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February 23, 2004

The madrassa & me

I just realized today that I don't think I've spoken in detail of my 2-week experience when I was 11 in a madrassa.

Setting: Bangladesh. Visiting my mother's family. My mean fundamentalist uncle told her she should give my brother & me an Islamic education. So my nice fundamentalist uncle (if you care to know, my mean fundamentalist uncle was rather Arab influenced, while my nice fundamentalist uncle is an imam in my family's more traditional Hanafi orientation) takes me to a nearby mosque.

The Mosque: Two stories tall. Pretty normal. Doesn't look new or old.

The teachers: Two dudes, one 35, another 30. Seem nice and pleasant. They agree to teach my brother & me how to read Arabic. We are going to be students for a few weeks. Proviso: we are not to be beaten and receive explicit special treatment.

The schedule:
4:30 AM wake up, "read" Koran.
5:30 AM perform dawn prayer.
5:45 AM keep reading.
6:00 AM eat breakfast.
6:30 AM keep reading.
11:00 AM lunch.
11:30 AM sleep for siesta.
2:00 PM keep reading.
7:00 PM dinner.
7:30 PM sunset prayer.
8:00 PM keep reading.
10:30 PM last prayer.
11:00 PM sleep.

...and repeat.

A few points. I left out two day prayers. They would puncuate the reading, though I forget the times we performed them. The food was OK if plain. I could never sleep during the siesta. It seemed kind of weird to me. I put "read" in quotes initially because I didn't understand Arabic, and we were basically just learning the alphabet so we could recite the Koran.

As I said, we got special treatment. We saw our mother sometimes in the evenings during this two week period. Most of the students were from rural areas. They just read the Koran, though of course none of them understood it that I gathered, they simply would keep going to school until they memorized it front to the back. Their days were basically the same for 5-7 years, excepting the festivals when they prayed all day and ate some more food.

They had one 15 minute break once a week. They always looked forward to it. The madrassa was in a big hall on the second floor of the mosque, and during this break, they could go out on the terrace and look at people. To my knowledge the kids never really left the grounds of the mosque, though one or two might work as errand boys. This 15 minute period was their time of freedom, and they would stare at women walking by. No woman would come into the hall without covering herself up (usually sisters or mothers of students), but they still stared at them too-like hungry dogs. Sometimes uncovered women would stand outside, and kids would try and catch a glimpse. They seemed awfully horny, though they weren't particular articulate in their ribald conversation since they had so little experience and information to create fantastic scenarios around.

The teachers were nice to us. They were modern, and seemed associated with a Southeast Asian Muslim order. They were excited to talk to us, because they never got to speak "English" with anyone. They had taught in Thailand for a few years, where they had used English with their pupils. So one day, they spoke to us in English. What my brother and I heard was a vaguely tonal language. We spoke to them in "English," and they looked at us in frustration. They told us that because we spoke American English, and they spoke Thailand English, we couldn't understand each other, since Thailand English was more like British English. Since these were men who beat kids on a regular basis, we didn't say anything.

I never did learn the Arabic alphabet, I had just memorized it before we left the madrassa, and have forgotten the details, though I can still recite many of the letters (quite a few like "aleph" show the common Aramaic roots of the Latin alphabet through Etruscan through Greek). The madrassa was not like those you hear about in Pakistan that sent holy warriors to Afghanistan or Kashmir, it really was about learning (memorizing). It wasn't a Saudi funded institution and had local ties to the Hanafi tradition of Bangladesh as well as Thailand and Malaysia (I think Southeast Asia is Shafi, though people can correct me). The teachers were liberal, and had pictures taken with us before we left. They were very ignorant about non-Muslim things, and the senior teacher admitted to my uncle that his Arabic was very weak in terms of comprehension, though unlike his students he did understand some of what was being said in the Koran.

The kids were sad. Many of them didn't know what they were going to do with their lives, they were just very horny and fixated on memorizing the Koran so they could actually have free time. The kid who was my "minder," (he showed us the best way to wash before prayer and what not) was beaten regularly because helping my brother and I meant that his Koranic studies went a bit lax.

My uncles told me that the madrassa would open my heart to Allah, to the message of the Prophet, but it just made me sad, and more confirmed in my atheism. There was a sterility in that hall that I can't put into words. It was in some ways the most mentally bleak and desolate 2 weeks of my life. Allah seems to demand a monopoly on heart and mind-so that no room is left for anything else. And that, I could not abide....

Posted by razib at 02:22 PM