No matter in what order I place these words, no matter what details I add, the sentiment behind the sentence is incomprehensible. I stare at it. Feel the synapses of my brain trying to make sense of this nonsensical situation. Violence is like this — a whirl of chaos; a resistance to logic; an act that freezes us, that makes us fear. I am not innocent of violence, born and raised in the South Side of Chicago, in a neighborhood full of abusive fathers and abusive boys. And now I teach creative nonfiction at the University of South Florida, where, each semester, I have students who bare their lives on the page, their pasts filled with viciousness. I suggest ways to manage tension and time. I ask them to think deeper. But what I want to do is drop this role and hold them close because the world has let them down; because I know writing is sometimes the first step to healing, a process that will rip them apart before they can put themselves back together — because a bomb has gone off in their lives. How do they make sense of that? How do we?
What is sensible about body parts strewn across a major intersection in the city of Bangkok? What is sensible about the death of 22 people? Worst of all, what is sensible about the first thought that enters my mind when I hear of the bombing in my home country — as if it makes sense; as if one thing leads to another — what next?
It’s an odd question. It comes out of expectation, with the knowledge that something equally, if not more horrific, will happen in the near future. It is a question that we ask now in America, every time a black person is wrongfully killed, every time a child is abused, every time there is a school shooting.
This question has plagued the West Bank for centuries. No doubt it enters the minds of both students and teachers of Al-Quds University where Tom Sperlinger’s memoir, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation, is set. Sperlinger, currently the director of Lifelong Learning at the University of Bristol, details his semester teaching English literature in the occupied West Bank against a backdrop of violent conflict. Al-Quds University is a Palestinian institution that serves Arabs in Jerusalem as well as refugees in surrounding towns and villages. Sperlinger shows us a mostly unfamiliar aspect of the occupied territory — higher education. The students of Al-Quds live with the understanding that something catastrophic is always about to happen. This is their reality — one characterized by the conditions of inequality, violence, and war. Sperlinger tells us: “The occupation was not only all that my students had known; it had been the backdrop to their parents’ entire lives as well.” In this part of the world, he notes, there is no such thing as a citizen’s rights — a child can be imprisoned for throwing stones, and there is constant threat of a suicide bombing and military brutality. One of Sperlinger’s students, Haytham, says of a classmate: “He was one hell of a good friend and we all got shocked of the fact of his death but yet we’re kinda used [to] and always ready to lose close friends.” This is the burden these young people carry. This is the burden Sperlinger is trying to comprehend during his months at Al-Quds.
Sperlinger steers the narrative in a different direction, however: he finds himself asking not What next?, but rather What is happening now? This question, which ultimately compels us to be present and aware in our own lives, centers the bulk of Sperlinger’s account not on the conflict in the Middle East, and not on the news that seems endless with tragedy; instead, he offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of his students, who, like kids all over the world, are going to school, haggling over grades, plagiarizing, pestering their teachers, questioning the validity of the course matter, and wondering about big subjects like love, war, hope, and hopelessness. Sperlinger’s students, it turns out, are the same as students everywhere.
As for teachers — well, teachers teach. Or try to teach. Or learn to teach. Or simply learn. Early on in the book, Sperlinger writes: “I did not understand the structures and tensions of the society I was living in […] I hoped my students would teach me more about Palestine, as well as articulating their own experiences.” As time progresses, and as Sperlinger’s departure approaches, we see him change, we see his evolution as a character and a teacher. He learns the Arabic language from his students. He learns the different viewpoints within Israel and Palestine. By the end of the book, and his time in the Middle East, Sperlinger adjusts, understands, sees an evolution in himself and the evolution of place. He writes: “While I was living in the West Bank it felt like I wasn’t crossing a border if I travelled into Jerusalem, but moving from one country’s unconscious into its ego — moving between two parts of a whole that lived in constant tension with one another.”
Like many university professors, Sperlinger experiences among his students a reluctance to read. Haytham, for example, whom Sperlinger describes as “one of the most engaged students in seminars, participating in debates with passion and humour,” did not understand the point of reading literature. Many of his classmates felt the same way, citing that there was never enough time or that they preferred games and films to reading. Some feared that reading threatened their religious beliefs.
This reluctance to reading, which I continually face in my own classroom here in the States, is born, I believe, of a culture that has devalued literature and art. This devaluation is seen in the way education is shaped in the country and the world, in the push toward STEM and Common Core. It’s a development that causes students to think in terms of “what’s next” and to value their diplomas as a payoff, which makes the job of a teacher in the humanities even more difficult.
In Romeo and Juliet in Palestine, we do not only witness the conflict outside the walls of the university, but the struggles in the classroom, where Sperlinger has to make art and literature matter in and of themselves. “I asked the students to imagine what life would be like if you could not read at all.” He further prods them to consider what would be absent without the knowledge that can be gleaned from books. After assigning an excerpt of Malcolm X’s Autobiography, Haytham and many others begin to understand the power of the text, observing that Malcolm X read “in order to have power.” Later, another student points out that Malcolm X read “in order to lead.”
Sperlinger not only emphasizes the importance of reading, but the value of storytelling. Early on in the book, he asks students to write a story — any story. Some plagiarize from the internet, and their stories sound like the “lost tales” from Arabian Nights; some choose generic folk tales of the Middle East, which makes Sperlinger wonder “whether the students were giving me what they thought I wanted.” But the memorable papers were the most personal, as with a story of a grandfather publicly executed in the village, and another about relatives being used as a human shield against oppositional fire. In these accounts, as sad and horrific as they are, the reader bears witness as both students and their teacher try to make sense of their place in the world. And it’s in scenes like these — in which everyone, including Sperlinger, is a student interacting with a text — that Romeo and Juliet in Palestine gathers strength and momentum.
Many students at Al-Quds University are seeking a way out. They dream of lands and lives beyond the occupied territory, and to achieve this, many believe they must become educated. But the curriculum Sperlinger details in his memoir will not provide easy answers. It is not based in science or math. What Sperlinger mostly succeeds in teaching — despite cultural gaps, despite personality conflicts, despite the uncontrollable happenings off-campus — is the value of art and the power of the written word. His goal is to create a bridge of cultural connection through the work of Shakespeare and Malcolm X, Kipling and Hardy, and a slew of others. He wants to illustrate the commonality of these seemingly disparate worlds, and for students to draw a comparison to their own lives. In turn, for their teacher, the young people of Al-Quds reaffirm the power of the classics to illuminate the complexities of the human experience — they provide Sperlinger a new angle from which to explore the work he loves. Consider the play of the title — William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In Sperlinger’s classroom, what could be more appropriate than a play about young lovers from warring families? And what better for them to read about than Caesar’s betrayal or Hamlet’s madness in the face of loss? Shakespeare is more relevant than ever in the Middle East. His themes are front and center in these students’ lives, and in the conflict itself. “When the classes worked,” he writes,
it was because of a sort of alchemy between what we read and the students’ experiences. And, of course, the pleasure split both ways for me, since I got to cross borders both into Shakespeare and into my students’ experiences; each was a “school to me.”
It has been a few weeks since a bomb exploded in the center of Bangkok. Investigations continue. And so does everything else. Business as usual has resumed. Food carts sell noodles and grilled chicken. People visit temples and pray for guidance. Students, in their school uniforms, go to school and dig into their studies, keeping their eyes and ears fixed on their texts despite the troubles beyond classroom doors. We live in a world where a bomb is always going off somewhere.
And yet we strive. We keep our eyes aimed ahead. Sperlinger tells us, “My students at Al-Quds showed extraordinary creativity, courage and humour in their daily lives, and in navigating the obstacles they face, even in getting to class.” It has been a couple of years since his experience as a teacher in the occupied territories, where the conflict between Israel and Palestine continues. I imagine life for his former students also continues, in and out of the classroom. I imagine that someone, a teacher, perhaps, is trying to help them make sense of the world.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night.