I taught in a madrassa

Natalie Binder, who grew up in Tarpon Springs and graduated from Florida State, recently returned from a year-long Fulbright Scholarship in Indonesia where she taught English at a boarding school for girls in a rural village.

As part of a special diplomatic program, she was one of the first Fulbright Scholars to be welcomed into a pesantren, also known as a madrassa, an Islamic boarding school that teaches the Koran, religious rituals and simple, moral living, in addition to a rigorous state curriculum of science, mathematics, civics, history and languages (Arabic and English). Indonesia, with 237-million people, is the fourth-most populous nation in the world and the largest country with a Muslim majority population. Natalie, who is 23, taught in the village of Coper Jetis Ponorogo, where about 700 girls attend the school and live in open-air dorms. She kept a journal and took photographs of her year there: I can't say enough good things about the girls, who are probably the most cheerful, well-adjusted, responsible teenagers I have ever met. Here are some of her observations.

Children are treasured in Indonesia, and while parents can be strict, young children are extravagantly loved. Indonesians like large families and most couples hope to have several children. Between birth and age 3 or 4, children are carried by their mothers or fathers in slings, or allowed to play in their parents' workplaces, where they are usually welcome. When they are old enough to walk and talk they are turned loose in the village. They quickly make friends with other children. They are free to play almost anywhere. With more than 700 teenage girls nearby at the school, small children never lack for supervision or affection.

Indonesia has a very musical culture, and most of the students are accomplished musicians, singers and dancers. Pesantren Putri al-Mawaddah, which my students translate as "Valentine Girls' Boarding School," frequently wins regional and national band competitions. The girls attend classes six days a week and have no summer vacation. On their day off (Friday) they hike the local farms or shop in a nearby town. They are not permitted to use cell phones or have TVs in their rooms. When I described the American summer "holiday" to my Indonesian students, they were astonished and asked me how we could possibly "keep the knowledge" during all that time.

How I fit in: Adults are deeply respected, especially teachers, and they hold an important supervisory and counseling role. Because I was an al-Mawaddah teacher and a foreign guest, students rarely allowed me to cook, clean, or carry anything myself, though I would have been happy to. I was always addressed on the most formal terms and always seated in the front row of an audience. Most of the teachers were my age or younger, and they enjoyed similar status.

The Indonesians I met — students, teachers, and villagers — were extremely pro-American and often crossed language, cultural, and physical boundaries just to express their affection for our country. Indonesians who could not speak English often greeted me with a warm handshake, a salute, or with their hands pressed to their hearts. Indonesia's tourist trade was severely harmed by the 2004 Bali bombings, and their economy has never recovered. I lived and worked in one of the most conservative Muslim communities in Indonesia, and the people there rejected terrorism and radical fundamentalism. Many Indonesians told me that they did not support terrorism and hoped for stronger ties with the United States in the future. The students view America as a utopia and were very surprised to learn that there are poor people in America (some of them did not believe me).

Connecting one-on-one across cultures is an essential diplomatic effort. Friendship between Americans and people from moderate Muslim countries like Indonesia is even more important in the context of the war on terror and extremism. Even though everyone I met had nice things to say about our country, the diplomatic situation there is very complex. The people do empathize with victims of war in Muslim countries. While some Indonesians criticize American foreign policy, they view us as accomplished innovators. America's success and technological advancement reflect Indonesians' hope that their young democracy can also be successful.

Waiting for the bus: Girls are waiting for the bus in downtown Ponorogo, the nearest city/commercial area. The students go shopping there on their days off. They are allowed to go around town without supervision, though they always travel in groups. After shopping, they meet at a mosque and wait for the school bus to pick them up. They are wearing their "off campus" uniforms, which are long lavender dresses. Ponorogo is home to a lot of pesantrens. After a while you learn which school a group of students is from based on their uniforms.

Inside a classroom: It's very unusual for Indonesian students to work in teams or groups, though I introduced some of these methods during my service year. The teacher leans against the wall in this photo. Married male teachers are welcome at al-Mawaddah, and they are some of the most popular. The girls in white veils are wearing their regular school uniforms. They have different uniforms for sports, classes, formal occasions, off-campus events and scouting.

STUDENTS, THEN teachers: After graduation several students are chosen to serve as teachers during the next school year. While they work for the school they are provided with housing, food, a small allowance, and transportation to and from university. Most of them major in English or education. This means that most of the teachers at al-Mawaddah are young women between the ages of 18 and 23. Teachers, such as these, are selected for their academic skill, maturity, accomplishment and comportment. In addition to teaching academic subjects, they are expected to serve as friends and counselors to their "small sisters." Al-Mawaddah's goal is to raise "complete women" (the Indonesian phrase literally translates to "pretty girls") who can be good mothers and wives, pious Muslims, and exemplary students. Most of the girls at al-Mawaddah hope to be teachers, reporters, doctors or singers. Nearly all of them want to be parents.

At the school, eight to 10 students share each room, which during the day serves as a common study and dining area. At night the students lay mats on the tile floor to sleep. Like most homes and businesses in Indonesia, the rooms are open-air. Each girl has her own locker for her clothes, schoolbooks, and trinkets. Unmarried female teachers live on campus in similar dorms. Indonesians — especially women — differ from Americans on matters of independence and personal space. "Alone is dangerous," they tell me. "Together is better!"

I taught in a madrassa 09/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 18, 2008 11:50am]

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