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Banishment 25 September 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Education.

She frames it as a question. “Do you think that they’re too young to go upstairs to the masjid?” I watch lunchtime from the doorway; on my left, my twenty charges. On my right, elegance, in black, is waiting. “I know they enjoy the change of pace,” I try to avoid answering.

For a moment I imagine my two unruly lines, boys separate from girls, laughing and chattering. What a difference five children makes; at times this year’s group of twenty feels twice as big as last year’s fifteen. Leading them up to the masjid is an exercise in repeating. The “No”s and the “Don’t”s outnumber the “Do”s; paths and plants and bugs and shoes and stairs and voices and hands and cars and gaps can be overwhelming.

If walking to the masjid is an undertaking, arriving is a blessing. Once First Grade is safely inside, I can breathe easily. For twenty minutes, there are other adults with whom to share responsibility. There are other children to admire. I can chart the growth of last year’s class. I can relax enough to pray. From Brother Zine’s takbiratul ihram until we have finished our dua, I am reminded of what it is that I am a part of. From the row behind the girls’ line, I can see the whole school before me. I imagine the angels changing shifts, doing their reporting.

At my side, the principal does not miss a beat. “You can keep them here to pray, if you would like, Sister Anna,” she says. Hayam joins us in the side of the door. She is unwed to school policies, her temper blunt with fasting. “They’re not going to learn to pray if they don’t see good examples of prayer in congregation.”

I am grateful to her for voicing this opinion. Sister Najat sighs. “Look, Brother Hanif complained. You know he’s the only male teacher, and he can’t handle your boys, and all the others besides. It seems that your boys are antagonizing the older ones. There have been reports of them stepping on feet and elbowing. I need you to keep them here in the classroom, and pray on the rug, at least until you get the ‘adab under control. It isn’t fair to the older kids.” She looks at me for confirmation. Muzzamil picks this moment to upend his mat; Table Four is showered with crumbs of chicken nugget breading.

For a moment the desire to answer back rises up in me. Who is antagonizing? My boys, bless them, are a handful and a half. But, to a first order approximation, they lack the planning skills to antagonize anyone. The set of Sister Najat’s chin tells me that her mind is made up. We will be praying here. “I would like us to return to the masjid, when we have mastered our ‘adab,” I say.

The principal nods. “Sure. And maybe it will only take two days. See how it goes. You can lead them through the prayer. Tell them to read al-Fatiha, tell them what to say in their hearts when they make ruku’. It’s a silent prayer, anyway. One of them can lead it; just make sure that they know when to say ‘Allahu akbar.'”

We make our pleasantries swiftly, and she turns on her heel to leave. The ends of her cloak are swept up in her pace; they follow her like blackbird wings. I wonder, watching her go, when Hayam and I are supposed to pray. We rally the children to finish their lunch. Soon enough, the smell of zataar is replaced with the smell of bleach. The table washers clutch wipes in their hands, while a pair of girls scrub the mats. Two by two, the First Graders leave to make wudu.

They return, faces variously sticky, to me. Cleaning up drags, wudu runs long. We are five minutes late for the athan by the time the class is ready. I clear my throat to mention prayer. At the first sign from me, the students rush to the shade of the classroom doorway. They raise their index fingers to their lips while they line up, chattering.

I shake a glass jar of buttons on my desk to get their attention. At the sound of the fabled button jar, which when filled promises a movie, the class leaves off talking. “Actually, we’re going to pray here today, insha’Allah.” I fold my arms in front of me. “Could the First Graders please return to their seats?”

Everyone feels like an exception. Fingers as thin as colored pencils stop to touch me. “But Sister Anna…” “Why?” “Are we still having recess?” “I like to go..” I raise my voice a hair. “Every time that I need to repeat my directions, I am going to take a minute off of your Recess Counter.” My tone makes my ears itchy.

“Do you guys remember when we talked about khushoo’?” I ask when everyone is seated. A few heads nod, a few look at the walls. “What’s khushoo’?” asks Hana, without raising her hand. “Please remember the first rule of First Grade,” I tell her. She raises her hand.

“What’s khushoo’?” she asks again. “It’s concentration in prayer,” I say. “Khushoo’ is when you pay attention during salah.” She nods with her lower lip open. “Thank you, Hana,” I pause. “First Graders, everyone, the teachers, the big kids, and you guys all need to have khushoo’ in salah. That’s the only way we can talk to Allah.”

“We are going to pray Salatul Dhuhr in our room, so that you guys can develop better khushoo’. Also, it is not fair to the other students when some First Graders show bad manners in the mosque and disrupt their khushoo’. When you guys can show me that we are ready to pray with the rest of the school, then we can go back to the masjid. Do you understand?”

Forty six-year-old eyes reluctantly agree. “How many days will it be, Sister Anna?” Walid leans back in his chair to ask. I am sucker for smilers. “Two, hopefully, habibi.” I rub my palms together to warm them. “Okay, I will dismiss you table by table to go to the edge of the rainbow rug, and take off your shoes. Please make a girls’ line in the back, and a boys’ line in the front. Table One?”

It takes Hayam and I each a steady six minutes to form the lines. I take the girls and she takes the boys; mine lean against the wall, rest like storks with their feet against knees, talk to their neighbors, crane their necks to read books, and perennially scoot to the left. “Jasmine, move. to. the. right.” It is the fifth time I have repeated this advice. I try not to bite my words.

At last, the lines are more or less frozen. From the boy’s line, Walid speaks up again. “Who’s going to be the imam?” Half the boys step out of place to look at him, and to volunteer. “Stop!” I make the quiet sign. “Khalas. Boys, line up. Please raise your hand if you know how to be the imam, and if you would like to be the imam. Sister Hayam and I are going to pick someone based on ‘adab.”

While the boys line reforms, I wonder how the students in the masjid are doing. Are they much better off without us? I do not want to believe that my students have led everyone else astray. Alhamdulillah, Anna Marie. You should be following Sister Saadia’s advice. You should be making dhikr. Subhan Allah, Subhan Allah, Subhan Allah. I try to open my eyes more widely.

We settle on Hamoudi for Imam, and Mashhood for iqama.

In terms of etiquette, the prayer is a mess. Eyes wander, people twirl. Hands reach for and play with things. I interrupt the students to scold them. Some girls lead the imam; others do not make ruku’. The boy on the end thinks making sujud means curling up like a ladybug. The imam sits interminably between prostrations, such that Hayam clears her throat and looks at him. “Hamoudi. Allahu Akbar.”

By the time we finish the fourth rakat, Hayam is narrating. “Read Al-Fatiha in your hearts. Allahu akbar. Say Subhana Rabbiyal Adtheem. In your hearts, please. Sami Allahu li man hamidah.” Hamoudi keeps looking over his shoulder. With a final tasleem, he pulls his knees up to his chest.

The class makes dua, and traces dhikr tranquilly up their fingers. Sitting, they seem more stable than they did standing. The girls want desperately to be in charge; when they finish a cycle of dhikr, they announce a new one to the class. “Alhamdulillah, thirty-three times!” Tala’s voice is squeaky. Oh children, I think, watching them, I do not know where to begin to the help you. Your prayer is a disaster.

You can recite a lot of the Qur’an, alhamdulillah, but you have no idea as to how to pray. Apparently, it is my job to teach you. Should I start with “follow the imam”? “Make wudu”? “Close the gap between you and your neighbor”? “Keep your eyes on your sujud spot”? “Read Sura al-Fatiha”? What about the ever popular “Be quiet”? “Prayer is obligatory”?

I take in the class at my feet. What you need, I decide, is to like prayer. If you were motivated, you could master any one of these things. You are surely capable of minding all the individual steps. What might make you enjoy prayer?

Then I remember the sunnah rakats, the extras prayers that we don’t have to pray, and the reward promised to us by Allah if we do, in fact, pray them. “Hey First Graders!” I say with a smile. “Do you know what Allah, Subhanahu wa Ta’ala, will build for you in Jannah each day that you pray 12 sunnah rakat?”

After a minute I tell them. They beam. “Wallahi, Sister Anna?” A castle?”



1. misspecs - 27 September 2008

You’ve pointed out such an important issue in a very sensitive manner. MashaAllah, i was enraptured…entranced!

In our mosque, this year, they prevented the women from praying taraweeh because ‘they bring their children’ who ‘make so much noise that they disturb men’s khushoo’

You handled it so well MashaAllah. I’ve taken inspiration from this. JazakAllah.

2. Anna - 28 September 2008

Sslaamu alaikum, misspecs.

wayyaki. Thank you so much for writing. Barak Allah feeki. Hopefully the prayers were broadcast so that you could still see them. In the church my mother attended in Iowa, they had a glassed-in room (okay, it could have been plastic. It was clear, anyway.) in the back where the ladies with noisy children had to say. You could still see and hear (on speakers) the mass from there, but children were relatively contained.

(Okay, I’ve never seen such a thing in a masjid here. But maybe it could work? at the laylat ul qadr prayers the other night, i was given occasion to reflect on just how noisy the women’s section was. what i could actually hear was one part imam, and a few parts children. a little boy decided to use my knee (and the knee of the lady next to me) as a peeping point to survey the back of the room. Etc. I could not help but wonder how different the men’s section was. As my friend pointed out when I asked her the next night, “Well, we never hear the men.” Hmm.)

Anyway. I think I need to be more gentle with the children.. I was surely disappointed that Sister Hayam and I won’t be able to pray in congregation for some time. May Allah help me to find suitable ways to encourage them. (I really don’t know which of the finer points of prayer etiquette to discuss first. “Keep your eyes on your sujud spot” is a personal favorite…) Any advice?

best wishes,

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