Saturday 15 March 2014

Peace and Tolerance in Paris by Miriam Halahmy

In January this year I was invited to Maurice Genevoix School in a Paris suburb near Porte D'Orleans to lead workshops on peace and tolerance. The teacher, Sarah El-Bouh, found me via my website because of my experience in working across divided communities and my writings on peace and dialogue. I speak some French, have lived in Paris and visited numerous times and was absolutely delighted to be invited. The school is part of a two year project on peace, with other schools in Europe as part of the Comenius Peace Project.

Sarah El-Bouh teaches English at the school and is supported by Anne Berelowich who teaches English Lit and Drama. Their commitment to the peace project is inspiring and uplifting.

Like the UK, France is wrestling with its political and social views about ethnic minority groups, immigration and left versus right. A couple of weeks before I travelled, the controversy about the footballer, Nicolas Annelka and le quennelle, an anti-semitic gesture, was all over the media. As an Anglo/Jewish author, whose great uncle had been deported from Paris to Auschwitz and who had written a novel ( HIDDEN, Albury Fiction) about Muslim asylum seekers, how would I be received in a Paris school? I needn't have worried - I had the most amazing time!!

I worked with three groups of students, aged 15-17 years and all of the work was in English. The students read out my poems and drama scripts, spoke, listened and wrote their own pieces all in English which was very impressive. I told them that I belong to English PEN, "literature and human rights," and that PEN's motto is, "The pen is mightier than the sword." They understood straight away and translated into French, "La Plume est plus fort que l'epee." That became our catch phrase for the day.

My aim with the work was to ensure that the students felt that they could all individually contribute to promoting peace and tolerance in their everyday lives. I therefore chose poems and texts which would inspire them to write their own views and feelings.
The first poem I presented  was 'Sorry' by a boy from Bosnia. I had asked the author Hilary Freeman if her partner, Michael, could translate the poem into French for me, which he kindly did. One of the students volunteered to read the French as I read the English.

The students written responses speak for themselves. Here are two examples :-

I have also written my own poems about peace and tolerance and one of the poems asks, What can you do for Peace? The opening stanza gives you a flavour:-

Sunbathe for Peace
go to bed for Peace
strike for Peace
pray for Peace
talk to your son for Peace
love your daughter for Peace
weep for Peace
roll your wheelchair for Peace
strap on your prosthesis for Peace
walk down to the Post Office
and buy a stamp for Peace
swipe your Oyster card for Peace
unpoint your gun
sink your difference
wipe up blood
defuse a bomb for Peace
© Miriam Halahmy

The students loved this idea and of course had plenty of ideas of their own :-

They discussed their writing in groups, wrote in groups and also wrote on their own. But their commitment to expressing themselves in English, despite the difficulty of the subject matter, was outstanding.

Speak with your friends for Peace/grumble with your family for Peace/Ask your teachers for Peace/ Act Now! by Hippolyte Quentin
Do everything for Peace.../Be tolerant for Peace/ Help for Peace/ Don't be racist for Peace/ Pray for Peace/ But you must believe in Peace. by J. Samia
Be different for Peace... by Moulin Emeline
Give some of your time for Peace... by Maxime M.

One of the students, Sami, came to France from Homs in Syria only three months earlier with his sister and knows how hard it is to start again in a new country. I read an extract from HIDDEN and the students then read a drama script at the point where my teens, Alix and Samir, have saved an asylum seeker from the sea and now Samir is trying to persuade Alix to help hide the man to save him from being deported and possibly killed back in his homeland. Alix is faced with an impossible choice.The students discussed the choice in their groups and then fed back to class. Sami felt that as an asylum seeker he could not put himself at risk and would not be able to help. Others were divided as to whether they would help or not. I pointed out that there was no right answer to such a difficult dilemma.

Alizea Girand wrote, "Hidden is my favourite because we see the evolution of Alix. At the beginning she knows nothing about racism but because she becomes friends with Samir, she discovers how hard it is for a foreigner... Peace is something really important in my opinion. We had all the poems before but we didn't know they were as powerful and meaningful as Miriam showed us."
Chloe D wrote, " Getting involved in this peace project is really important to me. In this way meeting a writer too is a good experience because you've more experience that us."

We looked at a poem I wrote after an incident in my 'Corner Shop'. The students read the text before my visit and were curious about its origin. During the Gulf War, in the queue one morning at my local shop run by a Muslim family, there were local people from the orthodox Jewish community,  my Japanese hairdresser, a group of Hindu ladies, an elderly man and some children. Someone said something about the war. The owner spoke up, saying,"Well, we won't let that come between us," and everyone agreed, nodding their heads and saying, "That's right!" As I told the students, Peace broke out in my Corner Shop that day.
The poem ends :-

We are the peace process, the moderate,
the mother, the brother.
We are the news, the ceasefire
pressed like coriander in a wrinkled palm.
We are the voice, the banner,
the handshake, brown on white on olive.
We are the ear, the eye, the promise,
prisoner released, girl unharmed, bomber stilled.
© Miriam Halahmy

This idea really captured the students. Here are some responses:-

We are the peace process/ The ones who give peace a chance/ We can change the minds/ Together against violence and war.  by H. Ouachek
We are the peace process/ We are the world/ We are the peace army, peace warriors.
by Sacha Verlac

Each of our sessions only lasted an hour or an hour and a half and we had a lot to get through. Poems, stories, drama scripts, questions, comments, but I used every single text I had brought with me and was constantly amazed and impressed by how much the students could absorb, comprehend and then respond to in their own independent way. These students had strong political and social views formed by their education, upbringing, reading and observation of the world around them.
Their teachers have sent me their feedback on our sessions :-

It was an honor to meet you - you're searching for peace and you want to share your fight with us. Thank you for coming, I enjoyed this moment. H. Ouachek
Miriam enjoys her work and defends a lot of the essential values like peace, tolerance and respect. She listened to us with an intensive respect. Benjamin
This meeting was very important ...Miriam permitted to us to develop her poems with our opinions. C. Julie
You made me learn a lot of things about the Palestinians resistance and I learnt that I have to be in other people's shoes to understand them. Aime B.
I didn't know what to expect with this meeting... I was very surprised I understood each word. I like the fact we don't only talk about peace but racism and tolerance. I lie if I say that it change my life, but it teach me a lot. A. Ashley

I was unable to include everything that the teachers sent me but I have learnt just as much as the students during our sessions and I came away inspired to continue writing on social and political issues for young people. They are clearly so interested and keen to widen their knowledge and formulate their own opinions. 
I hope that I can return to see the students again one day.

I will leave you with the words of Aime B :-
You don't have to be sorry because we are all human and we can live together.

With Sarah El-Bouh on my right and Anne Berelowich.


Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for sharing this - heartwarming and important!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Thank you Miriam !
This was the response to the post from the Paris teacher, Sarah, El-Bouh - huge credit to Sarah for embarking on this peace project :-

You might find me very soft but I had tears while reading the blog post . In October it will be amazing to work with the groups from the different countries. It is another dimension

Thank you again for all


Anne Booth said...

I think what you did was wonderful, Miriam. I feel really in awe. I wish i could have been there to learn from you. It really seems that the students learnt a great deal. I also love your poem and the description of what happened in the corner shop.

Helen Bonney said...

Well done Miriam! Sounds to have been an amazing and inspiring project. Very envious. Would love to have been there.
Helen xxx

Miriam Halahmy said...

I've pasted in this comment from my friend Jean.

I tried to leave a comment on your blog but I can't prove that I'm not a robot! Miriam you are amazing. I've just read your post about Paris and at 6 am I'm crying too!

Love Jean xxxx