x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

FNC member in a class of her own

The only woman to win in last week's FNC elections receives a heartfelt goodbye from students, teachers and former students at the school where she was principal in Umm Al Qaiwain.

Inside or outside the school, people wave to Ms Al Ari in recognition. When she enters a classroom, the girls stand up out of respect.
Inside or outside the school, people wave to Ms Al Ari in recognition. When she enters a classroom, the girls stand up out of respect.

UMM AL QAIWAIN // Every few minutes, there is a knock at Sheikha Eissa Al Ari's office door, a door that is always open.

She smiles as yet another pupil, dressed in a red-and-black checked uniform pinafore, rushes over to give her a hug and ask the same question posed by many before her. "Why are you leaving us, mama al modeera (principal)?" asks eight-year-old Fatima Ali.

"It is OK my little darling, I have to go and be a principal at a bigger and tougher school," she says.

It was Ms Al Ari's last day as the head of Al Abraq School for girls before she takes her seat on the FNC, the only woman to win a seat in last week's election.

Having won with 536 votes, 204 more than the second-placed candidate who will also represent Umm Al Qaiwain, Ms Al Ari will be sworn in next week.

"Mama and Baba voted for you, I also wanted to but they told me not yet," says Fatima, giving Ms Al Ari one more kiss before heading to class.

"She is just one of thousands of my little bundles of honey that I have had the great pleasure of loving and taking care of," says Ms Al Ari.

Calling her pupils "my children", the 48-year-old — who has never been married — has been the principal of several schools over the past 16 years, and was a teacher for seven years before that.

"It is the students and their parents who voted for me," she says. "I was so touched when the same students I taught when they were small, remembered me in this election and voted for me."

Asked what she thought was her winning secret, she laughs and says: "I didn't Photoshop my posters and I never wear any lipstick.

"People want someone serious and realistic to represent them, that is why I think many of the females may have lost their chances, because they couldn't convince other women they were serious about their campaigns," she says.

It wasn't just the women who voted for her, but also the fathers and brothers of the girls who crossed her path. Before the election, Ms Al Ari was regularly seen standing outside near the buses and car pickup, in order to meet the male relatives of her pupils.

"My brother never forgot how she visited him at the hospital when he broke his leg," says Amna Rashid, a teacher at Al Abraq School who also happens to be a former pupil of Ms Al Ari.

"He was one of the first ones to rush and vote for her, because he knows she is an active member of the community, and is someone who will do something special at the council," says the art teacher, who is now 30. "What she says, she does, she is one of the most dedicated people I have ever met."

The 420 children and 55 teachers - 15 of whom are former pupils - in her school all repeat the same thing: "Sheikha is our second mother."

In each classroom, Ms Al Ari says she can pick out the girls who will be leaders one day.

Inside or outside the school, people wave to Ms Al Ari in recognition. When she enters a classroom, the girls stand up out of respect.

Moza Butti, a 24-year-old English teacher who is also a former pupil, remembers Ms Al Ari as strict.

"She would tell us we could do everything, but had to listen to the teacher," says Ms Butti.

"She would make sure our socks were white and up to our knees, and that we came to school with trimmed nails and tied-up hair," she says. "But now as a teacher, I see her other side, the joking and relaxed side. She is everyone's friend."

Besides the pupils who keep dropping by, Ms Al Ari is constantly being interrupted by visits from mothers, who come bearing flowers.

Putting the third bouquet she received by noon into a vase filled with water, Ms Al Ari says: "I really prefer flowers and plants that are kept in a pot of soil, so that they don't die, and travel with me on this new journey in my life."

This prompts her to hesitate.

The middle child of a family of three girls, and a volleyball and basketball player in her youth, she wishes that two very special people were still at her side. Both her parents died in 2006.

"They loved each other so much, that when one died, the other followed," she says. "I remembered them the night I won. I looked up to the heavens and said, 'This one is for you'."