Jewish minority had granted minority rights to the Arab majority. This time the Arabs were simply not mentioned in the resolution, which obviously leaves them the choice between voluntary emigration or second-class citizenship.'


Excerpted from Romeo and Juliet in Palestine by Tom Sperlinger. Copyright © 2014 Tom Sperlinger. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Author's note,
1. Romeo and Juliet in Palestine,
2. No such place,
3. This mad reality,
4. I was part of the story,
5. The rights of the reader,
6. Storm warnings,
7. Some boy,
8. When I was out,
9. You may kill me,
10. Hamlet's dangerous state,
11. Split the air,
12. My country's friend,
13. Schools to me,

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