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Mountain Madrasah

Lately my mind keeps returning to the first little village we lived in here in Yemen. It’s name, Ma’bar, means “crossroads” and it certainly was a crossroads for me, in so many ways. I left behind a part of myself in that beautiful mountain village, and my heart wants to return to it even though my mind knows that rebellion, upheaval, and political stonewalling make this impossible.

I remember when we first moved to Ma’bar, after living a few months in Sana’a. My eyes were cooled by the lush greenery and soft morning mists that surrounded us, and my heart rejoiced at the thought of studying at the center of one of the greatest scholars of Yemen. My spoken Arabic was pretty rudimentary at that point, so it was with trepidation that I shined up the little ones’ faces, wrapped my baby in my sling, and started out to the women’s madrasah, or school, just across the road and down the hill.

On the way there we passed a big, beautiful lizard that alternated between green and blue on a daily basis. He was always waiting for us, sunning himself on the wall of a half completed building. As we crossed the road we were met by the tempting smell of fish frying in makeshift wheelbarrow deep fat fryers, and, a little way past that, the sweet smell of freshly made sweets dipped in sesame seeds. Everywhere you looked you saw people out and about; men talking and laughing as they opened up shops, women walking with huge bundles on their heads, stopping to bargain with a shopkeeper, and children. Everywhere there were children on their way to school. Many of them wore the pants and shirt outfits of the government schools, but most of them were on their way to the religious school like we were.

The women’s madrasah was in a long, low building near the main masjid. An armed guard stood outside the gate, respectfully standing back as we passed through. The doors and windows to the classrooms were all open, facing a small courtyard, allowing the natural light to filter in on the students within. We followed the sound of voices raised in an alphabet chant, and entered the main room of the school.

Directly in front of us was the class that had been chanting their Arabic alphabet lesson. I expected to see a group of small girls, but when I looked at the curious faces peering up at us I saw every age of woman represented. Some were the same age as my children, some, like me, had babies on their chests or sleeping in their laps, and some were old grandmothers. When we ducked into the comparatively dim light of the classroom, everyone fell silent and stared at us. We were the first Americans ever to study there, so I supposed we were worth a stare or too, and tried to be patient with it.

Later on I met some of the women, including the wife of the Sheikh and her sister. One of her nieces helped me with my Arabic lessons, and another young sister helped me every day with my Qur’aan recitation. At first I sat quietly, a little in awe of everything around me. Instead of desks, or tables and chairs, we students all sat on the floor around our teachers. There was a lot of memorization and repetition, along with explanation of how to understand and implement what we were learning. The teachers all carried big wooden sticks, but I never saw one used. After the first day in my classes I knew I was in the right place, with the right people, and I spent hours outside of class memorizing, reviewing, and looking up words I didn’t know. While many of the students never did stop staring at us, many of them welcomed us warmly and went out of their way to be helpful and make us feel at home in this land so far from the one we had come from.

I will never forget that little madrasah in that little village, and I know that even if I am never blessed with being able to return there, my heart and soul will always recognize it, in some way, as home.

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