The Old City’s Girls’ School

"Fawzia Bariun"

A decade ago, the old city in Tripoli was the center of the world. Historically, it was a dynamic cultural center, its streets and alleys housing the original families of Tripoli, tens of mosques and shrines and religious schools, as well as sites for scientific and Sufi education. Self-sufficient, the city boasted shops, bakeries, hammams, clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, dyeries, looms, hotels, coffee shops, a theater, cinemas, sports teams, artists, offices, libraries, printing presses and various newspapers. It housed the headquarters of the city hall, the courthouses, embassies and ambassadors’ houses, and Christian and Jewish communities were among its residents. It housed churches and synagogues and clubs for foreign communities. It was a city pulsing with life, where people of different races, religions and cultures coexisted in harmony. 

Across from the little girl's house was the Old City School, where she spent her early years, and where her little feet first learned to roam. Another box of wonders she enjoyed opening was the adjacent Tripoli Central School, where her father was a teacher. He placed her in Mr. Al-Aref Al-Turky's class, together with her relative Samira Al-Yaziji, the principal's daughter. They were the only two girls in a class of boys. 

The girl then moved to the girls' schools, with its many classrooms, an abundance of teachers, and a spacious courtyard. At the time, girls’ education was a field dominated by the daughters of elite families–you would often find two or more sisters with the last name Al-Izmirli, Al-Qaramanli, Al-Khoja, Sayala, Dhafer, Tantoush, Daqdaq, Houria, or Tawfiq Hamouda. Halouma Houria, the daughter of the famous sheikh Mokhtar Houria, was our principal, and her sister Khadija was a teacher. Souad Sayala was my math teacher–I still remember the lesson she gave us on fractions. Her brother, Mohamed Farid Sayala, had published a book titled "Towards A Brighter Future" in 1957, calling for the liberation of women, which had caused quite a stir in the country. When I was in fifth grade, I bought a copy from school, where it was offered for sale. I remember paying sixteen piasters for it. 

My Arabic teacher, Saliha Orabi, was impressed by my writing; she would sit in the seat next to me to review my essays, which made me feel special and connected–especially that her sister was married to my mother's cousin. My science teacher was Zahra El-Saidi–but her features are now almost entirely escaping me. Adila El-Qaramanli was my embroidery and sewing teacher, and though she was my mother's cousin, she was generally dissatisfied with my work; I usually forgot to bring my sewing kit, or even the embroidery piece itself. I remember many more teachers who graced our school, even if they weren't my teachers, including: the sisters Ruqaya and Naima Daqdaq, the sisters Fakhriya and Anisa Al-Qaramanli, Rafi’a Sayala, Fatitima Belrahal, Nadeema Al-Izmirli, and Nafisa Bin Mawlahom. 


I still remember the pioneering teacher Jamila Al-Izmirli, who was married to the scholar Abdul Rahman Al-Busiri. As the general girls’ inspector, I think her office was located near our school, so she would often wander among the classrooms with her supportive and inspiring presence. As soon as she stepped into the classroom, everyone would jump to their feet to greet her, before she asked us to sit back down. She was calm and thoughtful, urging us to work hard and read the Quran, and she always advocated modesty and good manners. She was short, fair skinned, with a head of white hair. She wore the traditional farashia, which only revealed her face, and she treated everyone–the principal, the teachers and the students–with the utmost reverence and respect. Her sister, Nadeema, was a teacher at the same school, and she wore a black muslin bisha over her face. 

The girls' school at the old city was a magical world that revealed magnificent horizons. It was there that I learned to write, read stories, and to make meaning of the world, at the time when my very being was thirsty for knowledge.

Born in Tripoli, she is a poet and critic. She obtained her Ph.D. in literature from the University of Michigan. Her poems have been published in numerous Libyan and Arab magazines and newspapers, in addition to her book about Malik Bennabi and several academic research papers published in peer-reviewed journals.

Fawzia Bariun
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