Friday, November 11, 2011

In midnights, in cups of coffee.....

Today was the tail end of Eid, and there was no school, so I slept til noon.

At one, my student Abdel Naser picked me up to go have lunch with his family in Tubas. Abdel Naser is a star student. He's a lawyer, 42-years-old, has four children, and tries the hardest of anyone in my adult class. He always asks to copy the songs I play onto his flash drive, and his favorite so far is "This Used To Be My Playground" by Madonna. He also enjoyed Seasons of Love, and agreed that cups of coffee were a good measure of life in Palestine. That and hard work.

We arrived at his family's house and I hung out in the couch room with his wife, watching the kids and their cousins run in and out of the house. I call it the couch room because every Palestinian home I've seen has a room with matching couches on three sides, where company is hosted. And lots of children and their cousins. I confirmed nicknames with Abdel Naser: Mohammad is Hamudi, Ahmad is Hamada, and Abdullah is Aboodi. Like William would be.....Willy or Billy.

We ate makloubeh, a chicken and rice dish. I talk about it in my class all the time, so Abdel Naser knew I loved it. I was served until I was about to pop. Then we had cola, then fruit, then coffee.

We were joined by Abdel Naser's brother, Mahmoud. Mahmoud taught himself to speak English, and now teaches at a UN school near Jericho. His English is really good, and he quizzed his son every time he came in. "What's this?" "Ummm, fork, no, knife." "Sing the tree song!"

He asked me what I thought of the Palestinian English curriculum. I said, "terrible." Mahmoud thought so too. He did research in English classes all over the West Bank, and he had pages of charts showing the percentage of teachers who used certain methods, translating into Arabic, lectures, multimedia, role plays, etc...he said the government curriculum had been written by university professors who didn't know how to work with children, so the lessons are far too difficult. When young children try to grasp the ideas, they feel defeated and incapable, he said, and by the end of high school, English class is considered a waste of time, for the students and teachers both. I see how my 9th and 10th grade students have words on the board like "effective," "environment" and "department" and they don't know how to answer a question like "where are you going?" Mahmoud felt like what the designers of the curriculum were doing was tantamount to abuse for their students, and as for teachers who speak up..."they don't listen to us."

I was amazed at how passionate Mahmoud was about his work. I was happy to report that the Deputy Minister of Education for Tubas had come to one of my classes, and he said basically the same things. He gave my students a pep talk ("take advantage of this opportunity to speak, you're very lucky to have this woman here!") and I got to speak with him after class about the curriculum's poor results. The books had just changed, starting with grades 1-5. That was good to hear. Just two weeks ago I was in the guest house kitchen, and through my window I could hear the 3rd grade students yelling "I like potatoes! I like chips!" The teacher caught sight of me (I was cooking pumpkin jam in a cowboy hat), and I think the sight of me startled her a little.

Throughout that visit, Mahmoud kept asking me questions about slang and pronunciation, and that's always fun for me. It's fun to be an expert on something. Mostly what I did was laugh at his British slang, like "I'm a little peckish." But it was inspiring, as a language student, to see how much he'd learned through self-teaching, and films and music...he loved Carole King. Pop music can be nice, but both he and his brother agreed that the best music is the kind that has real meaning and isn't just about women's bodies. He said Oum Kalthoum is the greatest Arabic singer of all time, because her words come from the heart. Listening to him talk about his favorite lyrics about nature and time made me wish that more people knew that Arabic men are romantic. It's a sweetness that makes me despair a little.

It was time to go, because at 4:30 I was meeting with Othman's daughter Shahad to do an interview for the Rebuilding to Remain campaign. Othman was the bus driver for Al Aqaba village, and his family was first in line to move into a new house built by Rebuilding Alliance, a California non-profit. They asked me to get some video and pictures of Shahad drawing a picture of her future home. For now the family was living with relatives in Tayasir. They had to leave Al Aqaba because the Israeli Civil Administration wouldn't let them expand their home. Anything they added, even a bathroom, was threatened with demolition. C'est la vie in Area C. But the Israelis were nice enough to suggest that Othman move to Tayasir, in Area A, a less-than-subtle indication of their plans to empty Area C of Palestinians. Othman has wanted to return to his land in Al Aqaba ever since. The new home, funded by international donors, would allowed him to do that.

Abdel Naser dropped me off at Othman's house, and I sat down with Shahad and her mother and aunts. I pulled out my little flip camera, and the interview commenced. The women helped me translate my choppy Google Arabic questions into colloquial Arabic for Shahad. What are we building in Al Aqaba? Who is going to live there? If the army comes to demolish your house, what would you say to them? Can you draw us a picture of your new house in Al Aqaba?

She drew a pretty bomb picture.

The little girl is saying "Ahlan wa Sahlan," welcome!

After the interview, I was fed dinner, my second incredible meal of the day. Othman, who was quite sick, lying on a mattress in the foyer, said, "this meat I kill from the holiday." The sheep had just been slaughtered. I picked up the meat with pita bread, and Othman's wife told me, "this," pointing to the bread, "today!" I got it, the bread was fresh too. I picked up some goat cheese with it, and she said, "from ghanam," Alright! I laughed. How spoiled was I? I noticed that no one mentioned the olives, but it was November, and the harvest had just ended. I guess that wasn't as much of a bragging point.

Everything was delicious.

I needed to get to Bethlehem by 9:30 the next morning, which was a Friday. I asked Othman if there was a car going to Ramallah tomorrow. He said probably not. Hmmm. This is going to be tricky. Nothing really functions on Friday mornings here. And today is the anniversary of the death of Arafat...and Remembrance Day.

Othman's wife showed me across the street, where one of the other drivers lived. I went up to the shop where a circle of old women were sitting and asked them if there were cars going to Ramallah in the morning. They said of course, and even had me convinced there was a free bus at eight, when a man, apparently the driver I was looking for, invited me into his house, where he was playing cards with his friends. He didn't invite me to play, but ushered me upstairs to meet his wife. She was sitting at an upstairs table, with her kids (and probably their cousins) running and jumping around. She told me, "I've seen you, at the school." I realized she was the English teacher in Al Aqaba! I didn't recognize her without her hijab. Her English was really good, and her daughters practiced their English with me. They were adorable.

I asked Majeda if the curriculum had changed for the younger students, and she said, "oh yes" and pulled out her daughter's English book, and the old English book. She expressed the same frustration as Mahmoud, that the curriculum didn't allow the students to speak, and they were forgetting everything year after year. "This was for second grade," she told me, and I could see why the old system didn't work. It was zooming right past them.

New book

Old book

I was fed fruit and coffee. Then the girls turned on Elissa, a famous Lebanese pop star, and started dancing to one of my favorite Arabic songs, "Bastanak" (I'm Waiting for You).  I'd just heard it in a cafe in Ramallah. Really, it could pass for a Britney Spears song in English, so Mahmoud might not like it. But I had a blast dancing with the girls, at least they seemed to have a blast laughing at my dancing.

Their father came back up and offered to drive me home to Al Aqaba, which was a few minutes ride up the hill. I accepted, since I knew Haj Sami didn't like me walking around alone at night. I hopped into the shiny yellow Service taxi, which seats eight, including the driver. Then to my surprise the whole family hopped in with me. This was an adventure for the girls, who were chatting up a storm and negotiating with their father over which CD to play for me. We settled on more Elissa.

Now I'm back in the guest house, and the driver, Zuheir, is picking me up at 6:30am to take me to the Ramallah taxi. Right now it's 3:30am. Hopefully I will make it down to Beit Jala for this peace conference thing. It's going to be a long day.

Driving down from Al Aqaba at sunset