Romeo and Juliet in Palestine

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Just before 2pm, on a warm day in March, three students came into the office and told me that campus was being evacuated. In the spring of this year, I taught literature at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, in the occupied West Bank. From the main gate of the campus, the first thing you see is the wall. If you stand on the road, Jerusalem appears as a thin line, with the dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque at its centre, caught between the horizon above and the wall below. The original route of the wall would have cut the Abu Dis campus in half and even now, it divides it from the university’s sister site in East Jerusalem. The city should be a 20-minute drive away, but it takes students who live there up to an hour and a half to get to class.

A view of Jerusalem from the road outside campus
View of Jerusalem from Al Quds University in Abu Dis. (Photo: Tom Sperlinger)

On that day in March, I finished teaching just after noon and walked up towards the English department offices. The university is on a hillside, levelled into a series of plateaus, connected by steep concrete steps. At the top of the steps I heard a shout and caught a glimpse of movement in the square below. Recently students had gathered there to support Samer Issawi and other Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails. At first, I thought it must be another protest. But a gang of twenty or thirty boys was marching across the square. They were mostly teenagers, though some looked younger. They were shouting and brandishing bats, sticks and torn-off strips of wood from fences.

I was standing with a few other teachers as the boys marched up the steps next to us. ‘You should go inside,’ said a woman to me: ‘You have an English accent.’ She sounded American. I discovered later that a British diplomat had been confronted by students at Birzeit University a few days before. An hour or so later, when I heard that campus was being evacuated, I found a colleague, Ahmed, who also lived in Ramallah, and we left together. The glass exit at the end of the building, which we would normally have used, was closed off by security. A fight was taking place on the road outside. We made our way back down the steps, at the bottom of which there was now a Red Crescent ambulance. ‘I heard gunshots while I was teaching,’ Ahmed told me. ‘The problem is that people think they will be martyrs if they die.’ Later, he said that some boys fought to impress girls.

There was organised chaos outside campus, with people streaming in various directions, trying to leave. Ahmed and I eventually got into a servees, one of the minibuses that are used as shared taxis. I was wedged in behind the gap between the two front seats. It could take up to an hour to get back to Ramallah, and sometimes the servees went terrifyingly fast. But this was an old vehicle, and it was an unusually quiet journey home.

On the morning of the fight, we had finished reading Romeo and Juliet. The Shakespeare course I was teaching was a slow pleasure. At home, on a module of this kind, we might read nine or 10 plays, skating the surface at a rate of one a week. Here we spent several weeks reading each play aloud, almost line by line. The closing scene of Romeo and Juliet worked well as a finale, partly because it requires so many voices. There were 40 students in the class.

I’d asked the students to imagine that they’d graduated and were working for a film company, and needed to help them adapt the play in Palestine. One girl said she would set the film in the present because the Palestinians are at the peak of their troubles, economically and politically. Another said she would set it in the late 1940s or 50s, when there had been a famous dispute between two families in Jerusalem. A third said the play could be set at any time in Palestine because of the violent context. Most of the students thought that Verona ought to be Jerusalem and that Romeo might be banished to Ramallah or Gaza, or somewhere in Jordan, in place of Mantua. One suggestion was that Juliet might be from Jerusalem and Romeo from the West Bank: their difficulties would then arise from the fact that they have different ID cards. The Oslo Accords of 1993 divided Palestinians into different ‘groups’ with separate forms of ID for the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. My students wrestled with similar practical difficulties. One told me he was engaged but didn’t know when he could marry because he had a West Bank card and his fiancée had a Jerusalem card. Other ideas were that Juliet should be a Christian Palestinian and Romeo a Muslim, or Romeo could be Israeli and Juliet could be a Palestinian. (‘That happens a lot,’ one girl said.) Another said that if it were an Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the ending would have to change, because the Montagues and Capulets would never join hands.

A view of the whiteboard the day 'Romeo & Juliet' was discussed. (Photo: Tom Sperlinger)
A view of the whiteboard the day Romeo & Juliet in Palestine was discussed. (Photo: Tom Sperlinger)

I wondered what the students would cut or add in a film version of the play. ‘I’d cut the kiss,’ said one girl, ‘because of their age.’ ‘More kissing!’ retorted several boys. ‘Cut Rosaline,’ another girl said with a sigh. (She’d earlier lamented how fickle Romeo could be.) ‘Make them older,’ someone said. ‘Cut the Nurse!’ ‘Cut all of the long speeches!’ ‘Put in a song.’ One student said the play should be in modern slang, with the Nurse speaking in dialect. A boy said he would draw out the action over a month, rather than five days, to make the love story more plausible. ‘Give it a happy ending!’ But if Romeo and Juliet live, I suggested, the Montagues and Capulets can’t be reconciled. So would they want Romeo and Juliet to escape together into exile? ‘Yes!’ a few roared. ‘To Gaza?’ I asked, to general laughter. ‘To Jordan,’ they suggested.

The students continued to re-imagine the play, in a piece of homework. In a rewrite by a boy called Qais, Romeo was Rami, a resident of Ramallah, and Juliet was Juweida, from Barta’a, a Palestinian village in Israel. Qais set the play towards the end of the second intifada (2000-2005), when it was nearly impossible for young men like Rami to go into Israel. Rami and Juweida can only meet on the internet, and ‘as if the existing political issues aren’t enough, their main problem is surprisingly family tradition’. Both families are Arab and both feel ‘bitterness’ about their country’s plight. But Juweida’s family are Israeli citizens and think ‘they are privileged and live within a modern, stable “country” and view Rami as a broke loser.’ Qais re-wrote the scene in which Romeo hears of Juliet’s apparent death. In his version, Rami is visited by his friend, Ameen, who tells him that Juweida has transferred her affections to a rich Israeli Arab. Qais notes that ‘for a big minority of Palestinian youth, using English as one third of their daily speech is normal’ and that the lovers are ‘fans of foreign dialects of English and are particularly obsessed with a rapper from Liverpool’. And so he uses a mix of Shakespearean verse, Arabic and Scouse for the encounter between Rami and Ameen:

Ameen: Allo, my kidda.

Rami: Marhaba Ameen, what hath made you such a beanie this morning? Is my Judy well?

Ameen: She is well, better than thee and I!

Let it bother you not, she may have been a sloobag…

Rami: Ya kalb! Mark your words, for you be speaking of my beloved!

Ameen: I would’ve ne’er spoken ill of someone I’ve not seen doing ill. Your Ju was with a smile next to a soft lad with a Merc…

I lived in Liverpool for several years and was surprised to see Arabic words I knew, such as ‘marhaba’ for ‘hello’ and ‘kalb’ for ‘dog’, alongside familiar Scouse terms: ‘kidda’ (young guy), ‘judy’ (young woman), ‘beanie’ (annoying person), ‘sloobag’ (promiscuous person), and ‘soft lad’ (idiot).

Another student, Waheda, set her version of the play during the Six Day War in 1967. In her version, Romeo is Saleem and Juliet is Jamila and there are no ‘fights or disputes between the two families’. Instead, they are separated by the events of the war. In the scene that Waheda re-wrote, the two families are hiding in a deserted cave in Jericho, having walked long distances to escape ‘Israeli bombs and explosions’ and to protect ‘their daughters and kids from rapes and kidnappings’. Saleem and Jamila must part from one another – as the lovers part after their only night together in the play – because Saleem’s family is leaving for Lebanon.

Saleem: Habibtie, by the blessed moon up there
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops, I swear
to look for you the seven earths.

Jamila: O, don’t swear by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly goes through changes in her circled orbit,
For fear that your love prove as variable as the moon.

Saleem: What shall I swear by?

Jamila: (crying) Don’t swear at all
Or if you will, swear by Allah,
Which is the god that we worship,
the god who sees us right now
And I’ll believe you.

Saleem: I swear by Allah; Al Qadeer.

Jamila: Although I have joy in you,
I’m very sad this night;
Look at this bud of love that, ripened by summer’s breezes,
May become a beautiful flower when next we meet.

Saleem: Insha’Allah

Jamila: Insha’Allah

In our first class on the play, I’d asked the students: Why is it dangerous for Romeo and Juliet to fall in love? ‘Because their parents hate each other,’ they replied. The lack of an explanation for this hatred may be one reason the play is so effective. It is typical of the gaps in Shakespeare’s plays, which leave them open to interpretation. But there is also an absence of authority in the play. As Hannah Arendt wrote: ‘Violence appears where power is in jeopardy.’ In one discussion, the students probed the relationship between the Prince and the two families. Why does he struggle to be heard by the families, or to impose his will on them?

Over the weeks that followed I picked up anecdotal scraps of information, sometimes contradictory, about what had happened that day on campus. The boys who had arrived were from Sawahera, a village next to Abu Dis, which is divided in two by the wall. Apparently they’d been pursuing a dispute with a boy from Abu Dis, who was studying at the university. I was told it was about a girl, but also that it was part of a series of skirmishes between two families. Nobody seemed sure about the origins of the feud, which had been going on for several years. The West Bank is carved into three administrative areas, with 60% in Area C, under full Israeli control. The Abu Dis campus is situated in Area B, which is under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control, but which is effectively lawless. There is often tension in Abu Dis between Israeli forces and the local population. On several occasions, our classes were disrupted by tear gas, fired by Israeli soldiers at local teenagers, spreading over campus. Amira Hass wrote in Haaretz in 2011 that ‘Palestinian police are unable to operate in the area around Abu Dis, but Israeli forces don’t appear interested in stopping the villages from becoming a breeding ground for drug dealers and crime.’ As a consequence of this power vacuum, she noted, a ‘conflict between two families’ in the area can spin ‘out of control’.

On the way home from campus one evening, in a servees, we passed a boy of about ten who was standing at the centre of a mini-roundabout, hurling stones. As we turned right off the roundabout, in the direction he had thrown them, we passed a burning tyre. A hundred yards behind it were a couple of Israeli soldiers. As we moved parallel with them, one of the soldiers tossed a stone up in the air and caught it. Whenever ‘trouble’ erupted in the West Bank while I was there – when there was a modest rise in the tension, for example after a Palestinian prisoner died in an Israeli jail – the most visible sign was young boys and teenagers on the streets, armed with stones and catapults. Hillel Frisch, an expert on the conflict from Bar-Ilan University, told The Guardian in February: ‘The people being wounded in [the current] clashes are 13 and 16-year-old kids, not the 17 to 32-year-old men [who] have been either decimated or incarcerated since the second intifada.’ In the same week as the fight on campus, UNICEF released a report on the treatment of children in Israeli military detention. It stated that children aged 12-13 years old can be imprisoned for up to 6 months for throwing stones, or 5 years if they are 14-15, and those over 16 for ten years. The report concluded: ‘Ill-treatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized.’

In the week before I was to leave Palestine, I got an e-mail from Shadia, one of my students. She’d taken the Shakespeare exam the day before and I had just finished marking the papers. Shadia wrote to tell me that her brother had been arrested at 3 in the morning, a week before the final exam. He was younger than her, in his late teens. The family had been allowed no contact with him after his arrest, and no reason had been given for it. She was worried that she might have failed the final exam, but said that she realised there might be nothing I could do for her. This was not the first time I had received this sort of message from a student, but I knew she might be right. I was about to leave and, if she had got a low mark, there might be little I could do.  I paced around my apartment, not wanting to check her grade. When I finally looked at her paper, Shadia had got 38 out of 40.

I no longer think that Romeo and Juliet is a love story. Whenever I’ve read it in the past, the lovers have predominated. But it’s a fleeting affair, and they may be mismatched as a couple; many readers have noted that Juliet outgrows Romeo in the few days they have together. While we were reading the play in Abu Dis, the danger that the lovers are in, which had once been the background to the story, suddenly became the foreground. One line, which I had never noticed before, kept coming back to me. In the balcony scene, Juliet – referring to her kinsmen – says to Romeo: ‘If they do see thee, they will murder thee.’ You could read this as teenage hyperbole – but I now think she is in earnest.

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Terrific article and good teaching about R&J. In the course of the article, you tell us that Hannah Arendt wrote: ‘Violence appears where power is in jeopardy.’ No doubt. But violence also appears when people desire it to appear and cite jeopardy to power as the reason. Look at the USA with its airport security, its NSA-spying, its world-wide armed forces, its PATRIOT act, etc. Too much American violence. And no apparent jeopardy to justify… Read more »

beautiful writing. insightful.

There are so many hopes set on Area B. This casts a light on what is systematic reverse-development. A, B, C and Gaza: a textbook on calibrated social pathology and
destruction of civic culture.

Great photo of the “Separation Barrier”.

It would have been interesting if one of the students had advanced that one of the lovers be an Israeli Jew and the other a Palestinian Arab. The discussion could have been gently directed towards such an option to get the students’ reactions, ugly and positive but especially about their feelings about believing in the imposible, as Darwish called it, than simply having lovers from Gaza and the WB or the WB and an Israeli… Read more »

Welcome, Tom Sperlinger. This is one of the greatest articles I have read here, thanks for passing it on. Hoping to see you around occasionally? Two many things come to mind to tell, which to choose? Ok, since it is about Romeo and Juliet why drop two of the many things that come to mind. I liked this idea for a very private reason: . Another said she would set it in the late 1940s… Read more »