Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Qur’an Memorization

on December 21, 2013

After school started, curiosity about our features and speech abated somewhat in our own class, but not quite so ever in the rest of the school. At recess, groups of older girls would walk arm in arm towards wherever we were, and they would smile to us and ask kindly, “What’s your name?”  — “aish ismik?”  And so we would obediently answer, “Saadia wa Fawzia.” And they would burst out laughing and repeating our answer. We did not realize then that it was our accent that was so entertaining and the sing-song manner of our tone.

Because girls education was still new, our first grade class was not full of only seven-year-olds. Beside the two of us, there were a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old as well.  Later in the term, an older Bangladeshi girl named Fatima joined us as well. She was the only girl in the entire school to be allowed to wear flip-flops instead of white socks and black shoes. The reason was simple: her feet could not fit in any shoe. She had six toes on each foot, as well as six fingers on each hand. The extra fingers had no bones in them and would stick out when she closed her fist. This phenomenon served her well as I soon found out. One day, yet again more students from other grades came to bother us during recess. Fatima closed her fists and raised in front of her her two weapons: the lumpy sixth fingers. She would growl and charge toward the enemy, fists forward! And the girls would scream and flee for their lives! What relief! I just loved Fatima!


Our own classmates also eventually became our defenders. One day, I was sitting in the school yard on a bench in a shady area, as usual, because of my tendency to feel faint in the sun. An older student prowled towards us and tried teasing us again with the question, “Aish ismik?” By then, I was perfectly aware that every single soul in the school knew our names by heart and therefore I refused to answer. This brat then pulled my white handkerchief out of my pocket and ran a few yards, waved it at me and taunted me with it. I could barely hold my tears back. This handkerchief was vital to my sanity. The headmistress would inspect it whenever she felt like it at assembly time, where we had to display our clean and clipped fingernails on the folded clean handkerchief. Which used to make me wonder why we needed it if we could not use it at all. Any girl who failed to do so was pulled out of the ranks and taken to the office. I never figured out what happened there and did not want to know, really.

My first reaction was to chase that girl and get my handkerchief back. But just standing up suddenly caused me to get dizzy, and I knew immediately there was no way I could catch her. The disease that caused me to urinate blood and lose most of my chubbiness a few years before had by then reduced me to skin and bones. The stress of attending school did not help at all, and though I did not know it then, I had started to develop a peptic ulcer. Mama had tried to fatten me unsuccessfully. She once even sneaked butter under a thick layer of peanut butter in my sandwich. But the minute I smelled the bread, I detected that dreaded nauseating odor of butter. I refused to eat it. Mama pulled out her Chinese parental authority. She sharply ordered me to eat it. I was in tears but tried to obey. No sooner did I start chewing the first mouthful than I gagged and vomited everything onto the table. Mama never tried again. My health was so poor and I was so weak that I could not run well, especially not in the sun.

And so I stood trembling, and tried to run a few wobbly steps, and was on the brink of bursting into tears, glaring angrily at this sillly girl who thought it great fun to enjoy watching my funny gawky gait. Saadia saw the scene and called to our classmates, “Let’s get that handkerchief back!”  Six or seven girls all ran after that older girl and chased her around the school till they cornered her and grabbed that treasured piece of white linen back. They soon brought it back to a sniffling me. Ah, Dearest Saadia! Was I glad to have such a great healthy sister and such great helpful classmates!

arabic alphabet

As time marched on, our homeroom teacher also started loving the two of us more than the rest of the class. All teachers love good students, and she was no exception. We had to learn the alphabet, Alif, Ba, Ta, Tha. And we already knew it, thanks to Teacher Lin, and despite his Chaplin impressions. Our homework consisted of filling a whole page of columns of “Alif”, which is a vertical line, a “Ba”, which is a horizontal dish with a dot underneath, and so on. Or, for math, pages of 1, 2, 3, and so on. For someone who was struggling with long divisions, writing a whole page of 2 or 3 was a piece of cake. I would finish my homework in the wink of an eye, and go to the embassy school, which now operated only in the afternoon.

Qur’an memorization was indeed part of the syllabus, though not the entirety of it. It was inculcated the good old way, meaning, rote memorization. I barely remember any teaching of the meaning of what we were reciting. The teacher did talk to us about some of it, because I recall mentioning a description of Heaven and Hell embellished my way, and my mother laughed, remarking that the teacher was good at ad libbing. But we never were given homework or tested on those meanings.

The teacher would chant a phrase, and the whole class would chant it back. Oh, it wasn’t any lovely chant as one can hear from famous reciters nowadays on the Internet. It was just a boring sing-song type of chant, the same tune for every single sentence. The best reciters were Saadia, me, and two other girls, Hind and her sister.  Aisha, the 14-year-old was good too but too sedate to join in our games. Hind was a loud and bossy leader.  She would purposely speed up or slow down the chant so the whole class would have to adjust their speed accordingly.  Sometimes she would wink and nod to us, and notch up the chant by a full tone, and we would follow suit, forcing again the entire class to do likewise.

Our classroom was in one of the small back buildings in the yard. There was no air condition, just a ceiling fan and a small high window.  The room was long and narrow, not very conducive to good ventilation. The students were seated on benches made for two that were attached to double desks. But we were stuffed three, four or five to a bench. Day after day, we swayed rhythmically to the cadence of the chant, in a semi torpor of heat blown by the mild breeze of the ceiling fan, shoulder to shoulder, in our grey frocks. We were tested occasionally, one at a time. And if one did not know her verses perfectly by heart, she would be sent to stand in front of the blackboard. Once all students had their turn, and all failures lined up, our dear smiling teacher would collect wooden rulers from the students. She would try out their resilience on her palm, swatting two or three together for added strength. Then all poor learners were to stick out their hands palm up, and the darling lady, plump and giggly, would swing her weapon upon those fleshy palms so hard that she often broke the rulers. The memory of the sting of that shoe horn was still fresh enough on my mind, and I made sure never to be lax on my memorization of the divine verses. But I would hide my ruler and pretend I had left it home so as  not be part of the punishment. Actually I was also so Mama wouldn’t have to keep on buying me new ones.

Rote memorization may be boring, but it works. In the two years we spent in the Saudi school, Papa boasted that we learned over 20 chapters of the Qur’an by heart. Most of them have survived the erosion of time and are still on the tip of my tongue today.


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