Abooali’s Blog

5. Islamia School

“Hadrabak ya walad!” yelled Teacher Rafiqa, the large Egyptian lady seated in front of a class of five-year-olds. The words meant “I will hit you, child!”  They were directed at a boy climbing over the back of another child. The boy knew she meant it and got down. The class sat still and quiet while Teacher Rafiqa was in the room. Even the naughtiest child dared not misbehave in her class. She was teaching them Arabic, and “Hadrabak!” was a phrase the children picked up quickly. She continued chanting Arabic words, slapping her thigh with each syllable as she did.

“Battatun.” (Duck).

“Battatun,” chanted the children.

“Tufahatun.” (Apple).

“Tufahatun,” chanted the children.

When the lesson finished Teacher Rafiqa collected her sheets and marched out, leaving Teacher Kulsum, the regular class teacher, to take over. The children had been sitting still for a long time and were fidgety. So she got them all to have a stretch and played a quick game of Ahmad Says, which is like Simon Says – but it’s Ahmad who’s saying it, not Simon. Then she sang a nursery rhyme to the tune of “Boys and Girls come out to play;” everyone joined in.

Boys and Girls its time to pray

Azaan is called five times a day

Stop your playing and leave your sleep

Ignore the noises in the street

Pack up your toys and leave your games

Remember Allah most glorious of names

Come in a hurry come clean and smart

Speak to your maker and open your heart

Praise and thank Him all day long

And say you’re sorry if you’ve done wrong

He’ll forgive you all and give you the power

To think and do good each second and hour.

It was almost play time, so Teacher Kuslum lined them up by the door, the girls looking angelic in their white hijabs and beige pinafores.

“Walk quietly, in a straight line,” said Teacher Kulsum as the children set off along the corridor. “And don’t run!”

But some of the boys had already started to canter past the girls at the front, and once they turned the corner it became a full blown gallop to get to the playground first. Teacher Kuslum made her way to the staffroom where Teacher Rafiqa had laid out some snacks.

“Cup of tea, brother Hassan?” said sister Nasreen as I came in the door, carrying a pile books to mark.

“Yes please,” I replied. “And if there’s any of the fresh mint left, could you pop that in it too please?”

I sat down at one end of the long table and began ‘flicking and ticking’ through the books, adding comments such as, “Remember to use capital letters for place names.”

“Did you hear what happened to sister Sandra when she was leaving school yesterday?” said sister Maheen.


“That racist over the road – the one who lives in the bed and breakfast – started swearing at her and told her to go home.”

“Stupid man. What did she say?”

“She told him she is going home, thank you very much!”

Teacher Abdullah appeared at the door with a lady in a short skirt and low cut blouse.

“This is Caroline, from ‘Scholastic Books’. She’ll be attending our staff meeting today. She has some ideas about reading schemes to present to us.”

Caroline stood nervously at the door.

“Come and sit down, habibti (darling),” said Teacher Rafiqa, holding Caroline’s hand and leading her towards a chair as though she were a small child. Then without asking if Caroline wanted anything, she placed an enormous slice of cream cake on a plate and put it in front of her.

“Oh thank you, but it’s too much,” said Caroline.

“No,” said teacher Rafiqa sternly, “you must eat it all; you are too thin.”

Islamia School was both a mad and a wonderful place. The sincerity, commitment and genuine warmth of those involved made one feel part of a huge family, albeit a rather odd and dysfunctional family. Throughout the fifteen years I spent there as a teacher it was always much more than a job to me. I mixed socially with the teachers and parents; we attended prayers together, went to the same Islamic circles; my children played with their children. Regardless of whatever doubts and inner turmoil I had, the community at Islamia School kept me going and provided an anchor on which to hold. Everyone at the school was a constant reminder of the reality of Muslims that was a world away from the demonizing headlines of the tabloids. It was also a reminder of how people’s humanity always triumphs over narrow-minded dogma – eventually.

Islamia School was founded as a nursery in 1983 by Yusuf Islam with a small group of parents – my sister and her husband being amongst them – and expanded into an infant, junior and then secondary schools. It was a natural consequence of the increasing Islamic awareness amongst young Muslims in the late 70s and early 80s. Many of them were now married and starting to have children, and so their attention inevitably turned to education. They wanted to provide an Islamic alternative to the secular schools on offer in the UK. But although everyone agreed that they wanted an “Islamic School”, the details of what that meant to them were not clear. To Teacher Rafiqa, it meant importing the traditional system of rote learning and corporal punishment she had been used to as a child in Egypt. To others, such as Teacher Nazeer, an Asian born in the UK and educated at public school, it meant adopting the methods and curriculum of the West, with minor ‘Islamic’ concessions, such as beginning the lesson with al-Fatiha (first chapter of the Qur’an) and ending it with al-Asr (103rd chapter of the Qur’an). My own commitment to the cause of Islamia School was related to the crisis of identity that I had experienced as a child. I hoped the school would give Muslim children in the UK a strong sense of their identity as British Muslims. I wanted them to feel confident about who they were and have others around them who shared their values and beliefs. Yusuf Islam, who became the chair of the board of governors, had a holistic vision of Islamic education as it had existed during the golden age of Islamic history and wanted a school that could combine the spiritual with the temporal.

Yusuf financed the school out of his own money and was actively involved at every level, from what was taught in the classroom to what food was served in the canteen. He would arrive every morning as I was lining up the children in the playground to recite the morning Du’a (prayer) and would always be on the look-out to see if the playground had been cleaned, whether teachers were arriving on time or whether policies were being implemented. Everyone at Islamia School was well aware that Yusuf was the man in charge and that he could be a hard task master at times, but they also loved him. It is hard not to love Yusuf, as he is such an endearing character, so natural, honest and childlike, always enthusiastic and full of creative ideas about how to make the school a brighter place. He came up with the idea of re-painting the gymnasium based on the theme of ‘Night’ and ‘Day’, with the circle around one of the basket-ball nets as the moon surrounded by a night sky and the circle on the opposite end as the sun surrounded by a clear blue sky. Yusuf wrote Nasheeds (Islamic songs) for the children, and I took small groups of children up to the mosque to practice songs with him for the Albert Hall performance in 2003, commemorating twenty years of Islamia School. Of course Yusuf has a wonderful singing voice, and the children responded to him well, as he taught them how to harmonise and get the key and timing right. But he is also a perfectionist and wanted things done again and again, when they didn’t meet his high expectations, and at times needed reminding that they were only children and could do with a break. Yusuf could be very whimsical and some of the ideas he would throw out were not to be taken seriously.

“I like the way you line up the children for the morning Du’a, Teacher Hassan,” he said one morning.

“Yes, it’s a good way to start the day.”

“How about doing some military drills with the children? Marching up and down the playground in formation, to teach them some discipline?”

“I suppose we could do something like that,” I replied. “Though I’m not sure when we could do it.”

“How about in PE lessons?”

“I’ll look into it.”

In the early days of Islamia School Yusuf seemed almost embarrassed by his past as a pop star and never talked about it. I remember sitting with him in the staff room as we listened to a radio program about Islamia School. The radio host presented a short biography of Cat Stevens and started to play ‘Wild World’; Yusuf jumped up and turned the music down, remaining there with his hand on the volume until the talking had resumed, then sat down as we listened to the rest of the programme. During this time when he was still a relatively new convert to Islam, I always felt he was not being true to himself and was obsessed with what people might think of him. When controversial topics were raised he often asked others what their positions were, as if he was trying to discover what his own view should be, rather than trusting his intuition. However Yusuf mellowed a great deal over the years and became more relaxed and willing to trust his instincts. One example of this was his attitude to music. At first he followed the strict view on the prohibition of musical instruments, and the only music lessons in the school were the Nasheed classes where songs were sung without any accompaniment. Yusuf set up a record label, Mountain of Light, to record them as well as those of other artists. It wasn’t long before he started to follow the opinion that using drums was acceptable. Then he adopted a more liberal opinion that allowed electronic instruments. He has now reached the position of allowing the full spectrum of musical instruments and has now recorded songs that are not on religious themes. This has drawn condemnation from some of the more hard-line elements in the Muslim community. Knowing how such criticism had upset him in the past, I told him, as we sat together in the mosque one day, not to take any notice of these narrow-minded idiots.

“No,” he replied, “I’ve gone beyond that point now. It doesn’t bother me what they say.”

Islamia School also changed and evolved over the years as it struggled to find its identity. It was a pioneering venture to create an Islamic school to compete with the best schools in the UK while at the same time providing a traditional Islamic education. During one INSET day teachers were set the task of formulating a Mission Statement that encapsulated the aim of Islamia School. We eventually came up with this:

“To strive to provide the best education, in a secure Islamic environment, through the knowledge and application of the Qur’an & Sunnah.”

But merging the British National Curriculum with the values of the Qur’an and Sunnah was no easy task and required compromises. The first problem was that the only text books we had were either the standard texts books found in UK schools, which therefore made no reference to the Qur’an and Sunnah, or they were sub-standard books borrowed from Muslim countries. Everyone agreed that we should use the same text books used in State Schools in the UK and we did our best to input our own knowledge of Islam into lessons. But this was ad hoc and unevenly applied, and Yusuf was keen to devise a standard Islamic syllabus. He directed us to collect Qur’anic verses or Hadith that related to scientific or historical areas of the National Curriculum and collate it together into an Islamic Syllabus.

At first the school adopted many of the strict Salafi views, such as not allowing musical instruments or the drawing of faces and the censoring of material deemed un-Islamic according to strict Salafi criteria. It’s true that a fair number of parents were strongly influenced by Salafi doctrines, but the deciding factor was Yusuf himself. He was the real power behind Islamia School. No decision could be made without his approval and he dictated the sort of people he wanted in charge and the policies implemented. Everyone in the school knew Yusuf was the real person in charge – regardless of who was head teacher or Treasurer (an important post at Islamia School.) To be fair though, Yusuf’s leaning towards Salafi doctrines may have been partly due to the need to raise donations from wealthy Muslims – including Saudis. It costs a great deal to run a school, and although Yusuf put a huge amount of his own money into it, more was always needed. This came partly from fees, but more crucially, from donations from wealthy individuals. The money was raised and distributed around the school through the Trust Office. Most of those Yusuf employed in the Trust Office were Salafis. Many of them were also parents of children at the school. As parents and custodians of the purse strings, the Trust Office felt they had the right to impose their views on the school, and relations between them and the more liberal-minded teachers were often very strained. Yusuf was forced into the position of peace broker, walking a tightrope between the different opinions.

A parent who had studied in Saudi Arabia was appointed by the Trust Office as “Islamisization Officer” to check school books for ‘un-Islamic’ content. I was English co-ordinator at the time and was told to provide him with the school’s text books. He was given a small office and a little stamp that that read “Un-Islamic Content”. He would flick though the books and when he saw something he didn’t like, down came the stamp in the middle of the page. One book that was stamped “Un-Islamic Content” was a story about a boy who woke up one day as a girl and had to spend the day like that before being magically turned back. As usual with the Salafi mentality, only the outward aspects were considered, not the deeper meaning, which was seeing things from another’s perspective. Since it showed a boy wearing women’s clothes it was deemed to be against Islamic morality. Amongst other texts that received this treatment were a set of books that related Greek myths and fables, a story about a boy who wrote letters to his girlfriend and a book that explained the story behind the ‘Willow Pattern’ commonly found on Chinese pottery – it was a love story.

Pressure on the school to adopt Salafi views didn’t only come from Yusuf and the Trust office, but from pro-Salafi parents. Parent power has always been very strong at Islamia School, as the school was established by parents in the first place. Although our parents reflected the huge spectrum of views within Islam, it was the more dogmatic who were the most vocal and active. On one occasion while teaching a class of six-year-olds I was stopped by a mother wearing the Niqab (face veil).

“My son says that you are teaching them music!”

“You mean nursery rhymes?”

“Yes! I don’t want my children learning Kuffar (infidel) songs. I don’t allow them to listen to such things at home, nor do I allow them to read Kuffar books!”

“There’s nothing un-Islamic about them; they’re an essential part of language development.”

“Music is Haram! I sent my children to a Muslim school to be free from such Kuffar influence!”

“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to take it up with the Head Teacher.”

“I also need to talk to you about is my son’s Dyslexia; he requires special help!”

It was true that her son was having difficulty reading and writing, but I suspected his problems may have had more to do with being deprived of hearing infidel nursery rhymes and infidel books from an early age than with any medical condition.

Even our cleaners were telling us what to do. I arrived at school one morning to find someone had written a Hadith of the Prophet, across the children’s display of Ancient Egypt, using a black marker:

“Whoever makes a picture will be punished on the Day of Judgment and will be asked to give life to what he has created!”

On other occasions faces were blotted out or displays torn. All this would happen during the evening when no-one was around. I remember one morning we had a visit from the then Secretary of State for Education, John Patten. As we walked down the corridor I saw, to my horror, that the ‘Night Patrol’ had been busy censoring an Alphabet strip up ahead. Someone had carefully painted Tipp-Ex over all the faces. I looked the other way and pretended not to notice. I don’t know if John Patten did the same, but nothing was said.

During the weekends the Trust Office let out the school premises to Islamic Sunday schools or groups holding bazaars. During one such bazaar held by a group of Salafi brothers, I discovered they were using my classroom as a crèche. I had a display of World War II aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling, including a Lancaster Bomber which my young son and I had carefully constructed together. The children were jumping on tables pulling the planes down and throwing them across the classroom, smashing off the propellers and breaking the wings. In a corner was a large black shape with a pair of spectacles perched near it’s top. It took me a moment to realise that this was in fact a woman wearing Niqab. She sat squatting on a child’s chair, silently reading Qur’an to herself, oblivious to the children smashing up my classroom. I asked her what was going on but my words seemed to startle her and she turned her face away muttering “Aoothu billah” (I seek refuge with God.)

I realised it was pointless trying to talk to her and so went angrily to see the organiser, a muscular, full bearded brother wearing a grey Jilbab and black soft-leather slippers.

“Look what the children have done to my display,” I said as I held out the broken fuselage of my Lancaster bomber.

“Astaghfirullah, brother, you are upset about models of Kafir planes, while we are here struggling to raise money for the Mujahideen in Afghansitan. Fear Allah!”

The balance of power started to shift once Sheikh Ahmad Babakir was appointed as the School’s Imam. He came from a very inclusive Sufi tradition and was a staunch opponent of the literalist Salafi teachings. This of course angered the Salafis, who considered Sufis to be deviants, and they boycotted his prayers, on the advice of Sohaib Hasan, an Imam who often advised Yusuf and many of the other Salafis there. Sohaib Hasan is now head of the Shari’ah Council seeking government recognition. It was clear that the Salafis there hoped that Sheikh Ahamd would have to be replaced. But Sheikh Ahmad had become became extremely popular with the teachers and children. He was a warm and immediately likable personality, who related to children well. He was able to communicate at their level and used jokes and funny voices to make them laugh. Both the adults and the children eagerly looked forward to his assemblies. He also had a deep and encyclopaedic knowledge of Islam which he was able to relate to everyday matters. There was always a queue of children and adults outside his door waiting to consult him. Yusuf too was greatly impressed with Sheikh Ahmad and put his support firmly behind him. The Salafis realised they had no choice but to accept him and were forced to end their boycott. The final blow to the Salafi influence came when state funding was granted by the new Labour Government in 1998. The school no longer had to dance to the tune of outside donors, and the Trust Office was moved out of the school.

Since that time the school has become much more confident in its moderate and inclusive stance. The Primary School web site that I was asked to put up around that time stated:

“We are committed to building racial and religious harmony through respect and tolerance for others. This is an essential part of the Islamic faith.” and I quoted the verse;

“We have made you nations and tribes so that you can get to know one another”

I was interviewed once by a post-grad student researching denominational schools in the UK.

“Don’t you think faith schools create division and segregation within society?” she asked.

“There’s always a danger that can happen, but so long as the school has a clear policy and shared ethos to combat isolationist or extremist views, then I don’t believe it is a problem.”

“Are children at Islamia well integrated into mainstream British society?”

“Yes, definitely, and I think Islamia School is in a better position to integrate Muslim children into British society than many state schools.”

“How can that be, when you’re segregating children according to religion?”

“Because Islamia School is able to reach the very families who resist integration. When we stress the importance of making a positive contribution to British society, we do so from a position of authority within the Islamic faith. When Sheikh Ahmad or the teachers tell the children they must respect other faiths and have good relations with their neighbours, they know that this is what Islam says. Unfortunately many Muslim families who hold extreme views will not change their views when they hear the same thing said in a non-Muslim school, because it is not coming from an Islamic source.”

“Do you have any evidence that your children are well integrated?”

“You only have to look at former pupils who are well integrated and successful members of society. Another point worth mentioning is that the Muslim communities who are experiencing problems integrating, highlighted by the riots in some northern towns, are youngsters who went to state schools, not Muslim schools. Of course I’m not blaming State schools. The problem is not one of which school they go to, but what ideas they internalise, and in this respect Muslim schools can actually be a positive influence – so long as they have the right ethos of course.”

Teachers at Islamia School had become used to being asked such questions by TV reporters, newspaper journalists and researchers, so much so that most of us could probably have completed a thesis on faith schools ourselves. Islamia School also received a steady stream of very important visitors, such as government ministers, celebrities and foreign dignitaries. Our most high profile visit was from His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales.

In the days leading up to the visit the school was cleaned and polished, new displays put up and classrooms made to look their best. Teacher Rafiqa rehearsed Nasheeds with children she had carefully selected in her usual nepotistic manner, including members of her own extended family and favourites. The kitchen staff were given strict instructions about what the Prince could and could not eat and drink and prepared a range of delicacies. As my class was one of the three classes the Prince was scheduled to visit during his tour of the school, we set about making a class book about British Muslims to present to him. When the big day arrived we stood in a line in the playground, the boys with their hair neatly combed and the girls in their best hijabs, one of them carrying a huge bunch of flowers to give to the Prince. When his black limousines pulled slowly up to the gates the atmosphere was electric, and one little girl found it all too much and wet herself and had to be taken off to get changed. The Prince was greeted warmly by Yusuf Islam, and then they turned to listen to the choir who had been patiently waiting for their five minutes of fame. Teacher Rafiqa gave them the nod, and they burst into song – one specially chosen for the occasion – as Charles and Yusuf looked on, all smiles.

Peaceful peaceful peaceful peace

Peaceful peaceful peaceful peace

Peaceful peaceful peaceful peace

Peaceful peaceful peaceful peace

We make peace a symbol of ours.

In the name of peace we gather here now

Oh Lord! Please make these days of ours

On this earth filled with peace.

Peaceful peaceful peaceful peace

Peaceful peaceful peaceful peace

Peaceful peaceful peaceful peace

Peaceful peaceful peaceful peace

So Lord indeed You are salaam

From You comes salaam and with You is salaam

To You belongs the command of all things

Between Your hands are the hearts of all beings.

Peaceful peaceful peaceful peace

Peaceful peaceful peaceful peace

The Prince was then led away to begin his tour, and so I rushed off to my class to calm the children down and get them ready. After visiting Year One, Yusuf led the Prince to my class. As he came in he greeted us with “Salam Alaykum,” to the enormous delight of the children who responded with “Wa-Alaykumus Salam Wa Rahmatu-llahi wa Barakatuhu,” which was chanted in a long, drawn-out manner that forced everyone to freeze for a few seconds. I then welcomed the Prince and talked about what we were doing in class. I was impressed with Prince Charles; he listened carefully to what the children said and responded on their level and with great humour. He was relaxed and seemed extremely comfortable with the children, who were over-excited about having the Prince sitting at their table and the media circus on all sides of them. He sportingly allowed himself to be taken by the hand and dragged off around the classroom by the children and visibly enjoyed the affection they were showing to him. We had been told before-hand to address him as “Your Royal Highness” or just simply “Sir,” and I had passed this on to the children before the visit. At one point they took him over to see a time-line we had put up about the Tudors. A little girl pointed to Queen Elizabeth and shouted, “Look, Your High Majesty… that’s your grandma!”

“Indeed!” chuckled Charles.

At the end of his visit to our class we presented him with the book we made about British Muslims. The book contained a brief history of Muslims in Britain as well as information on notable and upper-class British Muslims. The children had also written about what being a Muslim in Britain meant to them. At the end of the book I put an article about the Woking Mosque, the first Mosque in England – and how it lies at the centre of several Ley lines – I thought Prince Charles would appreciate it. Two children then read a short poem we had written in class:

Oh Allah to you we pray

Oh Allah we do obey

Oh Allah we always say

Bismillahi every day

Oh Allah we worship you

Oh Allah we work for you

Oh Allah there’s one, not two

This we know is really true!

Before leaving, Prince Charles leaned close to me and whispered, “Your children are a credit to you,” as we shook hands.

“Thank you, Your Royal Highness,” I replied.

After the tour we all gathered in the hall upstairs, where Yusuf gave a short speech welcoming our royal guest, before the Prince gave his own speech, saying he was moved by what he had seen of the school and the welcome everyone gave him. He praised the children and school in general, adding, “You are ambassadors for a sometimes much misunderstood faith. I believe that Islam has much to teach increasingly secular societies like ours in Britain.”

Another notable visitor to the school was the ex-boxer Muhammad Ali. I had always admired him when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. I loved his anti-establishment attitude and his sharp and witty quips during interviews. He broke the stereotype often applied to both black people and Muslims: that they were not intelligent and did not excel in anything. As a Muslim at the top of his profession, he made me feel good about my Muslim identity, even though at the time I wasn’t practising Islam. As with Prince Charles, Muhammad Ali was escorted around the school by Yusuf Islam – though without the posse of photographers that had accompanied the Prince.

“It is a great honour to meet you, sir,” I said. “I have always been a big fan of yours.”

“Thank you.” I knew Muhammad Ali had Parkinson’s disease, but it was only when I saw him struggling to get his words out that it really hit me. It made me sad to see him like that: a man once famous for his sharp mind and powerful physique, now so slow and frail. It gave him an air of vulnerability that made one want to hug him. The children seemed to feel the same way and swarmed around him as though he were a big teddy bear. The bell for playtime went, and they insisted that Muhammad Ali come out to the playground with them to join in their games. His face beamed a willingness to go with them, and so Yusuf abandoned the tour and we followed them to the playground and watched Muhammad Ali play hide and seek with the children, Ali pretending to be a monster, holding his arms aloft, growling and chasing after them. They screamed wildly and ran in all directions, only to slow down as he got nearer so they could get caught and lofted into the air. My seven-year-old son, Yaseen, was amongst the children there, and I felt enormous pride watching Muhammad Ali grab him and growl, while giving him a cuddle at the same time.

7 Responses

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  1. glucose said, on June 14, 2009 at 6:23 am

    “It was also a reminder of how people’s humanity always triumphs over narrow-minded dogma – eventually.” Well put, Hassan. This is the same feeling I used to get when I’m with some catholic priests too. If it were just dogma that existed in religious communities, they would have all broke up soon and easily.

    It was also nice to know that the Labour funding actually reduced the effect of the radicals.

    What is your opinion of faith based schools now?

  2. Chuck Taylor said, on February 18, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Hi where are page 1-4?

  3. Chuck Taylor said, on February 18, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Stupid me! i found it sorry about that.

  4. charmedshiva said, on February 22, 2013 at 3:37 am

    They were raising money for mujahideen?!?!?!

  5. Islamiaschool attendee said, on February 23, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Wallahi I feel so so so so so sorry for you. You lost the most beautiful thing that could ever happen to anyone.

    I was your student and I used to adore you. I remember you had so much emaan, and I really looked up to you… You would chant everytime you entered the mosque: Allahumaftahlee abwaaba rahmatik, yaa arhamaraahimeen…. Every time I read this du’aa I remember you, because that is how I managed to learn this.

    I pray with all my heart, that Allah (swt) gives you hidaayah… “Whomsoever Allah guides, none can misguide. And whomsover Allah misguides, none can guide” – Qur’aan.

    It is clear from this that you tried your best to show Islamia school in a negative light. As a student from that school, wallahi I am indebted to that school. It taught me such beautiful morals that I still hold very today…… That school is doing amazing things…

  6. Anonymous said, on January 25, 2014 at 1:07 am

    Hello Teacher Hassan,

    I was also taught by you wayyyyy back in the day, and you truly were one of the best teachers I ever had. It is a real pity what has happened to you and hope and pray you will be guided back onto the straight path. That is all.

  7. orlando987 said, on December 20, 2015 at 11:23 am

    I don’t understand the commenter who thinks this piece shows the school in a bad light. I thought it was very balanced and fair and it sounded like the school is a good one, even though it had some extremist influences in the early days. It sounds like the children are cared for and that Hassan thinks of the school with affection.

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