Tomorrow the writers in my class start teaching in the refugee camps. The participants are teenaged girls between 14-16. The hope is that a creative writing workshop will contribute to their sense of self and give them power and some inspiration. The writer/teachers are prepared with writing prompts, teaching strategies and pieces of writing. Our preparation has been lively conversations about what persona to bring to the class, about how to keep the action going, how to get them to recognize elements of writing so they can use them.
Some of our discussions are expected. What is a good sequence of activities? How long to spend on discussing their writing? What if some students don’t want to read? What if some want to talk too much? We design alternative approaches to getting them to write. Some will use pictures; others, music. We discuss the idea of safe space to explore and express. How do we communicate that in a community that has been close and together for their whole lives?
Years of teaching writers and teachers provides options and ideas but the writer/teachers contribute more and more and I feel like every day with them is my classroom where I position myself on both sides of the desk. We spend some time imagining what it’s like to be fourteen, what are we obsessed with at that age. The topics are dreams and love and family and growing up. As with any group of young girls, we will start inside of them and mine their inspirations.
As we review their proposals for their first class and the ideas for writing topics, controversy arises. One writer/teacher suggests they write about a different place to live. Is this a tease they wonder? Does it go without saying that the children in camps would desire a life with amenities? Or is it an insult? Mustafa proposes they ask the girls to write from the point of view of an Israeli guard at the checkpoint helping a woman who is pregnant. The women in the class roar.
Dalia puts it best (my paraphrase) We are not post-colonial, we are still under occupation. We don’t have the luxury of looking back and having sympathy. The question of imagination and humanization runs through this topic. I go further; Can you imagine ever writing about an Israeli? Not yet, is the answer, I think.
And I wonder what it is like to live with the “enemy” so close, to look at their faces at the checkpoints, to wait for hours for permits and licenses and birth certificates. Everyone is in a holding pattern about something: Maya needs a birth certificate for her 3 month old baby. But she can’t have one until Maya’s Jerusalem residence is renewed. Her sister is trying to get a 3 month pass to Jerusalem so she can visit her family. Sofie is trying to register a car and it sits in the driveway until that permit is issued. Dalia will be able to go to Jerusalem for a job function but only for two days. Have I mentioned that the distance between the two cities is a little more than eight miles? But hundreds if the checkpoint is a mess.
These writer/teachers at least have the suggestion of traveling in their lives. What about the families in the camps? How do they engage their imaginations when they are living in Al-Ama’ri http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Am%27ari? The schools are barely able to keep up with the growing population. We don’t expect the strongest practices from these students so we design ways of sparking interest. Inshallah.
I used to say when I stop learning from teaching, I’ll quit. This teaching experience is several kinds of learning for me. When I’m hanging out with my students in coffee shops or walking around downtown, I forget what worries are in the back of their minds. If they have to go through the checkpoint today, when should they leave? Will they hear from the authorities on their applications? On the front, they are laughing about a potential boyfriend for a friend, discussing the soldiers in the road, complaining about the car that is four kinds of broken. I get swept into their liveliness. In a few hours, they head to the camp, face their first group of girls, face the hardness of their lives and give a little piece of inspiration.
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports