’We’re trapped ... books free our minds’

Wednesday 27 January 2021 by Rania


In the third week of our appeal, Conal Urquhart reports on the Palestinian institute making sure children don’t grow up illiterate

Nadeen cradles her folder. She carefully lays it on the table and takes out four books, a notebook, a pencil and what looks like a passport. The ’passport’, she says, contains a list of the books she has read recently.

She enjoys holding the books and turning them around in her hands and pointing out characters.

Nadeen Hawareen, aged seven, from Ramallah is one of thousands of Palestinian children who are offered lessons, books and activities by the Tamer Institute. She has been taught to use the books to trigger her imagination. She can paint what happens in her books or act out scenes with her friends.

Tamer was founded in 1989 during the first intifada, when Palestinian children needed an education despite school closures and curfews. The Israeli army, surprised by the Palestinian protest, took brutal measures to regain control, breaking the bones of stone throwers and closing Palestinian areas.

Jehan Helou, the institute’s director, said: ’Local communities and civil society tried to find ways of compensating for the closure of schools to ensure that a generation did not grow up illiterate. It tried to be informal, in contrast to the traditional style in schools, and to encourage the seeking of knowledge through reading, creative writing, drama and art.’

Tamer is the Arabic word for dates, the fruit of the palm tree and a major source of nutrition in the inhospitable desert.

Part of Tamer’s work is distributing books to 73 libraries in Gaza and the West Bank. These include thousands of books in English provided by Book Aid International.

Tamer also translates books for children from Arabic into English and publishes illustrated books created by children and teachers at the institute. As well as giving lessons, Tamer encourages children to form their own reading groups.

In the Ramallah library a young boy is reading quietly. In another area, five girls and a boy are discussing the work of the Palestinian writer Kahlil Gibran and eating pastries. They have decided what they want to read and when to meet. Tamer offers the books and the forum.

Bassima Takrovi, 24, first visited the institute 10 years ago and is now a paid trainer. For her, the reading groups at Tamer were a major inspiration. ’We read every book we could and then we would discuss it. You could tell people who had been through that process because they were very articulate and stood out from the crowd,’ she said.

She tries to pass on this enthusiasm to the present generation of children, some of whom have lost family members to violence and prison. She has taught creative writing and drama in Ramallah and the surrounding villages for four years.

’A lot of the people in the classes have fathers in jail, and there is a conflict between attending lessons and prison visits, which upsets them a lot,’ she said.

’We try to help them understand that their fathers will be released eventually and it is OK to focus on themselves. Now many can write to their fathers in prison.’

There are many challenges in teaching in the West Bank. Some of the girls are from traditional families where they are not encouraged to express any emotion but satisfaction, and they tended to wear fixed grins, said Ms Takrovi.

Other children were traumatised from violence and arrests, and found it hard to learn. Ms Helou, the director, said the Tamer workshops were designed to relieve their stress as well as providing an education. ’It is a stress relief which helps them to get beyond their day-to-day reality and takes them to a world of imagination and culture,’ she said.

Ms Takrovi said that the essence of her teaching was not to make children ignore what was going on around them but to put it in its correct context.

’When a child sees the news on television telling them the situation is very bad and they see the soldiers and the checkpoints all telling them the situation is very bad, the last thing they need is teachers doing the same thing,’ she said.

’We try to give them a different way of looking at things. For example if you look out the window, yes, there is a soldier, but there is also a tree and a hill. If you focus on the soldier you might think about throwing a stone, which isn’t going to make anything better. But if you focus on the tree, that might lead you to think about planting another tree.’

Nawras Kurzom,13, from Jerusalem, said the things he had learnt had given him a different view of life in the West Bank: ’Reading gives you a different perspective on what you see every day. It helps you understand it better. When the Israelis began to build their wall, I began to realise that although they can trap us physically, our minds are still free.

’I like novels, poems and detective stories in English and Arabic. My favourite writers are Hanna Mina and Ghassan Kanafi in Arabic, and Agatha Christie.’

Tamer hopes to go on playing a major role in Palestinian society. Ms Helou added: ’We have limited means, but we can help children read better and think better. For us books are the main tool of liberation.’

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