Romeo and Juliet in Palestine

Romeo and Juliet in Palestine

Teaching Under Occupation

Life in the West Bank, the nature of pedagogy and the role of a university under occupation.


Is 'Romeo and Juliet' really a love story, or is it a play about young people living in dangerous circumstances? How might life under occupation produce a new reading of 'Julius Caesar'? What choices must a group of Palestinian students make, when putting on a play which has Jewish protagonists? And why might a young Palestinian student refuse to read?
For five months at the start of 2013, Tom Sperlinger taught English literature at the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds University in the Occupied West Bank. In this account of the semester, Sperlinger explores his students' encounters with works from 'Hamlet' and 'The Yellow Wallpaper' to Kafka and Malcolm X. By placing stories from the classroom alongside anecdotes about life in the West Bank, Sperlinger shows how his own ideas about literature and teaching changed during his time in Palestine, and asks what such encounters might reveal about the nature of pedagogy and the role of a university under occupation.


A book of vivid first-hand experience about the daily lives, suffering and courage of Palestinians living in the West Bank. Read it, imagine it and pass it around. ~ John Berger

Excellent... Lucid and open-minded about its location - and education generally - this book deserves a wide audience. ~ Anthony Cummins, The Observer

This short, thoughtful book exemplifies the ways literature can speak for and to us... Sperlinger becomes for a while a part of Palestinian society. Under Israeli military occupation he witnesses daily pain and humiliation and hears stories of injustice, imprisonment and murder. He doesn’t seek to explain or interpret the Palestinians, he merely frames them and amplifies their voices. ~ Ahdaf Soueif, Times Literary Supplement

Sperlinger writes so lucidly, and in few words creates the sense of a world. Romeo and Juliet in Palestine doesn't reinforce any partisan position - in fact it refuses to do so - but it's so deeply about justice and human fulfilment. I hope it will be widely read. ~ Helen Dunmore

This is more than just a rendering of ‘Shakespeare on the Estate’. It is Shakespeare rendered alive in a situation of settler-colonialism, ethnic confrontation, occupation, cleansing and resistance. What we have here is a case of critical appropriation of the established canon from a subaltern perspective. 'Romeo & Juliet' and 'Julius Caesar' are given the kind of critical appropriation which would have made Gramsci and Said proud. Both plays are interpreted in ways that capture a particular 'structure of feeling' in this territory ... Sperlinger does not present any idealised world of students. The world on which his book sheds light is steeped in struggle in which most students are deeply engaged; the struggle concerns their very existence ... In short, this is a wonderful memoir by an educator whose pedagogical approach, in the best of Freirean traditions, is rooted in popular consciousness. It constitutes a compelling narrative or set of narratives in the Zer0 Books tradition. ~ Peter Mayo, Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies

Sperlinger is, above all, a humble diarist. He writes as he teaches... In his reluctance to assume the dominant, authoritative voice, he tells much of the story in direct quotes from his students, to whom he often gives the last, devastating word when closing chapters. We are left in no doubt of his affection and admiration for them... This is an honest, deeply thoughtful account of learning under occupation, by a teacher ever ready to swap places in the classroom. ~ Madeleine Davies, Church Times

An honest, thoughtful and modest account of working with students in Palestine. It's a great book and the closest I've read to the Palestine I know. ~ Sarah Champion, Labour MP for Rotherham

Trust the Brits to find the humor in anything. Sperlinger deploys wry wit [and his] keen feel for the absurd provides much-needed relief in an often grim story. If, like me, you don’t know much about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, this memoir will open your eyes to Palestinians’ perspectives on the conflict. Sperlinger, whose grandparents fled Vienna in 1938 to escape the Holocaust, is quietly appalled by what people [in] the West Bank endure... At 144 pages, this novella-length memoir flies by. And just as Sperlinger arouses his students’ curiosity about literature, he whets ours for a greater understanding of a people whose oppression is too often overlooked or misunderstood. More, Sperlinger made me want to read or reread not just Shakespeare but Edward Said, Malcolm X, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper¸” Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” Irish and Palestinian poets, Israeli playwrights—and, indeed, whatever Sperlinger writes next. ~ Beth Johnston, Cleaver Magazine

Tom Sperlinger's splendid short book shows there are many divisions in Palestinian society that mirror the drama of [Shakespeare's] play. Some of those divisions are the product of the brutal occupation... which Sperlinger records through the stories his students shared with him during the semester... Rightly critical of the British higher education system that only welcomes the international elite, Sperlinger argues that the UK could benefit greatly by hosting students like those he met in Palestine, who have "practical knowledge of ideas that we too often study as abstract concepts in the humanities". This is a book that deserves to be widely read. ~ Hassan Abdulrazzak, Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature

As a polyphonic text, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine is more than just the voices of its author and his students included amongst its pages […] Perhaps the voice that resonates most strongly in the text is that of Lisl Sperlinger, Sperlinger’s grandmother who fled Vienna in 1938 and lived out her adult life as a committed Zionist [… This] is a difficult book to categorise: Is it a pedagogical text? A political one? Is it autobiography? How many stories of how many people’s lives does it tell? The book is not organised chronologically but, as Sperlinger professes himself, anecdotally, composed out of the interspersed fragments of his own story and experiences, alongside the experiences of others. The book makes no grand claims, but herein lies its strength: it cannot speak for Palestine, nor be the authoritative voice on Palestine, but it can, and does, give us a small, but incredibly personal, insight into Palestine, grafted from the relationship that Sperlinger garnered with his students while teaching there. ~ Rachel Fox, Hong Kong Review of Books

This is an important book. What makes it more persuasive than many other accounts I have heard or read about the Occupied Territories is the simplicity and restraint with which Sperlinger tells the tale... Written with a humility and respect for others that belie its considerable scholarly insights, it shows how teaching can change minds and lives. ~ Jenny Lewis, Raceme

[A] slim but engaging debut... Sperlinger's pen-portraits show a sharp eye for detail. ~ Adam Lebor, New Statesman

This is a beautiful story... Partly a travel diary, the inner thoughts of a professor always engaged in trying to understand, to wonder, to improve himself and his students, partly a manifesto and a message to the outside world. (È una bella storia... Un po’ diario di viaggio e pensieri, un po’ appunti mentali di un professore sempre impegnato nel cercare di capire, interrogarsi, migliorarsi per sé e per i suoi studenti, un po’ manifesto e messaggio al mondo che c’è fuori.) ~ Costanza Pasquali Lasagni, Q Code Magazine

The journey to understand is the ultimate purpose of the book...Sperlinger provides his readers with enough historical context while allowing them to come to an understanding of the situation in Palestine through his own struggle to do so. He believes that his Palestinian students have much to teach their counterparts in the UK — as well as those who read this short but informative memoir. ~ Bayan Haddad, Electronic Intifada

Original and fresh... An assumption-shattering book that offers a perspective on Palestinian life not often seen on the news or in the papers. The book will suit students and academics as well as those readers merely intrigued by the topic. ~ Charlie Pullen, The Bookbag

Highly recommended... An autobiographical account, rather than an academic text, and a great read. At the root of the narrative is the English teacher’s perennial struggle to make engagement with and learning about literature something genuine and meaningful. ~ Gary Snapper, Teaching English

The story is told with a cool eye for detail and is often quietly moving. ~ Andrew Dickson, The Globe Guide to Shakespeare

An intriguing and insightful portrayal of life for Palestinians, mainly students, living in the occupied West Bank and their outlook at the texts they read in English in their university classroom. Sperlinger observes the restrictions imposed on Palestinian mobility, and refers to the numerous, intrusive ways in which the occupation colours his students’ everyday reality. The close relation Sperlinger established with his students nurtured his curiosity to understand the structures and tensions of the society he lives within although he does not speak its language. Being a prospective lecturer in English at An-najah National University in Palestine, I have been motivated by Sperlinger to think of poetical ways that help me circumvent the traditional approach of teaching literature at Palestinian universities wherein the student is usually a passive recipient of what his or her instructor dictates. ~ Ahmad Qabaha, Life Writing

Circumscribed temporally (one semester) and spatially (in “Palestine”) as the story might appear to be the parameters are only too flexible, fluid, unstable—circumstantial... The author cautions, in what superficially appears to be a form of the standard disclaimer, that his narrative will be a “story about the particular students and colleagues I encountered and is not intended as a general account of life in Palestine or at the university”. Rather than the pro forma disclaimer, however, of the sort that absolves others—readers and writers, students and teachers—of accountability or responsibility for what is to follow, Sperlinger’s caveat, in its relentless insistence on specificity and context, eschews spurious claims to a putative universality that threatens to conceal instead a will to domination... The narrative of Romeo and Juliet in Palestine is construed episodically, with each of its thirteen chapters recounting a particular, singular, engagement between a traditional educational mission under duress and the contextual details that both inform and mitigate the fault lines of that historical force field. In Chapter 4, for example, entitled “I was part of the story,” Sperlinger—since become at once teacher and learner— reflects self-consciously, indeed self-critically, on the “parallels between what I was doing [teaching Shakespeare in occupied Palestine] and the subject’s history as part of the curriculum in colonial settings...”. Just four chapters later, in “When I was out” (Chapter 8), Al-Quds is once again on strike, this time, as is also often the case, over unpaid wages, especially given Israel’s repeatedly punishing failures to reimburse the taxes that it has collected from the Palestinians. Such closures, however, provide the serendipitous opportunities to explore alternative syllabi, in the political geography and cultural history of the occupied Palestinian territories: to join the regularly held protests against the apartheid wall in the village of Ni’lin, for example, or, on still another occasion, in Chapter 11 (“Split the Air”), to compare the Freedom Bus Theatre in Nabi Saleh with its namesake from the civil rights protests from the 1960s in the US south, or to look askance at the infamous experiment in neoliberal modernization represented in a “planned Palestinian city,” Rawabi. ~ Barbara Harlow, SCTIW Review

Sperlinger shows us a mostly unfamiliar aspect of the occupied territory — higher education. The students of Al-Quds live with the understanding that something catastrophic is always about to happen. This is their reality — one characterized by the conditions of inequality, violence, and war... What could be more appropriate [to them] than a play about young lovers from warring families? And what better for them to read about than Caesar’s betrayal or Hamlet’s madness in the face of loss? Shakespeare is more relevant than ever in the Middle East. Sperlinger offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of his students. ~ Ira Sukrungruang, Los Angeles Review of Books

Sperlinger’s book has the freedom of a diary, allowing the reader to build a vivid picture... More than many sociological and political descriptions or television documentaries... this book exposes the myriads of personal humiliations relentlessly heaped on the emerging generations of Palestinians. Hopefully, it also suggests that education will provide a telling weapon in the ongoing struggle to achieve the sense of dignity which must contribute to and come with independence. ~ Gordon Parsons, Morning Star

This first book by Tom Sperlinger held my interest throughout each chapter... I welcomed Sperlinger's clarity that in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict there are not two equal sides. He taught students whose entire lives have been lived under Occupation. Sperlinger became fond of his students and thought that they displayed extraordinary creativity, courage and humour in their daily lives and in navigating the obstacles they faced in getting to class. ~ Linda Ramsden, Third Way Magazine

Cool and understated, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine is at once a finely observant account of a teacher at work in the Occupied Territories and a cumulatively powerful indictment of the systematic constraints young Palestinian men and women experience, as they try to get a university education in difficult times. Sperlinger comes across as a gifted, sympathetic, and resourceful classroom teacher, wonderfully inventive in his approach to his texts and to his students, humorous, hard on himself, open to all the strangeness of his situation. This is a wise and moving document. ~ Neil Hertz, author of Pastoral in Palestine and Professor Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University

It’s often said that Romeo and Juliet is a universal tale, carrying its story of love across languages and cultures. Tom Sperlinger’s elegantly-written prose instead gently unpicks the array of meanings, experiences and emotions which his Palestinian university students find in Shakespeare. Reminiscent of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, this is a wise, humble meditation on knowledge, learning, and the challenges of imagining a life beyond occupation. ~ Sarah Irving, author of Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation and The Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone

This honest and thoughtful memoir is also a good introduction to a slice of Palestinian reality. Sperlinger has the decency not to pretend to understand everything he sees; the reader learns along with him. When he and his students at Abu Dis achieve a moment of connection over English literature (even as Sperlinger struggles with the postcolonial implications of what he is doing) the reader is moved. ~ Margaret Litvin, author of Hamlet's Arab Journey: Shakespeare's Prince and Nasser's Ghost

Romeo and Juliet in Palestine has a visionary force and clarity. ~ Tom Paulin

Tom Sperlinger
Tom Sperlinger Tom Sperlinger is Reader in English Literature and Community Engagement at the University of Bristol. In 2013, he was a Visiting Professor a...
Why Are We The Good Guys? by David Cromwell

Why Are We The Good Guys?

David Cromwell

A provocative challenge to the standard ideology that Western power is a benevolent force in the world.

Physical Resistance by Dave Hann

Physical Resistance

Dave Hann

An activists’ history of the collective anti-fascist struggle in Britain

Melancology by Scott Wilson


Scott Wilson

Melancology addresses Black Metal as a form of environmental writing and provides a provocative contribution to debates on ecology.

People v. Tony Blair, The by Chris Nineham

People v. Tony Blair, The

Chris Nineham

The People v. Tony Blair argues that even a hostile media can be neutralised when a mass movement becomes powerful enough.

Rules Without Rulers by Matthew Wilson

Rules Without Rulers

Matthew Wilson

Is life without the state really possible, and, if so, what would such a life look like?

Cyber Disobedience by Jeff Shantz, Jordon Tomblin

Cyber Disobedience

Jeff Shantz
Jordon Tomblin

Few activities have captured the contemporary popular imagination as hacking and online activism, from Anonymous and beyond. Few political ideas have gained more notoriety recently than anarchism. Yet both remain misunderstood and much maligned.

Seen and Not Seen by Jasun Horsley

Seen and Not Seen

Jasun Horsley

If movies and popular culture shape us from an early age, how do we separate the real from the imaginary?

Politics of Indignation by Peter Mayo

Politics of Indignation

Peter Mayo

This work focuses on contemporary issues within the context of neoliberalism and colonial legacies, while exploring decolonizing  spaces.

Scratching the Surface : Posties, Privatisation and Strikes in the Royal Mail by Phil Chadwick

Scratching the Surface : Posties, Privatisation and Strikes in the Royal Mail

Phil Chadwick

The story of those in the frontline of change in the Royal Mail.

Superactually by Chuk Moran


Chuk Moran

A bunch of tiny essays on life after irony, this is a book to help smart people feel hip and hip people feel smart.