Great expectations

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You may have noticed that our blog has included only limited pictures of the children we are teaching. There are good reasons for this – first, it was pointed out that these children have no ability to object to being posted on social media etc. Therefore, it is incumbent on us not to exploit them. Secondly, there have been situations where the children’s whereabouts have been used to track down parents/relatives – the last thing we want to do is put their family members in any more danger than they already face.

So I have decided to provide some pen portraits of the children in our classes:

One lad is almost certainly hyperactive, but is a smashing kid nonetheless, quite charming. He has made huge progress in the ‘orchestra’, from being totally unable to control any kind of percussive rhythm to being quite measured in the last couple of sessions. Noting his potential for being disruptive, Chris explained to him that his part would be the black panther, that comes on at the end of Luck and Fate – his delight at having such a part has meant that he has been really engaged.

The chatty, bossy girl in the class had to be ‘talked to’ about ‘high-fiving’ with a drawing pin in her hand.  Since then, she has been a superstar, organising the girls’ dancing scene and helping everyone don their bandanas and sashes when sorting costumes today.

The acrobats in The Peddlar’s Daughter are generally a rather quiet and withdrawn trio, who leapt (literally) at the opportunity to show what they can do – our concerns about their being able to perform flips, handstands and cartwheels on the concrete floor without mats were met with sneers of derision.

Several children are very withdrawn, but we feel we are making progress – the odd smile, more engagement with the other kids, seeing their feeling of achievement when they take their turn performing.

Interestingly, there is a a level of rivalry between the two groups (they compare notes between lessons to make sure we are treating them equally!). We feel that they have come on so much in our second week working with them. I’m not sure whether they quite know what expectations we have of them for next week’s performance. What I do know is that they have high expectations of us as teachers, which I feel I have too often failed to live up to, but there have been magical moments when I think I have been able to make a difference.

Everything stops for tea

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We decided to assert our Englishness by inviting the other volunteers round to our (tiny) apartment for afternoon tea. We already had lots of teabags, brought from home (Co-op 99, since you ask), and augmented these with Earl Grey from the local supermarket. Cucumber sandwiches were a piece of cake (as was cake), and we had biscuits: McVities digestives and chocolate fingers. Proper teapots, borrowed from Suha, completed the picture.

About fourteen people turned up, and though it was definitely on the crowded side, a splendid time was had by all. The sandwiches were much admired and appreciated; Val made extra as more people arrived. The whole experience was very sociable and curiously educational, as people were taught the art of dunking, learned about builder’s tea, and were instructed in the old adage, “pot to the kettle, not kettle to the pot.”

The one negative was the amount of noise we made. As guests arrived, they generally brought the message from management to please keep the noise down, eventually culminating in a personal visit from the people from the floor below. I would blame all those young people and their lack of self-control, but I know I can be louder than any of them, so that is hardly fair. As things began to wind down, I took tea and cake down to the manager in his office as a peace offering.  “No, no,no,” he protested. “No need for apology.” (Or tea and cake; he refused both.) “It is no problem. I know it is not you and your wife who make all the noise.” I said nothing.

Banana skins

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It would always be the case that transposing an English style of teaching, especially Drama teaching, into the system here, would throw up some cultural confusion. In Drama, one of the prime aims is to provide opportunities for imagination and creativity; in improvisation, each contribution is supposed to be original and different. In the Middle East, copying to the most precise degree is the usual model (though, to be fair, Jusoor’s approach is more child-centred and creative than most.) Even so, I have had to tailor much of my teaching to a watch and copy mode.  Which at least gives me the opportunity to perform.

Other, more subtle, cultural banana skins: sitting on the floor (Val thinks this may be due of the lack of chairs in their homes in the refugee camps); touching the opposite gender; anything with a hint of suggestiveness. For example, we very nearly lost Asmaa, our lead performer in The Peddler’s Daughter. Towards the end of the play, she has to perform a dance for the king, but when this was explained to her, we were met with a blank refusal. Fortunately, the school’s headteacher was around at the time, and was able to discover that she had the impression we wanted something sexy. When it was explained that a folk dance, involving all the girls, was what we were after, there was no problem.

During the scene in which the peddler’s daughter tricks her way into the king’s palace, I thought it would provide a moment of comedy if she dived through the guard’s legs. In fact, not only Asmaa but also Abdul, the guard, both promptly sat down with folded arms. It was unacceptable to both, by all accounts. But throwing a stone into the air and then running around him when he looked up caused neither of them any problems, and both were back on board.

Finally, a linguistic rather than cultural misunderstanding.  Some of you will know that a favourite Drama game is Zip Zap Boing (for those wanting an informative video clip, try Lessons as usual, the post from March 28, 2017, in the archive section). It is a game that I have played with very nearly every class I have taught, but I was a little disappointed when, trying it out at Jusoor, it seemed to provoke some awkwardness.  It was only when the Headmistress (again) was watching the lesson that we discovered the issue; by all accounts Zip very closely resembles the Arabic word for the male member. I guess it’s Bish Bosh Boing from now on.

(The photo shows Youssef, the hero of The Tale of Luck and Fate, meeting his fate by the Black Panther.)


posted in: Lebanon | 2

Just two or three doors down the street from our apartment block is the Evergreen.  Unlike most of the bars in Beirut, which are open-fronted, or at least with huge plate-glass windows, it more closely resembles an English pub.  It has a wooden front door, meaning you actually have to open it in order to find out what is inside. Jeromie (one of the other volunteers) and I discovered that we had both been intrigued by what we might find, so one night, along with Mahmoud, long-time friend of Jusoor, we pushed it open.

It turned out to be quite like an English pub on the inside as well: a narrow saloon with a bar along one side, and decorated with a rich collection of nick-nacks from all over the world. It also boasted a dartboard, squeezed into a corner by the door.  There were some welcome additional attractions: every beer automatically arrives with complementary nuts, crisps, breadsticks and a small bowl of raw vegetables, all very tasty.

Crucially, however, the main attraction is the owner and landlord, named Amigo.  He has a personality as big as a bus, and gives the warmest of welcomes; he soon becomes a friend.

Incidentally, that first visit turned into quite an experience. A couple of games of darts, a couple of beers, a couple of shots… and no distance at all to stagger home. I’m just off now to pay another visit.

Kan ya ma kan

posted in: Lebanon | 3

The title of this post (and the play) means “Once upon a time” in Arabic, and would be the title of our blogsite rather than Kwasuka Sukela, its Zulu equivalent, if Val could work out how to change it. Doesn’t seem like rocket science to me, but what do I know?

Back to work today after a relaxing and enjoyable weekend, and a daunting prospect after the departure of our excellent Jordanian assistants, Zaid and Louzan. The day did indeed start pretty shakily: we were late arriving on the bus, so had no opportunity to rearrange the furniture to represent the performance space, or clear the deskful of stuff from last week’s activities, so opportunities for distraction abounded. What is more, to begin with we had no Arabic-speaking support, which made things… challenging.

We are now teaching all four lessons, first team teaching, then splitting for periods 3 & 4. While this gives us more rehearsal time, we were concerned about our ability to sustain the children’s attention.

But we didn’t need to worry as Raghad, the headteacher’ daughter, was assigned to us to start with, and she was a great help. Then Bassil turned up to help Val during his free lesson. And the lesson in which Avo joined us (giving up his break) and acting as interpreter/narrator/assistant director, was a real rehearsal: great progress being made and the kids enjoying themselves. Nothing like the sorry excuse for a rehearsal that I had managed earlier.

Love letters

posted in: Lebanon | 5

Before coming to Lebanon, I was a social media virgin, resolutely resisting all its advances. But we were advised that it would be a sensible, practical move while here to be on WhatsApp, and so I allowed myself to be deflowered.

It certainly has its advantages. It allows you to find out what is going on, rather than being a social pariah, and to make (and just as frequently break) arrangements – we would not have enjoyed, or even know about, the beers at Coop d’Etat without it. Let alone the practicalities – eg who is teaching what, and when. But, oh the downside! Oh, What’sApp, how I do not love thee; let me count the ways.

  1. The desperate, relentless, mind-blowing triviality. Not just the GIFs and the video clips, but the jokes and the barbs and the putdowns and the awesomes. Frequently hugely entertaining, there’s no denying.  But all that time, dripping away…
  2. Its assault upon language. Not just the LOLs (let alone the LOOOOOLs) but the rns, the wtfs, the use of as second person singular, the HAHAHAs. I know why, of course I do (see “Mechanics” below) but to see the language of Shakespeare (let alone JK Rowling) bastardised in such a way. And as for those little yellow faces with their ridiculous expressions…
  3. The mechanics (see also “Texting”). I am what I believe is called a “pecker”, phone in one hand, forefinger of the other jabbing away, desperately trying to locate one tiny square and not any of its neighbours (and all too often failing.) I hear that the human body is changing, evolving in a single generation, and that the opposable thumb, which some say elevates us above the vast majority of our animal brethren, is changing its physical shape. And it takes so blinking long to say anything!
  4. Perhaps above all is the way it changes people into gadflies, changing their minds in an instant, not committing to anything. People sometimes ask how we managed to do anything before mobile phones, when the answer is simple: we made arrangements and kept to them. I remember my dad in London and my uncle in Norfolk arranging for us all to meet in a pub halfway between.  And we did. Once you were out of the house, and its phone in the hallway, that was it.

And yet. And yet.

There is no denying WA’s insidious, addictive attraction.  The desperate desire not to miss anything, the security of being one of the herd, the frequently witty contributions that make me LOL (aaagh!) It creeps up on you. And I am as guilty as anyone else (Val too) of stopping whatever else I am doing whenever I hear that funny little whistling tune, and reaching for the phone.

It’s been fun – a holiday romance, a summer fling. But it can’t last, and I don’t want it to. When I get back to England I shall divorce myself from WA (or more likely get Val to do it for me, since I don’t know how) and return to being cheerfully, happily, blissfully out of touch at the bottom of the garden.

War and Peace

posted in: Lebanon | 4

Friday, the end of the week and school finished a little early for afternoon prayers and the weekend.

Lebanon is a secular country (not Muslim as I had assumed) with Christian-Muslim power sharing: parliamentary seats split 50/50 with a Christian President. Based originally on the population census of 1932, calls to amend the balance to reflect the percieved increase in the Muslim population have been resisted.

Regions across the country have quite different demographics. For example, Baalbek (last weekend’s outing) is predominantly Shia. While there, we took the opportunity to visit the exquisitely ornate mosque (in contrast Sunni mosques are plainer). We ‘girls’ donned long, black ‘Harry Potter’-like abeyas and went through security (I was asked to turn on my camera). Inside the main courtyard, it was surprising to find not only a couple of shops to buy prayer mats etc, but also an ice-cream stand.

We handed over our shoes and entered the women’s side of the mosque, which was not only beautiful, but also delightfully cool and pleasant, a few women praying, other groups of women sitting on the floor chatting, small children playing. A very tranquil place, apparently used as a social space between prayer times.

Back in the courtyard we rejoined the men. Most surprising of all, there was a separate hall containing a Hezbollah exhibition of various weaponry from (both sides of) the 2006 invasion, along with graphic posters, models and maps. The town of Baalbek was heavily targeted during the war and feelings obviously still run high. An eye-opening contrast of war and peace.

On the road again

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One of the drawbacks of our stay here (maybe the only drawback, actually) is that we have to be long-distance commuters. There is no sensible place for us to stay in the Bekaa, and additionally that would cut the volunteers off from Beirut’s various attractions. A coach picks us up each morning at 6.45, luckily for Val and me from right outside our apartment block, and drops us at the school just before 9. The return journey is even longer, as the bus has to negotiate the city rush hour – no easy matter given  Beirut’s narrow streets.

The traffic here is not as scarily anarchic as in some countries – they obey the traffic lights, and mostly stick to their own side of the road (except for the motor-scooters, who go where they want). But beyond that, it is every man (and woman – plenty of women drivers here) for themselves. Pull straight out from junctions, overtake whenever (vaguely) possible and force oncoming traffic to squeeze over, create additional lanes on the inside, outside, middle, wherever there’s room, or even if there isn’t…

It’s as though every driver is in a huge game of chicken, and he who hesitates is lost. The merest sign of weakness, or concern for your paintwork, and the other driver has nosed in front. Or across. Or whatever. Giving way? That’s for wimps.

As for pedestrians, much the same applies: you step into the road with the blind faith that the driver would probably rather not hit you.

Roll over Beethoven

posted in: Lebanon | 1

Well, I’m astonished. I am a music teacher. In 3 days, our theatre project groups are making amazing sounds out of almost nothing. Each lesson the children become an orchestra; I am their conductor.

My ideas are all stolen – being a conductor comes from talking to Mary, from her years of experience in orchestras with both good and bad conductors. Given the language barrier I decided I had to become one of the former – to make as much progress as possible while I have our Jordanian assistants to help explain the basic concepts (they will be gone next week).

I started with laughing and crying (soft -> loud -> soft etc, the kids love this). Animal noises were more challenging – the children tend to copy, so if one decides to be a cat, they all become cats. Trying to encourage them to be different animals was a challenge at first, but when they got it, they made a cacophony of sounds. This was leading up to sellers in the market place – the king opens his window overlooking the market, the sound grows as he opens the window and stops abruptly as he slams it shut. Wow – when it works it’s fantastic.

Introducing instruments was more challenging – at first an empty water bottle each containing a little rice (lids taped down to avoid ‘accidents’). I made a huge mistake with the first group, introducing them immediately to holding the bottle in one hand and banging it on the other palm. Of course, they all found it much more fun to bang them on their heads, the floor, chairs, against each others’ bottle. Chaos! End of exercise, Val crumbles into a mess, sweating, no idea what to do next. Thankfully, Lauzan to my rescue, she led the remaining 10 mins and I was off the hook. Another attempt with the second group next lesson – success! Rule: no banging, only shaking. They were superb.

Tomorrow, I am taking in the set of percussion instruments and recorders – wish me luck.

I believe in miracles

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My apologies for yesterday’s post, which was unnecessarily downbeat; I was tired, a bit off-colour (I’ll spare you the details) and – despite all the warnings we’d been given – rather disappointed. I am supposed to be the professional after all, so NOT running the perfect drama lesson was inevitably galling.

Today was a considerable step up. We played Zip Zap Boing (I play that with everyone), tried out portraying some emotions, and then some stock characters – kings/queens and servants, before putting them into a (much simplified) story. With the help of Zaid and Christina, two of the Dubai / Jordanian volunteers, I demonstrated the idea first. The pupils tend to copy pretty directly, lacking the confidence to express their own ideas, and I’d rather they had a more sophisticated model to work from. Besides, it gave me the opportunity to perform, and that’s not something to be lightly dismissed.

The king/servant motif also occurs in one of the plays, so that’s a bonus. However, despite the satisfaction I feel with the progress made in just one day, the idea that we can put together a public performance of a scripted play is, frankly, pie in the sky. Still, we have another two and a half weeks and hey, miracles happen.