Friday, 27 November 2009

The Five Pillars of Islam

Monday morning. Only four more days of school before the four-day Bayram holiday! I am in great spirits.

Four boys are waiting for me outside the classroom. Right away I'm suspicious: these kids are ultra lazy. They've got a furtive look about them too; I know from experience that if they had thought bubbles over their heads they would read Let's ask her and see.

"Teacher, Bayram," Mustafa says, thrusting out his chest and striking a confident pose. Mustafa is the strongest speaker here, the one-eyed-king in the land of the blind. He has obviously been chosen Designated Speaker as a result of his superior communicative skills.

"Yes, Bayram," I say enthusiastically, playing along. Only four more days of teaching before our four-day break!

"Bayram Muslim holiday," Mustafa continues, right on my tail as I push open the door.

"Yes, Bayram is a Muslim holiday." I love playing dumb. The way I see it, this job is tough enough as it is -- let me have some fun. Plus, I've got good pedagogical reasons for letting this play out slowly: language is all about communication and these boys have something they truly want to communicate. They more they get, the better.

"Very busy." Mustafa thumps his chest, then gestures meaningfully around the group by way of providing a subject.

"Yes, we are all certainly very busy," I say, setting my CD player on the desk. "Especially since we have three units to cover in a very short time. Could you plug this in for me?"

I can see the other boys watching Mustafa like cats watch a fish tank. Their thought bubbles would read Please oh please oh please.

"Many preparation," Mustafa puts in desperately. "Shopping."

"Yes, I know. It's a good thing we have Friday off, isn't it?"

"Teacher please no class today," Mustafa says, finally cutting to the chase.

"Muslim holiday!" puts in Ersoy, practically stepping on my feet. He has been hovering anxiously, unable to compete with Mustafa linguistically, but clearly frustrated that I have not been persuaded by Mustafa's arguments.

I roll my attendance sheet into a baton and whack the side of my desk. "Muslim holiday," I repeat. "And you are all good Muslims? You pray in the mosque every Friday?" This is mean of me, but I can't help it: no way do they go to the mosque every Friday. I've smelled alcohol on their breath before and I know a few of them have come to my class with hangovers. And let's not even talk about lying.

Mustafa has to translate. A few of the boys nod, but they won't meet my eyes.

"Okay, then," I say, an idea suddenly forming in my mind. "Who can tell me what the five pillars of Islam are?" They stare at me, confused.

"If you can tell me the five pillars of Islam, in English--" I pause for effect "--you can go home early to get ready for Bayram."

I know I'm safe here: not even Mustafa could manage this. These boys never study. If one of them were capable of explaining the five pillars of Islam, I'd immediately let him go home: with English that good, an afternoon off wouldn't set him back. And for him to have attained that level, he'd have had to work hard. I respect hard-working students. Smart kids impress me far less than diligent ones. I respect honest kids too. So if anyone tries to play the religious card with me, they had better play it well -- and truthfully.

"The five pillars of Islam?" I say, raising an eyebrow. "Can anyone tell me?"

Their faces radiate confusion. You'd think five and Islam might clue them in, but no.

Mustafa clasps his hands and bows. "Five times?" he says, his eyes pleading.

I shake my head. "Praying five times a day is only one of them. Come on, I'll help you out. The last one is hajj in Arabic."

Now at least they know what I'm talking about. While I take attendance, every boy in the little group does his best to come up with the three remainining pillars of Islam, recruiting some of the smarter students (i.e., girls) to help as soon as they enter the classroom. A few of them mime sacrificing a sheep and distributing the meat (part of the duty of Zakat, or charity), but this is as close as they get. Last term, I had six kids out of three dozen who claimed to regularly attend mosque. They might have managed the five pillars of Islam, but the kids I've got this term could sooner fly to the moon.

Tough love, I tell myself as they all take their seats with glum faces, their vision of a delightfully English free day so much vapor. Teaching is going to be tough today. Still, only four more days!

On the board, I write the five pillars of Islam. (It pays to have an inquiring mind. And a husband who teaches in an international school.)

Shahadah -- Declaration of faith (From my students I'd have accepted 'There is only one God'.)

Salah -- Prayer (from my students I'd have accepted 'Pray five times a day'. Heck, I'd even have allowed hand gestures and 'five'.)

Zakat -- Charity (From my students I'd have accepted 'Giving money to poor people'.)

Saum -- Fasting during Ramadan (From my students, 'Not eating' would have been fine. If anyone had used the word 'fast' without consulting a dictionary, I'd have been tempted to give him the whole week off.)

Hajj -- Pilgrimage to Mecca (From my students, 'Go Mecca' would have been fine.)

It was a long, long class for all concerned. But now it's Bayram: four days of no teaching! I am in great spirits.


Vijaya said...

Hey, that's five less than the Ten Commandments :)

I gather they didn't get the day off even with help ...

Robert the Skeptic said...

It reminds me of the US Congressman who wanted the 10 Commandments posted, but when interviewed on TV he could only name 2.

I guess when you are a teacher, every encounter is a lesson. I guess the lesson of the day is: Be careful what you wish for.

Marian said...

I felt a bit embarassed that I lived in a Muslim country for 15 years, my best friend is a Sunni Muslim and I'm interested in religion... but could only name two of the pillars.

I wish I was in your class too. :)

Anonymous said...

That was such an interesting (and funny) post.

Plus, I learned something myself.

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- You're right: I should have told them that! Ten are twice the trouble to memorize. Interesting that the first pillar of Islam bears a similarity to our first commandment.

Robert -- The very first episode of West Wing illustrates that beautifully: A group of fundamentalist Christians are giving the White House staffers a tough time. The issue of the first commandment comes up just as the (Catholic) President enters the room. None of the fundamentalists turn out to know the first commandment, but the President does. The West Wing is full of wonderful stuff like that.

Really, my lesson to these boys is the very thing that's posted on your blog: show some intelligence. And if they're going to push for favors because Bayram is a Muslim holiday, they'd better be willing to tell me the basics about their religion in English.

Marian -- Last month, I could only name three. And I'm a whole lot older than you are and have spent some time in a Muslim country myself...

I wish you were in my class too! And I'm pretty sure the boys would feel the same, though for different reasons.

GypsyScarlett -- Thank you! Being didactic is what this blog is all about (that and procrastinating when I should be editing and rewriting...).

Charlie said...

Pure genius, Mary. Your "students" may be devious, but they're no match for your out-deviousness.

Just don't ask me to recite the begats in Chronicles or I'll be sitting in class for the rest of my life.

Robin said...

That is so interesting and cool! I'm with Marian. I wish I were in your class, too.

I laughed out loud at the "thought bubbles". The kids are so funny!

Patrick said...

Wow, I'm trying to imagine how your students feel after you wrote it out.

Although I do know about all the five pillars, but never really thought those are the five pillars. =)

edj said...

This is great. I totally read you to get ideas ;)
Eid Sayeed! I've never heard it called Bayram before, but in Mauritania they called it Eid ilHamm, Feast of Meat. Cracked me up.

Robin said...

Oops. I just read your comment to Marian, and for the record, I don't think the boys in your class would be at all happy to have me there.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Hey, thanks for visiting my blog. Looks like you've got an interesting blog. I will be back to visit. Elizabeth.

Postman said...

You threw 'em a curve ball there, but it sounds like that pack of loafers deserved it (especially Ersoy, tell him to look up "personal space" in the encyclopedia).

Man, what a great idea! Get 'em to tell you something from their culture in English!

I always had the hardest time understanding what my kids were talking about when they tried to tell me about Korean traditions/customs/holidays/history. It took a little sleuthing on my part but I usually managed to figure it out. Took me ages to try to get them understand what the word "Admiral" meant (as in Admiral Yi from the Imjin War).

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- My students get the better of me all the time, but they're finding it harder now. They're not the only ones who are learning.

The begats from the Chronicles? I've never even HEARD of them? Now I'm getting paranoid. What if I were studying Turkish and wanted Christmas off? What if the teacher made me tell her? Wikipedia here I come.

Robin -- They're even funnier in person, I swear it. And you'd be a HUGE HIT with the boys in the class. We've even done 'psychoanalyst' in vocabulary (unit 4). The girls would find you especially inspiring!

Patrick -- Did you have to study the five pillars of Islam in school? The only reason I know them is because my husband teaches them in religious education along with a lot of other stuff about Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism.

My students took it well. I like to keep them on their toes.

EDJ -- Some of my students (from the Gulf countries) call it Eid. Here we have Şeker Bayram ('Sugar' Bayram) when people fast, then Kurban Bayram ('Sacrifice' Bayram) when people slaughter animals and share the meat with the poor. 'Feast of meat' describes it very well.

Robin -- Like I said, you'd be a hit. If you're ever in this area, drop me a line! (Just don't say I didn't warn you.)

Elizabeth -- Thank you! I'll be back to your blog too.

Postman -- Making slackers work is my specialty. I've got a handful of real Muslims in my class and I make allowances for them to go to mosque on Friday. But slackers who use religion to get out of class are just asking for it.

I always feel like I'm shortchanging students by not knowing their language. Once I'd learned Japanese, I always had a good idea what my students were thinking, whether I'd explained something well enough, whether they needed more. But there is something to say for teachers who don't know the students' language too: when they go out into the big, bad world, they'll meet loads of people who don't speak Korean or Turkish. We're a good practice ground.

'Admiral' in Korean? Whew! I can imagine that's right up there with 'refrigerator'.

Patrick said...

We actually do in history lesson, plus my country consists of a majority Islam population, so I in a way know about all those..

adrienne said...

You earned your break, at least! Hope it's restful.

Postman said...

Man, I'll definitely be armed against slackers in the future. (I was actually planning on heading to Japan next; any suggestions or tips for me?) That's still an impressive feat.

I feel the same way as you. Even setting the guilty not-knowing-the-language idea aside, it was (as you pointed out) just darn handy to know how to explain things in the native language. It really helped comprehension. I'd go through the books sometimes (just like the Korean teachers did), pick out the tricky words, and translate them into Korean so I'd be all ready for the inevitable "Teacher, what's...?" questions. There wasn't any replacement for the inevitable, subsequent smile and nod.

Did you have a hard time with "refrigerator" too?

Mary Witzl said...

Patrick -- I suspect you'd have done a lot better on the pillars of Islam than my students. Most of my students are scared silly of English.

Adrienne -- It was restful -- and even a little productive. Wish it hadn't ended, though...

Postman -- Japan is a great place to teach. Very few of my students there were slackers. The ones who were tended to be people who were overworked and expected to attend English classes after putting in eight-hour workdays. Try to get a copy of the Monday Japan Times -- that's the best place to start!

'Refrigerator' was murder on my Japanese (and Korean) students. Along with 'deteriorate', 'ridiculous', and 'referendum', among others.

Falak said...

Marian said it all for me... I don't even know how to talk in arabic... The five pillars of islam is a long shot.. That too after being born and brought up in the UAE...... Is bayram the same as eid???

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- Yes, Bayram is the same as Eid. And don't worry: I learned all of this stuff myself only just recently. What a poseur I feel, telling everybody about the five pillars of Islam as though I'm some expert! But I might never have learned them if I hadn't wanted my students to be able to explain their own culture in English.