In her report Rosa Gosch writes about her experiences at Dar az-Zahra, a Koran school for women in Yemen, where reciting in public and preaching is an important part of their training
I'm standing at the entrance to the courtyard, alongside me hundreds of pairs of shoes and sandals, and I don't quite know what to do with myself. I've forgotten my flip-flops and you can't enter a house in this part of the world in street shoes.
To my right, I look into a large room where several people are standing in long prayer robes. Their brightly coloured gowns are tied tightly at the backs of their heads, flowing down to the floor in a single piece of cloth. A small, pale-skinned girl in blue ducks past me. It is shortly after sunrise during Ramadan, and I am at Dar az-Zahra, a Koran school for women in the small town of Tarim in Yemen's remote east.
For centuries, this region in the Hadramaut province on the margins of the Arabian Desert has been a centre of Islamic teachings and Sufism, Islamic mysticism. Barren plateaus give way to fertile valleys lined with whitewashed cupola tombs. Many of the religious activities in Hadramaut were suppressed in socialist Yemen, but after the system collapsed in 1990 the Sufi traditions in particular reawakened.
The family tree of Sheikh Habib Umar
In 1993 the young preacher Sheikh Habib Umar founded a Koran school for men in Tarim, Dar al-Mustafa, followed shortly later by a women's section, Dar az-Zahra. Today, several hundred young men and women live and learn in the two institutes, strictly segregated. They come from Yemen itself and from further afield: mainly Indonesia but also Britain, the USA and Germany. The curriculum covers the classic Islamic sciences such as law, theology, Koran exegesis and Arabic grammar. And the students also study tasawwuf, the "science of the heart" – Sufi teachings.
One of the factors that make the school so attractive is the family tree of Sheikh Habib Umar, who traces his ancestors back to the Prophet Mohammed.
Fatima, a friend from the capital Sanaa where I've been learning Arabic for the past three months, has brought me to Dar az-Zahra. She wants to show me this place of pious learning where she herself studied. But it's not that simple. Two months previously, a group of Spanish tourists were killed in a suicide attack, and since then the long road from Sanaa to Tarim has been off-limits for visitors from the West.
"Make sure you hide your bag and shoes," Fatima's brother instructs me before we leave. A veiled woman's accessories and bearing can reveal a lot about her. But under my abaya and niqab – the long black polyester cloak over my clothing and the veil – I pass through the police checkpoint undiscovered.
And it's Fatima who solves my shoe problem at the entrance to the school. She has got hold of a pair of plastic sandals and introduces me to Ustatha Moneeba, the school's matron. Moneeba comes from Ethiopia, is in her mid-thirties and like many here is constantly stroking her teeth with a miswak, a twig from the "teeth cleaning tree". "Oral hygiene," whispers Fatima, "the Prophet recommended it."
"When will you convert to Islam?"
The matron allocated us to one of the dormitories, shared with five other girls. There are thin foam mattresses on the floor, and a ventilator suspended from the ceiling struggles against the dry September heat. Like in the rest of the building, the only lighting is neon strips. Even in the prayer room bright, uninviting lights are on day and night.
From now on I follow Fatima's every step: I fast, go to lessons, and when she calls to Allah in the prayer room I sit on the steps in the courtyard and watch her. Other girls often join me and ask me questions: When will I convert to Islam, they ask, and do I have a Facebook account. Two English girls tell me wistfully that they're not allowed home "until they speak proper Arabic," and how much they miss shopping in London.
Familiar feelings in boarding schools the world over. A less common sentiment elsewhere is that the school's isolation is good for the students, as it means they can "take care of their hearts."
Passing on knowledge in an unbroken chain
In Dar az-Zahra, the day begins at dawn. Outside of Ramadan it rarely ends before 11 pm, after prayers, lessons, homework and a couple of hours' free time. The school expects its students to learn one of the Koran's thirty parts by heart, gain a basic command of Arabic and stay at least one year. The complete programme lasts almost four years.
Students have to pay 15 euro a month for board and lodging out of their own pockets. Teaching takes place according to the traditional Islamic system in halaqat – study circles. Students and their female teachers have close personal links, with the aim of passing on knowledge in an unbroken chain.
But computers and the Internet have arrived in Tarim too. The school's website presents a cosmopolitan face in English and Arabic – though there is no mention of the women's section. Yet the women at the school are by no means sidelined. On the contrary, they are accepted and respected scholars. The hababat, the female members of Sheikh Habib Umar's family, teach the female students at Dar az-Zahra.
When the muezzin sends out his call at sunset during Ramadan, we break our fast in the dining room: first with dates, water and prayers of supplication. Then comes rice and chicken or fish with besbas, a spicy Yemeni sauce. There is a banana each for desert. For many of the students the school kiosk is an essential part of life, as this is where they get their basic needs: sweets, sanitary items, stationery. The girls place orders for everything else with the man who does the school's shopping.
"The angels want it that way"
They are not allowed to leave the building unaccompanied, and women are traditionally banned from shopping in Tarim. "Sometimes you have to wait six weeks for a packet of cocoa powder," a Swedish student tells me, even though there is cocoa on every corner here.
During Ramadan the students hold tarawih prayers during the night, as well as the five compulsory prayers by day. Afterwards I accompany Fatima to meetings at local women's homes. Hadramaut is one of the most conservative Yemeni regions, where women only leave their homes fully veiled. Even shielded from men's eyes in the school building, the girls at Dar az-Zahra keep a scarf loosely wound around their heads – even in bed – "the angels want it that way."
Like all the other girls, I sit at the midnight meetings in my abaya, only the veil thrown back from my face, and listen to the hababat. The scholarly women often open the floor to the girls crowded around them in a semi-circle at their feet. Reciting in public and preaching is an important part of their training, as these skills are key for practicing daw'ah – the "summons to Islam" – with missionary zeal.
Woozy from religious devotion and candle smoke
The hostess passes around tea, coffee, sweets and scented candles. Dhikr – "remembrance of God" – an almost meditative act of devotion to Allah, is interspersed with singing, recitation, eating, drinking and prayer throughout the night. Woozy from so much religious devotion and candle smoke, I notice my body now and then swaying along with the black-clad figures in their delirium.
"You have Islam in your eyes"
One evening one of Sheikh Habib Umar's daughters invites me to her home. Even as an outsider, I am expected to show the proper respect to the family of the prophet, kissing their hands in greeting. Critics of Sufism condemn this cult of personality as a pure form of retention of power. The Sheikh's daughter receives my companions and me with her eight-year-old son. The young boy can already recite most of the Koran by heart and gives us a taste of his knowledge. Then he turns to me and adds, "You have Islam in your eyes," suggesting I take the shahadah, the Muslim declaration of belief.
Of all those who have tried to convert me to Islam in Tarim, this young descendant of the Prophet makes the greatest impression. It may be unconvincing and almost spooky when a child announces divine providence, but the very level of religious enthusiasm is impressive in itself.
Western converts are not unusual in Tarim. Many have moved here with their entire families. There is even a small library for their children, the shelves filled with Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis alongside the Koran, the Hadith and the Sunna. Once a year, the school offers a 40-day intensive course – the Dowra – aimed particularly at Muslims from the western world with teaching in Arabic and English. The schedule includes courses like: "How to bring up Muslim children in the West".
After a week at the Koran school I have to return to Sanaa. Instead of travelling under Fatima's protection I embark on the eleven-hour journey disguised as the second wife of a fellow traveller, returning to everyday life in Yemen. While the men stretch their legs on the open road every few hours, the women stay on the bus. It would appear that none of them ever needs a ladies room – apart from me. When I ask my "husband" about a toilet he simply shakes his head, pointing out of the window into the night: "Sahara faqat" – only the desert.
I have little choice but to stand my ground until he gestures for me to follow him into the darkness. At a safe distance from the bus, he tells me to continue alone and use the cover of the night to do what has to be done.
© Kulturaustausch / Qantara.de 2009
Rosa Gosch, born in Berlin in 1982, studied economics and philosophy at the London School of Economics and modern Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University. She spent four months researching in Yemen in 2007 and now lives in Berlin.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire