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White House (Red Crayon Study) 27 March 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Culture, Politics.

Ayoob’s drawing shows a body flying through the air. It plummets from the mezzanine, head first toward the ground. Beneath it, in a shallow grave, lies another human form. The house through which the body flies is three stories tall. On the top floor, a cat, a dog and two children play. On the second floor, men with shields and swords guard a carmine staircase. In the center of the first floor stands a man with long red curls. He wears a jacket, surrounded by guards. “Who is he?” I ask. “George Washington,” Ayoob laughs.

He sits on a small wooden chair next to my rocking chair, both of us at the head of the carpet. Fourteen pairs of brown eyes stare up at us from the rug. Sister Amani perches on a table off to one side. Ayoob is supposed to be showing his drawing to the rest of the class, but he keeps turning it to me.

“Please turn the picture so that the rest of the class can see, Ayoob,” I tell him. He giggles, and raises his finger. “These are the trees,” he says. He traces two long trunks, with branches fine as ash. The children nod, and Hamza rocks on his feet. He is way off near the window. A tiny aquarium bearing a sponge model of a heart sits on the sill in the sun. He touches it with one finger.

“Hazma,” I say, “what do you think I am going to tell you about the way that you are sitting?” He curls up his mouth. “Please go and sit in the green row, between Rabah and Nadeer.” He slides on his knees into place. There are seven rows on the carpet: red, orange, yellow, light green, dark green, blue, violet. Each row has six squares drawn on it with white borders. The children sit diagonally from each other, one to a square, on alternate rows. Preferably, they sit on their bottoms. Optimally, they are cross-legged. We have been over this.

“Does anyone else have any questions which they would like to ask Ayoob about his picture of the White House?” I ask. From the red row, Yoonus looks over his glasses. “Who is this?” He touches the falling man. Ayoob shifts the paper away. “That’s George Bush!” I point to the grave in the basement. “And this one, Ayoob?” “That’s George Bush, too!” His voice is raw. “He deserves to die because he killed all the Muslims in Lebanon.”

Amani’s eyes find mine. I do not know what to say. Astagfirallah. “It sounds like you are really mad at him,” I try. “Are you?” He nods, lips shaking. “Do you know where anger comes from?” He draws his brow together. On the rug, Nouf raises her hand. “From the Shaytan,” she calls out. Hamza is on his knees again. “Yeah! From Ash-Shaytan!” I hold up a finger. “Thank you, First Graders,” I speak slowly. “Actually, I was talking to Ayoob. You can tell that, because I was looking at him. Right?”

“Ayoob,” I ask again, “do you know what kind of creature Ash-Shaytan is?” Ayoob looks at me strangely. “What?” I try again. “Is Ash-Shaytan an angel?” Ayoob shakes his head. The class rumbles. I have been ridiculous. “Ok,” I say. “Is Ash-Shaytan a human?” Ayoob is laughing now. “No!”

“Is Ash-Shaytan a jinn?” He pauses. “A what?” Ahmad asks from the light green row. “A djinn.” I try saying the first consonant differently. It is frustrating when my accent obscures my meaning. I am glad for Amani. “Jinn!” she repeats, loudly. Faces blossom with recognition. “Oh yeah!” Mouad says happily. “I know that. Shaytan is a jinn. And the jinn are made of fire. And they’re invisible. Some of them are bad.”

I am proud of him. “That’s exactly right, Mouad,” I say. “Now, if you are mad, and you know that anger comes from something firey, then what do you think you should do to get rid of it?” Marwa raises her hand. “Yes, buttercup?” She smiles. “Then you better have some water!” She wags her finger. Nadeer is serious, with his hand in the air. “You should make wudu.”

“Ashura min ashura,” I say. Ten out of ten. “Those are good ideas. If you are mad, then you can drink water, or make wudu. Also, if you are standing up, then you should try sitting down.” I pause. “Or if you are sitting down, then you can lie down.” Rabah’s eyes widen. “As long as you’re not touching anyone else on the carpet.” Amani looks up. “If I may, Sister Anna,” she says. I smile at her. “There’s another thing we can do.” She beams at the students. “Now, what is it that we say when we don’t want the Shaytan to come and bother us?”

They chant all at once, in the same singsong voice that they use for answering salams. “Audhu billahi min ash-shaytan ar-rajim.” Ayoob taps my knee. “What’s ar-rajim?” “The outcast,” I say. I try to think of a synonym that he will understand. “The person who got kicked out. We say this because Ash-Shaytan got kicked out of Paradise.” His eyes say nothing. I thought he knew this story. “Do you know where Ash-Shaytan came from?”

“No,” he says. “Do any of you guys know the story of Iblis?” I look at the rest of the class. They are uncertain. I fold my hands in my lap. “Bismillah,” I whisper. “Well, first Allah, Subhanahu wa Ta’ala, created the angels. They were made out of l—?” I look at the class. “Light!” they answer. I give them my nicest smile. “Yes. Jazakum Allahu khayran. The angels always do what Allah wills. They do not have the ability to disobey.” Ahmad raises his hand. “And the angels do jobs for Allah!” He beams.

“That’s right. Thank you, Ahmad,” Another day, we should list what some of those jobs are. I press on. “And then, Allah created the jinn. He created them out of smokeless f–?” “Fire!” Mouad shouts. I nod. He pulls his elbows back to his side in a victory dance. “Yes!” “Do you have something else you want to say about the jinn?” I ask. He nods. “Actually, they are here on Earth too.” He nods. “Wa Allahi.” Hamza balls up his cheeks. “What?! Those things are real?”

“Sure,” I nod. “The jinn are also on Earth, and some of them are visible, and some of them aren’t.” I survey the class. “Jinn aren’t like angels. They can choose whether or not to obey Allah’s will.” The students are quiet. “They can be good or bad. Some of them even worship Allah. Iblis was one of these.” Ayoob looks at me. The children on the rug do not move. They are still, imagining. “Iblis was so good at worshiping Allah, actually, that Allah took him up to heaven, to pray with the angels!” They are excited by this. Abdullah shakes his head. “Huh uh.” His eyes are starry, far away.

“Yes,” I say. “Isn’t that right, Sister Amani?” She nods. “Yes, Sister Anna.” The children turn to her. “And if I may just add something,” she pauses, and widens her eyes. Her voice starts on a high note. “Well! Guess who Allah created after the jinn?” They blink blankly at her. Suddenly, they are shy.

Amani grows tired of waiting. “Prophet Adam, alayhi salaam!” she says. “And guess what Allah, Subhanahu wa Ta’ala, made Prophet Adam from?” Nouf speaks out of turn. “Water!” It is a good guess. “No,” Amani says, “not just water. Actually, Allah created Prophet Adam from the water of Paradise and from clay.”

The children do not believe her. They look at me. “Jazaki Allahu khayran,” I tell her. “Thank you, Sister Amani.” Then to the students, “Sister Amani is right.” I rush on. “He mixed all the different colors of clay together to form Prophet Adam. Then Allah taught Prophet Adam all the names of everything. Finally, Allah told the angels to bow down to Adam, alayhi salam. All of them obeyed, except for Iblis. He was too proud. He told Allah that he didn’t want to bow down to someone made out of clay. He thought he was too good for that.”

“That was the first sin. Pride. Because of this, Allah kicked Iblis out of heaven, and out of His Mercy.” Rabah mouths “hellfire” at Basma, whose eyes instantly turn red. I glare at him. “And that’s how he became the Shaytan.” I draw a breath. “Now, do we want Shaytan to come in here and laugh at us?”

They shake their heads and stick out their tongues. Basma whispers. “No!” I wink at her. “We sure don’t! So when we get mad, we’re going to drink water, and make wudu, and sit down. And do you know something else you can do? When you are mad? To keep the Shaytan away?” Nobody knows. “Make du’a!” I rock back and forth in my chair. “Yesterday night, I was so mad at my roommate that I was hoping I’d never see her again,” I tell them. “I was so, so, so mad!” “What did she do?” Ahmad asks. “Never mind that,” Amani says. I feel my cheeks burn. “It isn’t important why I was mad,” I say. “But I made for du’a for her, and it totally helped. After that, I wasn’t angry at her at all.”

The children are still quiet, taking this in, all except Ayoob. He mutters something under his breath. “What was that, Ayoob?” I ask. He shakes his head. Yellow-brown bangs curl finely along his brow. “Nothing!” his cheek burn red. Then he looks up. “It’s the Muslims’ fault anyway, because they voted for him!” It takes me a moment to realize that we are back to Bush. I wonder if the others understand.

It is time to be more direct. “No,” I speak softly, “it’s not. You know that one person can’t take the sins of another, right?” At least three children nod. “Ayoob, it isn’t really up to us to say whose fault things are. You know who is the best judge?” He nods, fierce. “Allah.” “Right,” I agree. “Ayoob, you shouldn’t worry about Bush. The angels on his shoulders are writing everything down. Come on, honey. You’re a classy Muslim boy.”

He looks at me, unsure. “What does that mean?” “Classy,” I think. “being a classy Muslim boy means that you have good adab, that you are a gentleman, that you complete all of your work, and that you treat other living things with respect.” When he grins, his baby teeth are thin to the point of transparency. “And you’re cute,” I tease him. He smiles, and sits down.



1. skarim - 27 March 2008

subhan’Allah. i loved reading this – i feel there is so much to learn from children in how they absorb information and try and make sense of what they are seeing and what they are feeling.

jazaki’Allah khair for sharing.


2. maximus mercury - 27 March 2008

:) I love the careful paced way you write your stories, Anna! Very well done. And I think you are a really wonderful teacher – I’ve never been inside an Islamic school. In fact, my own education has been entirely in the Western tradition, no matter where on Earth I have lived. For the first time, I am seeing a different paradigm , all the more intriguing because it is entirely reimagined & an attempt at the sort of thing one only hears talked about most of the time – it has a lot to offer! I have questions about the ways in which regligious conversations pervade the schoolday, but for now, I am loving learning about your life and your work.

All the best!

3. null - 28 March 2008


If only we all had been lucky enough to have teachers like you.

4. Baraka - 28 March 2008

You write so thoughtfully and beautifully Anna.

Children are so fascinating as they become fully human (i.e., classy men and women :).

5. Anna - 28 March 2008

Dearest S,

It is always a pleasure to hear from you, Subhan Allah. Thank you for your encouragement. It’s true — sometimes the First Graders absorb amazing things. Once, in a fit of Iowanness, I said “maxin’ relaxin'” to them. (You know, to describe a weekend.)

Now they use the phrase in their own curious ways. For instance, last week, Marwa said to me ,”Mama was gettin’ upset at home, so I said, ‘maxin’ relaxin’, Mama!'”

Oops. :)


6. Anna - 28 March 2008

As-salaamu alaikum, Maximum M,

Thank you for writing. I appreciate your encouragement. :) Sometimes I don’t feel like a very good teacher. Alhammdulilah.

You should visit an Islamic school if there is one near you! You could read a story, or talk about your profession. Islamic schoolchildren (at least in the Dar al-Dawa) need all the good role models they can get. And there’s pretty much nothing more wonderful to watch than Dhuhr with the four year olds.

best wishes,

7. Anna - 28 March 2008

Jazakum Allahu khayran, Commentor numero tres.

8. Anna - 28 March 2008

Jazaki Allahu khayran, dear Baraka. Thank you for your kindness.

The ankle-biters are fascinating indeed. Today, for example, the power went off at school and suddenly every single boy expressed a pressing need to use the facilities…. you would think that there was nothing more amazing in the world than walking in the hallway with the lights off. :-)

I guess we’re all still working on our classiness.


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