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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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Janet Riehl on September 20, 2011 1:33 pm


This lyrical description of one of your heart homes moves me deeply. You live and love with such sensitivity.


Khadijah on September 29, 2011 5:23 am

My heart places are the easiest things for me to write about, because I want so much to share them with everyone. I know that you will probably not find yourself in a mountain village in Yemen, and so I want to share my experiences with you all. Also, people in the West have a negative reaction to the word “madrasah” when all it means is “school” or “place of learning”. And the religious ones that are following the correct methodology do not teach hatred; rather, they stress the individual’s need to gain sound Islamic knowledge and then act upon it, not just taking from anyone.

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Umar_Uthmaan on December 12, 2012 10:52 am

Is Ma’bar as big as Dammaj? And it is in a village or in a city? And which is better to study in, Dammaj or Ma’bar?

Khadijah on December 12, 2012 3:53 pm

Allaah knows best, but I believe that Ma’bar is larger than Damaaj. I have heard it said that it is the largest Salafi markaz in Yemen. It is a village, a couple of hours from Sana’a, alhamdulillah. Which is better to study in? Mash’Allaah, so much depends on the person who is going to study, what his goals and capabilities are, if he has a family, and more. Also, the iqaama situation. If you would like, I can put you in touch with my husband, and perhaps he can give you some advice tailored to your situation.

Umar_Uthman on December 12, 2012 10:28 pm

Hayaakeel Allah- Inshallah I would like to get in contact with your husband if that’s possible Inshallaah! But I read somewhere that apparently you would have to know at least 15 juzz of the Quran before you can enter the Markaz- That person also mentioned that the markaz provides for everything unlike Damaaj where you get your own House or something like that? Since you’ve been there before can you tell me about it a little bit inshallah- you don’t have to if that’s too troubling. And one last question- Is it easier for a ‘Somali’ person not to be troubled with the police as you have said previously in your blog that they always give problems to foreigners? May Allah reward you in the utmost degree!!

Khadijah on December 14, 2012 1:00 pm

This is true, mash’Allah, but you also have to understand that you can go and live in Ma’bar and go to the classes at the masjid, and learn from the Sheikh and his students while you are learning Qur’aan. My husband, for example, worked in Sana’a, he could not be a full time student at the markaz, but he went to all the daroos he was able to and benefited greatly, alhamdulillah. For the people that are students, yes, they do provide for them, at least this was the case the last that I knew. In Damaaj they have small rooms for the single students- and I really mean small, mash’Allaah, indoor plumbing may or may not be available. My son had one for awhile and it was adequate for him, alhamdulillah. They also have houses from the da’wah which are free to live in, but you have to understand that it is based upon what is available at that time as to what a person may get. Some are very nice, some need some work. I believe that they also have a small stipend that they give to the students when they are able, and also sometimes wheat or dates. It all depends on the individual, and what they are content with. Some people try to make little Western havens in the middle of Damaaj, or Ma’bar, or wherever, and this doesn’t really work. Rather, one should go prepared to do what they need to do to obtain the ‘ilm, as Sheikh Muqbil said that one has not truly sought knowledge until he sits on the ground with his legs beneath him; meaning, feeling the hardship that comes with the struggle for true ‘ilm. As for the “Somali” person not being so troubled by the police…I am not sure about this, but the police know who the foreigners are and where they are, and if they choose to make trouble, they will. It is always better to try to fit in as much as possible, though. Sheikh Muqbil, for example, advised the students who had money not to build elaborate houses, but to make them out of mud brick like everyone else’s so that they fit in (and also did not cause others to be envious). And Allaah knows best.

Khadijah on December 14, 2012 3:49 pm

A brief description of Dar al-Hadeeth in Ma’bar, Yemen

Khadijah on December 12, 2012 3:49 pm

Here is a video showing Ma’bar, mash’Allaah, it makes my heart long even more to go return.

Umar_Uthman on December 14, 2012 4:52 pm

Barakalaho Feek, That’s all I needed! Hayakeel Alah!

Abu Abdaan Sufyaan on August 20, 2013 7:42 pm

Assalaamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh ukhtee.

I plan to go and study in Ma’bar as well insha’Allah ta’alaa.. but I can’t find much information about the living conditions, getting there, ect. Would you be able to put me in contact with your husband as well if he’d be able to help, min fadlik, I would greatly appreciate it. JazakAllahu khayran.

Khadijah on September 1, 2013 10:25 pm

Wa Aleikum Assalam wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuhu
Mash’Allaah, forgive me for my late response, I just saw this comment. Insh’Allaah I will give your address to Abu Sukhailah. May Allaah grant you success in your endeavors in His behalf.

Umahmedt on September 13, 2013 7:00 am

Assalamualaikum ya UmMujaahid, how about your stay in as-Shihr, Yemen. Do you find it as beneficial as your stays in dammaj and ma’bar? And if you dont mind to tell us the reason you have to leave yemen? We were planning to go to as-Shihr but worried about the security there. Any advice?

Khadijah on September 24, 2013 4:04 pm

Wa Aleikum Assalam wa Rahmatullah,
Truly Allaah puts Baraka where He will, and He has allowed us to benefit everywhere we went.