Language lessons in Jenin

Above: An Israeli tank blocks access to a Palestinian school. Photo by Musa Al-Shaer

(28 December 2002) The first time I stopped into el-Izz ad-Din School for boys [grades 7-10] in the northeast section of Jenin was in early October when the tanks were making the rounds of schools and blocking the entrances. Three weeks later with the tanks practicing the same drill, I stopped to check on the school, as it is on the path of one of the tanks’ primary entrances to Jenin.

The school had not been bothered that day. Instead the faculty were discussing the unfairness of the Palestinian Authority’s announcement that teachers would not be paid for days they missed due to absences caused by the Occupation forces. This did not seem fair to the teachers who undergo daily feats of hardship and courage facing checkpoints or going around them, sometimes to be turned back or delayed until school is over, through no fault of their own.

One teacher was a relative of one of the youths who had carried out a suicide operation the day before. Another told of having lived in Israel for a decade, and of his friendly relationships with many Jewish Israelis. Faces of schoolchildren killed by the Army looked down from posters on the walls. Awards, a map of Palestine, an artistic rendition of al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and ubiquitous Palestinian flowers were tastefully arranged. A teacher invited me to sit in on his class. I felt honored at this rare invitation, especially since he was teaching the same subject I do, Arabic. His students were younger, though, in seventh grade.

Our entry to the classroom acted as a switch, dimming the boys’ energetic voices to a low murmur. The teacher/ustadh offered me a chair in front of the blackboard facing the class. Instead I chose an empty desk on the side where I could see both students and teacher. He began by speaking of the value of language as a way of making your needs understood, and as a way of strengthening ties between people. This fit in with an idea I hear frequently, that social bonds are much stronger in Arab societies than in the west, which I find mainly accurate. The teacher called on various boys amongst the healthy-sized group of forty pupils to read the day’s text on language. In a very engaging style, he departed from the text to ask questions relevant to their present life.

“What language beside Arabic do you see in shop windows in Jenin?” A few boys answered, “Hebrew.” “Yes,” the teacher/ustadh went on, “when there were good relations between Israelis and us, people came from Israel to shop in Jenin. How can they know where to buy something unless they can understand the sign?” None of the children found this unusual or distasteful, as I sat in my little desk remembering Hebrew signs I had seen and had wondered about. He went on to talk about people from Jenin who needed to speak Hebrew when they went to work in Israel. He spoke more about the ability of language to bind societies together, and the value of translation and translators. One boy he called on to read was very self-conscious about making a good impression on the visitor. I kept my eyes focused on the serious students and ignored the silly faces I could see in my peripheral vision.

The teacher/ustadh went on with the translation theme, and asked who knew how to say na’m in English. The answer was instant and confident as they translated to “Yes!” He asked how to say “yes” in a number of other languages, French, Polish, Russian, Chinese, usually supplying the answer himself. But when he got to Hebrew, the answer was even louder and more confident than the English one: “BE-SEDER!” They were surprised when he corrected them: “ ‘Ken’ means yes. ‘Be-seder’ means fine.” I recalled the times I had heard local Jenin Palestinians using “be-seder” amongst themselves, but was surprised that the boys belted it out so happily, without any recriminations. A few more students read the remaining sentences from the text, before listening to the ustadh’s finale of the homework assignment.

When class was over, they became like papparazzi to a celebrity, asking me to autograph their notebooks and ooh-ing admiringly when I wrote in Arabic. The throng became overwhelming so the ustadh made them back off. They settled down and settled for loud applause complete with vocal accompaniment. I cannot imagine a classroom of seventh-grade boys in my home country being so enthusiastic about a visitor’s presence! As I walked on the outside pathway, other potential fans called to me from the windows of their classrooms. But one lesson was my portion for the day.

Making my way to the center of town, I saw a teacher from a girls’ school I had visited previously when they had gathered six hundred girls into two small inner classrooms as the tanks did drive-by shootings of the centuries-old school. Today, she invited me to the family optometry shop. Although I did not mention my Arabic lesson, they began talking about previous times when Israeli clients would come in from Tabariyya, Afula, and other places. I asked if the prices were lower in Jenin. The answer was affirmative-lower prices for the identical product-and they told of how they would make tea for new and regular customers alike, and enjoy chatting together. In Hebrew presumably. I thought back to the Arabic lesson: language strengthens ties between people.

My friends went on to say how the Israeli shoppers would buy fruits and vegetables, and all kinds of things. I looked out at the Hisbe Market just outside the door, where the Army had plowed through the metal frames of the outdoor stalls a few weeks before. Some vendors were still coming to market with wheeled carts, but it was just a skeleton of the former street-long corridor of booths selling all manner of products. Huge billboards placed by the Palestinian Authority remain above proclaiming Peres’ declaration: “The pains of peace are better than the tortures of war/aalaam as-salaam khayr min eadhaabaat al-harb.” The strange angles of metal stall supports testify to the torture. Amidst the damage, I remember the lesson: language strengthens ties.

A seventh-grader tells me of the day recently when a tank parked itself right outside their UNRWA [United Nations Relief Works Agency] school. The teacher led them in repeating with vigor: “We are steadfast/ihna samidin!” After five minutes, the tank rolled away. Language strengthens.

On another day, a young friend asks if I would like to hear her read from her history book. She reads a section about Arab contributions to the sciences, such as the astrolabe and maps. This sparks a memory and she tells me excitedly that during the Big Invasion in April, when they were practically the only family inhabiting the abandoned neighborhood, a soldier knocked on the door. She remembers what he looked like, pale and overweight. But what really struck her attention was that he had in his hands a detailed map of the neighborhood. “They use the maps to hunt wanted people and capture them.” She remembers, too, that they had placed their own dead soldiers in a house across the narrow passageway. Language strengthens memories of twisted ties between people.

The schoolbooks also have contemporary views of Arab contributions. One thing that Palestinians always cite as a virtue is their power of endurance. One book tells the story of a child going to visit a relative in prison, and how, after a long wait in the rain, they are told that no visits are allowed that day. With over eight thousand Palestinians in Israeli prisons, many children have relatives either in prison or in hiding. Children sing a song that resonates with a tremendous proportion of them: “I am a Palestinian child, my brother is far away, my father is a martyr, and my mother is always sad.” But they endure. They smile and greet foreigners, often calling out in Hebrew, “Shalom!” Language strengthens ties between peoples.

As I finish writing this, I receive a phonecall from a reader in Tel Aviv, “We are with you! We are with the people of Jenin!” Language strengthens ties between people.

Dr. Annie Higgins is an Arabic and Arabic literature lecturer at the University of Chicago and is a former recipient of the Fulbright-Hays Fellowship. She is currently doing research in Jenin.