'Being Single Is Complicated, for Jews, Arabs and Druze'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli-Arab teacher who believes education is the path to coexistence, and a British teacher who lets her students' creativity run wild

Fatma Shahtut, left, and Ranin Diab.
Tomer Appelbaum

Fatma Shahtut, 27, left, and Ranin Diab, 28, live in Tamra; arriving from Bucharest

Hi, what were you two doing in Bucharest?

Ranin: We have a girlfriend who’s a med student there and we went to visit her over New Year’s.

Fatma: We’ve been friends since junior high – that’s where the disaster began. (Laughs)

How were the parties?

Ranin: Fun. There was a street party with fireworks, but it was brutally cold. All the thermal clothing and other gear – nothing helped.

What do you do when you’re not partying?

Ranin: I’m doing a master’s in teaching at Oranim College and I teach biology at a high school in Tamra. I started this year. It’s the closing of a circle: I returned to the high school where I was a student 10 years ago.

What’s changed?

Ranin: The first thing I said to my mother is that it’s strange how everything is changing in the world – except the school. In the sense of the building, the classroom, the chairs. But besides that, a lot has changed.

Examples, please.

Ranin: These days, the student’s best friend is the smartphone. But what’s still the same is that young people always want you to talk to them candidly. Actually, maybe things have changed. Today you can talk to the teacher that way. I think all the desks should be removed and there should be a circle of chairs. That would also allow the teacher to get to know the students, so there won’t be some kid who hides at the far end of the classroom.

I hear passion in your voice.

I’m very interested in society and social change. I’m also a group leader in a program involving female scientists of the future, which promotes outstanding girls in the sciences.

Are there enough girls who are interested?

The first group from Tamra completed the program a week ago. There were 45 girls, the biggest group in the country.

Impressive. What do female scientists of the future learn?

Female empowerment along with physics, biology and mathematics. All to strengthen the students.

Girl power! Fatma, are you into the same things?

Fatma: I work in Aroma [a chain of cafés] on Highway 70, in Wadi Milek. But talk to Ranin, she has a lot to say.

Okay, back to you, Ranin.

Ranin: I also run a project that organizes encounters between Arabs and Jews.

What happens there?

Ranin: The background to the program is President Rivlin’s [2015] speech about the four tribes. The pilot was launched this year: 18 young Israelis – Arabs, Jews, Ethiopians and Druze – meet once a month in Haifa. They talk, hang out in the city and run programs that appeal to young people, not necessarily dealing with the conflict.

What’s the goal of your organization?

Ranin: I want the young people in the program to meet “the Other,” and to understand that everyone has his story. I want them to understand that the Other is not me, and that everyone should be in the place that’s appropriate for him. Let’s all live together instead of going on with all the pain and grief.

How do you achieve that?

Ranin: A good education will bring change, and it seems to me that schools are the best place to start.

You look, dress and talk rock ‘n roll. Is it hard to be a single woman in a leather coat in Tamra?

Ranin: It’s not always easy, and sometimes I get criticism from older people, but for my father and mother’s generation and for the young people – it’s terrific. Besides that, being single is complicated. For Jews, Arabs and Druze.

For sure.

These days you don’t just sit home doing nothing. You do a master’s, try to get into all kinds of programs, get ahead in life. And I’m not the only one. Awareness is on the rise with us, and that’s good. And getting married isn’t the only card in the deck.

What about politics?

I actually want to be a school principal; that’s a place where I’ll be able to exercise influence, and I truly want to have an impact on things. I remember that when I was a girl, we had our picture taken at school, and I was asked, “What is your dream?” The photographer said to me, “Just don’t say it’s peace.” So I will say that I want to be a person with influence, and that I am still on the road. Look! We started talking about parties and ended with a dream to run a school.

Vickie Parker.
Tomer Appelbaum

Vickie Parker, 44, lives in London and flying there

Hello, can I ask what you did in Israel?

I was here on a family trip. I’d been planning to visit Israel for a long time: I have friends from London who moved here.

How was the visit?

Amazing. Everyone was so hospitable. I learned a lot and I loved every aspect of the country.

Wow, that’s nice to hear.

It’s different when you visit a place where you have friends. I’d heard about the culture here for years, and then to be here and go to a Friday-evening meal was so nice. I cried this morning in the hotel because I didn’t want to leave.

But isn’t London waiting for you?

Yes, London is marvelous. I grew up in the suburbs of Sydney and always wanted to go to school in London. And in fact I did an M.A. in art at University College, London. Even though it wasn’t always easy. There were good times and bad times.

You had no illusions about art studies.

None. And I’ve taught art for 17 years. I love it, and in London the schools are required to have art classes in the curriculum, until the age of 14. Now I’m working at a school in a good neighborhood. But for a long time I worked in tough schools, where the children come from a poor background and the parents take less responsibility for them. I really like it – there’s a lot of satisfaction.

What are your lessons like?

The students paint, take pictures and do installations, which is something they like. It’s important to allow them to maintain themselves and their creativity while they are learning from other artists.

Which artists, for example?

For example, now, in ninth grade we are looking at the works of two photographers: James Casebere, an American who builds architectural models and illuminates them in a way that can seem a little frightening; and the British photographer Slinkachu, who builds models with miniature figures and takes their pictures.

They don’t learn about the Renaissance?

In my view, these contemporary artists interest them far more than looking at Rembrandt or da Vinci. When students see their works, they don’t understand how it’s possible to achieve that level. It doesn’t look logical to them, so they don’t feel a connection.

Isn’t Slinkachu the one from the Facebook clips about little dolls that warm themselves up with a cigarette?

Exactly. It’s an interesting way to talk with students about technology and art. It’s hard to focus in class because there’s information coming in from the surroundings all the time. I have students who post pictures they’ve worked on very hard in the social networks, but they don’t think they’re doing art. Referencing artists like Slinkachu allows them to understand that they are doing something creative that could lead to more. It’s interesting to take children who look at selfies on the phone and show them a painter’s self-portraits. After all, painters effectively did selfies.

I think I’d like to be your student.

Thanks, but in England the schools are very goal-oriented and it’s easy to lose yourself in the pursuit of grades – both those the students get and also the grades they give you as a teacher. There was a period when I was so focused on results that I forgot that sometimes you have to let the learning happen and then the results will happen on their own.

Besides teaching, do you create art yourself?

I still take pictures, but mostly for myself, and I do art within a community framework.

What do you mean?

I live in Notting Hill, and every year there’s a carnival there. It’s a tradition that was started in the 1950s by immigrants with street parties. The festival grew over the years and now it goes on for two days, which we spend months preparing for. We work in small groups of residents, each of which is in charge of something. Last year a million people came.

What was your group in charge of?

We made huge flowers, the size of a person, out of papier-mache and hung them on the street lamps. We worked every day for five weeks and prepared 200 flowers.

What happened to them after the carnival?

Some were taken to the schools. I took one Tiger Lily to our classroom. Others got wet in the rain. Some of the visitors climbed the street lamps, took a flower and ran home with it. I thought that was really nice.