What really happens inside a madrassa
I was about 10-years-old in the late 90s, when I was forced to go to a madrassa by my mother. I didn’t want to go. I had heard many notorious stories about madrassas and was quite shaken at the thought of being a part of one. Nonetheless, I was sent to become a good Muslim.
I am a resident of Karachi and come from a conservative family where burqas and Assalam-o-Alaikum are necessary to gain respect from your family and friends. My mother used to emphasize on learning the Holy Quran as I grew up. When I asked her:
“Mom, why can’t I just sit at home and learn the Quran with you?”
She replied with:
“There’s no better place to learn the Quran than a madrassa.”
I still remember my first day there. I was sent to one of the biggest madrassas in Karachi. I walked in with shivering legs. Looking around me, I found myself in a place with huge ceilings and small rooms where children were sitting together reciting the Quran. The desks they were using were quite weird – I have never seen anything of the like before. The students were reciting the Quran in the loudest possible voices, abruptly moving their upper bodies back and forth. It was basically a ruckus. One couldn’t hear the other person over the sound of hundreds of students reciting so loudly. Frankly, this scared me even more and I asked myself:
“What if Qaari Sahab started beating me and no one could hear my cries for help?”
As I entered the classroom where I was supposed to study, the room suddenly became silent. Taking a look around, I found everyone glaring at me as though I were an unwelcome guest. Glancing meekly at the bearded Qaari Sahab, I managed to utter “Assalam-o-Alaikum”. The Qaari Sahab instantly replied back with “Wa Alaikum Assalam” and asked me to sit beside him. Grateful for any trace of friendliness, I sat beside him cross-legged. After a brief introduction, he asked me to join the other students to recite the Quran. As I started to stand up, he placed a chocolate in my hand. That instantly made him a ‘good person’ in my eyes.
As my first day there came to an end, I discovered that all the notorious stories about madrassas are completely untrue. The Qaari Sahab didn’t beat any student and he didn’t swear at anyone. I began to think that maybe a madrassa is the place where I should really be after all.
Alas, my bliss did not last long, and as the days passed, things started to take a U-turn.
Only after a week of my joining, we heard that some other Qaari Sahab of the same madrassa had beaten up a child so badly that his leg had been fractured. That day I decided to meet the student who was beaten. I wanted to ask him what it was he did so wrong that ignited this sort or wrath.
Of course, by then, the Qaari Sahab was a heroic figure for me. I was certain that it would be the student’s fault due to which he was beaten so. As the madrassa bell rang, indicating that all classes are over, I walked over to the other classroom where I heard the beaten student was studying. He was just walking out of the room, using crutches. Seeing him limping towards the exit, I felt sorry for him. I went up to him and asked:
“Assalam-o-Alaikum brother! What has happened to your leg?”
“Didn’t you hear? I was the boy who refused to fetch my Qaari Sahab dahi (yoghurt) from the shop because I was tired.”
I was dumbfounded when I heard this. I then asked:
“Why would your Qaari Sahab need dahi during the class?”
He gave me a scornful laugh and said:
“You are new here, right? Your Qaari Sahab will ask you to get him something from your home or market any time he wants to. You will look quite similar to me if you ever refuse. Obviously, you are not paid by your Qaari Sahab for anything he wants you to bring him. My Qaari Sahab wanted to have some lassi (yoghurt drink) during class. That is why he wanted me to get him dahi.“
Later that day, I related this story to my mother who said:
“If your Qaari Sahab ever needs anything from you, just let me know and I’ll send it over.”
And thus, I was given my first cell phone. I was puzzled. Why would my mother send stuff to my Qaari Sahab just because he wanted it? We are not obliged to be his servants by any means. But when I asked the question, my mother advised me not to question elders.
In a few days, my fears came true and my Qaari Sahab asked me to get him some biscuits from the market. Like a good, faithful student I did. As days passed, my Qaari Sahab came up with more and more outrageous demands. Sometimes he wanted me to get him a good topi (hat) while at other occasions he ordered me to get him a new dupatta for his wife. I faithfully obeyed. My mother was happier than ever as she thought that I was my Qaari Sahab’s favourite student. She would send over things my Qaari Sahab wanted and sometimes she even sent something extra.
One day I was reciting the Quran when my Qaari Sahab asked me to come and sit beside him. When I did, he said:
“I lost my mobile phone last night. I can’t find it anywhere.”
I looked at him with a sorry-to-hear-that expression and started reciting the Quran again. He, however, interrupted and said:
“Can I have your cell phone until I can find my own?”
I was shocked. How could he just ask for my cell phone like that? It was my first cell phone and I loved it more than I loved Winnie the Pooh. I refused to hand it over, and walked back to my usual place in the classroom. Well, that turned out to be a big mistake. It really got the Qaari Sahab angry. He didn’t say anything at the time, but kept giving me intense glares. I was a stubborn young boy so I ignored his angry gestures, and told myself that I would not, at any cost, hand over my cell phone to him. Not even if my mother asked me to.
The very next day I got delayed at school due to detention. There was only a half hour gap between my school’s closing time and my madrassa’s opening. I rushed home, changed, skipped lunch and sped out again to the madrassa. When I reached the entrance of my classroom, I found my Qaari Sahab shaking with rage. He called me over and said:
“Spread your hands.”
I couldn’t understand why I was being punished when many students arrived 30 minutes late due to legitimate reasons and they weren’t even questioned. I explained to my Qaari Sahab why I was late, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. To my disbelief, he answered:
“Your school is your problem, not mine. Spread your hands now!”
Obeying my Qaari Sahab, I stretched out my palms towards him. He took out a thick stick from under the carpet. The stick was about 15 inches long, wrapped in two layers, duct-taped and then with a piece of a rubber pipe. I didn’t get the chance to pull back my hands because as soon as he took out the stick, he smacked both my hands twice with all the might in him.
For one moment I couldn’t feel my hands. I looked down and a few tears sprung to my eyes. My hands were red, bright red. And just then they started throbbing painfully. I respectfully asked my Qaari Sahab to allow me to go to the washroom to wash my hands with some cold water, but he refused and threatened to smack my butt if I didn’t sit down. Now, I wasn’t about to let him go anywhere near my butt. So I instantly sat down and started reciting the Quran again. Later that day, I complained to my mother that I was beaten by my Qaari Sahab. She blamed me for my tardiness and advised me to reach on time in the future.
A few days later as I was reciting the Quran in my classroom when my cell phone beeped. Someone had sent me a text message. Unfortunately, my Qaari Sahab heard it ring. He called me over and asked me to hand over my cell phone to him. I told him that I will make sure that my cell phone is always silent from now on. In an abrupt action he picked up his stick and gave me a good smack on my right leg. That made me leave my cell phone on his desk right away. I walked back home with a pale face.
The next day I found my Qaari Sahab using my cell phone for his personal use.
Months passed as I watched my fellow students being beaten mercilessly and looted by my Qaari Sahab. Everyone was so afraid that no one ever dared to speak out against him. By then, the true image of Qaari Sahab had surfaced and I started to despise him from the very depths of my heart. This led me to frequently, purposely skip my classes at the madrassa. I would spend the time with my friends and lie to my mother about going. But I could only skip a day or two a week without being noticed as any student who didn’t attend more than four classes a week was beaten by their respective Qaari Sahab and their parents were called in.
As I had started skipping my classes more frequently, I needed a good excuse. For this, I designed a mechanism to bunk without being beaten or my parents being called over. Any student who wished to skip more than two days was supposed to get an application delivered and signed by the madrassa’s Naib Nazim. One day I gathered the courage and went over to the office of my madrassa’s Naib Nazim, probably one of the most feared personalities of any madrassa. He was a middle-aged man, his beard unusually red and he had an evil sparkle in his eyes.
I had written an application, forging my mother’s handwriting, asking the Naib Nazim to grant me one week’s leave. He failed to recognise the fake handwriting and signed the application. That day I walked home, very proud of myself for tricking everyone. From that day on, I only visited my madrassa twice a week: one visit for sitting in the class and reciting the Quran like everyone else and the other visit to get just another application signed by the Naib-Nazim for long leave. This went on for three to four months, until I started running out of excuses. At this point, I knew this couldn’t go on any further. I said to myself:
“I have to get away from these thieves – as far away as possible.”
Soon after, I went to the Naib Nazim’s office. I was planning on telling him that I was leaving permanently and wouldn’t be back. As soon as I reached his office, however, the Naib Nazim’s private guard told me that I should wait outside for a while as the maulvi was busy inside with some guests. Just then a car arrived and the guard got distracted. Sensing an opportunity I took a quick peek inside his office from the window and I stopped dead. I couldn’t believe what I had seen. Was it an illusion? I had to take another look to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me.
The maulvi was sitting in his usual place near his desk. There was another young boy in his office. He was older than me, around 12 or 13 years old. I had never seen him before but he was wearing a topi just like mine. He was a student, just like me, who had gone to discuss a problem with the maulvi just like I had.
The Naib Nazim had made him turn around, and had placed his hand inside the boy’s underpants. He was sexually abusing him. The boy could easily have been me.
I was absolutely devastated. Shaking, I fled the scene, tears streaming down my shocked face.
I could not believe that my mother had sent me to a place where children were sodomised by supposed mentors. I felt rage building up inside me – rage against my mother, rage against the Naib Nazim, rage on behalf of the poor boy who somehow got trapped by him, and rage against my Qaari Sahab.
By then I had understood that every Qaari Sahab and every employee of that madrassa had a good rapport with each other and they all “had each other’s back”. So if the Naib Nazim enjoyed sexually abusing young boys then the remaining Qaari Sahabs would play dumb as they were all friends with each other.
That day I went home, not uttering a single word to anyone. I was sure of one thing; I was never ever going back to that madrassa again. When my mother asked me why I was not going to the madrassa, I lost my nerve and shot back:
“Ma, if you ever try sending me back to that place or any place like that, I will run away from home and won’t ever return.”
From that day on, I wasn’t forced to go to the madrassa. More than 12 years have passed, and I haven’t told anyone what I saw. Until today. The madrassa I used to go to is still one of the biggest madrassas of Karachi. Hundreds of innocent children still go to that place and many fall victim to sexual abuse, physical abuse, bullying, and mental torture.
The Qaari Sahab who ‘taught’ me back then still teaches there. And so does the Naib Nazim. I have sent many letters to the Nazim of the madrassa asking him to keep a stern check on his employees but I have yet to see a Qaari being fired by the administration.
In a desperate plea, I would like to send this message to all parents: Don’t ever, ever send your child to a madrassa. You will not only lose your child’s innocence but you might also lose your child to the numerous beatings at the hands of these ‘blessed’ men.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.