Dream a Difference: First Poems from Palestine
Rania El Sawalhi is a teacher at a girl’s secondary school prep B in East Gaza. In the context of a project that aimed to teach children about their human rights and agency, the issues facing young people in Palestine felt really significant to address. Many people feel that the carving up of Palestine after the Second World War has led to divisions between Muslims and Christians, the Middle East and the West, that have sown the seeds of our contemporary conflicts.
Rania found a poet to work with the pupils at her school and the Literary Club students attended workshops run by Hind Zaqut throughout February and March 2017.
There was an amazing moment on 2nd March when all the poems from East Gaza arrived in my inbox in a beautiful but completely incomprehensible Arabic script. I put the poems through Google Translate and understood the content of the poems and what the young people were trying to say but not the expression or the form of the poems. I was running a workshop the following morning at a primary school and desperately wanted one perfect example of an Arabic poem. I went to bed at 10pm, midnight in Palestine, and sent an email to Rania asking whether it might be possible to have a translation of one poem by the following morning. At 8am the following morning all 20 of the poems were in my inbox in the original Arabic script and an accompanying English translation. I was amazed and grateful to the teachers for the commitment they made to the project.
It was wonderful for me to see these poems because they represented a completely new way of writing poetry compared to our European traditions, one that I was sure many children would have been unfamiliar with.
While I personally love the mystical, abstract poems of Rumi, I am sure they are not often part of the school curriculum. The way of addressing abstractions in verse that is so extraordinary in Arabic poetry is unusual in the West. The most popular poem among the primary school children was The Boat of Happiness.
Among the secondary school children at The Cotswold School, the most popular poem was the striking and shocking poem of the death of a friend of one of the Gaza pupils from a bomb. It inspired one of the girls at The Cotswold School, whose own best friend had died, to write a poem directly addressed to the child who had lost a friend in the war.
On 5th May we held a successful Skype conference between the Cotswold School and the Girls School Prep B Gaza in the south of Gaza. Children sang songs to each other, songs of hope and of their belief in a better future. Rania explained how the power had been cut in Palestine for the past month and how the school, their homes and industries were being powered by generators. The children asked each other questions about their poems, asked them which poems they had liked the best and then explored cultural differences in food and housing. Most significantly, the Skype video connection worked and boded well for the future of the project. We were really grateful to the English teachers working in Palestine, who enabled the Palestinian children to communicate with the students in England in English and helped them translate their questions, their poems and their ideas.