Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Rage against the Dying of the Light: The Living Stones of a Poetry Class

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Rage against the Dying of the Light: The Living Stones of a Poetry Class

Article excerpt

Rage Against the Dying of the Light: The Living Stones of a Poetry Class

There were 18 Palestinian faces. Young faces, mainly, people who have known only the oppressive and punishing Israeli military occupation of the past 25 years. Men, women, Muslims and Christians from both the Eastern and Western traditions were in this university class. They came from towns, refugee camps and rural villages of the West Bank and Gaza; from as far north as Tulkarem and Jenin; from Nablus, Ramallah and East Jerusalem in the center of the West Bank; from Bethlehem and nearby Beit Jala and Beit Sahour; and from Hebron and its neighboring villages of Beit Ummar and Dura in the south. These Palestinian faces belonged to my poetry class for the 1992 spring semester.

These are the oppressed and marginalized, the living stones of the Holy Land. Through the poetry course E 314, I felt some of their hopes and aspirations, their deep frustrations and pain, their very humanness.

A Spiritual Experience

Cold, unheated stone-paved classrooms, often darkened during power cuts, metal study chairs, a large blackboard along the front wall, a simple teacher's table, this was Room 206. I like to think we shared a spiritual experience in this room through the intensely cold winter of January 1992 into the new warmth of spring and the heat of summer.

"Like living stones, be yourselves built into a spiritual house." (1 Peter 2:5)

A presumptuous claim? Yes, but true, nevertheless. Through the intensity, the economy of language, the beauty and music, through the personae within the poetry, we drew on our experience of life, our shared values, common feelings, emotions. Together we explored the love of land and nature, the search for meaning and beauty, the spiritual dimensions of our lives, the struggle to survive -- all disclosed and exposed through the poets' sensitivities.

To my surprise, I learned that more than a third of my class were married, and several others were engaged. The remainder were unattached; a student status I was more used to. Numerous marriages, intifada marriages, we called them, took place during the three years Bethlehem University was closed by the Israeli authorities. Sami and Amro were young married men. Ismail and Mutesan each had a wife and two children. They were supported by their fathers in Tulkarem and Jenin, and lived in lodgings in Bethlehem. They had started their studies in 1987 and now were desperate to complete their degrees.

Reem, Salwa, Samia and Nadia were young mothers. Married to a professional man in Ramallah, Reem struggled each day to negotiate the road blocks, curfews and frequent controls that prevented Palestinians from moving from one place to another. Despite a permit she had acquired from the Israeli military occupation authorities allowing her to pass through East Jerusalem to attend classes in Bethlehem, she frequently was late for class and occasionally did not arrive at all.

Salwa had married and moved with her husband to the Gulf. When Bethlehem University reopened, she came back to complete her degree. She brought her baby and lived with her in-laws in Beit Jala. She missed her husband and was frequently tired and frustrated.

Samia was pregnant with a second baby that arrived about Easter time. In her white veil and long traditional dress, with her wonderful young mother's face, I imagined Mary, mother of Jesus, to be like her. She gave birth to a little boy and returned to classes a few days later.

Nadia was strikingly beautiful and very bright too. She had a baby boy and came from a Christian family in Bethlehem. I had taught her three years earlier before she was married. I kept forgetting her name and jokingly called her Elizabeth Taylor. She didn't mind.

The oldest student in the class, Husni, was a teacher from Hebron with a family of six children. He was a part-time student in the university's teacher's college.

Of the unattached students, many had to work to survive or to support their families. …

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