Living in New York has changed my language. That, more than anything has signified the difference between home and here. Home, Cape Town, a twenty-five hour flight and two security checks away, means different food, slower internet connections, more obvious racial segregation, interfering aunties and a constant awareness of one’s physical safety. Those are the clear differences, the ones I can weigh and see and hold. But in the last few months something has shifted; words that I have always carried with a peculiar kind of tenderness and ease have been coated by something distasteful and defensive. Some words suffer horribly in translation; others change shape radically when they travel, and there are a few (emotional shortcuts to my home and my past) that have acquired an unnerving timbre and resonance through their Atlantic crossing.
One of these words, madressa, seems especially charged in New York. I have said this word during public discussions, between puffs over a shared cigarette, as an after thought in exchanged confidences about the past, and have been repeatedly surprised by the startled response. The reaction at one dinner party was especially strange. We were speaking about religion and childhood, the perfect space in which to pour both laughter and suffering—with a dash of guilt for dismissing old loyalties. Everyone offered their bit; choking on the Eucharist wine, running away at the crucial moment in a cousin’s bris, inventing wildly inappropriate sins for confession. The stories were funny and moving. Then I mentioned that I had spent my afternoons after school at madressa. What followed was fleeting; a second of silence that seemed to hang in awkward angles in the air, eyes darting about quickly, gratefully settling on inspecting furniture or cutlery and then a sudden burst of conversation with offers of more food and wine.
It took me days to work it out.
Madressa here seems to conjure up images of young children being brainwashed into turning themselves into human bombs by unfeeling adults hell-bent on world-domination. These adults are mostly men with an excess of facial hair and zealot eyes that flash on cue; the children are generally sweet looking tots clothed in Hamas-style gear who unnerve everyone with their unchildlike chanting. The word which I had grown up inter-changing easily with ‘school’ seems to summon the same kind of shudder that usually accompanies jihad or burkha—two other words which have become uncomfortably loaded. This is not to imply that I have been surrounding myself by rabid right-wingers. On the contrary, the flinch at the word comes from people who are genuinely concerned that I might have had to resist the frothing instructions of a crazed anti-Semite who wanted to cover my hair and insert fundamentalism in my mouth. I have stopped finding the flinch especially offensive: I have only seen madressas portrayed in two Hollywood films, Syriana and Rendition, both works that make a concerted effort to be balanced critiques of the roots of terrorism. In Syriana two Pakistani boys run around in a pretty garden playing soccer and bee-keeping, only to have their idyll shattered by a green-eyed teacher who shows them a large missile. In Rendition, the madressa is a covert political cell grooming a new generation of suicide bombers. The imam shouts ‘Takbir!’ and the students, whipped into an emotional frenzy chant back ‘Allahu Akbar’. I have only ever heard the Takbir chanted as a battle cry in films or footage of protests in other countries. I grew up hearing ‘God is Great’ whispered in prayers, by people expressing gratitude at good news, or chanted through the loudspeakers at the local mosques as a call to prayer. The notion of maddressa being tangled up with war and killing is utterly foreign to me.
It is a strange thing to see your own past refracted through a distorted lens. I grew up in a devout Muslim community in South Africa that had its roots snarled in the trauma of spice and slave trade of the 1700s. Today, the Muslim population in Cape Town—diverse, modern, traditional, religious, secular— numbers at around 900,000 and is deeply intertwined with the life and character of the country. It has framed itself as a community for over three hundred years—but has only been free for the tiniest portion of that time. Slavery ended just over a hundred and sixty years ago, apartheid barely thirteen years ago. Those twin evils continue to cast long and terrible shadows. Life under systemized oppression was a porous experience—the law tended to seep into everything, circumscribing even verbal freedoms. Madressa, despite its strict structure was a space in which many people felt safe to speak about the difficulties, stresses and awfulness of life under apartheid.
Years ago, certain life choices led me towards embracing a secular existence. The decision had very little to do with Islam in particular and more to do with religion in general. Organized faith does not feel all that compatible with the way I organize my life, but that doesn’t stop me from being enormously invested in how the world understands and mediates the faith and the people I love who continue to practice it.
I tried explaining this to someone and she shrugged ‘Old loyalties die hard’, but the question is not of old loyalties, it is of loyalty itself, and a loyalty to the truth of one’s own history. Post-9/11, there have been an array of books published by women who were born into Muslim families and have embraced secularism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel is just one of them. Her experience of madressa, veiling and Islam has been horrific, her anger and pain is understandable, but her story has become monolithic. Irshad Manji’s book, The Trouble with Islam Today (in many ways a clarion and important call for open and tolerant debates about Islam) describes her madressa as being steeped in bigotry and sexism with a teacher who, unable to handle her questions, asks her to leave the school. For me, reading and watching Hirsi, Hollywood and Manji’s madressas are more like anthropological forays into another world that bear very little resemblance to my school.
My experience of madressa was for the most part quite banal. Boring yes, but not tarnished by the same kinds of cruelty that shaped these women’s experiences. Instead, it raised some crucial questions around personal identity and provided an institutionalized morality that acted as an antidote to the state-sanctioned inequality. Coming of age in an economically schizophrenic city (grinding poverty, oppression and police brutality coupled with excessive European beach-resort type wealth), in the midst of a low-grade civil war, in a community defined by state- prescribed ‘race’ (coloured, Malay, Indian) was not easy. Going to a private all-girls Anglican school in the day (morning chapel, hot lunch, tennis, prefects, blazers, curtsey to the headmistress) and then off to madressa (suras, recitations, old men with beards, compulsory burkhas) in the late afternoons tended to complicate things more.
For the most part, I didn’t want to go to madressa. An hour of intense religious instruction after a full day at school is torturous for any child. I remember feeling coerced and resentful, that my body, heavy from the impending boredom, felt as though it was being dragged there and that my parents (not especially religious themselves) were peculiarly intractable about attendance. My attention span wondered constantly while we learnt classical Arabic, aspects of Shariah law and how to make salaat. I had a constant flow of potential excuses for not going. I drew inspiration from the weather: it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too windy; to the instruction: the sheik expects less from the girls than boys, he smells of pipe tobacco, he isn’t very bright; to the other students who were singularly unimpressed by my going to a private, Christian-based school: don’t keep yourself white! was a regular admonishment. I regularly ditched classes taking refuge at my friend Celeste’s house—she had wild curly hair and a crucifix above her bed; she wasn’t going to tell anyone where I was.
I walked to madressa with my sister throughout the 1980s. The steep hill tilted our bodies forward as we fought against a wind that rushed us down the sloped road as if it was propelling us faster towards God. Our cream burkhas (flung on quickly while we gobbled our afternoon tea) fell mid-knee covering our shorts and t-shirts. The school was close by, at Mrs. Essop’s house. On the garage wall someone had spray-painted the command, ‘Remember June 16, Lights Out!’ The date was a reminder of the Soweto uprisings of 1976 in which thousands of school children protesting the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, were shot and beaten by the army. The graffiti stayed on Mrs. Essop’s wall for five years, from the beginning of the 1985 State of Emergency until the un-banning of the A.N.C in 1990. It was an annual command to turn off the television, stop the clocks, silence the radio and switch off the lights. It was a call for darkness and quiet, a moment to mourn the uncountable dead. The neighborhood would plunge into silence; candles-light danced at windows and the smell of a tire burning in a confrontation a few streets away would drift up towards my parents’ house. Growing up in the 1980s in South Africa had all the qualities of an unending nightmare, surreal and frightening.
We would run in (always slightly late) at the kitchen entrance and shout out greetings to the aunties standing over stoves, chatting through a haze of cigarette smoke and sipping their tea. The room upstairs was full of veiled sunlight. The afternoon light was softened by the thick net curtains and repetitive brownness of the floor, furniture and carpet. There were perhaps thirty boys and girls. We crowded around a long, rectangular wooden table. In the centre sat our teacher. He was a little man with a beard, a fez and a love of stories. He published educational books filled with miraculous tales about children who could recite the entire Koran by heart at the age of seven. The miracle children would pose for the camera with the wide-eyed look of someone surprised by the intensity of the flash, not being made privy to a spiritual revelation.
We sat and shaped out mouths around the foreign alphabet, making our throats murmur with a nasal intonation. The world was reversed for an hour everyday; sentences ran from right to left, the text was written by spirit, not flesh, and we were costumed as though from another country. We learned about a man called Sheik Yusuf, a prince from Macacasar, who was imprisoned on Robben Island in 1600s for defying the Dutch. “The first political prisoner on the island” our imam would say, and then sigh, “And not the last…certainly not the last.” Sometimes he would twitch the curtains apart and look out across the bay, staring at the island where our leaders sat in tiny cold cells. On good days he told us stories; about Moosa floating along the Nile rescued by an Egyptian queen, about Ebrahim willingly waving a axe ready to chop off his son’s head in a sacrifice to God, about Hagar, dying of thirst in the desert and ran between two points crying to God to help her and he created a fountain of the sweetest water for her to drink. But mostly we sat immobile memorizing lists of what was haraam and what was fardh, which prayers matched which occasion and taking turns to stare at the clock and trying to move the hands forward Jedi-style.
Did the old man shout at us? Certainly. Was he violent? I remember him hitting the boys but even this was not especially shocking. Corporal punishment was legal and the violence in classrooms often reiterated the violence in the streets. In the midst of reciting suras, I would often look up and see a boy leaning against the wall, trying to hide his snot and tears, pulling at his fez, wiping at his eyes with the edge of his shirt. Muslim school was not without fear and darkness, but there were no moments of frenzied Takbir, or declarations of any earthly enemies except for the ones sitting in South African parliament. My madressa was not especially politicized but I had a friend whose teacher mixed Islam with Steve Biko’s black consciousness and shaped his lessons with an Afro-centrism that was heavily informed by Marx. My sheik was not terribly inspiring or child-friendly. He was a serious scholar who wrote books about the importance of Jesus in the Koran. In another life perhaps he would have willed his hours away debating theology in a mosque. I don’t think he was predisposed to teaching children, but he never taught us to judge or hate anyone for not being Muslim.
Words change as they travel. I know this. I understand that they assume different weights, new nuances. But the sense of difference between the afternoons in that brown room and the embarrassed silence that tends to follow it here is made of more than just meaning shaded by place; they were worlds apart, unrecognizable to each other. I have grown up using the word madressa as unthinkingly and normatively as I speak of internal spiritual struggles as jihad or understood the Palestinian uprisings and the intifadas in black South African townships as desperate, miserable mirrors of each other. Wearing a scarf has only ever been something optional. Burkha, chador, abaya, these have been words associated with things required to be worn during prayer, to mark a moment as sacred, not to be garbed in all day. I remember my cousin Sarha, freckled and serious appearing at a family gathering one day, her head covered. ‘Why?’ my sister and I asked her bare-headed then as now, ‘Because I want to’ she answered, and then showed us how she wrapped the material around her head, Badu-style, when she went to work because her boss didn’t think it looked very fashionable the triangular way. There are psychological pressures though, which can be heart-breaking; another cousin, barely seven, her fingers flicking with absolute confidence while she tucks the material flat against her forehead securing it with hairpins, her mother looking on with pride, my heart constricting against my chest. But in South African communities, these are predominantly negotiable traditions, they are not enforced by law.
These stories are not to deny that there are madressas used for propaganda and violence in certain parts of the world, or to suggest that the induction of children into fanatical belief systems is not wrong or sordid. It is not to insist that there are not women suffering terribly under the excesses of Islamic patriarchy, or that the concept of an internal spiritual struggle has not been publicly co-opted into something bloodthirsty and frightening. These stories are just to say that there are hundreds of thousands of rooms around the world, like the one in Mrs. Essop’s house, in which children are learning about a particular faith and its traditions without hate or hysteria.
Looking back through the haze of easy boredom that cloaked those afternoons, I notice that in the midst of my young restlessness I also learned something about duty and discipline and purpose. In affirming those ancient rituals, in believing that I was being protected by something larger and more mysterious that I could conceptualize, a small part of my fear around the constant national chaos was placated. As an adult, I doubt it would have helped as much. But as a child, seeing that same graffiti “Lights out June 16!” for 5 years on the same wall made me believe that God and justice were on the same side.
Nadia Davids is a South African-born playwright who is currently based in Brooklyn. She was nominated for the Noma Award for her play At Her Feet.