About two hours east of the Khyber Pass, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, alongside the Grand Trunk Road, sits a school called the Haqqania madrasa. A madrasa is a Muslim religious seminary, and Haqqania is one of the bigger madrasas in Pakistan: its mosques and classrooms and dormitories are spread over eight weed-covered acres, and the school currently enrolls more than 2,800 students. Tuition, room and board are free; the students are, in the main, drawn from the dire poor, and the madrasa raises its funds from wealthy Pakistanis, as well as from devout, and politically minded, Muslims in the countries of the Persian Gulf.
The students range in age from 8 and 9 to 30, sometimes to 35. The youngest boys spend much of their days seated cross-legged on the floors of airless classrooms, memorizing the Koran. This is a process that takes between six months and three years, and it is made even more difficult than it sounds by the fact that the Koran they study is in the original Arabic. These boys tend to know only Pashto, the language of the Pathan ethnic group that dominates this region of Pakistan, as well as much of nearby Afghanistan. In a typical class, the teachers sit on the floor with the boys, reading to them in Arabic, and the boys repeat what the teachers say. This can go on between four and eight hours each day.
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