English in context

English is one of the most acquired, needed and used languages around the world. No matter what your field of study, English seems to be required. If Palestinians in Gaza long for a scholarship to study abroad or to explore the world, we need to be good at English.

In conversation classes, we are asked to answer all sorts of questions in English. Once my teacher in an Amideast class asked us to describe in English what we did during our Eid holiday (a multi-day affair). I decided to have some fun and answered this way: “On the first day, my aunts Hoyam and Sohair and my cousins visited. On the second day, we visited my grandmother and met Hoyam, Sohair and my cousins again. On the third day, we went to my Sohair's home and met both Hoyam and my cousins. On the fourth day, we went to my Hoyam's home and met Sohair and my cousins." In other words: The entire holiday was like a game of musical chairs! (We call it karasy.) Everyone broke up into laughter.

However, the textbooks we must use in class to learn conversation give us practice exercises that are equally funny, to a Gazan at least—especially those related to travel, since most of us are not allowed out of Gaza to travel by the two countries that control our borders: Egypt and Israel.

Below are a few of the questions asked in these exercises, and my answers in class recently.

Q: Where will you stay during your coming holiday?

A: I will stay in my home, or in my grandmother's, aunts', uncles' or friends' home. And I will spend my days in Gaza City’s Mazaj restaurant—the same as every other “holiday.”

Q: Do you like to travel to Canada like Jack, or like Mary to Paris?

A: Yes, but that’s possible only in my dreams. Those countries won’t even give me a visa, and even if they would, I’d probably have to pay a bribe of thousands of dollars to the Egyptian guards on one of the rare days the Rafah crossing is open to get out. And the Erez crossing into Israel? I could apply for a permit, but I’d probably never get an answer—which is as good as a “no.”

Q: What is your favorite hotel?

A: [At this point, I am getting frustrated and even outraged, so I decide to fake it.] Frankly, it's difficult to choose [a chorus of giggles]. However, I'll go with the Fontainebleau Hotel.

I asked my classmates what they thought about stock questions such as these. My friend Ghada said, “Such questions always peeve me and make me feel inferior for not being able to go beyond the borders of Gaza and not being able to go on different-flavored holidays."

Another friend, Shaimaa, differed: “That’s true, but questions like these should still be asked to give us at least an idea of what our lives should be like. Thinking of being like Mary gives me a deep feeling of tranquility and hope."

Sometimes I feel like Ghada, I wish I could shout at whomever wrote these textbooks, "For God's sake, don't mock us." Other times, I feel like Shaimea, thinking these questions are a source of inspiration and imagination, like a novel. I imagine myself playing and running with Anne and Diana while reading L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables,” I imagine myself having cinnamon rolls in a Fika espresso bar and delivering my first presentation about literary translation at the University of Massachusetts. (I saw a picture of the Fika bar one time in a book, and it delivers cinnamon rolls. So fabulous!)

Stephen Hawking defines intelligence: “the ability to adapt to change." I believe in that. However, the ability to adapt must not mean the passive acceptance of poor circumstances or to ignore our dreams of the life we wish to live. Being too accepting will lead us to achieve nothing. I want to appreciate my life for its sweet, simple blessings: Reading, writing, reciting poems, telling stories, cooking, selling falafel, singing and teaching. But I will never forget my dreams. Someday, my dreams will come true. 

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Mentor: Nicholas Sherwood

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