Dispatches from Palestine

11th March 2013

Luke Abbott has been working in Palestine for the last three years with the Qattan Foundation, training teachers and teaching in schools to develop exciting and meaningful experiences for students using imaginative-inquiry. Working with very limited resources and through a translator involves unique challenges and experiences. In this blog Luke describes one day’s work in a primary school in Jericho.

It is 5.00 in the morning and I am awake, listening to the Mullahs outside my hotel in Ramallah. I am also planning my day to work in a school in the desserts of Jericho that is famous to Palestinians. It is made out of car tyres covered in mud and serves the Bedouin community. I

After an impassioned plea from a member of the Jericho Bedouin community to Qattan in the summer, who feel they feel they might have been forgotten, my good friend and colleague Nader Wahbeh who works with Qattan immediately made contact with the thought that the project we are involved in should stretch from Jerusalem to Jericho.

The class, of 7 to 9 year old children and the Qattan team will all be there. Nader as the research person and brilliant liaison person and of course my dear friend Kefah who has long stood as my simultaneous interpreter.

The Jericho school I am told is very compact and has around 30 local children who attend. So, what can an affluent British teacher teach in such circumstances, and avoid the label of colonialism by any other name?

Since Qattan have commissioned me to support teachers in the region using drama for learning I am thinking through the possibilities………….Best to have one up my sleeve as well just in case……….I will prepare a context in my head that involves an image I woke up with this morning, that of a stranger seen in the far dessert distance, waving his hands in a deliberate crossing motion then disappearing.

I will offer them The Stranger. It is for me always difficult to project into a new situation in teaching. I have learnt by fire the error of not being prepared in any way and letting it all happen! I can think through the sequences of dramatic action if I pan for The Stranger and it may give the class more to go on in an instant. I can now imagine myself with them. The first steps and the negotiations. I will draw an outline of a high plateau similar to the ones around Jericho on a large sheet of paper.

This will enable us to create the dramatic imagination.

06.22 getting ready for the day ahead now, quick shower and breakfast (Arabic dark coffee essential) and to be picked up by Nader at 07.30 to get to Jericho after transferring to a taxi at 8.30. Some of the journey at the end I hear will be off road to get to the school.

We have taken the rickety road to Jericho through Qalandia junction. This is the notorious Israeli ‘check point’ and well worth a read on the net just to see what everyday life is like under occupation. We arrived at 8.45 at the Bedouin community of Al Khan al Ahmar where their school is situated. After a quick look round so the children could get a look at this very white haired individual, we began the work at 9.05.

The story of the man caused great excitement and the mystery began immediately. Where could he have gone? Could he really simply have disappeared? Nader was just right, representing the witness. The children immediately suggested he must have gone on a boat, or down into a cave or even perhaps in a car? One student was pretty sure he had gone down into a volcano…………so what next?

We had large rolls of paper, lots of very large new markers, scissors and art crayons. I suggested that maybe we could draw what we thought as well? Within seconds, the pens were distributed by the class with fantastic sharing skills and the job of the drawings started. We were all astonished at the power and speed of the class as well as their inventions.

My job was harder than I thought as the class had to see their ideas in practice and all had to be translated by Kefah. The children were also summoning up large stores of uninvested creativity and drawing with such energy it seemed as if they had an unquenchable thirst to give their outpourings a conduit.

Our next step was to contact the man in our story. My task to enable the class to ask questions of Nader was hard as well as they all wanted to show him their drawings… However slowly-slowly, we managed to explain our thinking to him.

The trouble was how to get there? Lots of talk together in Arabic and again.

Mustafa suggested we should all go to the mountain by balloon and headed straight for the pens at the same time as the words came out of his mouth.

He and a few of his friends definitely had the idea by now. We invent something then draw it. He insisted on turning the paper with our first drawings over (in order to conserve it).

All of the adults were much quicker by now too-we got the paper to them in seconds this time and the big balloon drawing event started in earnest.

In no time, at all, we were being hauled into the air and swift winds took us out of the classroom sheltered awning to the true outside…what excitement.

We arrived at the mountaintop (aka school yard usually used for football) all together and started to look for clues on the ground covered by stones of 2 different colours dark grey and white.

One very fearless girl (Iman) saw a clue in the stones……….was this the cave perhaps or something else? Electric activity ensued as we witnessed the class creating the outline of a door with white stones.

Our next task together in groups now was to create the objects down below as we had with the door. They were at it again. Getting one idea and making it happen all over the stoned area. Beautiful shapes of a ship emerged, then a car then the volcano! All meticulously created and cleaned of anything inside the shape, so in minutes we had the imagined objects the man used to get out of his land this time on the ground.

Our next task was to find the ‘people in the mountain’ and gently introduce us as those who meant no harm. We were here to help and we thought the Man who Signalled was asking for help. The class were immediately informed they were right by one of the adults who asked if they could deal with a wild lion that was rampaging around the inside of the mountain.

First, the leg was found by Arwa, (white stones made with great care and attention to the detail of the curve of the leg) then the back leg, made by Ahmed in a similar fashion, then the head (huge stone) then the teeth, then the body. Everyone was finding bits of the lion all over the place!

What a strange land……….. We soon realised together we had created the whole lion and luckily it was asleep. Good time to kill it now; ‘as it’s helpless’ say many of the boys. The girls also agree. Our science team are getting very excited. Look how much science we could investigate here………body parts, organs, species, zoos.

(We must again remember the children are used to killing predatory beasts, wild dogs have been seen as well as fox, eagles and wildcat for example. All of these are creatures are known, attack and eat newborn goats and sheep.)

We discovered that the person wanted us to take it to a zoo-but at the moment there was no such place under the mountains………well of course the class had the answer……….take it back to our land then build the zoo under the mountains later on!

Therefore, carrying the lion in its sleepy state we took our balloons and the lion home and had a well-deserved rest till the work started again. We were ready for the lunch break and the taxi was called from Ramallah to be with us in half an hour. I am not ashamed to say that the experiences affected me deeply at a gut level as I have said already. Reflecting on the writing, we did for the Head Teacher’s day book in English and Arabic gave us the chance to retell our experiences in a different way.

Luke Abbott


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