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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.

Tom Sperlinger

Tom Sperlinger in a Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol.

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27 Responses

  1. pabelmont on December 5, 2013, 11:09 am

    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 it. Matters are reversed. The violence justifies the belief that there is jeopardy to power.

    And look at nuclear-armed (and overwhelmingly-conventionally-armed) Israel, surely not in any sort of jeopardy, but overflowing with violence.

  2. sandhillexit on December 5, 2013, 12:01 pm

    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.

  3. James Canning on December 5, 2013, 1:36 pm

    Great photo of the “Separation Barrier”.

  4. Walid on December 5, 2013, 1:58 pm

    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 Palestinian village.

    The great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote a few poems about such a relationship, it was his own with his first lover, a Jewish girl he met in Haifa that eventually leaves him to go fight in the war on the wrong side. It was Rita and one of them is “Rita and the Boundoukiah”, or “Rita and the Rifle”, that was put to music by Marcel Khalifeh. Darwish had made their relationship somewhat one of Montagues and Capulets. An excerpt from a great essay on the subject by Robyn Creswell in Harper’s:

    “… To link the political with the libidinal, revolution with eros, was hardly an unusual impulse in the 1960s.

    Alongside Darwish’s nationalist verse is another series of poems dedicated to a human beloved. This second type of love poem is in fact the more radically political. They show how even the most intimate relations are structured, and sometimes made impossible, by forces beyond any individual’s control. Beginning in 1967, with a poem entitled “Rita and the Rifle,” Darwish composed a number of lyrics about an Israeli who was, as he confirmed in later interviews, his first lover: a Jewish woman of Polish-Russian descent whom he met in Haifa. Over the years, Rita became a leitmotif in Darwish’s poetry. She returns again and again, like a haunting or obsession. His initial evocation of her has the sensual directness of his best early verse: “Rita’s name was a festival in my mouth./Rita’s body was a wedding in my blood…. /For two years my forearm was her pillow.” As described in this poem and in her later appearances, Rita has many traits typical of the beloved in Arabic erotic literature: her eyes are honey-colored, she sleeps a lot (because languor is sexy), her hair is thick and heavy like a horse’s tail, and she is always somewhere else. None of which disguises the fact, or scandal, of her being an Israeli Jew; there are even suggestions in the poems that she has been mobilized by the army. But scandal is the lifeblood of love poetry; the couple’s flouting of social norms testifies to the authenticity of their passion. Even in pre-Islamic verse, the beloved is always from a different, usually hostile tribe, which is why she forever roams a distant quarter of the desert.

    “We are both unbelievers [kaafir] in the impossible,” writes Darwish in one of the love poems, “A Beautiful Woman from Sodom.” It is an intricately ambiguous (and slyly impious) line. Not believing in the impossible might mean believing that anything is possible—even a happy ending, say, to a love story between Montagues and Capulets. But we can understand the phrase in a more world-weary sense too: We do not believe in the impossible because we know better than to put our faith in it. Both senses are alive in Darwish’s love poetry, but it is the second one that wins out. In several of the Rita poems, the lovers are alone in a small house on a bed by the window, with rain falling outside. When Rita sleeps, the mood is hushed and intimate: “No sound/but her heartbeat and the rain.” When she is awake, however, the atmosphere becomes suddenly claustrophobic. Listening to the lovers talk, it is difficult to know whether they are flirting or twisting the knife. In one exchange, the poet’s lover teases him by demanding that he take her to Australia. She is asking for an elopement from history, which is another name for their claustrophobia. “Take me to Jerusalem,” the poet responds—with a tender smile, or a snarl?—thus trading one kind of impossibility for another. It is impossible to go to Jerusalem, presumably, because the poet has in mind the undivided or unoccupied city that was. That city is no more visitable than the Birweh of Darwish’s youth or the desert atlaal, and in one of the last poems he wrote about Rita, she gets up one morning and abandons their campsite:

    She broke the day’s pottery against the window’s iron,
    then lay her pistol on the draft of my poem,
    threw her stockings on the chair
    and as the pigeons began to coo
    she walked out, barefoot, into the

    • Walid on December 5, 2013, 2:47 pm

      The above mini-discussion on Darwish and on love in the desert atlaal brings to mind the interesting discussion we had here last August on the pre-Islamic erotic poem “The Mu’allaqa” of Imru al-Qays from which “Qifa Nabki” was taken with TGIA and Inanna joining Taxi on the fun discussion. It was a refreshing break from talking about the evils of Zionism.

    • annie on December 5, 2013, 5:39 pm

      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.

      my thoughts exactly. i was reminded of a really good movie, David and Fatima

      • Walid on December 6, 2013, 12:47 am

        Hi Annie, just watched the first 47 minutes of it; great film with another hour to go but I’ve reached the part where the ugly part is just starting with David having been badly beaten by Hassan and is in the hospital and I hate movies with sad endings but I guess all Romeo and Juliet movies end that way. I can see where this sad movie is heading and will watch bits and pieces of it later; might be easier for me to take. Anyway, thanks for introducing me to it. I’m wondering if by the way it ends, whichever way it does, if it would help Tom’s students develop a more positive feeling towards Jews or if it would take them in the opposite direction. I’ll have to finish the movie to make a more educated guess.

      • annie on December 6, 2013, 7:08 am

        if it would help Tom’s students develop a more positive feeling towards Jews

        walid, my hunch is most viewers regardless of ethnicity are going to respond favorably to both the main characters. the families–not so much. with that in mind, if feeling empathy with david qualifies as “a more positive feeling towards Jews” then the answer would be yes. but in israel (and in the movie) it’s the families and the structure of the community (the whole) that’s at the heart of the problem and the couple’s inability to navigate within that structure. in a society where a couple has the opportunity to leave their families and live together, marry or otherwise live outside the typical nuclear family (for a time anyway) they could have survived as a couple. iow if the law or state provided relief or support. but it’s the opposite in israel, the state structure (“jews”/zionism) supported/facilitated separating them.

        so, with that in mind, it’s my opinion that it doesn’t really matter whether the students develop a more positive feeling towards Jews, because the question itself implies those positive feelings could change the structure of zionism. and i don’t think it can. just like i don’t think ‘feelings’ of arabs towards jews in 48 could have prevented the ethnic cleansing palestine. zionists didn’t ethnically cleanse palestine because of arab feelings towards them, they did it because they wanted the land/a jewish state. i’m sure the students know this.

        The problem is never with the response; it is always with the occupation. Colonisers and occupiers are not benign. They are cruel and exploitative, and there is nothing the colonised and occupied can do that will ever be right. No occupier ever tolerates any resistance, peaceful or violent. They crush them both because they interrupt and threaten the agenda of the occupier. Occupied people can do nothing right when dealing with a force bent on taking what they have and destroying them if they get in the way of it.

        but i do believe if the law provided equality (like in the US) the masses would adapt over time. “The tensions are not between the races, but between the forces of justice and injustice….The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

      • Walid on December 6, 2013, 8:00 pm

        Hi Annie, just finished your movie and it was very good but I’m guessing it would do more harm than good to the students. Not because of the story, of course because it is a good story, but because of the actors. There are no Arab actors at all in the film and this is very obvious for an Arab to spot immediately. Because of this, an Arab watching it will be thinking from the very start about what the Jews are probably trying to accomplish in this film with the phony Arabs’ accents and will see in it only an attempt by Jews to portray Arabs as bloodthirsty savages that would kill their own for the sake of their honor. By the way, Jews too would come away from the film feeling the same negative way about Arabs.

        Ciné-Club chatter aside, my favourite actor in the film was Martin Landau. I used to watch Mission Impossible every week just to guess which role he’d play in his masterful disguises and week after week, he fooled me each time.

    • miriam6 on December 5, 2013, 6:30 pm

      [email protected];

      Hi Walid – you are spoiling us with your lovely mini dissertation on the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish..
      I think I shall have to dig through your comments archive to find out more about Arab poetry via your comments.
      I think the poetry of Darwish is something that could serve as a bridge between the factions in the I /P conflict.
      I do not think Israeli school kids are taught his poems. I think Ehud Barak said something maybe 10 + years ago about Israel not being ready for such a step – yet.
      What a pity that is.
      Maybe MY1 or another of our Israeli commenters might be able to cast some light on whether or not Darwish’s poems are part of the Israeli curriculum or how aware or unaware Israelis are of the poetry of Darwish.

      • mcohen on December 6, 2013, 12:19 am


        hate poetry ,all that stop start makes my eyeballs flicker,
        I barely made it through “the traveler”,which got me thinking about the last time I ate pomegranates
        keys to forgotten locks.

      • Walid on December 6, 2013, 1:07 am

        Miriam, a lot of things would change if people knew more about the people on the other side or at least placed themselves in the others’ shoes. To take this thread back to Shakespeare, I’m wondering how a Jew would feel if he were to read an altered version of Shylock’s soliloquy:

        “”Hath not an Arab eyes? Hath not an Arab hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Jew is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If an Arab wrong a Jew, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Jew wrong an Arab, what should his sufferance be by Jewish example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

        and even more if an Arab were to read it with the word “Christian” replaced by the word “Arab”:

      • yrn on December 6, 2013, 3:25 am

        Theater Producing of Theatrical performance by the poems of Mahmoud Darwish
        Award-winning, Golden Hedgehog ‘music within the Fringe Award
        A finalist for the award: * Show the year / * in Director / Adapted for the best performing stage
        Directed by Norman Issa
        Editors: Abed Natur, Norman Issa, Yigal Ozeri
        Music: Mira Awad
        Lighting: Ziv Voloshin
        Cast: Mira Awad, Einat Weizman, Anat Hadid, handball Lidaowei

        Mahmoud Darwish Reading Workshop “poet Yuval Gilad

        Regarding Education Curriculum of literature in Jewish schools actually combines the works of Mahmoud Darwish and Kanafani for several years Already.

        The play “Eyes,” a theatrical show Arabic and Hebrew by the poems of Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish will be raised at Ben Gurion University in Beer – Sheva

        And more

        Wish the other side would do the same with Israeli Poets…………..

      • Walid on December 6, 2013, 4:10 pm

        “Maybe MY1 or another of our Israeli commenters might be able to cast some light on whether or not Darwish’s poems are part of the Israeli curriculum or how aware or unaware Israelis are of the poetry of Darwish.”

        Miriam, from bits and pieces gathered from Israeli sources, It seems that about 13 years ago, Israel approved Darwish for inclusion into the programs in Jewish schools but after a stormy reception and debate, some of Darwish’s work was removed from it. Ironically during the short period that Darwish had been approved for inclusion in the Jewish schools, he was not in the Arabic ones. It was only last year that the Israeli Ministry of Education approved certain of Darwish’s work for inclusion to the Arabic schools. Permission had been refused refused in the same vein as the Nakba being forbidden. So it would seem that although still generally outlawed in Jewish schools, Darwish just passed the grade in the Arab side of education. In spite of being unapproved for Jewish schools, he was nonetheless often published in various Israeli publications during all this time. Israel appears to be changing course, one drop at a time.

        Yossi Sarid in 2008 argued that since the Israeli Arabs’ curriculum included Israel’s national poet, Haim Nahman Bialik, it was only normal that the Jewish one should include the Palestinian national poet, Darwish.

      • Tom Sperlinger on December 7, 2013, 5:45 am

        Thanks for these very interesting discussions, which I have benefited and learnt from. Just to note that the idea of the story involving an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab did come up in class, although I only mention it briefly in the article. It did seem to be a case of ‘believing in the impossible’: ‘Another [student] said that if it were an Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the ending would have to change, because the Montagues and Capulets would never join hands.’ I don’t think this implies that the students lacked understanding of ‘the other side’, however – more a pessimism about the situation.

  5. LeaNder on December 5, 2013, 2:10 pm

    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 or 50s, when there had been a famous dispute between two families in Jerusalem.

    I cannot force myself to read at least one of the recent German studies on the Mufti of Jerusalem, one by a rabidly pro-Israel and “AntiGerman” lover of American imperialism of the Mufti of Jerusalem. The familiar images, of the Mufti with Hitler is on the cover. Associatively: Gilbert Achchar: The Arabs and the Holocaust. The Arab-Israeli war of narratives. I haven’t watched this, but I saw him in Berlin once. That video is online too, it shifts to English after the first introduction.

    Next a more general note. I once read a book by a famous German theater critic, and if I get things correctly he talked about “literature fallen into life” in the context was Egypt, Egypt has always fascinated me, that’s why I am pretty sure. Although it is long ago.

  6. rhipidon on December 5, 2013, 4:44 pm

    Thanks, Tom, for such a thoughtful essay. It also brought me back to Liz Shulman’s “‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the Politics of Occupation” ( Both essays are great reminders for me that we never live in an art-for-art’s-sake world: drama, poetry, and fiction are always in vital contact with historical and contemporary social conflicts.

  7. RoHa on December 5, 2013, 8:53 pm

    A real teacher teaching Shakespeare! Have I fallen through a timewarp?

    “And so he uses a mix of Shakespearean verse, Arabic and Scouse for the encounter between Rami and Ameen:..”

    Stunningly brilliant!

    (You did remind them of مجنون لیلی‎ , didn’t you?)

    • Walid on December 6, 2013, 2:01 am

      “(You did remind them of مجنون لیلی‎ , didn’t you?)”

      Hope Tom reads Arabic. It’s the Arabic legend of Layla and Majnun (the madman Qays) in the tragic Romeo and Juliet tradition written about by many Arab, Persian, Turkic and Azerbaijani poets, each with a different version of how the story went. The legend in a nutshell as described in Wiki:

      “Qays fell in love with Layla. He soon began composing poems about his love for her, mentioning her name often. His unself-conscious efforts to woo the girl caused some locals to call him Majnun (madman). When he asked for her hand in marriage, her father refused as it would be a scandal for Layla to marry someone considered mentally unbalanced. Soon after, Layla was married to another man.

      When Majnun heard of her marriage, he fled the tribe camp and began wandering the surrounding desert. His family eventually gave up hope for his return and left food for him in the wilderness. He could sometimes be seen reciting poetry to himself or writing in the sand with a stick.

      Layla is generally depicted as having moved to a place northern Arabia with her husband, where she became ill and eventually died. In some versions, Layla dies of heartbreak from not being able to see her would-be lover. Majnun was later found dead in the wilderness in 688 AD, near Layla’s grave. He had carved three verses of poetry on a rock near the grave, which are the last three verses attributed to him.

      Many other minor incidents happened between his madness and his death. Most of his recorded poetry was composed before his descent into madness.

      “I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla
      And I kiss this wall and that wall
      It’s not Love of the houses that has taken my heart
      But of the One who dwells in those houses”

      It is a tragic story of undying love much like the later Romeo and Juliet. This type of love is known as “Virgin Love”, because the lovers never married or made love. Other famous Virgin Love stories that also took place in Arabia ( present day Saudi Arabia) are the stories of “Qays and Lubna”, “Kuthair and Azza”, “Marwa and Al Majnoun Al Faransi”. “Antara and Abla”, and “Irfan and Zoobi”. The literary motif itself is common throughout the world, notably in the Muslim literature of South Asia, such as Urdu ghazals.”

      • seafoid on December 6, 2013, 7:17 am

        There is an old Irish song on the same theme.

        The English translation is “I am stretched on your grave”

      • Tom Sperlinger on December 7, 2013, 5:53 am

        Thank you for these comments. The students taught me about Layla and Majnun (and much else besides, including a little Arabic), and were very interesting on the parallels between the two stories…

      • Walid on December 7, 2013, 6:23 am

        Tom, thank you for responding to comments here and for the great work you are doing with the students; they will be forever grateful to you.

  8. miriam6 on December 5, 2013, 10:27 pm

    [email protected];

    Both my parents taught Shakespeare in secondary schools during the 70s/ 80s /90s in the UK.. Far from unusual really ..
    Gosh I’d bet it is still going on today even!

  9. kattenbu on December 5, 2013, 11:15 pm

    An audio story about Al-Quds that I produced last year. Says it all:

    • Walid on December 6, 2013, 2:16 am

      Good report on al-Quds, David, thanks.

      In spite of everything that is being done to stunt the Palestinians’ education and make them leave, they will continue getting their education and staying in Jerusalem. They will survive.

      • James Canning on December 6, 2013, 6:29 pm

        I think you are correct, Walid.

  10. MHughes976 on December 7, 2013, 6:51 am

    There are considerable divergences between the stories, of course. Neither the Montagues nor the Capulets control the state, which is basically well-meaning though hitherto somewhat ineffectual. No one says ‘Throw your discordant weapons to the ground!’ to the Israelis. Romeo and Juliet do not have anything to discuss in the way of politics, no one seeming able to remember what the grudge between the two houses was about. Whereas an Israeli-Palestinian couple would surely have to mention and come to some understanding about the political issues that divide their ‘houses’.

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