May 1, 2008
Egypt-born Arab-American woman fights Islamic culture of hate
Q&A with Nonie Darwish
She immediately called her friends back home and was amazed by their reaction: "They said: 'How dare you say that Arabs did this? Don't you know this is a Jewish conspiracy?' I was shocked," she said. "I couldn't believe what they were saying. Those were not fanatic radicals, but ordinary Egyptians who are otherwise very nice people. I hung up the phone and felt alone and disconnected from my culture of origin. Once again, my people are accusing the Jews of something we know very well that we Arabs have done."
Darwish began to write articles. She started with a newsletter to a women's group criticizing the ignorance and denial of the Arab world, which brought her immediate attention, public speaking engagements and a book offer. Suddenly everybody wanted to know what she had to say. She drew attention not just because she was speaking out in support of Israel and criticizing Islam and its culture of hate, but also for her unlikely background. She is a daughter of a famous shaheed (martyr).
Darwish's father was Lt. General Mustafa Hafez, who served in Gaza during the 1950s as commander of the Egyptian Army Intelligence Force. Hafez founded the Fedayeen, who launched raids across Israel's southern border. Between 1951 and 1956, this terror group killed some 400 Israelis. In 1956, when Nonie was 8 years old, her father received a package in his office that exploded in his face, killing him instantly -- an assassination believed to have been carried out by the Israel Defense Forces in response to Fedayeen attacks. Hafez was proclaimed a shaheed and a street was named after him in Gaza (which still carries his name today). Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, vowed that all of Egypt would pursue revenge for Hafez's death. Nonie remembers how Nasser asked her and her young siblings: "Which one of you will avenge your father's death by killing Jews?"
Darwish, who long ago converted to Chritianity, continues to be an outspoken critic of the culture of terrorism in the Arab world. In February 2004, she started an organization called Arabs for Israel. In 2006, her book "Now They Call Me Infidel; Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel and the War on Terror" (Penguin) was published, and she is currently working on a second book.
On May 7, Darwish will be awarded the Rochelle Hoffman Woman of Significance Award at Adat Ari El in Valley Village. Her message, she says, is not anti-Arab, but pro-peace: "I love my people, but for peace to happen, we need a big leap, a new attitude -- forgiveness and compassion. We Arabs need to ask 'What can we do?' and not focus on what Israel must do."
In an interview, Darwish spoke about her history and the transformation of her life.
The Jewish Journal: Do you remember your childhood in Gaza?
Nonie Darwish: I do, although I was pretty young when I lived there, between the ages of 5 and 8. It was a happy childhood overall, very typical of any Muslim child in an Arab country. We were taught about Jews in school, at home, in the media, at mosque sermons and by politicians. In Gaza elementary schools I learned hate, vengeance and retaliation. Peace was never an option; it was considered a sign of defeat and weakness. Those who wanted peace and compromise were called traitors and cowards. Looking back, I never heard a peace song in Arabic. All we heard were songs glorifying jihad, martyrdom and winning wars. When I asked 'Why do we hate Jews?' the answer was 'Aren't you a Muslim?' We were told 'Don't take candy from strangers since it could be a Jew trying to poison you' or that Israeli soldiers would kill pregnant Arab women just for fun, place bets on whether she was carrying a boy or a girl, and cut her open to see who won the bet. My classmates would cry while reciting jihadist poetry daily, wishing to die as martyrs.
JJ: You grew up believing that Jews are monsters, and they were the ones, after all, who killed your father. What changed your mind?
ND: I would say it happened once I arrived in the States in 1978. I was 30, and for the first time in my life I met Jews, and they were not monsters at all but rather nice people. I also visited some mosques, and in each one I heard the same sermons of hate against Israel and America. For the first time in my life I had Jewish friends. That was when I realized that the indoctrination into fear and hatred of Jews that we Arabs grew up with was just a big lie. I started questioning my upbringing and the Arab propaganda. I asked myself, why the hate? What are Arabs afraid of? I realized that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not a crisis over land, but a crisis of hate, lack of compassion, ingratitude and insecurity.
JJ: What was your family's reaction to your book, 'Now They Call Me Infidel'?
ND: I don't know if they read it, because the book is not being published in Egypt, but they heard the criticism. When my book came out, there was very bad publicity about me in Egypt. There were several articles, and they were scrutinizing me. They said I hate my father and that I called him a terrorist, while I actually called him a shaheed. They had twisted the truth, like they always do. They called me a traitor and said that if I ever come back again, I should have a one-way ticket, because I won't be able to go back to the States. Now, I don't dare to go back to Egypt, but I hope I will one day.
JJ: What is your second book going to be about?