Sunday, 28 November 2010

Holding Fast

The attendance sheet said there should have been six boys, but I saw right away there were only five. After I took roll, I ran my finger down the attendance sheet. "Where is Yousuf?" I asked.

Five pairs of eyes flicked down, then sideways. Glances were exchanged. One boy, the unofficial spokesperson, shrugged. "Perhaps he will come tomorrow."

It was early September, but fiercely hot outside even in the morning. "Shall we turn the air conditioner on?" I asked them.

Jamal, the spokesperson, shook his head. "No need."

After the first ten minutes of class, my hair stuck to my forehead and sweat beaded up down my back. I was so miserable, I had to take off the blouse I'd put on over my sleeveless dress when I'd learned I would be teaching six very religious Muslim boys.

They averted their eyes from my bare arms while I fanned myself with the roll sheet. "Are you sure you don't want the air conditioner on?" I asked, hoping they would relent.

Wordlessly, they shook their heads. I cracked open another window to let the feeble breeze through, and fanned myself some more. "You don't like air conditioning?" I had to ask.

Jamal spread his hands. "It is Ramadan." His eyes swept from side to side. "Ramadan, Pakistani boys no air conditioner."

I did my best to hide my shock.

"Teacher, you are married?" one of the boys asked during the break. I nodded.

"You have children?" another asked immediately.

"Yes," I said proudly.

"Girl or boy?"


"Only girl?" I nodded and they shook their heads sadly as though sorry for my great misfortune.

"Yousuf is still ill?" I asked to change the subject.

Their eyes flickered away. "Perhaps."

Over the next two weeks, they told me a bit about themselves. They came from a very small, deeply conservative village in Pakistan and had been sent to our university for a month of intensive English. They did not speak Turkish, knew no one but each other, and had not gone anywhere other than to their daily classes. When I asked them if they weren't bored having to study English six hours a day, Jamal quickly shook his head. "It is Ramadan."

I was to hear a lot about Ramadan in the two weeks to come, and I needed a lot of reminding. "Go and get yourselves some water," I thoughtlessly said during the break on the third day. It was blazing hot and we were all sweating freely.

"Teacher, Pakistani boy no water. Ramadan."

"Oh, I'm sorry -- I forgot!"

And only a few minutes later -- "Would you boys like some chewing gum?"

"Teacher, Ramadan!" they all practically chorused.


"Teacher," Jamal asked, narrowing his eyes, "you are Christian?"

My mouth dropped open. "Yes," I said, because it was the least complicated answer, and also the closest to the truth.

Jamal must have seen the hesitation in my face. He gave me a long, hard look as though he required proof. "Okay," he finally said.

"Yousuf is still ill?" I asked, tapping the attendance sheet.

Jamal looked away. "Perhaps." He had told me earlier that morning that during Ramadan, lying and bad-mouthing others were prohibited. But his eyes said it all: perhaps a little evasive truth-stretching was permitted.

"Any idea where Yousuf is?" I asked one of my colleagues after class.

She sighed. "He's disappeared. We asked student services to try and track him down, but so far no luck." She shook her head. "Those boys must be so bored. All day long, they do nothing but study English. No food, not even water to drink, and they can't go anywhere. It's hard to blame Yousuf."

On the last day of class, I accidentally pressed the radio button on the CD player and a blast of full-volume arabesque music made us all jump. For a split second, the boys' eyes lit up and two began to clap. One of the shyer boys even leapt to his feet to dance. I was amazed to see the sudden animation in their faces, the obvious joy this tiny break in the routine gave them.

When I left for my morning break, the shy boy asked if they could keep the CD player in the classroom until I got back. This was strictly against the rules -- even the awful CD players we had were occasionally stolen -- but I looked at the boy's eager face and I could not bring myself to say no. "Sure," I said, and there was a chorus of cheers. The shy boy's grin stretched from ear to ear.

I smiled all the way back to the teachers' room, but my happiness in their delight was short-lived. Jamal came into the teachers' room with the CD player almost as soon as I'd sat down. "Is it not working again?" I asked.

He shook his head and frowned. "Pakistani boy no music, teacher. Ramadan." The look on his face made me feel like a snake who'd been pushing an apple in the Garden of Eden.

The truth was, Jamal struck me as rigid and intolerant. Although with his dark looks and foreign accent, he couldn't have looked more different from my Uncle Cyrus, in terms of personality the two were remarkably similar. My Uncle Cyrus was a deeply religious man, but not a spiritual one. His knowledge of the Bible was formidable, but if others did not agree with his particular interpretations, he did not consider them to be Christians. The people he did consider Christians were other members of his church who agreed with his scriptural interpretations. I never heard him say that Catholics and Baptists might as well be atheists, but this was very much his position; people of other faiths, no matter how devout, were absolutely beyond the pale. His family quickly learned to toe the line; I remember one discussion about religion with my cousins: the many things they were not allowed to do featured prominently. Although his religion might have been a source of comfort and joy to Uncle Cyrus, it was mainly a way for him to impose his will on others. Uncle Cyrus was a bitter, angry man whose children hated and feared him.

When I went back to the classroom after the break, the atmosphere was strained and the boys' faces were sullen, as though they had been quarreling. I felt bad -- as though I'd started it all by offering the use of the CD player in the first place. I felt worse still after the class when I offered some of my grapes to a colleague who was also fasting for Ramadan. She smiled and patted my shoulder. "It's easy to forget!" Throughout her fast, she maintained the same radiant good cheer. "It's a good feeling," she said. "As though I'm stronger than my own physical needs. I just wish I could keep it up the rest of the year!" Just listening to her made me want to give fasting another go myself.

Yousuf never did come back to class. When it came time for the boys to go back to Pakistan, he was still missing.

Maybe he ended up like one of my cousins -- recklessly falling in with the wrong people, making the worst sort of friends, indulging in all of the things prohibited to him for so long. Maybe he ended up like others -- finding comfort and peace in his religion in a world torn by intolerance and hatred. Wherever he is, with all my heart I hope he is making the most of his freedom.


Charles Gramlich said...

What a strange and varied world we live in.

Vijaya said...

Well, the Muslim girls I knew were just like these Muslim boys ... no food, no water, no music ... I really admired their discipline. Believe me, these kids are free to choose ... and they choose this. That is freedom. But Yousuf, I wonder, did he find freedom? Or just another form of slavery.

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- That is certainly true.

Vijaya -- The hopeful part of me wants to think that Yousuf found himself a decent job on what we called 'the Greek side', where he could meet people with different life philosophies and different experiences and where he could learn the value of a good education before going back to his home and family (because I hate to think about what his parents must have gone through). The practical side of me fears that he sank into that other form of slavery pretty fast.

These boys were such a contract to the kids I usually taught, most of whom did not fast during Ramadan and had an endless capacity for entertainment and slacking off. I found myself wishing I could take a little of the Pakistani boys' self discipline and a little of the others' excessive joie de vivre and do a quick exchange.

Falak said...

Those kids must have had the most active conscience ever. No AC?! I can't remember any of my Pakistani friends being that diligent when it was the UAE sun they had to deal with. In a way I guess its uplifting to see that human beings can stick to something they truly believe in. Problem is we really don't know if it is because of a personal belief.
Loved the pun in the title :)

Kim Ayres said...

Following Vijaya's point about freedom - Kant, the German philosopher talked about being morally upright as the strongest expression of free will, because it showed you didn't have to be ruled by your instincts and desires

Carole said...

Very interesting. I don't think I could fast for the length these guys did. Ramadan is how long? And in any case I don't think I would go without water.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My daugher, kara (Condi's Hair) went trekking in Morocco, unfortunately, during Ramadan... She had a hell of a time finding a restaurant.

What people do to themselves for the sake of religion [sigh].

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- I told our Pakistani neighbors about these boys and the AC issue and they were surprised too. They claimed they'd never heard that you couldn't have air conditioning during Ramadan.

I didn't get to know these boys well enough, but apart from Jamal, the rest just seemed a bit out of it. They were lonely, far from their families, had no diversions whatsoever -- going to the beach was out because they couldn't drink during the day -- and it was so hot I could barely get through two hours of teaching without AC or water. I have no idea how they managed. The power of faith is pretty amazing, but I couldn't help wishing that their study time hadn't coincided with Ramadan.

Kim -- Well, these boys certainly weren't slaves to their instincts. They could have worn hair shirts and walked on hot coals. They had to walk from their dormitory to the campus, then back, roughly a 20 minute walk one way, and the heat was intense. They must have loaded up on water like nobody's business before sunrise.

Carole -- Ramadan is a month long. One of my colleagues fasted too -- I forgot every single time and was gauche enough to offer her things like cookies and grapes -- but she allowed herself air conditioning and a bit of music.

When I fasted, I managed three days on nothing but water and a little sugar, but on the third day I keeled right over. It's definitely an acquired skill and not for the weak of flesh.

Robert -- It wasn't the boys' religion that made me sigh, it was their total lack of joy. But I was in awe of them too: take away my water, my air conditioning, my coffee and food, and NO WAY could I have walked 20 minutes down a hot road to study a foreign language without snapping at somebody.

Blythe Woolston said...

It may be that real freedom can come from internalized discipline. Maybe practicing discipline is like practicing a language--eventually it is possible to break free from "The library is past the third traffic light" and say something true and of the moment. I hope so.

Another amazing revelation, Mary.

Anne Spollen said...

Wow, no a.c. If anyone remembers what Catholics used to do before Communion - the fasting and the subsequent fainting in church - it seems sacrfice is an integral part of most religions.

You have to hope he's ok. Maybe one day you'll find out for sure.

paolo1 said...

Deconfuse me. When I found your very excellent blog you were, I think, in Turkey. Since then, you seem to have moved a couple of times and a couple of countries, but in your last entry you seem to be back in Turkey again !!!! What is the chronology, assuming there is one.

MG Higgins said...

I'm thinking not only of the boy who disappeared, but of all those boys. What kind of men will they grow into? Strict and disciplined? Fanatically religious? Or will time, and their own developed beliefs, loosen them a bit?

Mary Witzl said...

Blythe -- I'd never thought of myself as terribly undisciplined until I taught those boys. I could understand their fasting entirely. What bothered me the most about them was the notion that if something was fun or comfortable, there must be something insidiously bad about it. But perhaps this was because I met them during Ramadan. Put me in 105 degree heat and take away my food, water, music, and air conditioning for twelve straight hours, then make me study for six of those twelve hours, and I'd turn into something vile. Yes, those boys were pretty incredible.

Anne S -- I asked my Muslim colleagues and neighbors about the air conditioning issue, and they all insisted that this was not the norm. My guys led an unusually ascetic lifestyle, and I sweated my way through part of it with them.

I try to picture Yousouf (who I never met) having a constructive time, finding a useful skill, making international friends, and generally enjoying his overseas experience. The truth is probably sordid and sad, but I still like my version of his future better.

Paolo1 -- Thank you for commenting! No chronology here; I taught a variety of different nationalities in Cyprus, though my students they were 90% Turkish, then traveled through Turkey back to the U.K. But I've got loads of memories and they seldom arrange themselves chronologically.

MG -- I wonder this too. I had a few students who were terrible hotheads -- you couldn't bring up anything in class remotely to do with religion without making them angry. But apart from that tiny minority, most were only nominal Muslims who could not even make a stab at the six pillars of Islam and led very undisciplined lives, to put it mildly.

What I should have written here was how much these boys reminded me of some of my extended family: they took little joy in their religion, and defined it by what they could NOT do. One of my colleagues was fasting for Ramadan too, the same year. She described the good feeling she got from the discipline, the sense of freeing herself from the tyranny of craving food. I liked her way better.

Marcia said...

What I should have written here was how much these boys reminded me of some of my extended family: they took little joy in their religion, and defined it by what they could NOT do. One of my colleagues was fasting for Ramadan too, the same year. She described the good feeling she got from the discipline, the sense of freeing herself from the tyranny of craving food. I liked her way better.

Amen to this!

Mary Witzl said...

Marcia -- Blogging is a good testing ground and almost always gives me a sense of what works and what doesn't. My pieces are generally too long, so this time I erred on the side of brevity. I see I needed to work in what it was about these kids that depressed me so much.

A lot of my more religiously conservative students reminded me so much of my extended family. I was well into my teens before I realized that you could have rational discussions about religion with a lot of people without making them cry, wring their hands, or interrupt you with vivid, emotional descriptions of hellfire. I think I'll rewrite this and re-post it -- as soon as I've done my quota on my WIP!

Angela Ackerman said...

Wow. But at the same time, good on those boys for sticking to their belief.

It's funny tho how these little unknowns like Yousuf stick with us, isn't it?

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Robin said...

Wow. My kids can't even fast for a day. Who am I kidding? Neither can I. I have to admire these boys' dedication!

I'm shamefully nonreligious, but I sort of enjoy the cultural parts of Judaism. You whine and complain a lot, while eating really good food and drinking liquor. What's not to like?