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Volume 30, Number 1January/February 1979

In This Issue

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Muslims in Europe

The Students

"By 1978...boys and girls from the Middle East accounted for 15 percent of the foreign students in Britain's public schools."

Written by Stanley Bonnet
Photographed by Tor Eigeland
Additional photographs by Robert Arndt

Most Muslims in Europe come for jobs. But some come for an education.

Although most countries in the Muslim world are building or expanding their educational systems, the pace of construction has yet to catch up with the multiplying needs of a growing student-age population. Many families, therefore, have placed their children in schools and colleges abroad. Because of their kingdom's historic ties with the United States, Saudi Arab families frequently choose American institutions.

Not all American colleges, however, are in the United States. In Switzerland, for example, there is an institution called the American College of Switzerland, which is an American college and which, moreover, provides numerous Muslim students with a first rate preparation for careers at home. Once a small minority, Muslim students today make up nearly half the student body.

At Leysin, almost a mile high in the snow-capped Alps, young men and women like Khalid Bamehriz and Hind al-Shaikh of Saudi Arabia, Hassan Memtaz and Mahenau Agha of Pakistan, Haya al-Ghanim of Kuwait and Marian Abdirashid Ali of Somalia - to name just a few - study for possible leading roles in their countries' future government and industry. Eighteen-year old Hind, for example, whose father is a general in Saudi Arabia's army is working toward a degree in business administration - as is Haya, whose grandfather is one of Kuwait's top businessmen. Marian, the 22-year-old daughter of a former Somali president, hopes to graduate soon in international relations.

Hind, Haya, Marian, Khalid, Hassan and Mahenau are among the nearly 100 Muslims who could qualify for - and afford - the American College of Switzerland, one of the most expensive and selective schools in Europe.

Perched on a mountainside in the picturesque ski resort of Leysin, the American College, looking down on the Rhone Valley, is an independent institution of higher learning. It was founded in 1963, chartered in the United States and authorized to confer the associate and bachelor degrees in the liberal arts and business administration.

According to Daniel Queudot, acting president, the college's goals are precisely what its catalog states: "preparation of students for a future of complex ideas and rapidly changing environment in a world where international cooperation has become a condition of survival."

And Leysin, he adds, provides an ideal backdrop to develop such goals. Once an isolated village, Leysin today has a resident population of about 3,750, of which nearly one-half is foreign and which includes some 40 nationalities.

In addition, Queudot says, it provides a unique mix of intellectual stimulation and privacy that gives young people a chance to develop their individuality and to grow - the same goals that their home countries are attempting to achieve and that they, one day, will probably help those countries to achieve.

The American College, of course, is only one of many institutions in Switzerland, and Switzerland is only one of the many countries in Europe whose lycees, gymnasia, colleges and universites play host to Muslim students. In France, Germany and Holland the educational doors have always been open to Muslims who can qualify, and in Great Britain recently Muslim students have begun to win places in the "public" school system. By 1978, in fact, boys and girls from the Middle East accounted for 15 percent of the foreign students in Britain's public schools.

Unlike the United States, "public" schools in Great Britain are not public; they are private schools in the best sense of the word: selective and excellent. There are 244 such schools for boys - usually ranging in age from 13 to 18 - and 193 schools for girls. In addition there are 558 preparatory schools for boys and girls eight to 13 years old which generally feed their graduates into the public schools.

Some of the public schools firmly refuse to identify pupils by nationality or religion. As Michael McCrum, Headmaster at Eton College, explains, "We have never asked that. We always go on the merit of the boy. That is all." But some organizations - such as the Independent Schools Information Service in London, the Gabbitas-Thring Educational Trust and the Truman and Knightley Educational Trust - do inquire; they must in order to advise parents and process applications. And they say that in the last four years students from the Arab East and Iran, mostly Muslim, have been qualifying for public schools in steadily mounting numbers. In 1977 there were 722 boys from the Arab countries and Iran enrolled in Britain's top 210 boys' schools - compared with 481 from the United States. Andin 1978 there were 2,212 boys and girls from the Middle East out of a total of 14,443 fee-paying foreign students.

Applications, moreover, are continuing to pour in, particularly to such schools as Harrow, alma mater to Winston Churchill and King Hussein, world-famous Eton and Gordonstoun and - a comparatively new school - Millfield, as well as many others. As a spokesman for Truman and Knightley said, "We are getting a vast number of inquiries - by phone, by letter and by personal visits to our offices."

Behind this demand is the Muslim world's traditional emphasis on education. This tradition is leading Muslim students to many of the best foreign schools in the world; in Britain this means the schools which, for generations, have turned out Britain's scholars and leaders. More than 48 percent of all British public school graduates, for example, go on to universities - many of them to Cambridge and Oxford - and ancient Winchester, founded in 1332, usually sends 70 percent of its boys to a university. The public school system, moreover, has consistently produced the kind of leaders that many Muslim countries need today as they mount enormous programs to industrialize and modernize their countries (See Aramco World, January-February 1977).

Not everyone, certainly, can get into such schools. The costs are very high - Gordonstoun's yearly tuition and boarding fees reach $5,200 - and the standards are rigid. There are also physical limits. As Stowe Headmaster Richard Q. Drayson says, his answer to many queries from Dubai, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab East must be a no. "I can do nothing until I have vacancies. . . we are very, very full. We've had awfully good Arab boys here ... we would like to take more boys and girls from the Middle East, but at the moment I can only give one answer. 'I'm sorry but No.'"

The students who are accepted, however, almost always do well, especially at math and the sciences, and in turn, almost without exception, appreciate the fact that the schools they attend are very good schools.

One example is Millfield, in Somerset, deep in the lovely West Country of England. A comparatively new school, dating back only to 1936, Millfield today provides an astonishingly high ratio of teachers to pupils: one teacher for every seven pupils. Even Eton and Gordonstoun, with one teacher to 10 or 11 pupils, cannot rival it.

Millfield, moreover, encourages foreign students. Just over 22 percent of the more than 1,100 boys and girls enrolled are foreign students, many of them from Muslim countries. In 1978 Millfield had students enrolled from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Oman, Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi.

Another example is Gordonstoun in the rolling, rugged country side of Moray shire in the far north of Scotland. Famous as the school attended by Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, their sons Prince Charles and - still studying there - Princes Andrew and Edward, Gordonstoun today also includes students from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon and Oman.

This is partly because Headmaster John Kempe has traveled widely in the Arab East encouraging qualified boys to apply. But it is also because the Muslim boys who attend Gordonstoun are openly enthusiastic about the school. Ammar Alireza, an enthusiastic 13-year old from Jiddah, makes it clear that everyone he knows at the school is friendly - including Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. "We don't call them 'Prince' or anything like that. Just Andrew' and 'Edward.' They're friends."

Rita Saleh, the daughter of a doctor from Tehran, agrees. "The whole of the school is marvelous." And so does Eric Arida of Lebanon, son of a textile industrialist, and others interviewed this autumn as another school year convened.

One was Waleed Zawani, a darkly handsome 17-year old from Oman. "I've been in school in Dammam in Saudi Arabia, then in Lebanon and then in Egypt... Here you can learn so much."

"Look," he continued, "if I want to, I can learn to fly, I can help run the school fire brigade and actually become qualified as a fireman. I can join the Coastguard Watchers. We've a proper coastguard station on the cliff tops over the sea and in bad weather we man it and look out for ships in peril.

"We also have a mountain rescue service and boys go out on the mountains, helping people who are stranded and trapped. I can go skiing on the Cairngorm Mountains near Aviemore and I could do community work outside the school, looking after old people..."

This, Headmaster Kempe explained, is part of the school's emphasis on community service. "Pupils tackle such problems as old age, mental illness, physical handicaps and mental deficiency. Hospitals, homes, hostels, schools, kindergartens, a prison and a veterinary surgery are some of the places of work."

Waleed, as it happens, does want to learn to fly; he plans to join the school's air training corps. But he also wants to "learn about the sea," and as part of his training has served as cook aboard Gordonstoun's 52-ton training ketch.

"It's called the Sea Spirit. She was launched in 1969. The boys do a seven-day cruise her. More ambitious expeditions after term end. At the moment two of the Saudi boys are cruising in the Sea Spirit."

Those boys, Ammar Alireza adds, are his brother Muntasir, 16, and his cousin Ghaza. "And I wish I were with them, but I can't go on a cruise until I've done my seamanship training ashore."

Ammar, clearly, is as interested in the sea as Waleed Zawani. In addition, though, he plays rugby - "fullback for the under-14's – and excels at mathematics. "It's easy." he says blithely.

Ammar of course, may not be typical of Muslim students in Europe, but he and others at Gordonstoun are obviously quite at home and reasonably successful. Indeed, one boy - Dara Golgolab of Iran - earned the highest student office possible at Gordonstoun: "Guardian."

At Gordonstoun, this is not an easy honor to obtain. It requires extra study, physical exercise, service to the school and the community outside - and enough self-discipline to take two cold showers a day despite Northern Scotland's icy winters. It requires too a series of promotions from prefect to color-bearer candidate, full color bearer and house helper before reaching the pinnacle. Dara Golgolab, nevertheless, achieved it in 1977 - before going on to a university in the United States.

Given the challenges that such schools as Gordonstoun, Millfield, Eton and others in Europe present, these students have already shown that they can cope. Although difficult, they say, it is worth it. In the Muslim tradition, education always is.

This article appeared on pages 31-36 of the January/February 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1979 images.