My time in a Madrassa


by Marcia Lynx Qualey, 4/16/08 • Engage Minnesota • Several years ago, I would have told you confidently—if haltingly—that I worked in a madrassa. Ana bashtaghal fi madrassa, I would’ve said. I worked there as a mudarissa, a teacher.

Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion. Muslims, and friends of Muslims, would like to change this climate. Engage Minnesota is a blog that begins that effort.

Madrassa and mudarissa were two of the first words to drop into my growing Arabic vocabulary. After all, I’d traveled all the way to Cairo, Egypt to take a job teaching pre-K at an international school. The words were useful.

For me, the word madrassa was almost empty of connotations, like escuela or école. When I first learned them, the words had no layers: They were attached to no stories, no sayings. All the word madrassa meant to me was a collection of beige buildings in the desert where I wrangled four-year-olds all day.

Time passed, and I got to know teachers at different schools around Cairo. The main difference between schools was not religion, but funding: There were public schools and better public schools; there were private schools and really wealthy private schools. There could be 70 children in your class or 50 or 20 or 15. If there were 70 children in your class, you’d better hope that your parents could scrape together enough money to get you an after-school tutor.

The texts I saw were oddly familiar. My wealthy private school, which ran almost all of its classes in English, used boring workbooks from the U.K. The son of an apartment-building super, who attended public school near our neighborhood, once showed me his boring English workbook. It had been published in the U.K.

I returned to the U.S. in 2005, but it was a long time before the new, odd use of madrassa penetrated my senses. A few months ago, when I heard the smear campaign about Barack Obama—the claim that he had attended a school—I found it difficult to grasp. I’d gone to school. Presumably all the reporters who passed along this non-story had attended school, as had the pundits and bloggers who dreamed it up.

The word shifted in my head: school, escuela, madrassa, école. I laughed a little and went about my business.

It was only when Katherine Kersten fixed her sights on Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) that the new, derogatory use of madrassa finally wormed its way into my consciousness. Taken aback, I read the posts of numerous Kersten-fueled bloggers, who accused TIZA of being a school.

I could no longer laugh. As though I were seeing the word for the first time, I had to look it up. As in some parallel version of Orwell’s 1984, I doubted my senses. Had I really been a mudarissa? Had I really worked in a madrassa? Did the word not mean something sinister, terrible, cruel?

I looked it up in a sober Arabic-English dictionary—and on good-old Wikipedia—and of course its meaning hadn’t changed. Nothing had changed since I’d associated madrassa with a cluster of sand-colored buildings in the desert where I wrangled four-year-olds all day. It was the same word it had been when I linked it to children whose shirts were untucked and whose gray uniform pants askew; when I linked it to boring British workbooks.

Then again, something had shifted. A small group of Americans had seized hold of a word—one we generally associate with the best in humanity, with education and enlightenment and opportunity—and turned it into a xenophobic slur. Even PBS fell into the error, claiming in a school study guide that a madrassa is a type of “Islamic religious school” where “many of the Taliban were educated.”

I don’t doubt the existence of militant religious schools, and that they cultivated many of the Taliban. However, to use the Arabic word school to imply terrorist activity seems to indicate that Arabs should forgo education altogether.

Most Minnesotans don’t have emotional ties to the word madrassa. Still, we need not consign it (school, escuela, école) to the scrap-heap where we’ve tossed jihad and shariah and a lot of other words we’ve allowed a vocal minority to uglify. We can still rescue madrassa. Education is, after all, something we want for all Minnesotans, all Americans, all members of our human race.

For a tiny minority, there might be something sinister about a bunch of eight-year-old Muslims getting together inside a beige or red-brick building to learn how to read and write and do sums.

But, for the rest of us, we can take back the word madrassa. I can say: My son goes to a madrassa that is located in a Jewish temple off Mississippi River Boulevard. I’ve taught in a madrassa in New York, one in Russia, and one in Cairo. My aunt taught in a madrassa in Fridley until she retired. My great-grandmother Emma, who lived up in Morris, was certified to teach in a one-room madrassa.

I loved attending madrassa. While now and then we children could be a little cruel, the things I learned there have benefited me. Immeasurably.

This essay previously appeared in the MinnPost.

Marcia Lynx Qualey is an MFA candidate and works for the University of Minnesota’s Voices from the Gaps website. She is also 38 weeks pregnant, which is a job in itself.