x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ruler who's one of the old school

The UAE's first formal school opened 75 years ago, was attended by the Ruler of Sharjah and is now a museum.

SHARJAH // Pupils got more than a dressing down or a poor grade when they failed to complete their homework at Sharjah's first formal school. They had to face Al Falqa, a notorious tool that consisted of a log and an attached rope that was used in conjunction with corporal punishment.

The contraption still sits in the corner of a classroom in Al Eslah School, now a museum, a stark reminder of just how much has changed since the first school to offer a formal education in the UAE opened 75 years ago. The school in al Fariej Souq was abandoned in the 1950s as larger versions opened up elsewhere, but in the 1990s it was restored and turned into a visitor attraction. "Before this school, there were no real schools, but small scattered groups of children being taught at the house of a Motawa [religious scholar], where they mainly memorised the Quran and were given religious lessons," said Abdulrahman Ali al Hammadi, the curator.

The four years he has worked at Al Eslah School have helped Mr al Hammadi, 33, to appreciate his own education, with its modern classrooms and educational tools. "Students before sat on the floor, and had to share their pens and books, that were all second-hand and donated from other Arab states, and often they had to walk long distances to reach the only school in the area," said Mr al Hammadi. Al Eslah, which means reformation, was founded in 1935 by Sheikh Mohammad bin Ali al Mahmood, a religious and intellectual pioneer who was also its principal until 1948. Teachers from other Arab states such as Kuwait, Syria and Egypt were brought in to broaden the school's curriculum beyond religion to include mathematics, history, geography, astronomy, literature, even some English classes.

There are no official records of how many children attended the school. The traditional two-storey coral and gypsum building had 13 rooms, each accommodating 20 to 25 pupils, with a courtyard in the middle. Today the headmaster's office is one of the rooms open for public viewing, featuring a bisht draped over a simple wooden desk and chair. Al Eslah was one of the first schools in the region to educate girls, some time in the early 1950s.

Teachers lived on school premises, with their meals of fish, rice and dates provided by the Ruler of Sharjah's wife, Sheikha Meerah. Their salaries were provided by their home country for the term they served. Wealthy pupils would pay the equivalent of about 20 fils - two rupees - a month, but the rest studied for free. Studies began at 8am and ended at sunset, with a three-hour lunch break. In the early days, local sea-urchin spines or ostrich feathers were used as quills, with squid ink or burnt palm ash, while large camel bones served as paper. Later the school switched to rough paper and bamboo pens.

In the 1940s the school was renamed Al Eslah al Qassimia in recognition of Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qassimi, Ruler of Sharjah at the time, who took it over financially after the recession that hit the area with the collapse of the pearl trade. On the walls of a former boys' classroom hang photos of former pupils dressed in traditional attire. One, wearing a suit jacket on top of his khandoura, is in his first year at the school and later achieved some prominence: Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, the Ruler of Sharjah.

He recalls the headmaster as "strict". "One of the days when some mischief took place at the school during the break, the headmaster Uztaz [teacher] Mohammad bin Ali al Mahmood came out from his office carrying his stick," he wrote in his autobiography Sard al That, published last year. "He closed the school's gate and started chasing the students responsible for the prank. There were students running away from him, and other students running behind him, causing chaos at the school."

Recalling his first day at school, at the age of nine, Dr Sheikh Sultan wrote: "The floors were covered with al hasir [weaved palm mats], that were uneven each time they were unrolled, with parts of it sticking out. We would sit on it to even it out, while the older students sat on desks." "I wrote my first letters on a blackboard using a white chalk," he recalled. One of the Ruler's shining school days came the next year, when at the age of 10 he delivered a welcoming address in English to a Kuwaiti delegation. The speech so impressed the Kuwaitis that they sent three more teachers to work at the school. Dr Sheikh Sultan also played on the school's first football team, established in 1953.

Schools were simpler then, said Mr al Hammadi, more communal. "Everyone knew everyone else, and it was the student's second home," he said. @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae