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Her Narrative


Through the narration of several literacy experiences, the following issues are explored: 

Literacy embedded in cultural and societal structures

English as Second Language and confidence

Overcoming barriers through literacy


Her marriage ceremony proceeded as she struggled riding a small donkey, surrounded by her family, frightened, enraged, disillusioned and only 15 years of age. Fleeing with her new husband and her extended family from their ever-loved village in Palestine, she was forced to never forget the homeland she would never return to. Her temporary settlement in the Gaza strip became even less temporary as she escaped the country to cross the Jordanian border, now with four children who would forever retell the adventure to another four siblings and their offspring. Beginning a life from nothing but tin shelters provided by the United Nations to thousands of other families, she raised her six boys and two girls in patience while her husband laboured overseas, as work was scarce for the second-class citizens. She married all her children, and they all gave birth to young Palestinians in the hope that they will, one day, lead them back home. It is within this context that Tasnim was born, an eldest child between many cousins, uncles and aunties from both sides of the family. She canâ€&#x;t recall when or how she learnt of this stunning refugee story, but the literacy practices of speech, and artefacts such as media images and environmental surroundings must have embedded this historical context in her (Barton and Hamilton, 1998). Artefacts: Right Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Left word „Allahâ€&#x;, God in Arabic.


*** It is told that Tasnim spoke from a very early age of nine months and had a striking memory. She would often dial the phone to call her grandma when mum wasnâ€&#x;t watching to converse with her, for their connection was strong as her grandma babysat her occasionally. This literacy event allowed Tasnim to engage in common literacy practices surrounding her, imitating her motherâ€&#x;s use of the phone to converse with family and friends. Though Tasnim and her grandma were considered quite illiterate by social standards (Prinsloo, accessed 2011), their communication practices were very much language-based. ***

Literacy practice of playing toys: father making girls literate of how to ride, girls playing together.

Her mother brought into the world two other sisters to join Tasnim in her childhood. The three would play together with toys and ride small vehicles; their parents selectively excluding Barbie dolls as literacy practices which convey a particular lifestyle and despised


femininity (Douglas, 2007). Her parents were aware that through the literacy practice of play, their daughters would become literate of societal conventions and norms they sought to filter (Prinsloo, 2010). Once, at a family friend‟s house the children found a doll of a boy figure who can be filled with water that is squirted by pulling his pants down. Tasnim recalls explicit disapproval of this toy by her mother‟s words and actions, for it was „Aiyb‟ or disrespectful. This literacy event involves a broader literacy practice of learning what is morally acceptable through ways of speaking and acting (Heath, 1982). ***

Literacy practices: Tasnim becoming literate of objects and value of education from surroundings.

Her mother and father, both university graduates, were keen on teaching her and raising her into a strong, competent young ambassador for good. Her mother spent many nights constructing fictional stories for her, and almost all those told involved a hero/ heroin who creates positive change. Whether it was the mother bird who roamed the forest for days to find food for her children, or the old arrogant tree which is


then chopped down, Tasnim‟s good moral character was always the target of these literacy events. Through this form of storytelling, Tasnim‟s mother was able to select the language, lessons and imaginary figures she wanted her child to engage with, rather than being confined to the limits placed by a book‟s author. When Tasnim wouldn‟t listen to her mother, the story would be about obedience, when Tasnim wouldn‟t cooperate, her mother would utilise the literacy practice of storytelling to remind her that we are stronger together. *** More structured literacy experiences took place through story reading (Heath, 1982). Particularly, Tasnim recalls a story about a very poor girl who was sent out by her father every day to sell matches: “She is freezing badly, but she is afraid to go home because her father will beat her for not selling any matches. She takes shelter in a nook and lights the matches to warm herself. In their glow, she sees several lovely visions including a Christmas tree and a holiday feast. The girl looks skyward, sees a shooting star, and remembers her deceased grandmother saying that such a falling star means someone died and is going into Heaven. As she lights her next match, she sees a vision of her grandmother, the only person to have treated her with love and kindness. She strikes one match after another to keep the vision of her grandmother nearby for as long as she can. The child dies and her grandmother carries her soul to Heaven. The next morning, passers-by find the dead child in the nook.” (Wikipedia, accessed 2011).


This story lead Tasnim to tears, for even as a child she could feel the layers of direct and structural injustice (Young, 2003) destroying the nameless Match Girl‟s future. The „ways of taking‟ involved images, Arabic characters and her father‟s voice reading the story, but Tasnim learned from this experience a lot more than language (Heath, 1982). For whether this story is written in Arabic, English or any other language, the vividness of poverty, of the fatal fear of family abuse, of hope and reality, of social responsibility, is inescapably communicated through language. The themes subtly resonate to make readers aware of non-visible participants (eg. government, father), settings (eg. extreme poverty, class, violence), artefacts (eg. social responsibility, shooting star symbolising hope) and activities (eg. death, imagination, passers-by shock). Even if Tasnim did not understand why the girl was so poor, or why no one helped her, the literacy practices pushed her to tears, provoking empathy. The literacy event involved self-discovery, evolving into empathy (Hawley and Spillman, 2003). Exposing Tasnim to a deeply emotive experience allowed her to situate her observations in the embodiment of one character. Tasnim recalls sitting in the back of the car as her parents drove in the late nights of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, to deliver food packages to the poor. Although she did not live herself in a „poor‟ suburb, she witnessed all the signs of poverty in the streets, buildings, and alleyways leading to her grandparents house in the refugee camp. The Match Girl story was very confronting, but Tasnim also realised that she could at least help. Fasting, she knew, helped Muslims feel for the poor, and act upon this feeling by giving. Tasnim witnessed this action first-hand, and so


the literacy practice involved in reading a short story resonated deeply with her (Gee, 1991). The literature allowed Tasnim to discover her position towards those in need through the guidance of her father. Tasnim‟s literacy event involved language, as well as the practice of language to understand and react to one‟s social context (Barton and Hamilton, 1998). *** In addition to the use of literature to socialise certain behaviours and values, Tasnim‟s parents believed in a religion that they passed down to their children. From the age of one, Tasnim memorised short verses of the Islamic Holy Book, The Quran. Recited to her by her mother in a nice melody, Tasnim would repeat then recite on her own, still unable to understand or read what she recited. At the age of three Tasnim memorised a chapter of the Quran four pages long, and entered competitions against other children who came from religious backgrounds at the local Quran Memorisation House. The Quran was probably the first form of engagement Tasnim had with literary texts as she struggled to carry the large book of Arabic characters whose only readable feature to her was its significance to her identity. She could not understand the poetic language of the Quran, but she realised it was special. Unlike the Arabic stories she read with her parents, she was told the Quran is the word of Allah (God) revealed to the prophet Mohammad. She learned of this prophet‟s


life, that he was illiterate, in the meaning that he couldn‟t read or write, for this privilege was for the elite. She learned that despite this fact, he could teach thousands of Muslims the holy Quran, exactly through recitation. Tasnim‟s literacy experience with the Quran allowed her to appreciate literacy, or a literacy that is not commonly recognised. In Islam, every child who learns Quran is told of the story when the Quran was first revealed. How the angel approached prophet Mohammad and asked him to read, so he responded, „I am not a reader‟, at which the angel repeated his command three times, receiving the same response (al-Mubarakpuri, 2002) . The „illiterate children are all puzzled by the persistence. The angel finally recites, “1. Read (Proclaim!) In the Name of your Lord who created 2. Created man, out of a clot (of congealed blood). 3. Read (Proclaim), and your Lord is the Most Generous, 4. who taught by the Pen, 5. Taught man that which he knew not.,” (alseraj.net, accessed 2011), and these were the first verses revealed from the Quran („read‟ in Arabic means learn). Childen are taught that the first value Islam came with is the value of learning. They learn, as their prophet did, that failure to read and write does not necessitate a failure to learn, for even if the prophet found himself unable to access standard writing or reading, he could still make a difference through other forms of communication. Tasnim‟s own initial experiences with the Quran involved oral recitation, which in future years evolved into reading, writing and understanding of the text. Like Rachel who was “literate before she learned to read" (Scollon and Scollon, 1979), the significance of the


early experience was not the actual learning of language, as Tasnim hardly understood a word she recited. The literacy practice of exposure to the Quran involved immersing Tasnim into a deep and proud culture. Through this practice she would connect and love the Quran, compete with it and feel a sense of achievement through it. Like the children who learn to sing and dance without yet understanding the full extent of their practice, both Tasnim and these children begin to develop a sense of identity within their group of individuals who engage in similar practice (McCarthy and Moje, 2002). They become literate of the value of their act through the literacy practices of encouragement. *** Identity was deeply entrenched in Tasnim from a very young age. She possessed a strong cultural capital (Lamont and Lareau, 1988). However, her cultural capital was only significant in so far as she operated within the culture which valued it. Tasnim learnt this very early on, for she was uprooted from her origins and was taken to a world where no one shared her language, nor physical characteristics, nor pride in a Palestinian Islamic heritage. New Zealand was where she migrated to with her parents. Now at the right age for school, Tasnim felt deafened and muted in her new surroundings. Unable to understand the literacy practices of the new culture, or the standards of the new school environment (SkiltonSylvester, 2002), Tasnim recalls feeling weak, afraid and boxed in her own incomprehensible baggage. Placed in an English as a Second Language class, Tasnim enjoyed


literacy through pictures, for even though she could not label the characters or objects in children‟s stories and the worksheets, she could construct an understanding in Arabic. Although she was illiterate, in the sense that she didn't know the English alphabet or recognise basic objects like „hat‟, „shoe‟ and „door‟, Tasnim very much knew the function and definition of each figure in the images. Not knowing the new English labels frustrated her. She didn‟t know if her teacher thought she was stupid. While at school Tasnim was often quiet and took the role of being „invisible‟, at home and amongst Arabic speaking families she was known for her talkative cheekiness.

Literacy practice of learning that different surroundings are just one of the variations in migration.

At school she would avoid literacy practices such as show-and-tell, playing board games, and discussion in the fear that she would present something that did not „fit in‟, or simply because she was not literate of the rule (Skilton-Sylvester, 2002). Meanwhile, at home she led conversations and took the role of correcting, informing and supporting her two younger sisters and not-so-fluent Arabic speaking friends in play. ***


This paradox was only overcome when Tasnim left New Zealand, lived in Jordan, then moved to an Australian secondary school, now wearing the head-scarf. The head-scarf in itself communicated with her new peers before she even began introductions. The literacy practice of interpreting the head-scarf told them she was different, but confident about it; that she had her own values, but was willing to share them. Tasnim didn‟t realise this at the time, but the covering actually allowed people to read through her, for her identity was no longer confusing. In class discussions she no longer feared being read as „different‟, for she became literate of the value of multiculturalism. She learned from reading people‟s reactions towards her new „Hijabi‟ identity, curiosity, praise, puzzlement, that being different can make one more interesting. *** The literacy practice of wearing the head-scarf allowed Tasnim to become more literate of her surroundings and her own identity. The impact of becoming literate of this symbol allowed Tasnim to find the empowerment to integrate her Palestinian-Muslim early literacy experiences, with her school English literacy practices. What evolved from this integration is a richer literate understanding of the world in which she lives.


“Children learn certain customs, beliefs, and skills in early enculturation experience� Heath (1982)

This narrative illustrates the vividness of literacy practices as entrenched in socio-cultural contexts. It argues that literacy is more complex than the learning of language and highlights how literacy practices are entrenched in culture through a detailed, yet brief, narration of a young Muslim-Palestinian girl’s life as she navigates through identity in different countries.


her narrative