Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- Al Mohammadiya elementary school, one of the oldest and most respected educational establishments in the Saudi capital, was founded in 1952. It is located in Salam Street, close to Dakhna square, renowned for its academic links. Over five decades, many of its former students have become renown in Saudi society and assumed prominent positions.
Its historical building tells the story of education in Saudi Arabia. Its halls, classes and corridors are awash with memories of students and teachers walking through their doors. Al Mohammadiya has recently received a new lease of life and is now a private school to teach non Arabic-speakers, most of who come from Africa.
Salam Street is a main road that links south Riyadh with the center, close to Dakhna square and the Imam al Daawa Institute, the Riyadh mosque and Moqaibara market. The school is also near the Palace of Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Rahman, whose brother founded al Mohammadiya. The Palace and the girls’ school were recently demolished to make way for Salam Park, the largest public park in the Riyadh.
Students at al Mohammadiya grew accustomed to seeing the Late King Saud bin Abdulaziz, as he visited his uncle’s Palace nearby. Every week, the royal convoy would pull up in front of the school as students were about to leave home at the end of lessons… They would shout, “Here comes the King! Here comes the King!” drop the school bags and greet the Saudi monarch with applause and whistling.
Some would even throw their hats towards the King’s red vehicle… Guards would always collect the hats and return them to the school, sparking fights between students unsure which hat belonged to whom. The young boys were in awe of their monarch and were delighted to see him in the flesh; some even hoped he would leave a few coins in their hats.
Amongst the first schools to have been established in Riyadh, al Mohammadiya was preceded by the Tizkariya school, Faisalia school and al Aasha. The imposing building that housed the school featured well-lit and ventilated classes, tiled floors and several playgrounds. The school canteen offered cheese and jam pies. At the time, most students lived in mud houses lacking basic amenities; the toilets at al Mohammadiya were considered a real luxury. In its agriculture laboratories, students were able to carry out a range of experiments, including sowing plant seeds and watching them grow and cooking a range of fruit jams. Students participate in regional and national competitions and often excelled, winning several prizes which included the books “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens and “Broken Wings” by Gebran Khalil Gebran.
Scores of pupils went through al Mohammadiya’s doors. Graduates include government officials, prominent businessmen, academics, doctors, journalists, media figures and military officer from across the Kingdom.
In its first three decades, more than 1000 boys enrolled in the school with many more entering its doors to sit for the primary education certificate. Al Mohammadiya was chosen because of its central location and number of classes. Like many other establishments at the time, the school assigned great importance to discipline. Every morning, students would stand in line and watch the Saudi flag being raised by student representatives who would stand in front of their classmates and hail, “Long live the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia! Long live his Royal Highness the King!” Others would soon follow.
Every morning, students would listen to the recitation of the Quran by Sheikh Said Anwar or Sheikh Abdul Basset Abdul Samad and, at times, to the live broadcast of famous Arab songs by Riyadh’s radio station.
Ali al Rajehy, the current school director has been in his post for the last six years. In its new guise, al Mohammadiya faced a number of challenges as its teaching staff sought to maintain its high standards and illustrious history, he told Asharq al Awsat. Despite students coming from around the world, especially from African non-Arabic speaking countries such as Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, standards remained high. Translators were sometimes required, he added, to enable students and teachers to communicate. With most students coming from poor backgrounds, al Rajeh said, they walk to school, repeating what their ancestors did almost 60 years ago.
Al Mohammadiya has also established a number of committees to ensure students do not grow up being manipulated by Islamist militants and organized trips to the sites of former terrorist attacks, in order to teach students the evils of terrorism firsthand.