Reflections about (language) learning in Lebanon and in refugee camps
By Maria Grazia Imperiale, PhD Research on RM Borders project 21 September 2015
(3) Learning the ‘Arabic language of hospitality’ with the Palestinian refugees of Nahr el Bared
صوت الحرية بيبقى اعلى من كل الأصوات
The voice of freedom remains louder than all the voices
My Arabic is very broken. Extremely broken. But I have developed a quite good capability to make myself understood even without mastering the four language skills. Or at least, that’s what I have been told. Then, even though it may not be true, the positive effect it has on me definitely helps me to establish deep and compassionate friendship relationships, so I will hold myself to this hope.
I have been to the Palestinian refugee camp many times, visiting good friends there. All the previous times I needed someone to translate most of the conversations, even though I was trying hard to speak and to understand. This time, my Arabic was definitely better compared to the previous years, but still it is far from being fluent. It still requires a strong effort both by me and my interlocutors to make the communication happening. And we make it happen.
Therefore, in the camp my informal language learning experience was maximized. The camp became the place where my learning mostly occurred – and it became a contested place where I was rehearsing what to say in class, as I was often reporting back about my visits to the camp and my conversations there. I was bringing stories of refugees back to a reluctant Lebanese teacher and to interested classmates. I have always reflected and read about authentic learning and the classroom as a space to practice, rehearse what should be said outside the comfort walls. It was the first time for me to reflect on how my learning outside the classroom had an impact on both my teacher and my classmates.
I learned – and then taught back – new words, Palestinian ones as ‘Howlo’ which is an invitation to visit and join someone’s home (everybody invites you even if you are just walking in the streets), as ‘Na3iman’ which you say after someone has taken a shower to tell him/her something like ‘You are beautiful after the shower’, I learn the words related to Freedom, Smiles, Dreams, the welcoming greetings. I learn the word and the world of Sumoud (resistance, steadfastness, perseverance).
In the camp, I learned, but I didn’t learn the four language skills. If we attribute to language a functionalist and instrumentalist paradigm, then my stay in the camp could be considered pointless. If we consider intercultural communicative competence as a syllabus based on language learning and political education, then my reflections could end here.
Instead, I did learn more than that.
I learned from them their hard stories of living in a country where you are not a citizen and therefore your rights are denied; I learned about the suffering and dreaming about the return to their homes and land; I learned about the Refugee Crisis seen from their perspectives, of eternal refugees. I learned how to behave with the soldiers at the checkpoints, how to dance Arabic Dabkah. I learn to sit and be silent, allowing space for them to joke without being forced to explain the joke to me. I learn about the women’s suffering of a routine life at home – Shughrl, Shughrl, Shughrl- ‘work, work, work’.
I learn about what music can do: a marvelous spontaneous party with a Scottish friend, Tony, playing Scottish music with his bagpipe, and Palestinian guys playing the Palestinian anthem with the same bagpipe. They didn’t share any language but the music, and through the bagpipe they communicated without any need for translations or interpretations.
(More stories about that on Tony’s blog, https://norefugelebanon.wordpress.com/ On the website there is a link for donations to build a safe Kid’s Place to play in the camp.)
I learn the value of Home, in a refugee camp, where people hope to go back to their land and their homes. They host you and give you everything they have, and more.
I learned the empathy, and I appreciate the value of my linguistic incompetence which gave me access, nevertheless, to what Said calls the Interiors (Said, 1999): the life inside a Home, which is often inaccessible for a foreigner investigating Palestinian lives and identity.
I learned to discuss about marriage and religion with a different sensitivity.
I learn to be happy to wash my hair with salty water and to brush my teeth with it (that’s the hardest thing). I learn to open the horizon of my Western mind in a camp surrounded by checkpoints.
I learn to ‘steal moments of happiness’ (a friend’s quote) even in a day when a friend received phone calls to help three Palestinian-Syrian children whose parents have been kidnapped, shot and hospitalized in intensive care (and he manages to put the kids in a safe environment).
I learn about Hope and Freedom, in a context where precarity and harsh leaving conditions could kill those values.
Ironically, I learned to breathe freedom in a claustrophobic minibus, taking me to a refugee camp controlled by the Lebanese Army, where in order to get access you need a permission issued by the Mukhabarat (Lebanese Intelligence).
During my informal learning experience in the camp, I learned to breathe freedom at the borders of language, the body, law and the state.