Day 16: The School Without Pencils

Islamabad, April 7, 10:19 pm

My bed began to roll at around 4 o'clock in the morning. My first instinct was that someone else was in the room, pulling at me. I sat up in the dark.

The mattress continued to rock like it was a water bed. Was it moving, or was I imagining it? Someone was in the room. I reached for the light next to the bed. I looked around the front of the bed, then got off and looked underneath. No one. Could it be from the room next door? I sat again. More movement. I turned off the light and lay down. Happy told me the next morning, with a big smile, that there was an earthquake. No reports of any casualties.

When you cross the bridge from Islamabad into the town of Rawalpindi, you enter the real Pakistan, which is packed with people. You see barefoot people on the move in shalwar kameez, noise, smoke, movement, little three-wheeled motorized taxis called "rickshaws" gunning around, horse and carriages, bicycles, and tiny buses packed with so many people that two or three simply hang on to the back bumper.

have to breathe slowly in such crowds, when I stand out and people stare at me, and especially when I think any moment someone who hates America might attack me. I try and pick a spot where I won't be bumped into, using a natural obstacle like a tree or a post as a shelter, and I just breathe and act calm. Three men walked up to me aggressively today and asked where I was from. My impulse normally is to ignore them or say "none of your business," but I said "United States," then took a few steps away. Some people say they are from different countries other than the U.S., but I don't like doing that.

As I stood next to a chain-link fence and the mobs moved around me, a progression of three women walked by with long reeds tied together, sweeping trash from the sidewalk out into the road. Each sweeper was a little further away from the curb than the one preceding her, so the effect was that of a mechanized street sweeper – but it was a human one, barefoot, and in robes. Another woman passed with an enormous tied mesh bag on her head, containing a load of square packaged goods. She moved carefully between the horses, the bikes and the rickshaws, only once pausing to balance the load on her head. It would have been much too heavy for her to lift in her arms. I wondered who had put it up on her head, and what she would do if it came off? I realized, as I saw her pace away into the distance, that it would not come off.

e were there to see a madrasa, an Islamic school for boys. There were 70,000 of them in Pakistan, almost all supported by private donations. After charges that the madrasas were breeding grounds for terrorists, where violent fanaticism was drilled into the heads of impoverished youth, there was a lot of talk of reform. I figured we'd see a modern one today, with computers and an English language class.

I figured wrong. Ducking our heads, we climbed a narrow, winding staircase up above the stores, took off our shoes, and in the distance heard the chanting. I got excited, glad, like I always get, at the prospect of good video. There was row upon row of tiny boys, chanting, rocking, kneeling on stone, all in line, all in unison, reciting the passages from the Koran over and over. I watched from a distance, as Mal got closer to film. Their chants picked up in intensity as he got closer. He put the camera right up to their tiny faces. They were going to let us do whatever we wanted. I talked to the mullah. He had 500 boys, age 6 to 24. They started at 7 am, reciting from the Koran until 11 am, then lunch, a nap break, then back to the Koran until 5 pm.

They were kneeling on stone. They were rocking back and forth, chanting the lines aloud. A mullah sat silently at the head. To me, the boys looked like galley slaves. All that was missing were oars. Some faces looked bored, desperate, but there was nowhere to go. The boys were poor. The parents had left them there.

The little boys sat on one end of the courtyard. We made our way up to the older boys. The older they got, the harder looks I got. The school housed and fed the boys. Lunch was curry, served from a bucket, eaten in a squatting position, in line, in silence. Mal said it reminded him of Dickens. I didn't know what to make of it. There was no grass, no running, no smoking, no sodas, no backpacks. In fact, no one had anything in his hands. It was just shalwar kameez and sandals. Not even a pencil.

I guess that's what troubled me – watching them rock and chant – that in a sense, this was supposed to be about a book. Everyone had the same single book and appeared to be reading. But to me as a Westerner, what the children were doing had nothing to do with reading.

We sat in the mullah's office on a carpet on the floor. He had lunch spread out, half a chicken that you took to your plate, pulled a piece off with your hands and returned to the center. There was also tea from a thermos that already had milk in it and a burned skim on top in your cup. I took a small sip then decided to stick with the pre-packaged pound cake that was cut in slices. I had a couple of pieces and ate them slowly. No one spoke English, not even the top 24-year-old student they brought out to talk with us.

Mal asked the top student about heroes, and didn't get much of an answer. Then he asked directly about Osama bin Laden. I looked down at my plate. "He is a Muslim brother," the student said. "If he is fighting against oppression, that is a good thing, but it is hard to tell the truth, because we don't trust the media."

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