An oasis in Beirut

Christiane Leiste

The founder of the Bait-al-Shams kindergarten in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut invited me to hold a workshop with the pre-school teachers of her kindergarten on the subject of introducing letters and numbers in accordance with the Waldorf method.

That raised the initial question: why letters and numbers in a Waldorf kindergarten? They don’t belong in kindergarten but in school. But that is German thinking. The situation in Lebanon is different from us. Children start school at six years old. Entry to school assumes knowledge of the Arabic and English alphabet  and the numbers from one to ten, and the children have to be able to perform easy calculations as well as reading simple combinations of letters.

I was prepared for what awaited me in Shatila. I knew that it is a UN refugee camp, created in 1948 for Palestinians who had lost their home through the establishment of the state of Israel. I knew that the camp was poor and overcrowded and that its inhabitants have hardly any rights in Lebanon. A good school education is difficult to come by, they are given neither a passport nor a work permit although it is already the third generation living in Lebanon. Not to mention the trauma of the massacre of Sabra and Shatila in September 1982 from which many people are still suffering.

On the first morning I went through the narrow alleyways of Shatila guided by Mariam, the director of the kindergarten. It was noisy. People shouted and called to one another, children screeched, mopeds went rattling by. It was full. There were stands with fruit and vegetables, clothes, assorted goods and coal: everything that people needed was offered for sale on the streets. In some places there was a pungent smell and flies were everywhere; the streets were covered in a mixture of mud, dirt and waste.

We pushed through the crowds, then entered a narrow, dark alleyway, into the gloomy corridor of a house, up some stairs in the semi-darkness, and then – then suddenly everything was different: Mariam stopped in front of a painted door and put the key in the keyhole.

The red of the door recalled a Chinese wedding chest. It opened and I could not help a sharp intake of breath: suddenly there was brightness everywhere. Light marble steps continued upwards, the walls were painted in a light friendly yellow, there was no dirt on the walls or the steps, not a spot. Here there was peacefulness.

Unexpectedly peaceful and healthful

We went upstairs and I met some of the teachers who all offered me a friendly greeting. Some children were also present already. They greeted me shyly but happily. I was amazed. I had not expected something beautiful and exquisite like this, such a calm and healthful atmosphere which emanated from this kindergarten.

On the first day I visited all three groups and kept being touched by the calm and loving attention with which the teachers treated the children. All the groups held a morning circle and round dance in Arabic and English. Then pita bread was baked with everyone singing along, the children played on the roof with sand and in passing were checked by the singing kindergarten teachers for lice. The children made handicrafts and played. It was a real pleasure to experience how well the children were looked after.

I started working with the two teachers Inas and Samah: an introduction to form drawing, introduction to the letters, stories connected with the letters, pictures for the letters, keeping school books, blackboard drawings. The two young women were eager to learn and attentive. They immediately understood what it was about and developed such a passion for the method that on the third day they said they could hardly wait to start. We also worked rhythmically, spoke rhymes and songs, hopped, sang and practiced verses for left and right orientation.

In the following days we looked at the difference between consonants and vowels and considered together how the vowels might be introduced. The two teachers also developed a subtle feeling for eurythmy gestures when I tried to illustrate the different character of the letters.

This was followed by intensive study of the subject of storytelling. Each one prepared a story for a letter which she told the others. How does that work with the Arabic script? Although I did not understand a word, I was completely spellbound by the story which was told in such a lively way, full of facial expressions and other gestures, so that I was completely immersed in it despite having no knowledge of Arabic.

Dwarf of Jinn?

The numbers were simpler. It was easy to transfer the European way of introducing them to the Arabic numbers. As we worked on the images, intercultural questions also arose: what do the mountains in Lebanon look like? What does it feel like here to hike in the mountains before dawn? What is it like when the sun rises? What when the wide, blue sea appears in front of us? Undoubtedly quite different from an Alpine walk.

And what colours are there in nature? And of course, what does an Arabic dwarf look like? It probably does not have a pointed hat, or does it? Samah and Inas thought it might because they only knew about dwarves from Snow White. Yes, but a real Arabic dwarf? Is it something like a jinn? And if so, what does it look like? And is it even possible in Muslim society to include elemental beings in images like we do in European Waldorf schools? We discussed these questions and had to investigate them further because on no account did we want to copy German Waldorf education in Shatila.

After a week’s work I had the feeling of having delivered a large parcel, but also of taking a great gift with impressions and experiences home with me. I am impressed by the great openness and willingness to learn, by the interest, energy and artistic skill with which the teachers from Shatila took everything in and assimilated it.

About the author: Christiane Leiste is a Waldorf teacher and intercultural coordinator. She was the project leader of the school experiment in intercultural Waldorf education in the social flashpoint of Hamburg Wilhelmsburg. She currently teaches refugee children in a preparatory class.