English lessons offer insight & connection to Palestinian society

by Kerstin, Bethlehem team

The occupation shapes various dimensions of Palestinian life, including education. Photo EAPPI/L. Aquino

The occupation shapes various dimensions of Palestinian life, including education. Photo EAPPI/L. Aquino

English lessons are very popular in Palestine and in great demand among various local institutions.  This fall, the Bethlehem team, decided to give English lessons in rural villages, as a way to socialize and meet various sectors of society.  Within the context of English lessons, we brought up all sorts of topics – the Palestinian family structure and gender roles, personal preferences, how one introduces oneself in job applications, and even one’s experiences at the checkpoint. Sensitive issues were aired out in a natural way, things that we could not bring up in an ordinary conversation.

We taught English lessons for staff at a center for disabled children in Beit Fajjar. A group of about 12 people usually took part in our classes, of which only 3 or 4 were men. Of course, we taught grammar – the differences of ‘these’ and ‘those’, how to use expressions like ‘so on’ and ‘so forth’, etc. But above all, we – and they! – greatly enjoyed smaller group discussions, about checkpoint experiences, the traditional vs. the modern family, who makes the decision at home – he or she?! – and much more.

One woman told about the difficulties getting through the checkpoint to visit her husband, when he was in jail. Another talked about getting very frightened by the soldiers.

The pride of the family

I remember quite a few sighs from women about the weight of the never-ending housework of washing, cleaning and cooking, which is the duty of every Muslim women – mixed with the pride of being a mother responsible for, often, a large extended family. When talking about the hierarchy of the family, most agreed that the husband has the last say, but people also stressed – the men, particularly  – that if there are different opinions on a matter, the man and wife must have a discussion about it and put forward their views, after which they would usually manage to decide together.

Surprisingly many said two to three children was the preferable family size and and that they did not cherish the extended family model, whereas others said they wanted many children. One woman underlined that, for children, the extended family has great values as a learning place where you get to understand human values, other people (old and young), and get the opportunity to train in various skills of the house and neighborhood. In short, it offers an education on how to live and love, an experience far superior to just watching TV.

 Dreams for the future

At a women’s Centre in Nahhalin, run by Jihan, the wife of the head of Tent of Nations, one lesson, we divided into two groups and discussed cultural customs, mainly clothes and food, famous places in Palestine and places to go. To see the sea was a dream hopefully to come true sometime in the future.

Breaking the isolation

We also talked about daily life in the village and it turned out that joining the Women’s group three hours a day was an important means of breaking the isolation and boredom at home for many of these young persons. Jihan said that whereas in Bethlehem, there are lots of things going on all the time, there is a great need for meeting spots, contacts and activities in the villages, especially for women. Joining English lessons is a way of breaking the isolation.

Although as an EA, teaching English lessons is not a requirement, I found it to be a wonderful way to gain insight into Palestinian society and hear of personal experiences I would not hear anywhere else.

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