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Playing on the Barrier

January 3, 2021

Addressing a group of children in Arabic, from a children’s home (or maytem/ orphanage) in Basra, Iraq, in 2013:

‘I know I’m here to lead this workshop, and we will hopefully play, have fun and learn from one another, but to do this, I need your help. My Arabic is very, very, veeeeery rusty’, the children giggle, and look equally surprised as excited, ‘so I will make a lot of mistakes, and need you to correct me… I may ask you for help, but sometimes I wouldn’t even know what word I need or if I’ve made a mistake, so you need to jump in to help… Can you please help me?’

I’ve been reflecting on this experience, as I read Shanaaz Hoosain’s thesis (from 2007) on Resilience in Refugee Children: A Gestalt Play Therapy Approach and how ‘that language barriers appear to be a problem in therapeutic work with refugees. However, the researcher found that this can be effectively used in play therapy as an opportunity to empower the child.’

Though I didn’t have this knowledge at the time, I was nonetheless training in Gestalt psycotherapy at the time, and undertook wonderful Jon Blend‘s teaching in Gestaltist Violet Oaklander‘s creatively therapeutic work with children. Still, I was working intuitively and sincerely.

Since my last visit to Iraq as a teenager, I had not needed to speak exclusively in Arabic to people who did not speak some English. I was nervous about leading 3 workshops a day, for one week, with three different groups of children and adolescents, all to be conducted exclusively in Arabic. I found naming this difference, between me and the children, and also, openly acknowledging my limitation in relation to a life skill they had mastered, was a great icebreaker. It paradoxically brought us closer together, and encouraged the children to take control, to speak to an adult in a way that is normally culturally inappropriate.

From previous workshops, I’d found that asking simple introductory questions at the start of the workshop, like ‘what are we doing today?’ or ‘what did you notice on your bus ride here?’ were met with blank expressions, quick glances between participants to check if anyone has an answer to this bizarre question. I’d facilitated workshops in the UK, some in state schools in deeply underprivileged parts of London, but this barrier, this response to figures in authority, wasn’t as rigid. If I was there to run a drama or art workshop, for example, then I was seen as less important and less scary than a teacher at their school.

As a child, I was rarely asked a sincere question by an adult, be this a teacher or family member. Questions were often used to test, where there was a clear right or wrong answer, and anything in-between was viewed as disobedient. So I got the children’s response, and I respected their well-founded fear of the repercussions of getting it wrong.

I simplified my question to, ‘what is your favourite food?’ and when my question was met with heavy silence, I disclosed (sincerely) that ‘Mine is bamya ou timan and of course with 7ikaka…’, which received some recognition, and with another prod of ‘ah, does anyone else like bamya? 7ikaka?’ Low and behold, Middle Easterners connect with one another on the subject of food!

Later, I left all such verbal introductions after an initial simple game, where even the rules I managed to explain through physical and facial expressions, so we connected through play and shared experiences. Play, connect, share and make meaning together.

Today, back in therapy training, I wonder at the therapeutic barriers that exist, whether cultural, racial, linguistic, and how we can meet the client in the here-and-now whilst holding the differences between us. What form do these barriers take when they are translated into boundaries, those that keep us safe, though still arguably entrenched in Western models and processes? How can I, as a non-European therapist, adapt these (and to these) whilst staying true to my own background and cultural integrity?

  1. Good morning beautiful Tara 😉
    Thanks for the post. I guess the capacity to perceive the boundary and to work with it is the more valuable capacity for deepening connection. I remember being in a workshop where the woman enacted taking off her slipper and hitting an insolent officer who was forbidding her from visiting her husband in prison. She was working through her fear of the confrontation and the gesture came out spontaneously with laughter. The co-fascilitator, took this gesture to mean “a grave insult, because shoes are demeaning in Arabic culture.” While this is true, she missed the nuance of humour in the movement and she wouldn’t know that, in non-westernized families all around the region, to discipline rowdy children by slapping with a slipper is quite common, and is quite funny, and is considered less abusive than directly hitting or slapping a child. I still have an imagine if my own aunt talking on the phone and we cousins running around the house laughing and making fun while she glared at us to keep our voices down. To finally get us to leave the living room, a flying slipper came whizzing by. For this woman, the impulse to slap the policeman with a slipper brought out a childish giggle from her, and relates to a familiar experience the other refugees would recognize as funny, since the police officer is a grown man and not a child. It’s also interesting that her shift from being frozen with fright by him to having some agency to express anger happened by imagining the oppressive authority figure to be her son and she disciplining him like a mother. There’s a motherly aspect to it and even a caring aspect, whereby the officer holding her husband captive is reprimanded like a way-ward member of the family. I suppose it makes a difference that the woman is not a refugee but internally displaced by civil war, she and the officer have the same culture & language. Perhaps if she has been a refugee and the officer barring her freedom was not one of her own people, the image of slapping him with a slipper wouldn’t have made sense and it wouldn’t have come up at all. Refugees in foreign lands who are required to speak in a while different language lose a wide range of meaningful expression and are more isolated. Context matters. And really, the nuances are missed. It is always useful to come in with humility and to ask what words or gestures mean and to get a feel for them energetically and relationally rather than literally.

    • Thank you Zena for sharing your valuable experience and thoughts. Interesting regarding the shoes and it’s meaning- almost cliched to many communities, the image of mum chasing her kids with the slipper or qubqaab- and easily missed by someone alien to the culture. And the value of humour, as a connective layer, is often undervalued, and how wonderful for the participants (and those witnessing) to have had your insight. I agree with regards to language and how much is missed- and added to the challenge of settling somewhere new- when a displaced person needs to communicate with their social worker/ immigration officer/ therapist in a new language. Having said that, I wonder if their experience of their new Host country (both language and culture) is held in the safety of creative-therapeutic workshops or/ and therapy sessions…rather than immigration officers/ lawyers etc..?
      Thank you again for your thoughts, and please keep ‘em coming!

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