Learning Tajweed

Hijab, women’s rights, Islam, and East vs. West are subjects that never fail to stimulate a good, often repetitive, conversation.

Learning Arabic is another such topic. I am tempted to repeat my laments about my failure to achieve fluency, and the difficulty of the language, and my lack of helpful cooperation from my kids, etc. All of that is mundane.

I’d rather tellย a story about how I studied tajweed.

After I had studied Arabic grammar two years at the ladies community college, conveniently located down the block from my Riyadh apartment (across from the TV tower, for anyone who wishes to investigate), my husband suggested I start tajweed.ย 

I confess, I would have rather continued grammar, but the college offered no further courses. I enrolled for tajweed at a local madrassa, also within walking distance from home.

In spite that my black wraps looked like everyone else’s black wraps, I stood out like a horse in a herd of camels.The ladies all looked at me like camels look at people– directly, standing still, amazed, and wondering what comes next. I was their first face-to-face Westerner.

They put me inย the elementary class, with the illiterate women; no one believed I could read. We all sat on the floor, in a circle, and the teacher started taking attendance.

“OmAhmed? OmMariam? OmFaisal? OmNur?” One by one, the women raised their hands, and grunted something to indicate their presence.

“OmHammama?” (Mother of the pigeon.) They all laughed at this.

When she came to me, she raised her eyes, looked at me, and said, “OmAysh?” meaning, “The mother of whom?”

I said, “Ismi Marahm.” My name is Marahm.


“La. Ismi Marahm, wa bas.” No, my name is Marahm, that’s all.

“OMAYSH?” she repeated loudly, with wide eyes, as everyone in the room focused upon me, and no one moved.

“OmRanya,” I said meekly. So much for my Western idea of personal identity. I nearly got up and ran out, but that would have drawn even more attention.

Such began another two years of study, during which I suffered additional insults, but developed an appreciation of the Qur’an worth every minute. More later.


About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
This entry was posted in Arabic Language, Islam, Memoir, Saudi Arabia, Tajweed and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Learning Tajweed

  1. ~W~ says:

    This is unbelievable! The same exact thing happened to me, except I just repeated my name is W for the third time she asked then she skipped me to the next Om. I left at the end of the lesson but never came back.
    I later focused on studying the message and meaning of the Quran on my own, and developed good reading (not tajweed) with the help of Mishari Elafasi CDs.
    It would be interesting to know what happened in the next 2 years for you.

  2. Marahm says:

    I understand how you felt. I was tempted not to back. Humdulillah that you were able to make progress independently; I haven’t heard of Mishari Elafasi, but there are many excellent tools these days I’ve not heard of.

    I will definately post several more episodes of this tajweed journey. It gets better!

  3. Shahrzad says:

    I really wonder, how much they’re on surface. why they force it to others?
    Being muslim doesnt mean becoming arab. Islam has helped muslims from all over the world to remove the wrong part of their culture. But it does not mean removing the identity to become completely an arab..

    Even changing name after being muslim is not part of deen. It’s what the person choses. Not an obligatory..

  4. Marahm says:

    You are right, Shahrzad. Among the predominantly Muslim countries of the world, I have visited Malaysia, Syria, Turkey and Jordan. Each is different from each other and from Saudi Arabia with respect to practicing Islam, yet the basics are in place for those who wish to observe.

  5. WM says:

    Marahm, where are you ‘from’? Are you a ‘revert’/convert’ etc? You really don’t have to say if you’d prefer to keep it personal.

  6. Marahm says:

    I am an American convert. I came to Riyadh in1986 as a single, non-Muslim woman. I loved the Arabic language from the first time I heard it, so naturally, I studied, and of course I met an attractive Arab man. One thing led to another…
    The man has been gone for awhile, but the rest of it is still close to my heart.

  7. WM says:

    ‘Gone’? Rahimahullah. When did you become a muslim, sr?

  8. peacefulmuslimah says:

    I feel that this habit (the kunya) is in essence seeing the value of a woman only insofar as she is a mother. Surely being a parent is a great and wonderful thing but we have value in ourselves, too.

    I always have found it distatesteful that a wo/man with only a daughter takes that kunya, only to change it if later s/he has a son.

  9. WM says:

    Sorry, but this is how names have always worked, in every culture.

    This is a man’s world ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. peacefulmuslimah says:

    Actually WM, c ulture is not static. It is in a constant state of flux, as some things we change and some we do not. In my culture (American) we do not refer to a woman as the mother of her son over her daughter. In fact, we refer to her by name and then might mention she is a mother. She is still a person in her own right.

    My oldest child is a girl. Then I had a boy. The Kuwaiti always wanted to take my son’s names and “Arabize” it and call me UmmJassim. I told him I was not an Arab and did not use a kunya but if I did, I would use my daughter’s name — which by the way is a popular Arab name.

    Anyway you are wrong. Names do not work like this in every culture.

    Salaam Alaikum ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. WM says:

    Interesting insight into your life.

    Who said anything about depraved modern cultures?

  12. WM says:

    Umm Jassim ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Marahm has already made clear what she thinks of my ‘digressions’ ๐Ÿ˜€

    So no controversy alhamdulillah.

  13. Women always have the problem of losing their identities in marriage (Abdul’s wife), in motherhood (Karim’s mom), in work (Homer’s secretary), etc. If you did not have any children, what would the teacher have called you then? I think this practise might be glaringly hurtful for women who cannot bear children. I prefer to retain my own identity! Looking forward to hearing more about this experience…

  14. Marahm says:

    WM, I became a Muslim in 1988.

    PM, WM, and Susie, This business of names and identity is interesting. Most Western women feel that the kunya covers the personal identity of the woman, and they do not like that concept.

    Many years ago, before “women’s liberation”, young brides in America were proud to call themselves Mrs. So-and-so. Homemaking and motherhood were considered worthy of full-time devotion. Women expected to be supported 100%, so they could develop their skills in the domestic arts. I am old enough to remember those days fondly.

    What happened, and why? Well, that topic is worthy of its own post. One of us should start it.

    Suffice it to say here that Arab women feel that their identity has been affirmed by giving birth, and the kunya is a mark of passage, not a blurring of identity. This is a fundamental difference between East and West with regard to female identity.

    Woman who cannot bear children were often called, “Mother of the Absent One.” I forgot the Arabic word, and I don’t know whether that kunya is still used, but it points to the strength of the motherhood role as the eptiome of feminine individuation.

    All the young Arab women I knew in the hospital were on a career path other than motherhood. They still saw motherhood as an ultimate goal, and let’s face it— it is! However, those young ladies aspired to calling themselves “Doctor” in addition to “Om.”

    The women at the madrassa, however, were of a different generation. They hadn’t even finished secondary school, and probably saw no need of it.

  15. WM says:

    ‘East’ and ‘West’? Essentialism? From a flower child?


  16. WM says:

    I was born in that year. Clearly, ’twas a year unparalleled in human history ๐Ÿ˜‰

  17. Marahm says:

    Yes, indeed it was a year unparalled, but aren’t they all, for someone, somewhere? Imagine the number of people in the world on any given day in history, and imagine how lives ride on sea changes every day of every year! Now imagine how all those lives and changes interact with each other, and influence conditions far removed from the origins of any one of them.

    My goodness, I’m getting off topic on my own blog. Let me relate all this back to the subject.

    Did any one of those Arab ladies imagine they’d ever meet a Western woman face-to-face, much less sit in the same classroom? Did I ever imagine I’d meet any of them?

    And now I am writing to people in other countries I’d never meet had I not started blogging.

    The Qur’an, though written in Arabic, is truly an international book, a timeless book, bringing people together and working in their lives even when they may not be aware of its influence.

  18. Hning says:

    The “OMAYSH?” part was so funny, i couldn’t help shudder imagining her voice!

    About names, did you know that the ancient Celt and Chinese were reluctant to give out their real names to strangers? It is believed that your true name gives access to your soul. Giving it to the wrong people can make it easier to hex/hoodoo/cross you with black magic.

    Magic (of whatever kind, even the feminine intuitive kind), the kind that is still practiced in these modern times against and for the goodness of others, often still requires the revelation of true, parental given name.

    Maybe the kunya was invented as precautionary method to lessen the hassles with demons and witches atempting your sou. ^_^

  19. Marahm says:

    What an interesting suggestion! Given the preoccupation with evil eye, jinn, demons, witches and all of that, a kunya would be a good defense.

    Letโ€™s extend the idea a bit. Look at most of us here in the blogosphere. We are using derivatives of our names, letters, phrases, and the kunya to identify ourselves because we sense the need to be careful, as we communicate very personal details of our lives to essential strangers.

  20. Umm Ibrahim says:

    Assalaamu alaikum,

    I think it is all to do with societal norms… addressing you as Marahm rather Umm Ranya would probably have been just too weird for those ladies; rather like the weirdness for some people of calling their parents by their name or a teacher by their first name. Using the kunya shows respect and using the first name, for many, doesn’t. If the women were as uneducated as you say, I’m sure it would have been just too much for them… when in Rome… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Look forward to reading further installments. ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Sooo weird their reaction yet for them so normal like was just said it’s their noraml way and it would feel ood to them maybe insulting. I find the Umm and Abu names are for respect not to downplay a man or woman from who they are. When we become parents we do change our characters a bit. When i had my daughter people did call me UmmRajaa. Yet they still called me UmmMustapha too ebcause that is what everyone had decided my first son would be called. (following the tradition of my husband’s family) [yeah I’ll blog about it one day]. Still I know it must have been hard but you totally should have stuck with what you were comfortable with. Maintaining Marahm. But i know it’s hard when you first meet a group and you want to fit in…as best as a westerner can in Saudi.

  22. Marahm says:

    You are both quite right, Umm Ibrahim and AMW.
    One thing that bothered me, I am not the birth mother of my girls, yet I am “Mom” to them, and they are “my daughters” to me. I know this is a technicality, but I wasn’t sure if I could use the kunya in all honesty.

    Had they known I was a “step-mom” there would have been no end to the interrogation!

  23. ~W~ says:

    I agree it is the norm for them and that it is not meant to be insulting. It is the insistence that I , who obviously do not belong to this culture, conform with this, that bothered me.

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