The same ground you walk on, we do too…
These words, excerpted from a poem written by Tyeema, one of our students, and translated into Arabic for a mural now hanging in Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, speak to a journey we have been making with students and educators in Brooklyn for the past three years.
Drawing on popular education models, and making use of grassroots media tools such as digital stories, hip-hop tracks and poster art, the Palestine Education Project (PEP) teaches a class we call “Slingshot Hip Hop: Culture and Resistance from Brooklyn to Palestine” at a small alternative high school.
The school has its roots as a “transfer” school, a sort of last chance for students who have not “succeeded” at their previous schools, though as one of our students, Rahking, recently said, “we don’t say transfer school anymore – it is more of a school of transformation, a place where we learn how other schools have failed us and how we can educate ourselves.” A collaboration between students, teachers, artists, and community organizers, the class is collectively designed to examine systems of oppression, both globally and locally; to identify the common struggles people of color share against racism, militarism, and displacement; to empower students to discover their own voices of resistance; and to break down the walls that separate us. Our work is grounded in the belief that increasing our awareness of how our struggles are connected to others’ can prove a powerful means of challenging the systems of oppression that adversely affect all of us. What follows is a sketch of a journey that has inspired us to continually re-imagine what is possible both in and out of the classroom.
We start with what one teacher at the school has called “how the media gets between us.” Living in New York, there are very few positive associations with the word “Arab.” We ask our students why that is. Many will point to the 9-11 attacks and the so-called “war on terror.” We follow the discussion with a screening of Jackie Salloum’s “Planet of the Arabs,” a mock trailer based on Jack Shaheen’s book Reel Bad Arabs about Hollywood’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Arabs in film. As clips play from films we are all familiar with, an understanding emerges -- these negative associations are constantly being fed to us. The students we work with, growing up in predominantly Black and Latino/a communities, are familiar with being stereotyped and criminalized, and it doesn’t take long before we are able to engage in a deeper discussion about how and why the media reinforces these negative stereotypes. One of our first activities is one in which we watch and analyze the closing montage of Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled, a painful, but revealing history of how negative stereotypes of African Americans were, and continue to be, perpetuated through the media. Through this exercise, the gravity of misrepresentation hits home and the subsequent discussion helps lay the foundation for what will later become a deeper global political analysis of racism and white supremacy, and its effects on how we see ourselves and others. Developing this sort of awareness of how media can shape our image of the Other and ourselves is a key component of PEP’s work, especially as one of our main goals is to empower students to intervene in this process through the creation of a media of their own.
From deconstructing media (mis)representation and unpacking the negative stereotypes that surround most discussions about Palestine in the U.S., we move onto explore the history of colonization and resistance in Palestine. Gaining a sense of this history is crucial to understanding the current situation, and we have discovered it is important not to approach the history as a series of dates and events, but as people’s lived experience. With this in mind we’ve developed one of our most valuable and adaptable teaching tools -- a participatory activity that invites students out of their seats and onto a large map of Palestine which is outlined before class with tape on the classroom floor. Some students are cast as Palestinian Arabs, while others represent Jewish settlers.
Where am I standing?
Student: The West Bank.
Ok. So now that we have a lay of the land, can everyone who has a “Palestinian Arab” label take a step onto the map. Let’s have two of you living in Gaza, a few in the West Bank, and the rest in what will later become Israel. There is also a small Jewish population that has been here for a long time, so can we have someone with a “Jewish” label come live here, near Jerusalem. The year is 1920 and we are in British occupied Palestine.
With the help of narration and a slideshow of images and maps, students begin to physically “move” through the history of colonization and displacement in Palestine. For instance,
when the state of Israel is unilaterally declared in 1948 -- taking seventy-seven percent of the land, destroying more than 530 Palestinian villages and expelling over 750,000 people who became refugees, all except one or two students playing Palestinians are pushed into refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. As the activity moves through the further military occupations of 1967 and approaches present day, Israeli settlements that further displace local inhabitants are established in the form of hula hoops. Selected students with “Jewish Israeli” labels are given hula hoops and invited to “move in” to areas in the West Bank and Gaza. The hula hoop settlements take up so much space that students with “Palestinian” labels are forced to live on increasingly smaller portions of the map.
The activity is supported by projecting maps of land ownership and confiscation, military repression, and occupation, as well as images of Palestinian resistance. Parallels are also made to South African Apartheid and the colonization of Native American lands.
In processing the experience, many students initially talk about the violent nature of the oppression in Palestine -- concrete walls, military incursions, checkpoints, mass arrests -- as something that is extreme, far from them. “At least we don’t have it that bad,” is a common initial response. But the map activity invites students to move beyond this initial response and make connections they haven’t made before. For instance, as those role-playing Palestinians are stripped of their identity (no longer Palestinian but now “Israeli-Arab”), or heavily policed and imprisoned, students often relate experiences of being targeted by the police in their neighborhoods based on their ethnic and cultural identity. During one class, after learning about the Apartheid Wall being erected in the West Bank and how it often separates Palestinians from each other and their land, Carlos offered: “we don’t have actual walls, but come to think of it, there are other kinds of walls put up in our community that keep us divided --economic and cultural walls.”
In the film Slingshot Hip Hop,
Palestinian rapper Suhel Nafar, talks about being inspired by American hip hop -- how after he and his brother see the Tupac Shakur video “Holla if You Hear Me,” they feel the scenes in the video could’ve been shot in their own ‘hood of Lyd. Many American ghettos are plagued by systematic discrimination and a lack of resources similarly to Lyd, and many of our students in Brooklyn are able to identify parallel conditions in their own lives. “Their occupation wears green, ours over here wears blue,” wrote Khary in “Brooklyn 2 Palestine
,” a hip-hop track and music video he made as a final project for the class in 2008. In the same year that so many young people of color witnessed the full acquittal of the New York Police Department's officers who shot and killed an unarmed black man by the name of Sean Bell, this in-class opportunity to hold up their own deep sense of injustice alongside the injustice felt by Palestinians provided a collective space to express not only frustration and anger, but also solidarity.
This sort of “border-crossing” conversation manifests in different ways throughout the classes we teach, and becomes particularly relevant and powerful when we take a look at how the Israeli prison system operates as part of the criminalization and repression of Palestinian society. Using Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine, we take students on a narrative tour inside an Israeli prison for Palestinian political prisoners. Generations of Palestinians have now spent time in prison – since the 1967 Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, more than forty percent of the adult male Palestinian population in the occupied territories has been incarcerated, and since the 2000 Intifada over twenty-five hundred Palestinian children have been arrested. As most of our students have friends or family members who have been or currently are incarcerated, this lesson presents an opportunity for students to reflect on how the prison system here in the U.S. has affected their lives and communities, as well as learning from the Palestinian experience. To that end, part of this lesson allows students to fill in empty text bubbles that we have blocked out in the graphic novel, inviting them to intervene in the story they are reading, and by extension, the story they see playing out in their own neighborhoods. Here’s what Leroy had to say as he narrated a picture of Palestinian prisoners sitting in a cell and looking at a newspaper.
We held meetings so we could try to fight back. But it won’t be easy.
We need to do something about the soldiers. They are treating us like animals. We need to act NOW!
They say we are being treated fairly. They're hiding the truth from the people.
Beyond the classroom
Having explored strong notions of solidarity, some students express that it is not easy to bridge the gaps that exist between the classroom and the “real world,” where they must confront forces that are actively putting up the very same walls we are trying to dismantle in the classroom. For this reason the classes include collaborations with artists, community activists and grassroots media organizations working in New York City, the rest of the U.S., and in Palestine with the goal of creating their own media that connects their experiences of gentrification and racism to the experiences of apartheid and military occupation endured by youth in Palestine. This media is then shared with other youth in the U.S. and Palestine, fostering a larger network of solidarity.
We have also begun a partnership with the Allied Media Conference
, a forum for grassroots media makers and young people seeking to share media tools and develop strategies with each other. At the conference students use the media they have created to conduct workshops for those in attendance and take part in a live video conference with youth in Palestine. For the first time, our students are able to speak directly with Palestinian youth and to share the connections they discovered. The media they create is translated into Arabic so that the youth in Palestine can learn from our students as well, making this a two-way exchange of stories and insights. The first video conference was indescribable. The room was packed with other conference participants who had heard about what we were up to and wanted to witness the exchange. One student, Chanel, worried that the young people in Palestine might be endangered by holding a video conference. “Will they get arrested?” she wondered. This was not just your typical youth exchange -- there was a deep concern for those on the other end of the line. The conference went on much longer than scheduled. It seemed nobody could stand the thought of hanging up.
We have seen students, many who reportedly do not participate much in their other classes, open up and contribute actively when given the chance to connect their own sense of injustice with that experienced by Palestinians. Building these relationships between struggles and people is a crucial part of undermining the structures that for too long have been building walls between us. We close with Botswana’s lyrics from last year’s final student project, a collectively written hip-hop track called “Tadamon”:
No peace from the Middle East
Where the Palestinians is bein’ beat
With boulders, trying to take off they soldiers
And it’s still a gold rush, hold up,
let me load up my word cup
My flow is Che Guevara,
When I got the bones of Marcus Garvey
My pen said, my brain’s dead
Is just feeding off of oppression
That’s was caused in the community sections
That make mind relapse and come out the front like a C-section
It’s time to be free
but its not just only me
It must be we
to have solidarity…
Jackie Salloum’s “Planet of the Arabs,” and other valuable teaching tools, including the map activity, can all be found at www.thinkpalestineact.org