Romeo and Juliet in Palestine is about students and teachers who face ordinary dilemmas – taking an exam, falling in love, skipping class – in extraordinary circumstances, in the occupied West Bank.
It is also about my family history: my paternal grandparents, Lisl and Tibor Sperlinger, were Jewish and fled Vienna in 1938. They were lifelong Zionists.
The book was published in the UK and US by Zero Books and praised by John Berger, Helen Dunmore and Ahdaf Soueif, among others. It is going to be published in an Arabic translation by the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in 2020; the translation is by students at An-Najah University.
Buy the book!
You can rate the book, or add a review, on Goodreads.
On reading lists
The book has been a set text on a World Literature module at Lancaster University in the UK; on a course about humanitarian aid workers’ narratives at the University of Texas at Austin; and on the English Literature degree at An-Najah University in the West Bank, where students have been translating it into Arabic.
I’m always pleased to hear from teachers or students who are reading the book – please get in touch if you have any questions about it.
Rachel Fox has blogged about ‘teaching a book about teaching’ at Lancaster.
Here are some photos of the book on its travels:
And here are some nice things people have said about the book:
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
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. ~ Peter Mayo, Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies
A wise, thoughtful, sometimes very funny memoir. ~ Paul Stanistreet, International Review of Education
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
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. ~ 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. This is a book that deserves to be widely read. ~ Hassan Abdulrazzak, Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature
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. ~ Ahmad Qabaha, Life Writing
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. ~ Barbara Harlow, SCTIW Review
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. ~ 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. ~ 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
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