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Chapter 7

Hafsah - “I have a dream to go to school”

By Wan Mohammad Yusoff

Nik Hafsah binti Sheikh Abdullah, known to her ten children and her children-inlaw only as “Ma”. To the children of her brothers, she was “Amati Sah”, and to the  children of her sisters, she was “Khala”. Hafsah loved all the titles accorded to her. She had the piercing eyes of her late father whom she was never meant to have met. 

She would normally take an early nap whenever she “landed” somewhere in the house after the dinner was done. When everybody was settled in their sleep for the night she would wake up  

like clockwork to go round to check all her 10 children whether they were sleeping well. Sometimes she would light a mosquito coil, sometimes she pull the


over to properly cover her child from the cold of the night. Only then would she settle down for a proper night’s sleep before she woke up for another busy day. She seemed like a lady who knew her principles well and knew what was good for the children.

 At the same time she never nagged or asked the children to do their home-works or to study hard – and yet the children received the message loud and clear and did well in school. All went to English school, Noraini went to Chinese school, later she regretted “how come nobody went to Arabic school?”

There was no TV at the time, at night the children were free to do anything they like really as long as it was in the house. Yusoff would be reading Beano comics, Halim would be reading MAD magazines, Najiah would be reading “school girl library books”, Mahmud could be reading a best-seller, Zaki would be strumming his guitar. Sometimes all were talking and laughing at the same time that they would zipped up immediately when they heard her saying “why is this house like a mad house?”

The children would gather around her to listen to her stories when she started with the opening -” Do you know what your Ma did when she was a child?…….”   She did have a gift of telling stories. Most of the episodes were about her life. They learned about her true character and her feelings through these story-telling sessions. Indirectly, we understood that she wanted us to be successful. That was her way of motivating us. The children had a lot of respect for her.

One of the most remembered account of her as a child was her interest in going to school and her mother Siti was against it. This was probably circa 1930’s and going to school was not really the order of the day. Firstly, there were only Arabic schools (religious schools or ‘pondoks’) and two Malay schools available at the time. There was one English school Sultan Sulaiman English School since 1920 but this was meant for the palace or aristocrats because the British Advisor’s policy was to educate some of the children of the palace so that they can become some junior clerks in the state administrative services as a ‘sweetener’. Furthermore, the parents were worried that their children might be influenced by Christianity if they were sent to an English school. Teachers had to do house calls to persuade parents to send their children to school. It was noted that in that era, schooling meant attending classes for 3 years of primary education, then they were off to work. Age was never a limit. A class of standard one could comprise of pupils of the age of 8 or even 15.

Only parents who were far-sighted and those having a non-conformist attitude would send their children to schools and hoped for the best. Eventually these children mostly turnout to be successful citizens as teachers or ustaz in Malay schools. 

In the case of the family of Sheikh Abdullah Alfatani at Balik Bukit, the sons Sheikh Yahya and Mohammad Kamil were rightly enrolled in the Arabic school. The daughters, however, Asiah, Maimunah and Hafsah were expected to remain inside closed doors waiting for their suitors. Schooling was not only unnecessary for them but would be rather stressful for Siti, the young single-parent freshly repatriated from Mekkah, the never, never land so distant from the people of Terengganu.

Hafsah unlike other debutante her age, wanted to learn how to read and write.

Relationships between a mother and her children in those days were never on an amicable friend-to-friend basis but more like a matron and her inmates. Hafsah finally gathered enough courage to ask Siti for permission to attend school, Her heart dropped like a ton of bricks when her request was turned down flat. She knew the chances of her getting her way was remote, knowing Siti. But she had hoped and it hurt her because she believed in that hope - that one day education would liberate her. Not wanting to give up so easily, she made friends with a girl Zaharah, daughter of Che Ali Mastar who was already attending school. 

Che Ali Mastar was a teacher, not an English teacher as the title “master” might suggests but according to his grandchild Fatimah Kamilah he was a regular teacher but all teachers were called “master” as a respect to them. To be a teacher at that time, his 


his father must have been quite a man of substance, a man who believed in education for his son Ali, and we could see the connection how in turn Che Ali Mastar could put his daughter Zaharah in school.

With Zaharah, headstrong Hafsah was secretly but seriously getting free private home-tuition. She excelled in her reading and writing such that it triggered Zaharah’s mother to have a word with Siti. This time Siti looked at her youngest daughter in a different light and despite strong objection from her strict eldest son, Sheikh Yahya Alfatani, decided to finally allow her to attend school. Perhaps having the audacity to even ask for such a ‘delinquent’ request was lingering on Siti’s mind for quite a while ever since Hafsah popped the question. After all the girl Zaharah seemed to maintain her excellent conduct despite going to school. The day Hafsah was allowed to attend school was the happiest day of her life.

To cut the story short after a few years of studying she was accepted to teach home science at the only Malay school for girls, Sekolah Tengku Ampuan Mariam next to a swampy area in an otherwise sandy Paya Bunga. Some things moved slowly in those days but some things moved rather fast. One day Cikgu (Hafsah), the title she was known as by her pupils even till the day she died and Cikgu Zaharah were selected to attend a newly opened women teacher’s training college at Durian Daun Melaka. She knew she was not able to push her luck this time around, nobody in the family had ever been to Melaka or anywhere beyond Kota Baru, it might as well be England because Siti could not see how a young girl could travel so far and live away from home for so long. 

Cikgu Zaharah went alone to Durian Daun Teacher’s Training College for Women and in the later stages of her life became a headmistress. Hafsah would have loved to be a headmistress too but in another corner, a young employee of Sheikh Yahya working under the house at Balik Bukit printing religious books written by his grandfather Sheikh Nik Mat Kecik Alfatani, was secretly keeping his eyes on this young Hafsah who was in her marriageable age then. His name was Wan Othman. Things could have turned out differently for both of them, but unknown to them, a major landmark in world history was about to take place at that moment. The family at the time living in Paya Bunga had to scamper and hide in a big hole under the shade of a bamboo cluster whenever they heard the fading-in sound of a distant plane, it was the time of the invasion by the Japanese Army in 1943. The Second World War had reached Malaya. Not only the dreams of Hafsah were permanently shattered, also the dreams of many young man at the time – the war was a setback for the peaceful folks of Terengganu.

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