By Samiha Rahman
Aminah Abdullah, a 12-year-old African American girl from Brooklyn, NY, boarded a plane with her 5-year-old sister Tauhidah in July of 1988. They were headed to Senegal to memorize the Qu’ran. Though their mother herself had never been to Africa, she felt comfortable sending her daughters almost four thousand miles away because they would be under the care of Shaykh Hassan Cisse, a world-renowned Senegalese Islamic scholar and humanitarian. On the ride to the airport, Aminah’s eyes were glued to the window. She took careful note of everything, not wanting to forget the home she was leaving behind.
Once Aminah and Tauhidah arrived in Dakar, Senegal, they were received by Shaykh Hassan and Sister Kareemah Abdul-Kareem, an African American woman from New York City. Aminah kept asking, “What is the Qu’ran school like? When are we going there?” She asked because she knew there were other American children at the school. She hoped that seeing them might make her feel a little less homesick.
Shortly after, Sister Kareemah took Aminah and Tauhidah to Medina Baye, a small village three hours outside of Dakar where the African American Islamic Institute (AAII) was located. The AAII Qu’ran school was founded by Shaykh Hassan and named in honor of his broader project to re-establish forcibly severed ties between African-descended peoples in America and on the African continent. Once they arrived in Medina Baye, Sister Kareemah brought Aminah and Tauhidah to the Yellow House – what would become their home away from home for the next five years.
The Yellow House was a modest four-room building that Sister Kareemah had managed for the last few years. Though referred to by the color of its paint – which Sister Kareemah made sure to recoat every few years – it was known to most people in Medina Baye as the house where all the American students lived. At any given time, approximately 20 children and teenagers lived there. Some former residents recall that as many as fifty young people lived in the house at its peak. African American parents sent their children from New York City, Atlanta, Detroit, and other urban centers to live at the Yellow House and to memorize the Qu’ran at AAII. When Aminah’s mother told Shaykh Hassan that she wanted to send her two young daughters to Senegal, he responded, “Bismillah. I will take care of them like my own.” He fulfilled this promise to all the American parents who sent their young children to Medina Baye in pursuit of Islamic education and firsthand experience with Islam in Africa.
Nonetheless, the young people felt homesick. Most of them spoke to their parents no more than once a week over a rickety and expensive telephone connection, and more often, waited weeks to exchange hand-written letters. But surrounded by so many other Americans, they kept alive many of their traditions from back home. Kubra Askari-Cisse traveled to Medina Baye from Atlanta and finished memorizing the Qu’ran at AAII at the age of 20. She recalls eating suhoor – the pre-dawn meal eaten by Muslims in preparation of their sacred fast – daily during the month of Ramadan at the Yellow House. In each room, the young residents set up different meal options: oatmeal in this room, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in that room, and egg sandwiches in another room. On weekends, many of them gathered to play Spades. Ihsan Muhammad, also from Atlanta, finished memorizing the Qu’ran at the age of 17. He remembers a point at which all the boys at the Yellow House were obsessed with comic books. Ultimately, one of the caretakers of the house thought the comic books were too big a distraction and burned them. (Ihsan also remembers helping to save about a hundred comic books by burying them in the sand.) He recalls that regularly reading those stories actually helped many of the young people maintain their English reading skills in the midst of their Quranic studies and Wolof language immersion.
Shaykh Hassan worked to minimize distractions that might have interfered with the students’ studies. Ihsan recalls Shaykh Hassan making a pop-up visit to AAII. After inquiring about everyone’s academic progress, Shaykh Hassan noticed one American student missing and asked where he was. One of his classmates responded by saying that the missing student was busy washing his clothes. Hearing this, Shaykh Hassan immediately hired someone to do laundry for all the residents at the Yellow House, explaining, “Now you have no reason to miss school. Your only job here is to study the Qu’ran.”
And study they did. AAII graduated the first-known American hafiza (a woman who has memorized the entire Qu’ran) Aminah Abdul-Kareem during the late 1980’s. Aminah was one of at least eleven African American children who became hafiz and one of more than two hundred African Americans who studied at AAII. In addition to learning the Qur’an, they also picked up the Wolof language and became immersed in Senegalese culture. Outside of school, they observed Shaykh Hassan’s example of tirelessly feeding the poor and helping the marginalized. They also learned about the more spiritual dimensions of Islam, called Sufism.
Though the Yellow House has fallen out of use of over the years, it is an institution that hundreds of African American Muslims remember fondly. It was a place where they formed lifelong bonds. Nearly thirty years later, former roommates consider each other to be siblings. Because of their life-changing experiences at the Yellow House and in Medina Baye, many of them have since sent their own children there to study. Most from this newer generation live at Kubra’s house in Medina Baye, which some former Yellow House residents consider to be this generation’s version of the Americans’ home-away-from-home. Approximately 25 African American youth live at her house, and at least four of them finished memorizing the Qu’ran while living under her care.
And so while the Yellow House may no longer serve as a dormitory for American students, its legacy continues through Kubra’s efforts in her own home. It also lives on through the memories of the hundreds of African American children, families, and communities whose lives have been forever transformed by the experiences of those who studied Islam in Medina Baye, Senegal.
Samiha Rahman is a PhD student in Education and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include race, religion, political activism, and education for liberation amongst communities of color globally. Prior to entering graduate school, Samiha worked with middle and high school aged youth of color in Philadelphia and New York City in the field of youth development.