Kimon Theodossis (in the background) teaching in the Palestinian Territories
Kimon Theodossis blogs about delivering some of the first face-to-face English language courses in Palestinian Territories for more than 10 years and found that although he was the teacher, quite possibly it was he who learned more from his remarkable students.
Having worked in Jordan for the previous year and a half and excited as I was about working in the Palestinian Territories, I had little interest in any of the intricate details. All I knew was that I was going to that ‘other’ place across the River Jordan, which is forever peppering news headlines for all the wrong reasons. I was going to experience the Palestinian Territories from the inside through the eyes and ears of my students.
Initially, other than the fact that I would be working with employees of the Ministry of Local Government in Ramallah, through a program funded by the Belgian Technical Cooperation, I knew little else about what was waiting for me.
This would be the first time that the British Council would be delivering face to face English foreign language courses in more than a decade, as all pre-existing teaching operations in the Palestinian Territories had been halted at the onset of the second Intifada in late September of 2000, triggered by Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The days that followed my arrival, as with any new posting in the region, were a whirlwind of handshakes and ‘salam alekums’ and it wasn’t long before the first day of class arrived.
I’ll never forget pulling up to the Ministry and my driver pointing at the familiar complex of walls, antennas and guard towers that I had seen back at the border. The Israeli compound I was looking at can’t have been more than 300 yards away from where I was now standing.
My students began to a trickle into the classroom – a bizarre mix of managers, middle-managers and secretaries; looking at me curiously in what I can only describe as an air of mild suspicion, as if they were wondering what in the name of Allah this pony-tail wielding, snot-nosed kid could possibly offer to teach them.
It wasn’t long before the ice was broken and I was beginning to notice subtle differences between my experiences of Palestinians in Jordan and these hard-nosed veterans I now call my students. Of course I concluded that they were indeed the same people. It’s just that their lives and experiences in the modern day Palestinian Territories seem to have made them somewhat thicker skinned and it’s not hard to understand why when you take into account the fact that some of my students have done ‘hard’ time in Israeli prisons.
At times I feel like I could be in some kind of army barracks listening to ‘squaddie’ jovial banter and it’s precisely at these times when it is hard to keep a straight face at some of the little derogatory digs flying across the classroom, aimed at some members of the class and their Bedouin heritage or poking fun at some other students’ South Hebron Hills parochial background.
But then there are times when I am left dumbstruck by the hardiness of these people. Just last month there was tragic school bus crash just outside of Ramallah that left six children and one teacher dead.
The whole of Ramallah was in mourning and the very next day I was informed by my students that one of the children that had been killed had actually been the cousin of one of my students that had not yet arrived for the lesson that day. Minutes later, when he walked into the classroom and was subsequently questioned by the others, he simply replied; ‘Yes, he is dead’, in such a matter of fact way that he might as well have been remarking on the weather that morning.
It’s almost as if loss and human suffering in this part of the world has taken on a completely different meaning, as if the jagged edges of such blows to the human spirit have been eroded away after decades of over-use.
The course is still in full swing and although I still have a month and a half to go before I have to leave, I have already began to reflect on this amazing experience. The training has been received extremely well and we have had very positive feedback from the participants and their experiences the first British Council EFL training in twelve years. Nevertheless, at the expense of my TEFL ego, I must admit it is I who has learned more from my students than they have learned from me.
On the whole, it has been a real privilege and I have been astounded by my students and the people they represent. I have rarely met such an interesting, fiery and resilient group of people which have somehow remarkably managed to hold on to their great sense of humour, despite all the odds.