“Romeo and Juliet in Palestine” by Tom Sperlinger— Teaching Under Occupation

romeo and juliet in palestine

Sperlinger, Tom. “Romeo and Juliet in Palestine”, Zero Books, 2016.

Teaching Under Occupation

Amos Lassen

When I moved to Israel way back when, my first job was teaching English at a very fine school in Haifa. Part of the curriculum was teaching Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” to students who were required to learn English as a second language. I really never understood the rationale behind it and I remembered the pains I had being taught the play and I could speak the language. I have since learned that Shakespeare in its native tongue is part of some Palestinian college requirements at the present time. I wonder if anyone stops to think about the choices a Palestinian student has to make when studying a drama that has, say, Jewish protagonists. Then there is also the possibility that a Palestinian student might refuse to read a play that does not speak to him.

In 2013, Tom Sperlinger taught English literature at the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds University in the Occupied West Bank for five months. This book is about that period. Sperlinger explores his students’ encounters with works from ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ to Kafka and Malcolm X. He gives us stories from the classroom along with anecdotes about life in the West Bank thus showing how his own ideas about literature and teaching changed during his time in Palestine. He challenges us to think about what this shows about the nature of pedagogy and the role of a university under occupation.

Not only is this a look at a teacher at work in what is called Palestine, it is also an indictment of the systematic constraints young Palestinian men and women experience, as they work to get a university education in difficult times. We see Sperlinger as a gifted, sympathetic, and resourceful classroom teacher who is wonderfully inventive in his approach to his texts and to his students. He is humorous, hard on himself and open to his situation.

He focuses most of his book on his students and shows the difference between students in Palestine and those in the Western world. The political situation of the region is the backdrop that in many cases is used by the students as a reason why they couldn’t deliver an assignment on time.

We gain insight about today’s Palestinian youth, and the relation between them and the situation in Palestine in general. This is also a fascinating look at academic life within a university that struggles against the odds to maintain its standards and what happens within the context of a specific struggle for self-determination and the preservation of human dignity.

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