All of my life, I have battled with my faith. If it wasn’t my lack of faith, it was following the obligations that my religion set out before me. If it wasn’t that, it was trying to deal with various people, including my own parents and community, trying to shove my religion down my throat and make it stick despite every fiber of my being telling me to regurgitate it. Now, I’m at peace with it; but probably not in the way that most people might think.
Some of my earliest memories are of Mosque School; in Algeria, it is our version of nursery school. I was about three or four when my mother enrolled me. I still remember my teacher vividly; he was a small and skinny man who resembled the late president Boumediene, he was also strict and severe. Every morning he would make us recite the Arabic alphabet as he walked around the classroom and told each of us in turn to stick out our hand so he could smack it with a thin, long wooden stick. It didn’t matter if we had done something wrong or not. The only one who was not hit was the student who was given the ruler and told to direct the class from the blackboard. I quickly started to look forward to the days where I was given the ruler as I knew that I would be spared the burning sensation on my left palm. It was everyone’s worst fear, I remember boys who were twice my size crying as he approached their desk because they knew what was coming. He would force the ones who openly feared him to open their palms properly or smack them several times, so they would be in even greater pain.
I learned to open my palm and take my punishment with a dead expression on my face, so he would only hit me once. We were not allowed to speak without being spoken to, if we did, there would be another palm smacking. I told my mother about it at one point; she was outraged and went to complain. He told her that he didn’t speak to women so she sent my grandfather instead, he told my grandfather that we needed to be punished and that the palm smacking would put us in line. All of the complaints issued against him came to nothing. The mother of the boy who always cried eventually took him out of mosque school; I stayed. Both of my parents worked and it was the only Mosque that was just up the street from where I lived so I could come and go by myself. Despite all of that, I still enjoyed going. I was a good student; I learned the Surah’s, the various Dua’as, how to make Wudu. As a result, I won many prizes; mostly Qurans, which still line the shelves of the display cabinet in my grandmother’s living room.
Fast forward to a few years later, my family had left Algeria and we lived in a Muslim area in South-West London. My mother enrolled me at the local mosque and bought me books from the Islamic shop on our road. The books taught me about the prophets; I learned about Nuh, Sulaiman, and my personal favorite, Yusuf. My teacher at the mosque was a kind Somali woman who used to embrace us like we were her own children at the end of every lesson. She taught us to make Dua’a, what to say when we entered the bathroom and when we left our house, she taught us how to pray to god before bed and how to thank him every morning. I loved that woman almost as much as I loved my own mother and tried my best to follow everything she taught us so she could be proud of me. She would let us sit on her knee and listen to us with pride on her face as we told her of all of the Dua’as we had made since our last lesson. Unfortunately, my time at that mosque did not last long and not long after, my family decided to move once again; this time, to Belfast.
When I think back to my experiences with Islam and the many individuals during my childhood that attempted to teach me it, the Somali woman really was the angel in a sea full of trash. This should go without saying but religion should not be taught by force or fear, especially not to children. I don’t know what happens in Mosque school in Algeria these days but I sincerely hope it has changed since. The Algeria of the 90’s and today is not the same and I hope that has somehow affected the people chosen to teach very young, and impressionable children, religion. It is beyond dangerous that I somehow learned as a small child to take unjust and undue punishment in silence simply to not be punished a second time, these things affect us more than we know and can often affect our growth trajectory and what type of human beings we turn out to be.
(To be continued…)