As on most Saturday mornings where I have somewhere to be at 9:30, I woke up this morning regretting having agreed to come. But it was the last week of the English-teaching program that my classmates and I do in the village of Umm Batin, just a few minutes’ drive outside of Beer Sheva. Around five of nine I finally got out of bed, ate a quick breakfast, and headed for the parking lot where we get picked up.
Two of my classmates coordinate the teaching, but it’s a pretty informal program- the girls, and its almost always girls who come, have a pretty good English teacher; what we provide is a chance to hear fluent English and practice speaking it. Today, it turned out that most of them were performing in a play tomorrow, and their theater teacher was organizing dress rehearsals, so they invited us to watch what turned out to be some sharp comedy the girls had written themselves, followed by a traditional Bedouin song. In the first skit, they skewered teachers who see themselves as cowboys, and see the students as cattle to be herded around. And then there were dancing strawberries. We couldn’t really understand the play, but some of the girls explained it to us (extra English practice!)
The second one took on the cross-cultural difficulties of medical translation. In the story, one girl played the grand-daughter, accompanying her grandmother to an appointment with a Russian-Israeli doctor (not sure exactly what made “him” Russian but the story sort of rang true.) The grandmother described her symptoms in ways that the girls assured us made perfect sense in Arabic and the granddaughter translated faithfully: she felt like a chicken, like a squashed fig, like a buzzing telephone, like a donkey, until the fed up doctor told her if she felt like a chicken and a donkey, to see a veterinarian (what, did I say rang true?) That in turn set off a chain of events that led to the doctor fleeing the room.
I looked at our girls and the complex world they are navigating- they live in a small and tightknit community, and also debate the merits and detractions of Justin Beiber and Taylor Swift. They are expected to be functionally trilingual by the end of high school. I have no doubt that many of them have translated for their grandmothers in the hospital; Israel passed a great medical translation law this past February that has not exactly been implemented. They have school six days a week, and then come in for English enrichment on their day off; we often see other students and their teachers around the school for extra classes as well. They are consistently warm and friendly to us, and to each other, in a way that I haven’t always associated with their age group. They are fiercer at basketball than I would have expected from girls in floor-length jackets, tightly-wrapped head-scarfs, and sparkly sandals, and that I’m even remarking on this seems mostly to be a reflection of my own preconceptions.
The community has its challenges- the village was only recognized by the Israeli government a few years ago, when it got its first paved road, and the brand new school where we teach. It’s still mostly not zoned, which means a lot of their homes are considered illegal, and at risk for demolition. Many of their families lack hook-ups to municipal electricity and water.
But there’s a lot of strength here- it’s the quiet strength of the teachers coming in on a Saturday, the mothers who could use an extra pair of hands but send their daughters off to practice their English, a community that wants to keep its daughters close to home but often supports them going to any college they can commute to, even as they get married and have children.
I hope we have expanded their world, given them a few more opportunities, but really, I think they succeed on their own, and we have learned so much from this opportunity to be welcomed into their community.
And every time I’ve left the school in Umm Batin, I’ve been glad I didn’t sleep in.