Sunday, March 19, 2017

Bilingual Street

Since our university's One Book One Community program began in 2010, it has brought many excellent books to the attention of our university, local schools, and our town at large -- often bringing the author of the book to our campus for a public lecture. Whenever I can manage to align it with my own curriculum -- and I usually can -- I assign the book to one or more of my classes.

One such selection -- The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan -- was so valuable to my students that I have continued to assign it every semester in my online survey course, Geography of the Developing World. The in-depth narrative by this journalist about one very important part of the world is the perfect complement to the systematic coverage in the course's main text by the late, great geographer Dr. Harm de Blij.

NPR journailst Joanna Kakissis tells a contemporary tale that echoes Tolan's earlier work. She visits Asael Street, in the Abu Tor neighborhood of East Jerusalem. This very street had once been the de facto border between Israel and Jordan, before Jordan was pushed back a half-century ago. Since then, people have coexisted across lines of ethnicity, religion, and language -- corresponding generally to the literal line of the street itself. Her reporting focuses on those who are consciously -- if slowly -- building a community, beginning with learning each others' languages.

During an age of increasing fragmentation and fear, these three minutes of audio remind us that people can make choices about whether and how to form relationships, and how they are going to define the spaces in which they live.
Photo: Yaacov Lozowick
At the very beginning of the story, Kakissis mentions "the street of the book." I did a little bit of digging, because I thought that perhaps there was a library connection to be found. In fact, it seems, she was referring to the 2015 book A Street Divided: Stories From Jerusalem’s Alley of God. A 2011 blog post by Yaacov Lozowick argues for keeping the street united. His photographs help him to make the case for unity and allow readers to develop a richer sense of the place.

Google Maps shows the proximity -- indeed the alignment -- of Asael Street with the 1949 Armistice Line, and a maze of crisscrossing streets and relict borders.

I write this as my own university south of Boston debates its core curriculum, from which the foreign-language requirement was recklessly removed about a decade ago. None of the current proposals include returning it, but many faculty members are pushing the matter. Firstly, many of us are astounded that we even have to debate this, since high schools in our area actually have a stronger standard that the university. Secondly, we see rising xenophobia as giving global education even more urgency. During the earlier debate, I outlined reasons to support language education in a modest page entitled Small World. These are ideas that the residents of Asael Street have taken to heart.

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