Thursday, April 28, 2016

Romeo and Juliet in Palestine:Teaching Under Occupation,by Tom Sperlinger , Zero Books

Romeo and Juliet in Palestine

Life in the West Bank, the nature of pedagogy and the role of a university under occupation.

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.

Circumscribed temporally (one semester) and spatially (in “Palestine”) as the story might appear to be the parameters are only too flexible, fluid, unstable—circumstantial... The author cautions, in what superficially appears to be a form of the standard disclaimer, that his narrative will be 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”. Rather than the pro forma disclaimer, however, of the sort that absolves others—readers and writers, students and teachers—of accountability or responsibility for what is to follow, Sperlinger’s caveat, in its relentless insistence on specificity and context, eschews spurious claims to a putative universality that threatens to conceal instead a will to domination... The narrative of Romeo and Juliet in Palestine is construed episodically, with each of its thirteen chapters recounting a particular, singular, engagement between a traditional educational mission under duress and the contextual details that both inform and mitigate the fault lines of that historical force field. In Chapter 4, for example, entitled “I was part of the story,” Sperlinger—since become at once teacher and learner— reflects self-consciously, indeed self-critically, on the “parallels between what I was doing [teaching Shakespeare in occupied Palestine] and the subject’s history as part of the curriculum in colonial settings...”. Just four chapters later, in “When I was out” (Chapter 8), Al-Quds is once again on strike, this time, as is also often the case, over unpaid wages, especially given Israel’s repeatedly punishing failures to reimburse the taxes that it has collected from the Palestinians. Such closures, however, provide the serendipitous opportunities to explore alternative syllabi, in the political geography and cultural history of the occupied Palestinian territories: to join the regularly held protests against the apartheid wall in the village of Ni’lin, for example, or, on still another occasion, in Chapter 11 (“Split the Air”), to compare the Freedom Bus Theatre in Nabi Saleh with its namesake from the civil rights protests from the 1960s in the US south, or to look askance at the infamous experiment in neoliberal modernization represented in a “planned Palestinian city,” Rawabi.

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