The battle for literacy amongst young people can be an uphill one even in a developed country which is at peace and commands many resources. The battle’s a lot harder in places wracked by war, oppression and poverty – places like Ramallah in the occupied West Bank where the Tamer Institute for Community Education works to bring children and books together. Shereen Pandit explores.
Some months ago, a writer friend who’d taught in Ramallah forwarded to me an email originating from the Palestinian Ministry of Education. It described in graphic detail the Israeli army’s destruction of the Ministry’s offices, physically taking them apart, with tanks and explosives, ill-treating the staff, destroying equipment and irreplaceable books, files, documents, records. Such attacks, plus shootings, deaths and curfews gravely endanger literacy amongst Palestinian youth.
The Tamer Institute for Community Education, a non-profit making NGO established in 1989 in response to an urgent need of the Palestinian people, namely ‘to … learn and become productive’, is at the forefront of the battle for literacy in Palestine. Tamer’s primary aim is to promote literacy through ‘creating learning environments … through encouraging reading, expression of personal experience, creativity, achievement, and the transformation of experience into cultural products.’
Tonight (27/9/02) I am privileged to meet its director, Jehan Helou. Waiting for her in the quiet lobby of a central London hotel, remembering the battle I participated in for black education in apartheid South Africa, I am conscious of just how immense the task in Ramallah must be. I am conscious of how much initiative, resourcefulness, courage and determination are required – plus a lot of energy. The small, white-haired woman who rushes up to me, spilling books and papers, words and smiles, exudes exactly that.
Jehan, youthful political turned mature literary activist, says that Tamer was a response to what people felt was a disaster taking place in the wake of the first Intifada (1), namely the destruction of education in Palestine: ‘so they had education in houses and community-based centres, so this is how it started, to have some education activities and we started a reading campaign.’
The reading campaign
The reading campaign is still what Tamer is best known for in Palestine, ‘urging children, youngsters and the entire community to acquire knowledge, thus to develop by reading.’ The annual reading week involves entire communities, through hundreds of community-based institutions, which decide, says Jehan, ‘what to do in relation to reading, creative writing, discussing books, poetry recitals, etc. We have posters and pamphlets encouraging it.’ Tamer also activates community-based libraries in partnership with the Ministry of Culture and has created a resource centre to run workshops to encourage reading and writing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the development of library skills. The Institute mounts exhibitions and trains librarians and volunteers who run activities which appeal to children inside the libraries ‘to make it an attractive place’. Tamer works hard to show that ‘reading … should really increase during the Intifada because there is a need for learning and entertainment.’
Jehan glows with pride when she describes a project run almost entirely by people aged 14 to 21 – an entire weekly page of a newspaper, as well as a bimonthly supplement in Al Ayyam newspaper. This is a forum ‘for literary and educational expression’. Young people have complete control of this. ‘We (adults) only have a consultant for the technical things. Even I don’t see it before it is published … It’s open, they can write about anything, but the supplement, which is bi-monthly, usually has a theme. The last one was about education now, under Israeli aggression and occupation. This was after Jenin and the incursion on the West Bank … Most of it … it’s creative but it’s a sort of documentary, either writing about their experiences or about the past …’
An oral tradition
Jehan talks about getting children to write when faced not just by curfews and war, but by diffidence, both natural diffidence and that arising from the fact that their culture, though rich in poetry and folktales, is mainly an oral one. In creative writing courses and workshops, children who think that writing is not for them, that they cannot be creative, are encouraged to write. The weekly newspaper page is one of the places where they can see their writing in print. Other projects include Summer Days – an annual camp for the exchange of ideas; the My First Book competition in which children are invited to submit work to be judged by experts, with publication and being read within the community as the prize; the My Passport to Reading and the Small Continent project.
Not only does Tamer publish Palestinian books by and for children, but it also makes available, through translation, the work of non-Palestinian writers, for example, the works of South African writer Beverley Naidoo. According to Jehan, Journey to Jo’burg, set in the townships and homelands of apartheid South Africa, found particular resonance amongst Palestinians, whose situation is increasingly compared to that of black South Africans in the apartheid era.
A political struggle?
Reference to Beverley Naidoo’s visit to Ramallah and the reading of her books by Palestinian children, and even adults, leads naturally to comparisons between Tamer’s work and that done by township youth organizations in 1980s’ South Africa. Jehan’s response is that while Tamer’s purpose is not directly a political one, ‘You can’t say anything is not political, because our national struggle is a political struggle, even if we are not committed to a certain party or organisation. They (the community) are politicized … even in literacy … grandmothers and fathers know about politics … but no, we don’t belong to any political party, we don’t have any ideology … but we are dealing with issues of equal opportunities, of change, of empowerment and teaching children to be part of that change and liberation and development in our society.’
Thus when oppressors seek to undermine an oppressed people not only by bombs but also by creating an environment in which formal education is difficult, if not impossible, then the educational work of organizations like Tamer is, albeit indirectly, a political act. Jehan talks about the need for young people to know and take pride in their national history and identity, their culture, which she sees as part of children’s rights. ‘We want … of course to have literacy for our children because of the disruption of education, always the oppressor wants the oppressed to be ignorant, to subjugate us, etc. but education and knowledge are tools not of oppression but of liberation, but we also would like in our books or readings or activities … to have children express themselves without any oppression or inhibitions and to have critical thinking and they should read all the factors and come to conclusions … It’s not easy, but this element is the main element, not to take things just at their face value or to believe what the family or the tribe or the school tells them … we are under occupation of course, this is part of our national struggle, you cannot have development or … liberation from occupation if you are ignorant …’
A tool of cultural understanding
What, I ask, can Tamer’s experience and the books they produce teach us in the West? Jehan argues that literacy is a tool of cultural understanding and exchange. It can teach children tolerance, about the existence of diversity. ‘We would love children in the West, in other parts of the world to know, to have really a sense of what the Palestinian children are … how they live, how they think, how they suffer, how they love, laugh. So I think we would love to have our literature, our books, children’s books by children or by adults, to be translated into different languages as much as we also love to have the books of different languages and different cultures translated and available to our children, which is why we translated Journey to Jo’burg and Chain of Fire.’
Tamer’s work isn’t made any easier by the position adopted by international agencies such as IBBY (2), whose executive has still not allowed Palestinian organisations and individuals to form a national section of IBBY. Although IBBY’s constitution allows entry to ‘countries’ and ‘nations’, policy to date has meant that only ‘sovereign states’ as defined by the United Nations have been allowed to form national sections. This position is being challenged by, amongst others, the British section of IBBY.
As the UK section points out, IBBY is depriving Palestinians of ‘the benefits which accrue from belonging to an international body dedicated to the same aims that they hold for their country’ viz. ‘to promote the development of quality creative literature and picture books for young people’ – something which Tamer strives to do. Jehan is understandably irate at IBBY’s position (3).
We move on to discussing Islamaphobia and talk about the depiction of Muslims in children’s literature available in the West. Jehan laughs: ‘We are not obsessed, yes, okay religious values are important but we are not, our children are not, obsessed by religion or fanaticism or fundamentalism – yes, our books show children who like to laugh, to love … You’d be surprised.’ She tells me mischievously as she eats a biscuit and pours us more coffee, ‘There are even wedding invitations that say: “Oh, the wedding’s on Thursday but if there’s a curfew, it is the next day.” It’s marvellous how life goes on …’
Dominated by war and occupation
To illustrate the point, she hands me some of the load of books and papers, pictures and posters, even embroidery, with which she entered the room. She’s right. There is no doubt from the posters, newspaper articles, stories, drawings, all by children, that these are children whose lives are dominated by war and occupation, because this is mainly what they write about, what they draw. Painful writings and drawings of death, deprivation and despair. Even the humorous ones are painful, like the poster in which one person complains of not being able to do homework because there is no electricity and another responds that there is plenty of light being generated by the bombs. But there are also books which celebrate the natural world, the proud history, the monuments of Palestine, drawings about the everyday lives of Palestinians.
Tomorrow Jehan is off to the IBBY conference and I to join what will turn out to be the biggest anti-war and pro-Palestinian march in the UK (4). Meantime in Palestine, life does, or doesn’t, go on for the children of Palestine. To those for whom it does, Jehan Helou and the Tamer Institute may ultimately prove that if the pen is not mightier than the sword, it is at least its equal.
My Life and the Bullet
By Kifah Al Aaraj, age 14. Khan Yunis
A beautiful house, nice clothes, and a city with wonderful views … many things I used to dream about, but the occupation has destroyed all our dreams.
The Intifada started, and we heard only the sound of bullets in the streets, the thunder of fighter planes in the sky and waves of dead and injured.
One day I woke up early. It was quiet, no bullets, no fighting in the streets, only a distant humming of a fighter plane. I started to help my mother with cleaning and tidying the house. I went to get the dry washing from the roof. I started collecting the clothes. And suddenly I felt something piercing my back. At the first instant it did not hurt, but moments later I began to feel a fire burning in my back and chest. I shouted calling my mother.
There was no fighting in the streets, and no sound of bullets. It was quiet, only the thunder of a fighter plane in the sky.
They took me to the hospital, and tried to get the bullet out, but they couldn’t, it was buried so deep in my back. They took me to a hospital in an Arab country where they tried everything to help me, but they couldn’t remove the bullet.
Now wherever I go, I carry the bullet with me, a gift from the occupation.
Translated by Dr Sonia Nimer
(1) Intifada means uprising, as in the situation in Palestine where masses of oppressed people, rather than armed forces, spontaneously rise to confront their oppressors.
(2) IBBY (The International Board on Books for Young People) is, according to its mission statement, ‘a non-profit organization which represents an international network of people from all over the world who are committed to bringing books and children together’.
(3) Update from the IBBY conference in October 2002: A motion put by the British and Irish sections of IBBY calling for the admission of Palestine, won much support. The motion was passed by IBBY’s general assembly but the matter has been referred back to the executive who have set up a sub-committee to look into the whole question of membership. They will report back at their next meeting in April at Bologna, so the situation is far from being resolved.
(4) The march took place on 28 September 2002 in London.
Shereen Pandit is a writer and a teacher of creative writing to refugees, mainly women, from many countries.