Teacher's project offers glimpse of school life in the UAE before unification

Maysoon Al Dwairi's display is part of a Jameel Arts Centre programme that highlights forms of alternative research in the UAE

It was during a visit to her parents’ home in Jordan last year that Maysoon Al Dwairi found them – photographs of her father’s days as a teacher in the UAE, before it was the UAE. Then, the country was still known as the Trucial States, when the region was beginning to lay down the foundations of its education system.

Al Dwairi, herself a former teacher and now an education evaluator at the UAE Ministry of Culture, sat down with her father and began building an archive. “It was very interesting for me to see his pictures during this period. I asked my father so many questions about the time he stayed here, which was before and after the union, from about 1968 to 1974,” she recalls.

The result is a body of research now on display at Jameel Arts Centre’s library in Dubai. Consisting of archival photographs, documents, references and a commissioned essay, it is part of the centre’s Library Circles programme, which showcases various documentation projects and research methodologies by UAE practitioners.

By telling her personal family history, Al Dwairi also outlines the development of education systems within the UAE’s larger project of nation-building in the lead-up to, and right after, its unification.

In the 1950s, a wave of educators from Kuwait arrived in the Emirates and began establishing curricula and examinations, as well as developing certifications following the Kuwaiti model. The schools were run under the supervision of the Kuwaiti government, while the Emirates simultaneously developed its own systems and materials.

By 1967, students were able to take their secondary school exams in the UAE rather than travel to Kuwait, as they had done previously.

It was around this period that Hamad Al Dwairi, the researcher’s father, arrived in Abu Dhabi after being recruited from Jordan. In 1968, he joined teachers from around the region, including Iraq and Bahrain, who were all brought in, primarily under the direction of each emirate’s rulers at the time, to shape the state of education in the UAE.

He worked with Abdullah Ensour, who was then head teacher at Jaber Bin Hayyan school in Abu Dhabi and went on to serve as prime minister of Jordan from 2012 to 2016. A number of other educators also went on to take up notable positions in politics.

“There was a special selection process in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, even before the union, for teachers. When they arrived, there was no training institution for them. They had to rely on each other," Al Dwairi tells The National. "These teachers from Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait began developing their own training inside the schools.”

Her father was specifically brought in to support adult education for government employees. He adapted the lessons individually, as the group comprised students who had reached varying levels of education.

“The employees would work in the morning and go to the special programme in the afternoons. It was specialised in a way to fit everyone, because at times you would have an employee in his thirties who completed seventh grade next to someone who had reached 11th grade,” Al Dwairi says.

In her research, she points out how such methodologies, including the notion of personalised adaptive learning, draw from education philosophies within the Arab world, from thinkers such as Ibn Sina, Al Ghazali, Al Shafi'i and Ibn Sahnoun.

Al Dwairi also discovered how art, music and theatre, now commonly thought of as extracurricular activities in a number of schools, were part of a comprehensive approach to learning in the 1960s and 1970s.

In Al Dwairi’s photographs, there are glimpses of these days – young boys hunched over their desks as a teacher guides them through painting class; scouts in uniform setting up camp in Al Khawaneej; students on a trip to Saadiyat Island, which they reached by boat. In the 1960s and 1970s, the island belonged to fishermen who lived in palm frond huts. There is even a photograph of Al Dwairi as a child – she and the rest of her family were brought over to the UAE by her father – performing in a school play.

“Schools had theatre performances. Students studied art and music because educators saw these as subjects that help to build a strong curriculum. Many philosophers from the Arab and Islamic world wrote about this kind of comprehensive education, the kind that tackles every area of our lives. These ideas don’t just come from the West, they are in our philosophies, too,” Al Dwairi says.

Schools and teachers were held in great esteem, she says, with their roles acknowledged as crucial in the UAE’s formative years. “Schools used to be centres of cultural communities, so they arranged for poets and visitors from outside the UAE to visit.”

At the same time, teachers were recognised by leaders, as Al Dwairi’s father recounted a story to her involving Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father. During a school camping trip between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, the ruler paid an unexpected visit to greet the students and teachers. Al Dwairi’s father remembers the encounter as “emotional”, as Sheikh Zayed spoke words of encouragement to the students.

The road towards widespread education had its challenges, as some parents did not want schooling to “disrupt family life”, Al Dwairi notes. At the time, many Bedouin families remained nomadic, but school required regular attendance and tethered them to a single place. Consequently, around the period of the early 1970s, Al Dwairi's father recalls that the government had to develop strategies to encourage attendance for schoolchildren and entice parents to approve, including providing free lunches, uniforms and transportation.

Of course, the number of schools in the UAE have increased exponentially since the 1970s. Al Dwairi’s research offers a small window into a time when the idea of a united nation was only starting to take shape, but it also considers how philosophies on education have shifted over decades.

There is also a touch of the personal, with her father’s work, and his memories of his years in the UAE, central to the display. By the mid-1970s, he left to pursue a doctorate in Cairo and returned to Jordan.

In those years, Al Dwairi left, too, going on to complete her master's in Australia before returning to the UAE for a career in education, a form of repeated history, as she continues her father’s legacy.

Library Circles: Maysoon Al Dwairi is on display at the Jameel Library, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, until Monday, November 29. More information is at jameelartscentre.org

Updated: August 9th 2021, 4:06 AM
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