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Qur’an Competition (First Grade) 3 April 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Culture, Education.

The wind catches the edge of my cloak while I walk backward up the hill. Down below, beyond our school, the pine trees are waiting. I hold my arms out at my shoulders and point my palms to the ground. In my mind’s eye, the pose recalls crucifixion. I exhale softly to encourage the vision to pass. The girls’ line follows my right hand, the boys’ line, my left. Behind them, the field gives way to marsh grass. It reminds me of a prairie, save the trees into which it disappears. Beyond our bog, there is another bog, and then another: they are white, reflecting the sky. Occasionally, they are red.

We pass the upper elementary building. Soccer fields filled with third graders give way to a sodden playground. The slide gleams, as if thirsty. Indeed, we have been back only twice since the accident. My heart skips, remembering. I hurry the lines along. Marwa and Sana lag behind, studying their feet and touching rocks. “Please, girls, catch up,” I tell them. “We can’t play the jumping game if I don’t have my girls’ line.”

Marwa’s eyes are wide as moons as she stands up. She is just over three feet tall, with a purple hood and blue barrettes. She wears loose blue pants beneath a navy jumper, over a long white shirt. She has no best friend in the class, though she terribly wants one. She shuffles up to Aminah’s back. “Thank you, Marwa,” I say. “I am glad to have you near me.” She shrugs her shoulders. “My stomach hurts.”

So she has said all day, though nothing seems to be wrong. “I hope that you will feel better soon, insha’Allah,” I tell her. “Should we play the jumping game?” She looks up quickly. “Yes.” Keeping my arms frozen solid, I tilt my spine until my right hand is above my head, and my left hand is near my knees. The girls’ line jumps. The boys’ line crouches.

I bring my arms back to a T. Both lines straighten. I tilt again, left hand up this time. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the boys hop. Hamza hurls his body into a ball, skidding forward on the wet black asphalt. He crashes into Ali’s back. I narrow my eyes at him. “Hamza, we are on our way to a Qur’an competition. It is important that we be respectful. Please keep your hands and feet to yourself.” I lower my arms to my sides. Everyone crouches. Between their various smiles, there are seventeen missing teeth.

I bring both arms up straight over my head, and press my wrists together to keep my sleeves in place. The children take a final jump. We have reached the parking lot. I stop the lines. “Okay, we are getting near the masjid. Starting now, you must be quiet. You can say your du’a in your heart, remember? Astaghfirullah, Alhamdulillah.” I walk in time to the words.

The children make a mad rush up the stairs to the shoe racks. They line up in their socks, blocking the doors into the musalla. I am relieved to see the prayer room more or less empty. A thousand soft burgundy domes, clean and stark against ivory, run through the carpet in perfect rows. Their woven spires point to the qibla. I wedge my way between the first graders and the door. “Step back and to the right, please. You are blocking the door. What would happen if someone opened it?” Some 140 days into the school year, and we have yet to get this part right. It is hard to smile. “Now, you are going to go in, and sit down in your rows where we practiced sitting yesterday,” I tell them. “Quietly. Go.”

I am surprised, inside, to find Shaikh Bishr. He sits off to one side, alone on the carpet, facing the qibla. He is dressed in full Islamic fashion; with a charcoal robe and a white kufi, he is unmistakably one of the Ummah. A younger man sits a few yards from him, also enrobed. I am surprised and then glad to recognize Brother Fawaz. We settle into our lines. A third man, older and wider, enters the body of the mosque. His hat is of splendorous colors, chiefly purple and blue. He approaches the prayer nook, and folds his hands over his heart. Out of respect for his privacy, I turn my head away.

It takes two minutes to seat my class perfectly on the floor. “Criss-cross, applesauce,” I say softly to the children. Amani helps me space them along the carpet. I gather the contestants at the head of the line: Mouad, Ahmad, Sana, Marwa and Aminah. Marwa folds her arms along her middle. “My stomach still hurts.” Years of ballet and piano recitals replay themselves on the backs of my eyelids. I recall nausea, dry-mouth and tears. Does she feel the same? “It’s okay, honey,” I tell her. “We’re going to have recess after this, and you’re going to be able to relax. Do you want to get a drink of water now?” Marwa shakes her head. “You are going to do a good job,” I whisper to the children. I try to hold all of their eyes in mine. “I love you, and I am proud of you.”

“Do you guys remember what Sister Sahar told us that we can do, before we read Qur’an?” I ask them. Their eyes are blank. “We can read Sura al-Fatiha in our hearts.” I pause. “Oh yeah,” Mouad speaks up. “And also, we should go slowly. You can go as slowly as you want.” Ahmad sits up on his heels. “Did you know?” he speaks up, “or you can make du’a.”

They have half a moment to begin these activities before Asma calls them to the front. Five lonesome chairs, arranged askew from the judges’ table, await. She settles the kindergartners into the chairs, and seats the first and second graders on the carpet behind them. In the middle of so much open space, the children seem to shrink. As they clutch the carpet, Brother Fawaz rises from his place by Imam Bishr’s side. He walks alone to the table and sits. From a carved wooden stand, he withdraws the Qur’an. His voice hums like a phone pole as he begins to read.

I do not recognize the Sura he has chosen. Ignorance gives way to worry. I wrack my brain for advice to give to the children. I imagine sliding across the carpet to my small band of competitors, and telling them the secret of excellent reading. Alas, I do not know it. As the recital stretches on, my awareness shifts from the children to the room. In the new carpet’s deep glow, the walls look more yellow than green: as if sunshine had found its way through the windows at last.

Compared to the inside of a church, the musalla is sparse. Neither altar nor sacristy graces the hall. There are no pews, nor pictures on the walls. Where there is decoration, it is unseen. Two bookshelves sit against the front wall, filled with copies of the Qur’an. On top of the left-most shelf stand five small vials. Oils ranging in hue from cinnamon to pale amber fill the tubes of glass. From their necks, a hint of perfume escapes. I turn my head from side to side to try to catch the scent, and am rewarded ever so faintly with attar of roses. Under my fingers, the new carpet is luxuriously soft.

As Brother Fawaz finishes reading, the Shaikhs join him at the table. The eldest clears his throat. A cluster of mothers settles in the corner. He takes them in with his eyes before he begins to speak. “We are here to read Qur’an. This is our purpose. This is what separates our school from others; this is what our children receive, which they would not receive in public school. Today, we are gathered to celebrate our purpose.” His voice is steady. “Barak Allahu feekum.”

He passes the microphone to his right, where Imam Bishr sits. I study the scholar from the floor. I have seen him at lectures and classes, at workshops and at taraweeh. Today, his countenance has a different aspect. It is open, and friendly and gentle. He does not speak of the importance of intention, nor of patience’s virtue.

“There is a blessing for you in reciting even a single harf,” he says with a smile. He holds the kindergartners in his gaze. “When you are reading Qur’an, every letter you say is a mercy and a blessing from Allah, Subhanahu wa Ta’ala. It is wonderful for us to be here together, reading. I would like to say thank you to your teachers for helping you to prepare.”

The children begin to tune out. From the back of our line comes a hiccup. My eyes seek out its source. There, between two taller boys, Nedal sits crying. The inner edge of his eyelids is as red as blood. Tears spike his eyelashes together. I scoot back along the carpet until I am beside him. “Is everything okay, mama?” I ask. He looks away, nodding.

“Sister Anna, am I going to compete?” he asks. The air catches in my throat. Somehow his wires have been crossed. “No honey,” I tell him, “you’re not reading today.” He turns his face to the floor. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” I try. “I’m not reading either.”

He gives me the back of his head. I look at the other teachers, hoping to catch someone’s eye, hoping that someone will help me. Alas, they are transfixed by the sight of the day’s first competitor. Karim, from kindergarten, sits with his shoes dangling from a chair before a microphone. He swings his feet back and forth. He asks for protection, and invokes the name of Allah. Then carefully, he raises his voice to recite. “Wash-shamsi waduhaha…….”



1. EDITOR - 4 April 2008

my favorite line:
“Between their various smiles, there are seventeen missing teeth.”

2. muppiechronicles - 4 April 2008

and mine:
“The slide gleams, as if thirsty.”

wonderful and touching – barak Allahu fikum :)

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