I breathe freedom, don’t cut off my air (part I)

Reflections about (language) learning in Lebanon and in refugee camps

By Maria Grazia Imperiale, PhD Research on RM Borders project 17 September 2015

A wrecked minibus is taking me from Beirut to Nahr el Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in the North of Lebanon, on a sunny and extremely hot afternoon in September 2015.  The driver, thirteen men, and myself.  Bad luck, when I jump into the minibus it is already full, the only place available is in the last row, on the left corner: the seat in front of me is at about 20cms from my nose, and next to me there is a huge soldier at least double my size, the gun on his left pocket touches my leg and his body odor is not as fresh anymore. Claustrophobic.  I attempt to open the broken dusty window even though we are stuck in a queue.  Unbreathable.  I think of the first verse of a famous song by Julia Boutrous:

انا بتنفس حرية ما تقطع عني الهوا
“I breathe freedom, don’t cut off my air”

We listened to that song during the intensive Lebanese Arabic course I attended in Beirut (10 August-11 September): the teacher introduced it saying “no songs about romantic love.. in this period only songs about society, freedom, humanity”.

As Context, in language learning do matter.  Phipps and Levine, conceptualizing an ecological approach to language learning, identify 5 Cs to be added to the ACTFEL Standards (2006) – whose Cs for theorizing language practice were: communication, cultures, comparisons, connections and communities.  They suggest in addition: Context, Complexity, Capacity, Compassion and Conflict.  Regarding Context, they write:

An ecological approach to language teaching and learning does not view context as just a factor to be considered when analyzing how teaching or learning happens or should happen. Rather, what happens in the classroom responds to aspects of the context, and the context is also created out of teaching, learning, and language use […] the context shapes what happens in the classroom and is shaped by it.
(Phipps and Levine, 2012:8)

At this point of my reflections on my learning experience in Lebanon, I would like to focus on the Context.  It is not easy to summarize the Lebanese context in which my learning occurred, but from an initial analysis it seems to me that learning was mostly shaped by the following themes:
(1) the protests in Beirut and the Lebanese instability
(2) the Syrian tragedy, and
(3) my informal and deep intercultural learning experience in the Palestinian refugee camps, whose stories I shared in class many times (details of which are in my next blog post).

(1) The days of the protests

واذا فكرك عم بيداويني مش هيدى هو الدوى
And if you want us to find the solution,
it will only happen if we think together

Starting on the 22nd of August a wave of mass demonstrations started in Beirut, and the #YouStink campaign brought thousands of Lebanese in the streets of Downtown.  Protests started against the garbage crisis: the 17th of July the government closed one of largest landfill located in Naameh (6miles South of Beirut), the company that was running it was also responsible for garbage collection.  In July and August waste piled up anywhere in the streets, and the government divided the country in six regions allocating to different companies the garbage market- waste collection, disposal etc.- unsuccessfully.  Suspecting political ties and corruption, activists launched the so called #YouStink Campaign demanding more sustainable and transparent waste management.  On the 22nd of August daily sit-ins started, demanding the topple of the government.

Protest in Downtown, 29th August 2015. Photo by Maria Grazia Imperiale

Protest in Downtown, 29th August 2015. Photo by Maria Grazia Imperiale

The Army reacted with unacceptable violence, with tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets were shot on the crowd.  On the first day 30 people were wounded and on the 23rd a young man was killed by the Army.  On the following day the number of wounded people reached 400.  The protests escalated in those days, and a mass demonstration was called for the 29th of August.  It ran peacefully, without an excessive use of force by the Army.

Those days, according to the protesters, brought all the different sects of Lebanon together, showing unprecedented solidarity and unity in the country: they all fought against the government corruption, the lack of a President, and the inconveniences that affect the Lebanese every-day life, such as power cuts, the need of private generators, the lack of water in the houses etc.

These events were a source of discussion in both the Intensive course and the Conversational course I was attending: examples of giving directions as the streets were closed, writing exercises on the topic of the ‘Lebanese society and its problems’, presentations to be given about the same theme, role-plays about interviewing a famous Lebanese politician on the topic and more.  In those days classes were starting with the following questions: ‘What is going to happen today? Have you been to the protest? What did you see?’ Have you listened to the news?’

(2) The Syrian tragedy, the photo of Aylan, and the shift in the European policies on opening borders

ما فيك تلون هالكون ع بعضه بذات اللون
وتبدل نظام الأرض وتغير مجرى الهوا

You could never color the universe all the same color
Or replace the order of the earth or change the current of the wind

Informal Tent Settlement (ITS) for Syrian refugees close to Nahr el Bared. Photo courtesy of Tony Collins who says: “This is the most flattering angle of the camp.”

Informal Tent Settlement (ITS) for Syrian refugees close to Nahr el Bared.
Photo courtesy of Tony Collins who says: “This is the most flattering angle of the camp.”

That was a more controversial topic, present in each and every lesson, and almost in every conversation I had during these months here, in different forms and exploring different points of view.
Among the others, the grammar lesson we had about the passive form touched me.  In order to practice the forms of passive verbs, examples were:

  • When were the buildings destroyed and when will they be rebuilt?
  • Lots of Syrians were killed in the last years
  • The sound of an explosion was heard by many people
  • Syrians will be displaced to other countries
  • Thousands of people were killed during the Arab spring

I could provide umpteenth examples taken from the textbook and my notes in class.  Oral conversations in class often focused on that likewise.

Both in class and outside the safe walls, I have been asked many times my opinions about the European fortress opening its borders to host more refugees in the coming years, my views on the Mediterranean grave and the Italian Mare Nostrum, and about Cameron’s suggestion to welcome 20,000 refugees by 2020.  Undoubtedly, talking to Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians about that was a source of shame.

Following this revolutionary moment in Europe from Lebanon and from refugee camps was a strong experience.  Being here, conversations with Others represented the chance to reflect on, if I may, ‘Orientalizing tendencies in humanitarianism’ and on the narratives, the visual narratives and the language adopted by the West to describe the ‘Other’ (Carpi, 2014; Said, 1978).

In Beirut, the narrative I’ve heard the most, both in class and outside, was the following: “Lebanon is small, there are 1,200,000 Syrian refugees here and we are a population of 4,000,000, there is no room to take more displaced people, we are providing them accommodation, they hosted us before during the civil wars but we stayed only for a month,…”

When the photo of the young Aylan on the cost appeared on every media, then the narrative shifted towards a more (almost hysterical) humanitarian approach.  It reminded to me of the effect of the famous picture of Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in Syria where 18,000 Palestinian-Syrian were trapped between the fights of the regime and opposition (http://www.unrwa.org/crisis-in-yarmouk).

Learning the language of ‘war’ is inevitable here.  Even at the Lower Intermediate level, discussions would be around these topics.  Learning the words related to conflict, permissions, checkpoints, etc. is compulsory.  Last year, after having had strong and quite tense discussions with the Ministry of “Defense” and the Army (colonels and soldiers that put me in unpleasant situations), even though my Arabic competences were even more limited, I had to learn to talk with the soldiers about my rights and my own security which was put at risk by them.

At the same time, I realized that in the Palestinian camp I was learning the language of peace and hospitality.  This very same experience happened this time likewise.  The feeling of learning Arabic for hospitality and intercultural encounters is even stronger now as my language capabilities have improved and I can appreciate more in depth the conversations I’m having with Palestinian refugees.

Considering whether and in what shapes the ‘language of war’ and the ‘language of hospitality’ are part of the Lebanese multilingualism needs further reflections and reading, that I haven’t developed yet.

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4 Responses to I breathe freedom, don’t cut off my air (part I)

  1. This is amazing writing grazia, it paints the picture of your contextual experience of language learning in Lebanon so vividly. I enjpyed reading it and I am waiting to read the next blog.


  2. Sarah Craig says:

    Thanks from me too, Grazia, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the language of war and the language of hospitality

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