Songs From Palestine: A Meaningful Addition to Arabic Language Teaching
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Educators have sociopolitical identities that impact the way they teach and the materials they use in class. These identities are tied to our race, nationality, religious background, immigrant status, ethnicity, and other aspects of our lives that shape whom we are and inform the perspectives we choose to share with our students.
In the context of teaching Arabic as a second language, textbooks used in Western academic institutions are largely de-politicized, and authors have traditionally shied away from presenting topics that some audiences and publishing houses consider “sensitive.” On top of this, our language programs are often designed as achievement-based programs where teachers are viewed as “technicians” who don’t need to respond to students’ needs or create a curriculum that promotes critical thinking or bring pedagogical novelty. In these programs, Arabic language instruction is typically “scripted” by poorly designed textbooks, and this ultimately determines the kind of conversations that emerge or get suppressed in the classroom.
For teachers who want to generate meaningful conversations in the classroom, the challenge is double: On the one hand, they need to find the time to incorporate intellectually engaging content from outside the “script,” and, on the other hand, they need to deal with the discomfort of addressing sociopolitical topics that have become controversial (if not taboo) in their academic institutions.
The current events in Palestine are a good example and a timely reminder that we need to reflect more often on our role as educators and on the core values that inform our pedagogy; because in moments of crisis, these can guide our teaching practices.
Addressing the Palestinian Cause
When it comes to text type, I personally like using films, literature, and music to introduce my students to difficult topics.
I have to admit, though, that selecting texts that deal with the Palestinian cause isn’t always an easy task, because multiple factors need to be carefully considered: students’ interests and background, their language proficiency, the purpose behind sharing specific texts, as well as our own biases as teachers with sociopolitical identities. Terry Osborn has a book called Teaching Languages for Social Justice that offers useful principles for designing activities that can help educators bring awareness about issues of power, social equity and justice, including the politics of vocabulary and grammar. While such an approach isn’t always comfortable, it contributes to affirming the identities and backgrounds of all students, it promotes inclusivity and belonging, and it gives voice to those who have traditionally been absent in the language curriculum.
When it comes to text type, I personally like using films, literature, and music to introduce my students to difficult topics. I find these to be a gentle entry point that allow us to see each other as people that share the same human qualities, and students enjoy them. Recently, the platform MUBI has curated a selection of contemporary Palestinian films that includes many award-winning movies. Check it out for a truly exceptional collection.
In the literary scene, the ArabLit Quarterly has put together a list of books for young readers, and Dar Saqi is offering some 20 free e-books, among which you’ll find poetry books and novels.
As for songs, I asked my friends and colleagues on social media to suggest what works in their classes, and following are some suggestions. Remember that songs can generate a lot of fun in the classroom, even when the underlying topic is tragic. So please don’t use songs to talk about the dark side of politics only, but use them to sing, to enjoy the videoclips and the humor displayed, to dance, to discuss the underlying sociopolitical issues, and to appreciate music in and by itself.
Songs to Enliven the Classroom
I’ll start with songs that lend themselves to all of the above:
Bashar Murad – Maskhara (Mockery)
Jowan Safadi – The Police Song
DAM – #Who_You_R
Ghazall – Ashkara
For those who prefer Modern Standard Arabic, there are lots of beautiful songs by the late Rima Banna or based on Mahmoud Darwish’s poems. Here’s a selection:
Sarah – Rim Banna
Based on the poem ‘The Dice Player’
Based on the poem ‘To My Mother’
Bilingual songs are great for beginner students because they are partially comprehensible, and many include English subtitles. This is an example:
47 Soul – Mo Light
Students are also drawn to songs where they can see traditional dancing and images of Palestine:
Mohammed Assaf – Falasteen Enty El Rouh
Shalby Younis & Ghazal Ghrayeb – Mayel Ala Baladi
Finally, there are classic Palestinian songs performed by artists from other Arab countries. These are very popular across the Arab world:
Hamza Namira, Egyptian artist
Omima ElKhalil, Lebanese artist
Similarly, Lina Sleibi has a beautiful performance of Dalida’s iconic song “Helwa Ya Baladi”:
Other Palestinian artists that are worth checking out are: Elcontainer, Apo & Apostles, Ens O Jam, this Palestinian mashup of traditional songs, and these hip-hop artists.
For more guidance on how to pick songs for the language classroom, check out a few tips and suggestions I wrote here. To learn more about Palestinian pop music, read this article published by the BBC; and for information about hip-hop artists, this article that appeared in The Guardian.
If you want to learn more on how to navigate difficult conversations with students, listen to Krishauna Hines-Gaither, who spoke last year for the ACTFL Critical & Social Justice Approaches Special Interest Group. She discusses codes of conduct that promote healthy conversations, ways of practicing self-introspection (as a teacher), and tips on how to identify passive aggressive reactions that students might display when discussing difficult topics.
Laila Familiar is a senior lecturer of Arabic at New York University–Abu Dhabi, an academic consultant at American Councils for International Education, and a teacher trainer.
More on Arabic Cultural Content
See also the following related articles from Al-Fanar Media:
- “A Podcast Takes Listeners on Tours of Arabic Music”
- “Palestinian Pianist Faraj Suleiman Finds His Voice”
- “A Musical Approach to Teaching Arabic”
- “Teaching My Son Arabic: Balancing Love and Grammar”
- “An Increasingly Popular Cultural Lens: Arabic Literature”
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