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+ "The Madrassa"

from Marcela Gaviria

On the Grand Trunk Road that leads to Peshawar, there is a renowned religious school, or madrassa, where young boys from places like Dir, Bannu, Rawalpindi, and Peshawar come for a course of study that has only one textbook, the Quran. The Haqqania Madrassa's reputation has extended far beyond Pakistan, and I am told that young Muslim boys from places like Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan come this far to study the word of God delivered by the Prophet Muhammad. For Islamic fundamentalists, this is one of the most prestigious madrassas in the world. Among its renowned graduates are many of the Taliban's top leaders.

As we drive past the gates of the Haqqania Madrassa, on our way to interview its infamous headmaster, Mullana Sami ul Haq, I see a beautiful courtyard with boys squatting and rocking themselves to and fro. They do this, it seems, to keep time to a silent rhythm that is buried in the passages of the Quran. Or perhaps they do it just to stay awake. The boys seem to be able to squat for hours, their knees held close to their chest, their feet squarely planted on the warm tiles of the courtyard.

A few of the boys are holding hands. It is customary do so among men of all ages. They have no compunctions about it, no fears of being called homosexual. Holding hands is a symbol of fraternal love. I imagine it's an act that comes naturally when you are not allowed to express affection toward women, and when your first contact with the opposite sex is on your wedding night.

Once past the gates, we are greeted by a young man named Rashid, one of Haq's eight sons by his first wife. He tells us in decent English that the mullana is late. We sit in a small bedroom with thin cots made of foam and pillows. A man wakes up as we walk in. Rashid tells us that he teaches a course on Islamic jurisprudence at the school. Like all his brothers, and countless other children, he also studied at this madrassa, spending up to eight hours a day, he tells us, and a better part of a decade, memorizing the Quran -- a task that sounds monumental and is only compounded by the fact that nothing taught in this school is in the local Pashto or Urdu, but in Arabic.

These boys learn little else than what is said in the Quran. I'm told there are no math classes, or history lessons, or geography quizzes, or spelling bees. Although according to Rashid they do teach Arabic literature and are considering teaching English language next year.

Girls of course are not allowed to learn any of this at Haqqania or in any of the estimated 10,000 madrassas in Pakistan. A religious education is for boys, who, if they are pious, can aspire to become a mullana, or prominent cleric. This requires more than 12 years of memorizing and learning to interpret the holy book.

Or you can skip all of the studying and guarantee God's favor by joining the jihad. The Haqqania school was called by one reporter "Jihad University." We cannot verify what goes on beyond these gates, as we are only allowed in Haq's home, but it is not hard to imagine how so many young students get indoctrinated by the rote memorization and the views espoused by the headmaster. (Haq is known for his staunch anti-American views, for being a mentor to great numbers of Taliban, and for having befriended Osama bin Laden in the early 1980s.)

Gauging by the number of madrassas that line the roads of the most remote towns, it seems that a fair amount of Pakistani boys must be able to recite chapter and verse of the Quran. Whether the wisdom of the Quran is sufficient to navigate the complexities of modern life, even in rural Pakistan, is another matter.

For those who don't go to a madrassa, there is public education. Along the windy roads of Pakistan, you will likely bump into groups of boys in little brown suits and brown hats studded by a red triangle. They remind me of school boys in Mao's China.

Girls can also go to school, but it is unclear how many are allowed to venture out to school or for how long. I have seen two girls schools in the month since we landed in Pakistan. And I have met one young girl, Henna, the daughter of a hotel manager, who was attending private school and could speak English, Pashto, and Urdu. While Henna will be able to speak English, locate Spain on a map, and calculate how many dollars she can get for 6,000 rupees, it is unclear what she will do with this knowledge once she grows up.

Related Article - for more on the Haqqania Madrassa, read "Education of a Holy Warrior," a profile of the school from The New York Times Magazine. (June 25, 2000)

< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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