Rachel Fox reviews Tom Sperlinger’s book about the experiences of teaching under occupation and how politics interrupts education.
Tom Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation. Zero Books, 2015.
In Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation, Tom Sperlinger, a Reader in English Literature and Community Engagement at the University of Bristol, narrates his experiences of teaching English Literature at Al-Quds University. At the beginning of 2013 Sperlinger traveled to the Abu Dis campus in the West Bank and taught there for one semester.
The book is a narrative driven first and foremost by Sperlinger’s teaching practices in Palestine, and is therefore, in many ways, a pedagogical text. However, as the subheading of the book’s title indicates, he is “teaching under occupation.” This experience of being “under occupation” filters into the university classroom in various, and often intrusive, ways. Sometimes this intrusion can facilitate the movement of the class discussion in ways that are particular to the political climate of Palestine. A class discussion regarding the rights of the reader leads to a student suggesting that “[i]n Palestine, the first thing you would need is the right to not be arrested – for what you read, or for what you do with what you read” (49). On other occasions being “under occupation” can manifest in a more disruptive fashion, as is evidenced in the opening pages of Romeo and Juliet in Palestine. Beginning in media res, Sperlinger opens by recounting how “[j]ust before 2pm, on a warm day in March, three students came into the office and told me that campus was being evacuated” (1). The experience of teaching, and of being taught, is continually interrupted by a pervasive political situation that shapes the way in which teaching is experienced by student and teacher.
Sperlinger is a fair and conscientious author in his approach to his teaching, his writing, and his grasp on the political situation in Palestine. He opens with the assertion that:
the worst kind of class is one in which the teacher knows how the discussion will end. I suspect the same is true for a book, and I hope that the reader can interpret these anecdotes in his or her own way” (8).
Sperlinger gives credit to the ability of both his students and readers to exercise independent thought and values the potential contributions they might bring to his classes and to his writing respectively. The significance of Sperlinger’s students to his teaching and his writing is evident throughout Romeo and Juliet in Palestine which features excerpts from students’ assessed work and comments expressed in emails and social media. Accounts of class discussion also present dialogue between Sperlinger and his students. Sperlinger makes a conscious effort to not present himself as the definitive voice on or for his students, leaving space within his text for their voices to be heard.
As a polyphonic text, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine there is more than just the voices of its author and his students included amongst its pages. There are also excerpts from fiction and non-fiction texts, taken from the works discussed and analysed in seminars, and from political and biographical accounts, some of which are directly about Palestine. However, perhaps the voice that resonates most strongly in the text is that of Lisl Sperlinger, Sperlinger’s grandmother who fled Vienna in 1938 and lived out her adult life as a committed Zionist (8). The political reality that faces Israeli and Palestinian relations is a complex one and is often subject to bias. Sperlinger’s account, which includes both the voices of his Palestinian students and his Zionist grandmother (speaking in an interview in the late 1990s), offers parity for both sides of the political conflict. By using his grandmother’s voice Sperlinger flags how deeply personal politics can be. Just as Sperlinger cannot detach his familial history from his experiences in Palestine, his students cannot detach their personal home-lives from their studies. As one student writes for an assignment, an excerpt of which is included in Romeo and Juliet in Palestine, in the chapter of the same name: “I was part of the story” (43).
Romeo and Juliet in Palestine is a difficult book to categorise: Is it a pedagogical text? A political one? Is it autobiography? How many stories of how many people’s lives does it tell? The book is not organised chronologically but, as Sperlinger professes himself, anecdotally, composed out of the interspersed fragments of his own story and experiences, alongside the experiences of others. The book makes no grand claims, but herein lies its strength: it cannot speak for Palestine, nor be the authoritative voice on Palestine, but it can, and does, give us a small, but incredibly personal, insight into Palestine, grafted from the relationship that Sperlinger garnered with his students while teaching there.
Rachel Fox is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. Her research interests include postcolonialism, neo-imperialism, feminist literatures, perceptions and representations of Islam, visual media, and post-9/11 literature.