Teaching a Book about Teaching: Tom Sperlinger’s Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation

Author: Rachel Fox

I teach on a world literature course at university, and in two weeks’ time the set text is Tom Sperlinger’s Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation. The text is an autobiographical account of Sperlinger’s experiences teaching literature at Al-Quds University in Palestine in 2013. The text is somewhat anecdotal, and also pedagogical in places, given its focus on Sperlinger’s teaching practices. It is not, in the general sense, the standard kind of text you’d find on a university literature course.romeo and juliet

At first I was somewhat stumped about how to teach this text. I could, if I were so inclined, waste a decent chunk of the seminar giving my students a rundown on Palestinian history and current events. This would actually be quite worthwhile, but I prefer it if my students do more talking than I do in seminars, and I would rather focus on the text and let them research Palestine’s background in their own time.

So how does one go about teaching an autobiographical, anecdotal, pedagogical, and political text to a bunch of first years that may not really understand the contexts from which the book is coming from?

I could make allusions to some of the similarities that Sperlinger’s text shares with Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: both texts explore political and cultural events against a backdrop of teaching literature; both explore the ways in which students  draw from their personal experiences to interpret and engage (or fail to engage) with the texts; and both represent how pedagogy moves and transforms across geographical borders, academic spaces, and different political and cultural parameters. These are, of course, some rather vast generalisations, and the relationship – and differences – between these two texts is more nuanced, but for a short post these connections are worth pointing out. Unfortunately, Nafisi’s book is not a set text, so while it’s probably still worth flagging it to my students, this will not generate a sustained discussion or comparative exercise.

Ultimately, I decided on two different ways through which to enter the text: the representation of the dividing Wall, and the act of teaching different kinds of literature (the focus, as you will see is not on pedagogy per se, but on the subject matter).

 

Walls and Barriers

Given the header picture for this blog, which depicts the separation Wall around the West Bank, I feel like this is a pertinent thematic point to approach. An earlier blog post (“Palestinian Borders and Media Border-Crossings”) gives a reading on Omar Robert Hamilton’s short film Though I Know the River is Dry (2013) and, in particular, explores the omnipresent barriers represented in the film.[1] I have decided to show my students a short clip of the protagonist’s movements through the Qalandia checkpoint, in conjunction with readings from Sperlinger’s text, and hope to generate discussion on themes of claustrophobia, (in)accessibility, and the feelings of the surreal and the unreal.

In Romeo and Juliet in Palestine, Sperlinger gives an account of his weekend travels whereupon:

“We drove to a road that encircles the town and we could see the edge of the Wall, and we stood with a foot on either side of it. We also found a yellow metal door in the Wall, at the top of a hill. We prised it open and could see the sky on the other side. It was like the end of The Truman Show, when Truman escapes from the enclosed television studio he was made to believe was the world: a sudden encounter with the edge of reality.”[2]

It is the final line of this account that I wish my students to focus on: “a sudden encounter with the edge of reality.” How do walls, or breaking down or passing through walls, result in such an encounter? Is it a surreal moment? Or is the breaking down of a wall or barrier an opportunity to escape the surreal?

If you ever watch war or conflict on the news there is often a feeling that it isn’t quite real… the screen mediates the encounter and therefore dissociates what is happening as something that is separate from our lives. So what happens if you are actually physically present in the centre of that conflict? Would that feel surreal or real? This is, of course, all subjective, but that’s the point. What do we make of these barriers, and the act of breaking through these barriers? And how does literature – both the English literature that Sperlinger teaches his Palestinian students and the world literature that I teach my EU students – facilitate this?

 

Teaching Literature

And thus, we come to the exploration of the act of teaching literature in and of itself. It is not my intention to focus on the pedagogy that is illuminated in this text, rather, I wish to focus on the exam topic that Sperlinger sets his students to debate: “We should study Palestinian literature instead of English literature at university.”[3] I intend to locate this beside my own question: “Why are we studying world literature/ Palestinian literature?”

One of Sperlinger’s students responded to his debate topic by stating: “As we are Palestinians, we should study our literature. Every nation must know everything about it, history, art, culture, and tradition.”[4]

What is the value for Palestinian’s learning Shakespeare’s plays or T. S. Eliot’s poetry as opposed to their own literature? Should each nation learn only English literature? And, another equally dangerous idea, should each nation merely learn just their own literature?

Briefly moving away from Palestine, British education secretary, Michael Gove appears to be pushing for both the above outlined options, with his decision to only teach British authors on the English curriculum in 2014. Meanwhile, an influx of world literature courses are burgeoning in higher education.

I want to ask my students about why they think it is important that Palestinian’s learn about their own literature, but also why it is important that we learn Palestinian literature and, more broadly, world literature. As a researcher in post-colonial literature, and a teacher in world literature, I obviously find value in the subject, but I want to see what value my students find in it. At the beginning of term I asked them to write down on a piece of paper why they chose to study world literature, and what they thought we meant by the term. In two weeks’ time I’ll give the envelopes back and see if their stance has changed at all.

I can put my thoughts simply enough, here, though: literature is a part of a nation’s heritage, its meaning-making, its social commentary and critique. Literature is a way of interpreting the world around you. It is important to read and understand your own nation; but it is also narrow sighted to not look at others as well.

 

To any of my students who may have stumbled across this blog post, I congratulate your independent research skills, and you now have a heads up on the focuses of next week’s seminar!

 

Notes

[1] For the blog post please check archives or follow this link: https://bloggingacrossborder.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/palestinian-borders-and-media-border-crossing/

To watch Hamilton’s short film Though I Know the River is Dry follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GD3V1Jo3U4

[2] Tom Sperlinger, Reading Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Winchester and Washington: Zero Books, 2015), p.115

[3] Sperlinger, p.141

[4] Sperlinger, p.141

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