Talking Descartes with Syrian Refugee Children

Wassim Al-Adel

There are a lot of things people might go and teach to Syrian refugee children in Turkey, but philosophy isn’t usually one of them. In spite of doing an MA in Philosophy at Birkbeck years ago, I felt hopelessly unqualified for the task at hand. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I was planning to accomplish. Tightly holding my copy of Peter Worley’s, “The If Machine: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom” I travelled to Reyhanli, near the border with Syria, to meet the seven hundred and fifty children of the Ruwwad school as part of a volunteer program with the Karam Foundation. Housed in a commercial part of the town, the school was really a converted office that took over a whole floor, with a massive indoor hallway that the children could dash around in during their break. The classrooms were small and cramped, windows were optional, and going to the toilets was a horrifying experience. Sure, I thought, we could talk philosophy here, I mean how hard would it be once we got the discussion going? Harder than I thought, I would later discover.

Owing to the ongoing war in Syria, Reyhanli is full of Syrians, and as they don’t speak any Turkish, Arabic language schools have sprouted up to provide some form of education for the community. The children themselves come from a variety of backgrounds, but the fact that they are even in a school meant they were some of the lucky ones. For a lot of Syrian refugee families, life is too wretched and hard right now for them to worry about sending the children to school.

I started off my first sessions by hurriedly introducing myself to the classroom and, while apologising for my child-like Arabic handwriting, deliberately mis-spelling philosophy. Turning around, I could see some of the children already chuckling. I’d wanted to get the children to relax and so instead of “falsafa” I wrote down “fasfasa”, which literally means farting about. I’d do a mock cringe and apologise when one of the students laughingly pointed out the error, and then correct the word. In explaining philosophy, I used the duck-rabbit picture Wittgenstein liked, and they sort of got my point about being able to see things differently in philosophy.

Right, I’d ask as I turned around, who has heard of philosophy? I’m greeted with total silence, but only a few of the children would raise their hands. In the Middle East, parents usually scold their children when they try to get clever or give cheeky answers, telling them to “stop philosophising”. It’s basically an insult for someone who is being pedantic. None of them ventured to explain what they knew, but they all nodded and grinned when I explained how I thought they’d heard the term. So far we seemed to be on to a good start. Prior to the class, I’d written a few study cards for the topic of the day, and I thought it would be a brilliant idea to start the children on one of the exercises mentioned in Worley’s book, the story of the “Chair”. I started off by asking the children what they thought the chair was, they looked at me like I was crazy. “It’s a chair” one of them would say, and I’d say OK, we’ll see by the end of the session. As it turned out, this lesson was much tougher to get across to the children than I expected. I tried to ask open questions and trigger a bit of controversy but they would only smile back at me nervously, unsure of what I was expecting. They just didn’t seem to “get” where we were going with this, and their answers were cautious and flat. If the more outspoken children used a particular answer, the next dozen children would all raise their hands and then say the same thing.

In Worley’s book, he recommends that the children all sit in a circle in order to promote discussion. As soon as I saw the state of the classrooms I knew that this would be impossible. There were forty children crammed into the room, all facing one direction, and all used to only one type of teaching and to rote learning. Furthermore, the teacher, a kindly older man, stayed on, ostensibly to help “control” the classrooms. I was too polite to ask him to leave and that turned out to be a mistake. As I tried to get the children to respond to the story before each “discussion”, he would helpfully repeat what I said, sternly asking the children to sit up straight and “think carefully, then answer the Teacher’s question!”. I cringed inwardly. This was not going to work, and I was conscious of Worley’s recommendation to avoid “leading” the children to the answers they might think I want to hear. The same kind of problems occurred in the other grades, and by the end of the first day, my head was reeling and my confidence was in tatters. I began to have serious doubts about whether this was going to work. After all, my previous three volunteering trips with Karam were about running a “writing” workshop that I’d slowly built up through experience. This was totally outside my comfort zone, and I’d even picked the exercises to match all the ages for the classes. The book had made it seem so easy, and yet when it came to trying to have a philosophical discussion about our perception of objects, my mind seemed to draw a blank. There just didn’t seem to be any feedback.

Steeling my nerves, I decided to follow through the next day, as planned, with the next subject. This time, I threw politeness out of the window and point blank asked the teachers to leave me with the children. “No”, I’d reply, “I’ll manage to control them fine. Sit this one out, go have a coffee and I’ll see you in forty minutes. Thank you.” I closed the door and put on my “theatrical” hat. Building up the story with suspense and dramatic pauses, I finally managed to get the children’s attention and told them the story of the Ring of Gyges, transliterating his name in Arabic on the whiteboard. I stopped and stared at the classroom. “What would you do if you were walking home tonight, after school, and found this ring in the street? What would you do?” I asked them.

At first, they all answered uniformly that they would do good and “help people”. Very nice, I thought, but this isn’t what we’re here for. I could tell some of the boys were grinning mischievously. I walked up to one of them and asked him what he was really thinking. After seeing my enthusiastic acting, and enactment of the story, I felt like I’d broken the teacher/student barrier, and earned their cautious trust. “Well, sir, are you saying that nobody would know if I did something? Or catch me?”

I nodded and waited. “Well, I’d be in paradise. I’d go and smack the people I don’t like and get myself a fast car and all the things I’d want!”

From here, we got the ball rolling. The story “clicked” in the student’s minds far better than my “chair” story, and I felt like this was something they could relate with. A lot of the children in all four grades said they would use the ring to go and “kill Bashar al Assad” and I chuckled at that. I hadn’t wanted to bring Syria up in the workshops, but, as I would later find out, this was not only inevitable, but extremely useful. The girls were not so ready to accept the idea of actions without consequences. Within minutes, the first girl brought up the A-word, Allah.

“Even if no body sees you, Allah sees everything, and He will punish us for any wrong we do”, she explained. OK, this was getting interesting, and I was aware the whole class was listening intently. Here, I used Worley’s “If” machine, and it turned out invaluable. In Arabic, “If” translated directly doesn’t quite carry the same meaning, in my opinion, so I used the word “Iftirad” — which can be loosely translated as “Assume”. I’m not an expert on this stuff, but I know enough Arabic to know when a word works and it doesn’t. I also quite liked the idea of being the first to introduce Worley’s “If Machine” to Syrian students as the “If-tirad Machine”. So I asked her, “If Allah said that anybody who wears this ring can do whatever they want, what would you do with it?”. She thought for a minute, and then replied that “yes but I would still know I did those things, and I’d be punishing myself”. A tough, but evasive answer. We ran out of time sooner than I expected, but we did get to ponder briefly Socrates’ question of why somebody should do good even if they suffer. Not many had heard of him, so telling them a bit about ancient Greece and how he’d been put to death for basically being “annoying” was the first time many of them had heard about the classical world. Still, I felt that the discussion rolled a lot easier from here, and though the children were still talking mainly to me rather than each other, I felt a lot more confident by the end of the second day that things were going to work out.

The third workshop I carried out with them proved to be much more successful. The children, even the older ones in grades six and seven, all remembered the story of Gyges and the magical ring and were now interested to hear my next “story”. I introduced them to the old fable of the frog and the scorpion, and now the children were starting to get active. Differences of opinion were starting to emerge, and even the bashful children were feeling more confident in voicing their opinion. Even the ‘rebels’, sitting in the back wanted to have a say in the matter. I was now rolling with it, so I complicated the story by substituting it with people, again with appropriate theatrical flair. From here, the classes started to take a life of their own, but the discussion still wasn’t as active as I’d have liked. We talked about human nature and whether it was fixed, and asked for a show of hands to see what the children thought, then I told them what Schopenhauer, Sartre, and Aristotle thought. Surprisingly, most of the children changed their mind when they heard of Aristotle’s idea (which I mentioned last) that “habit” was what shaped our character. They nodded their little heads sensibly and asked to be moved to “his” side. Schopenhauer had a few die hard supporters who remained adamant that people can never change.

During my discussion with one of the grades, and through no prompting from me, the subject of “good” and “bad” people came up. I asked the children whether they thought people were inherently good or bad, and they all, unanimously, said that people are bad, and that given half a chance everybody would take advantage of you. After seeing war, exile and a hard life in a border town in the middle of nowhere, these children all had a firm idea of what human nature was essentially like. I took the chance to talk about Thomas Hobbes and his view that the life of man was “nasty, brutish and short”. The children shrugged indifferently. I felt at the time that maybe I hadn’t explained properly, and that that’s why they weren’t that interested in discussing this idea further. It’s only now, as I recall that class and sit writing about my experience, that I realise why that was the case. To them, this Hobbes chap wasn’t saying anything profound or controversial, it was just life. That this is the world they live in (at this very moment), that it’s all they know, is unsettling to me. It might as well be a million miles away from the brightly lit lecture halls in London where I read my masters.

On our final day, all the stops were pulled. My final “story” was the “Identity Parade” question: A criminal takes a pill to wipe his memory and gains a new identity, but the police arrest this new person who is law abiding and nice, and want him to go to prison for the crimes of the previous personality. The discussions were getting surprisingly sophisticated, and the children were starting to disagree with each other openly. Here, a fundamental problem with the size of the classes got the better of me, they were too big, and I went hoarse trying to make myself heard and to get the children to speak in turn. I watched with some amusement as one of the formerly disruptive boys turned around to a mate of his who was chattering in the background and told him to shut up because he wanted to listen to the discussion.

The discussion was flowing so smoothly that I had just enough time to broach the topic of identity, and that moved us nicely to Descartes and his famous thought experiment, “I think therefore I am”. I doodled a stick man with arms and legs outstretched, closed eyes and closed mouth, and wrote the phrase in Arabic after I’d acted out the thought experiment to them. At this stage, one really needs to have been in the room to see the light come up in their eyes. For some of the children, I could see them staring at me thoughtfully as they pondered the implications of what I was trying to explain. Then I gave them the counter argument from Locke, at the risk of being slightly more controversial. At this stage, the teachers were asking to sit in the classes, and seemed very interested in the topics we were covering.

On the final two days, an unexpected challenge came up. I was asked to do a workshop with the ninth grade, older boys and girls. So far, my style was geared more towards children. How would the Identity Parade go down? My “Frog and Scorpion” workshop went down quietly, unlike with the younger grades, and again I had to overcome the uncomfortable silences and uncertainty about what we were trying to do. I felt like they hadn’t been impressed with our earlier encounter. Sweating nervously, I walked into their class for the last workshop of the week. It was showtime.

To my surprise, they were now fascinated with what I had to say. It turns out my little whirlwind tour of philosophy in the Arabic and Islamic world, and its Greek origins, had fascinated them. The discussion kicked off in ernest, and the students started vigorously debating their ideas about whether the man should go to prison or not. What did it mean to be one person and then another? When was it right to ascribe the blame for something? In what conditions? What would they do if they were that person? The points flowed effortlessly and with little guidance from me. As I started to wind down the class, I noticed that many of the students were of the opinion that the “new” person in the Identity Parade story should not be punished for the previous personality’s actions.

“OK”, I asked them “now imagine that the person who did those crimes was Bashar al Assad, and that he’d taken a pill and was now a completely different person with no recollection of his previous crimes”. The class literally erupted as most of the students said no, several making cutting gestures across their necks saying that they would still execute him. “Why not?” I asked them. I hadn’t planned on this little twist, but it just came to mind, and it seemed so right. Many sat back silently and didn’t have an answer, but I could tell they were pondering the question extremely seriously now. Some of the students started arguing bitterly with each other about whether the thought experiment still applied. With this small question, I concluded the class and explained to the students that philosophy was about asking the hard questions, the unsettling ones, that challenged our view of what was right and wrong, and that this is why it was as important today as it was two thousand years ago. I think I was talking mainly to myself at that point, because I walked out of that class with unexpectedly new insights about what philosophy meant.

Wassim Al-Adel is a Syrian writer based in London. This piece was originally published on his blog, Maysaloon.