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 Tom’s family history: his 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 was published in an Arabic translation by the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in 2021; the translation is by students at An-Najah University.
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.
Tom is 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
Romeo and Juliet in Palestine is an inspiring, heartwarming and instrumental book, as well as, for me, extremely moving. There are many books about Palestine and Palestinian citizens, but this is the only one which sees their hearts from their eyes. ~ Walid Khazendar
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 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
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
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
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
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
Romeo and Juliet in Palestine has a visionary force and clarity. ~ Tom Paulin