Sunday, July 4, 2010

Jeddah's School for Girls

The word mecca has a connotation today that means something like "a place of congregation for a specific group of people with a similar goal or preferred activity." That is a meaning I made up. To me, whenever I see the word mecca or hear it pronounced in that funny way by people who do not speak Arabic, I get a bit annoyed.

For around 3 years, I lived in the place the word mecca is named after. Makkah al-Mukarramah: Makkah, the holy or blessed city. I spell it as Makkah and I pronounce it as "Muk-ka", not "Meh-cuh" as most non-Muslims or non-Arabic speakers do. That "meh-cuh" pronunciation sounds so off to me. It doesn't sound right at all and it irritated me to no end. It'd like hearing people say "Eye-rack" or "Eye-ran" or, even worse, "Saw-dee Arabia" where the "saw" sounds like the tool you use to cut things, or the past tense of "I see"; i.e. "I saw." Ugh! I hate hearing these bastardisations, especially from news reporters. I don't care what your first language is or where you are originally from, I think you should at least try to say things correctly or as close as you can possibly get.

However, I am getting off topic. What I really want to talk about is Makkah; the city of spirituality and holiness for all Muslims: Shi'ia, Sunni, whatever you are. I was brought up as a Sunni Muslim, so I should really consider myself lucky to have been near the Kaabah, where all Muslims wish to go once in their lives. One of the five pillars of Islam is the need to go to perform the Hajj pilgrimage at least once. I lived there for a few years but I never got to do the pilgrimage because I was very young.

I mean, look at me. I'm a little pipsqueak in front of my house, here, and it is as if I was not even in the holiest and most important Islamic city in the world. I'm just in my front yard (which is made of concrete and sand, really):

Yes, here I am back at age 5/6-ish, living in a place where many Muslims save all their money to go and perform this one pilgrimage. All I care about are my cool Disney's Lion King clothes and little pink bicycle. I was probably on my way to crashing into a spiky bush or someone's car. I was a crummy bike rider. 

But that is what you do, when you are a kid. You don't think about prayers and God or the Prophet or Hajj. You think about sneaking into the TV room, late at night (maybe as late as...gasp...9!) and watching MTV, or eating cookies your Mom tried to hide in the kitchen. You do not think about your spiritual city.

I thought a lot about school. I went to an all-girls' school in Jeddah, the neighbouring port city. I used to pass under this bridge every single weekday:

[Excuse the poor quality of the picture. I took this as a later date, in a car, on a drive from Jeddah to Makkah. The bridge is in the shape of an open book; the Qur'an to be exact. Qur'an: another word that has been destroyed by the English language and pronunciation to things like "Koran." Ugh.]

Jeddah, unlike Makkah, was not a spiritual centre but a multi-cultural one with people of different religions. In Makkah, only Muslims were allowed. However, Jeddah's proximity to Makkah and its location in one of the premier Islamic countries does not allow for the dilution of Saudi Islam. It is still considered to be the most liberal city in all of Saudi, though. This is something I have not been able to fully comprehend, mostly because I have never really lived life as a Saudi. I don't really know what liberal or conservative means here.

I have, however, lived life as a Muslim child in Saudi. Right now, I am just floating around here so it's not easy to compare. I went to school as a little Muslim girl back then and it was a very different life. 

Like with any school that has religious influences, the Muslim kids stuck together and the very few non-Muslims were practically invisible. So there I was, in this all-girls school that had kindergarten all the way up to the "older grades." My sisters were in those older grades but I really didn't think about them since I was in the elementary school section. The elementary school section was colourful and bright and sunny. I have only a couple of pictures that show any of it, but since I am not going to show pictures of anyone else without their permission, I have to (yet again) show a picture of me. I do apologise for this forced narcissism. I promise I do have some pictures that are not of me on my computer.

There I am, on the little "stage" in the centre of the elementary school section. As I said: it was all colour and brightness. I am wearing a bridesmaid dress because I was part of a little fashion show at the school. It seems cute and harmless, but this fashion show, believe it or not, was actually part of gym class.

Yes, you read right. Gym class. My gym teacher made fun of me for not posing enough during our little warm up. Even at that age I knew that gym class for girls was not taken very seriously. We mostly played games like tag. Now I look at those years with disdain. Why were they trying to make us little supermodels at such a young age? I feel extremely disgusted. I liked running around and playing sports, even the little girly games they made us play, but we were never encouraged to do better than that. Ever.

A lot of girls around the world have experienced similar things. I know of schools in the US that have had female students protest against the lack of funding for their sports and preference for the boys' teams. It's really irritating. I am not the world's sportiest girl, but when I was forced to play, I did pretty well. Maybe it is due to experiences like the fashion show that I never felt the need to run around and kick a ball. When I lived in Oman, I ended up liking some sports, like swimming and football (i.e. soccer). I just never had the drive to do more.

My school in Jeddah was also interesting amongst the students as well. Us little girls talked about how much we loved the Backstreet Boys just like any school. We also, however, would talk about exciting  hadiths that were being spread around school. For those who do not know, a hadith is a saying by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW*) that has been passed down verbally or in writing by one of the Prophet (SAW)'s companions. They are disputed heavily by Islamic scholars of all Islamic schools and sects.

At my school, hadith worked for us like gossip. One of us would say in a proud, authoritative tone, something like "You know, I heard that the Prophet (SAW) hated the guitar, so then the guitar must be forbidden! We cannot listen to the guitar ANYMORE!" Us kids would be in shock. Every song we liked had the guitar in it! Later, someone would argue that all stringed instruments were absolutely haraam (forbidden). One girl, I remember clearly, said that the reason for the stringed instruments being haraam was that "The devil lived in the strings, and it would come out when someone played them!" We were amazed and hooked on these ideas. We would spend class time whispering about it. I remember once asking, "But what about the piano? It has strings IN it, but we hit the keys! We don't actually touch the string like on the others!" This stirred a debate amongst all the little girls. Some of us, like me, said the piano was more like a percussion instrument. Others stood firm that since it had strings, it must be forbidden.

In a little while, we forgot the old hadith that was told to us and we concentrated on a new one. We had short attention spans. We still danced around to Amr Diab and his famous "Nour Al-Ain" song (which had a prominent use of guitar). Those things might have mattered for a little bit, but we didn't waste our times on the heavy stuff.

And boy, am I glad I didn't just believe any hadith that came my way! Now, I am at least cautious enough to know that all of these things require research.

We were very impressionable kids. Being a Muslim sometimes wasn't enough. Sometimes Arabs preferred Arabs and did not associate with girls of other ethnic groups It was pretty silly now that I think about it, but it's just like any school. These cliques just...happen. They didn't happen as much with kids my age, but with the ones approaching teenage years, I heard stories of tighter groups being formed that fought against others. I know these groups could be based on religion, too. I did have a few interesting experiences, though, even as a kid of about 6 or 7. I remember one instance very clearly.

While waiting for my driver at the end of school to pick me up, I saw a little girl from another class. The conversation went like this:

Girl: Ismik aish? [What is your name?]
Me: Khadeja!
Girl: Where are you from? [In Arabic, but I do not remember how she phrased it]
Me: America! [I didn't acknowledge my Mauritian side in front of other kids. I sucked like that. Sorry, Moris.]
Girl: You are Christian?
Me: No, Muslim!
Girl: How can you be Muslim and be American? All Americans are Shaitan [Devil] Christians!

That conversation has scarred me, in a way. I still haven't forgotten it. I hope I never forget it! I think it might be one of the most important conversations I have ever had. It opened my eyes to something that I didn't get as a kid, but I certainly understand now.

Discrimination comes in many forms. It happens everywhere, not just Saudi. Not just the US. Not just Mauritius. Let that be some food for thought.

* SAW = PBUH = Peace Be Upon Him = something us Muslims say after we mention the Prophet (SAW).

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