The class met every weekday after Asr prayer til Maghreb. Basically, it was a memorization class. The teacher would recite a phrase, and we’d repeat it in unison. When her sensitive ear perceived improper pronunciation, the offender was singled out and corrected. No one took offense. In fact, we were amused at each other’s regional accents. We were a collection of Arabs (all except me) from the surrounding Arab countries. We all had issues with certain Arabic letters, because the Qur’an is recited in perfect language, yet they were all accustomed to speaking in dialect.
Their challenge was to purge their pronunciation of regional variations, and my challenge was to master the letters that Westerners cannot pronounce with ease.
I enjoyed the reciting, and I improved my pronunciation, but I could not get comfortable in that class. There I sat, a Westerner who could read their native language while they could not, and I disliked having to ignore that fact. Perhaps they could not get comfortable with me, either. I could read, but I could not speak very well. No one understood that.
Before long, I asked to be moved into a more advanced class. I had to prove my reading ability, which was not difficult, and when the director heard my accent, she agreed immediately that I could graduate to the next level.
The women in the new class looked much like those in the first class; middle aged or older, mostly from Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia, and all sitting in a circle, draped in black, heads covered. I wanted to remove my scarf, but was told that one must cover while reading the Qur’an. I knew this was not true, but who was I to speak up?
So I sat hot, yet happy to be there, and looking forward to learning. While waiting for the instructor, a Syrian woman sitting to the left of me leaned over and asked, “Min fayn inti?” Where are you from?
I said, “Amreeka,” and she turned to the woman on her left and whispered, “Amreeka”. That woman turned to the woman on her left and repeated, “Amreeka.” Each one repeated, “Amreeka” in a whisper to the one next to her, until the entire circle had been informed. Eyebrows either raised or descended, while mouths frowned or opened in amazement.
The next question from the Syrian woman was the predictable, “Min fayn zowjik?” Where is your husband from?
“Misr,” I said– Egypt. Again, my response was repeated in whispers from one woman to the next, while I looked at each one of them as they talked about me without embarrassment and little restraint.
The self-appointed spokeswoman asked me all the vital statistics– what did my husband do? How many kids did I have? Boys or girls? How long had I been Muslim? How long had I been in the Kingdom? Each answer got whispered around the circle like the answers before them, and by the time the teacher entered the classroom, they knew more about me than I’d ever learn about them.
Such began my experience in the classroom with the literate ladies.