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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

The Elementary Schools of the Mahomedans in Jerusalem

Are in a most miserable condition, and it is easy to deduce therefrom the degree of the sciences and cultivation which prevails there. They present to the enlightened man, especially if he should have visited the schools in civilized countries, or still more if he has been educated there, a most striking and melancholy spectacle. In many streets you will find small, damp, and dark cellars, having no windows, and in which the light is only admitted through the door, which always stands open. In these there is spread on the floor a large, miserable straw mat, and on this are seen sitting, with their legs bent under them, in a circle, ten to fifteen boys, from five to twelve or even fifteen years old. In the middle stands a teacher with a long stick. Nearly every boy has before him a small wooden board, on which are drawn a few Arabic letters; and in this manner do they receive the rudiments of their education, which actually amounts to no more than a very little knowledge of reading and writing the Arabic; wherefore you will find but few citizens here who are able to read and write their native language.* Whoever, now, is able to do this is considered as belonging to the higher classes. The chief object of the education in the schools here described is to teach the scholars to say by heart the formula of prayers, or rather to sing them, as they are nearly all recited in a singing tone. You can hear even at a great distance the tumultuous and loud shrieking of these boys. One thing is quite curious to remark, that all these boys, as well at their prayers as their other exercises, keep up a constant shaking backward and forward, שאקלין זיך as is often done by our Jews when praying or studying. This habit is also observed in adult Mahomedans during their devotions, and it appears therefore that it must be an old oriental custom.

* And there are therefore in many streets small shops, in which are seated learned persons, who form a sort of Arabic writing office, where any one can be served for a compensation, in case he wants Arabic reading and writing done.

It may readily be imagined that the teachers themselves have no necessity for any high scientific and moral cultivation, in order to impart the required amount of instruction; and I can assure the reader that I have met in these institutions with teachers who were quite blind or otherwise crippled; and it would appear that if such an unfortunate being is no longer able to earn his bread by begging in the public streets, he endeavours to accomplish this by becoming a teacher. I even found these schools kept in a large cellar, so to say, a vault, in the middle of which there is a Wely, or the monument of a saint, a pious dervish, or of a sheich. The scholars sit, or rather lie around this grave, and obtain their education, as a memento mori.  The constant loud cries of these boys once excited my curiosity as I was passing by, to see what it all meant, and I looked through a small window into the place whence the sounds issued. I can assure the reader that a shuddering seized me at what I saw. A damp, heated atmosphere, an almost sepulchral odour, rose towards the spot where I was standing, and I could hardly observe the scholars, as my stepping up to the window had deprived them of the only light which they had. I could not prevail on myself to remain a few minutes even to take a closer observation of this most dreary schoolroom, and for my own part I would rather stay in a common stable, than in this subterranean, frightful school, held in the receptacle of the dead.

Is it then wonderful that these Mahomedans are so far behind the Europeans? whence are they to learn anything of scientific culture? Their reading is confined to the written Koran, since printed books, which come from Kafers only, from unbelievers, are held in no esteem by them. To show what idea of geography they have, I may state that a very learned dervish, who had made many journeys, told me that he had travelled from Sudan (Central Africa), in a few weeks by land to the East Indies, as they are not far from each other.

The Mahomedan in general ridicules the European, that he displays so much interest for such stupid and useless stuff. If he sees a foreign scholar or traveller showing some curiosity in behalf of a scientific subject, or making a measurement, a calculation, or a drawing, he exclaims, in a tone of derision, "Heida mushnem,"--he is mad. They tell me often that they can have no idea, what interest such things can have for any man, that he should make long and distant voyages by sea and land, to obtain information of such nonsensical subjects. What can I answer them? Shall I give an idea of colours to one who is born blind? an explanation of sounds to one born deaf, of which he can form no conception? One can say with truth of the Mahomedans with Solomon, "I say that an untimely birth is better than he. For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness." (Eccles. vi. 3, 4.)

Jews and Muslims in Palestine