Can you imagine arriving in Damascus or Tehran and having to attend a class in Arabic or Farsi? Or, if you’re an expat, do you remember the endless headaches after a couple of hours spent hearing a foreign language that you don’t necessarily like,
yes I’m talking about German for example, that is interfering with your every single actions and thoughts?
Now, can you imagine: not only are you sitting in a class where someone hammers (to fall) stuff in German into your ears, but you are also surrounded by others speaking four or five other languages, to spice it up. At the moment I have Arabic (Palestinian, Syrian, Kurdish), Dari, Farsi, Pashtu and Tamilish minds all at the same time getting confused over German which I am explaining mostly with gestures and the various languages I can think of.
A language shock, to begin with, but above all: a culture shock. And an immense sadness felt by those kids: more often than not they are told to forget all they ever learned: their language, their roots, their history. I heard, during a teacher’s training session, that teachers ought to avoid all references to the past. Unfortunately, I’m also PhDying (pun intended) in History. The past is my daily reality and I use it to explain everything that occurs presently. So I’m not going to let those kids forget about their roots because it is easier on the educational system.
What can I do, against oblivion and time though? Their memories will fade, often for the best, given the kind of memories one can have coming from war-torn Homs or Mosul. They will get germanized, more and more they will forget words from their native languages in favor of their adoptive ones. But one day, once they’ll be adults, upon hearing their mother tongue, they’ll always feel that warmth inside that comes along that overpowering feeling of nostalgia that grasps us when a certain sound, smell or situation brings back a happy childhood memory. I won’t be here to witness it, but right now, I can try as much as possible to maintain that connection between their two selves: their past identity and the new one they’re trying to build here.
I found a nice way to do so: when we don’t grammar away (I do hate it as much as they do, although some of them actually ask for grammar classes), I teach them German with their own references.
Today, I come with a book for them: The Arab of the Future, written by Riad Sattouf, a French-Syrian cartoonist. It has been translated into German so they will learn new words spread upon pictures of known places. As I hand out the copies, I see worried looks (the copies are thick) slowly give way to beautiful beams on each and every face. “Miss!! He’s talking about Syria?!”, the Syrian kids ask. “Indeed, it’s a story about a childhood in Syria”, I explain. The Afghan and Iranian gang looks interested enough but I can spot a “it’s always about Syria” look as they gaze upon that story. It’s fine, I have something for them as well. I have a second stack of books. Persepolis. Marjane Satrapi’s childhood in Iran. Full house of smiles.
Before starting, I give some historical background. But what do I know about their countries? Only what I read, and they’ve lived it. The Palestinian kids, the Syrian kids, the Afghan kids, the Iranian kids: they’re knowledgeable on their own countries yet only rarely do we ask them about it. So I ask Palia, a new girl from Tehran, to tell me about Reza Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini. It is a luxury to be taught how to pronounce those known names properly in Farsi. The Syrian kids knew nothing about the Revolution in Iran, they ask questions in English as Palia still doesn’t speak German. Hubeb, another Iranian kid, talks animatedly to Palia – he wants to share information as well, but his English isn’t as good as Palia’s. They argue about dates and facts, but they’re so eager to share their country’s history. Once we know all about the Shah, we go back to Riad Sattouf talking about his childhood in Libya, then in Syria. We talk about Gadaffi, his dictatorship and his little green book: the eldest Syrian and Palestinian kids know about him, the Iranians don’t. Another round of explanations. We talk further, about the Six Days War. Everything that would take us Westerners at least a university semester to learn in a nutshell, courtesy of teenage refugees. And what is magical, is that we are all here, sitting in circle, exchanging information about those burning issues, regardless of our cultural backgrounds. 1973: the Yom Kippur War. Well, they left it to me to explain. A piece of cake, naturally. Yet, we manage to laugh about it, when I tease the Palestinians for not being able to explain it to the others. One of them does explain Awar Saddat’s recognition of Israel though. The others listen, as they piece their history together. I liken them to sponges absorbing all possible knowledge. Their most precious treasure.
How often do you see people laughing while they’re reading German? Well today the kids all are as we, drawing after drawing, explain Riad Sattouf’s and Marjane Satrapi’s jokes. We spend an hour on the first, an hour on the second book. And instead of having two groups studying two different stories, I make them all read both and learn about one another. Little Fouad, from Palestine slash Syria (you know, when you have no land and you grow up in what will become a war-torn country you’ll have to escape under the bombs and eventually reach a safe place after having nearly died at sea. I’ll never repeat that enough), little Fouad is annoyed I ask him to read, again. “I can’t!” he says, sighing loudly. “Of course you can, you can do anything if you set your mind to it!” I tell him. Fouad is only here with his grandmother. His parents are in Turkey, waiting to be reunited with him. What this boy needs is a maternal figure he’ll miss for years to come. Someone to tell him he can, indeed, to anything. So I tell him, day after day. And today like everyday I add: “Fouad, I never want to hear you saying “I can’t” anymore. Not when you haven’t tried, and failed, and tried again. You go try, and then we’ll see whether you can or not.” Sure enough, he can read. It’s laborious, he stumbles upon a lot of words, but he can, and is pretty proud with himself. When we’re done with the first pages, I ask them to look for information on the authors in their own languages. We go to the computer room, and I want them to search that in their own languages. Fouad’s smile gets even broader as he gets to read in Arabic. He asks whether he can write a bit in Arabic. That is one of the numerous moments I could cry upon hearing a question. Why would anyone ask for permission to write in their own language? “Do not ever forget Arabic, Fouad. German is important, but Arabic will always be your native language”, I tell him. The others are a bit older, they won’t forget, but he’s young, so he might. I don’t want him to. So I let him scribble away from a Wikipedia page. He’s not learning German right now but I don’t really mind as I see him tracing beautiful Arabic letters in his notebook. Right now, he’s learning to be happy with his double culture.
The end of the school day happens too quickly. Before they leave, I remember Immanuel Kant’s motto, “Sapere aude”, “Dare to know”. So I tell them just that: “Have a good day, and dare to know: this is your most precious gift in life.”
They ask whether we’ll study the books further next week. Of course we will.