Blasts from the Past – Mona El Tahawi – Sep ’06 Int.

Posted: September 28, 2008 in Journalism, Politics, Society
One Woman
Mona El Tahawi

Mona El Tahawi, a voice unlike the rest, is growing an audience both within the American community, as well as the Arab and Muslim community in the states and abroad. She is speaking loudly of a different model of Arab and Muslim than that which has been imposed on worldview and on Muslims and Arabs themselves. “breaking the stereotypes”, and “redefining those terms in people’s minds” are tools and targets simultaneously.


Born in Egypt in 1967, a turning point in Egyptian history, because of the defeat [ referred to by Egyptians as el naksa ], Mona left Egypt when she was seven.. “So I cant really say I was brought up in Egypt. We left for the UK. We lived in London, then in Glasgow, Scotland for almost 8 years. We moved to Saudi Arabia when I was 15 and my world turned upside down, for the worst 6 years of my life. Saudi Arabia made me into what I am today, which is basically a feminist and a liberal Muslim.”


Then after Saudi Arabia, Mona returned to Egypt which is “a return which meant that I had to learn to become an Egyptian, and I don’t think I ever learned ‘how to become an Egyptian’. Instead I learned that being an Egyptian could mean many things, and there wasn’t just one way of being an Egyptian. Basically that is something I held on to ever since. Because Egypt lies at an [ important ] intersection of history, culture and geography, with its place in the world.”


She returned to Egypt and joined the AUC because she wanted to be a journalist, “I had decided at the age of 16 that I wanted to be a journalist. I started university in Saudi Arabia then came here as a junior to continue my studies at the AUC.”


She began to freelance at her senior year at AUC, “then became a full-time journalist, after I finished my BA, with the Middle East Times which now has become an online publication, yet at the time was an actual newspaper. After completing her masters at AUC in television journalism, she joined Reuters news agency, and was a correspondent here in their Cairo bureau from 1993 until 1998. “Then I moved to Jerusalem and continued to be their correspondent in Jerusalem all through 1998, and came back in 1999. When I came back, I resigned from Reuters, and started writing for The Guardian newspaper and a US magazine called US News and World Report. Then I left Egypt in July 2000 for the US and I’ve been in the US till then.”



What was your experience of The States as a woman?


Easy. Its much easier to be living as a woman in the states alone than it is living in the Arab world. And for that reason when I was in Jerusalem I lived in west Jerusalem as opposed to Arab East Jerusalem because I knew that living as a single Arab woman I’d have a much easier time living in the Jewish part of the city than the Arab part of the city.


Why was it easier to live on the west side than it is in the east side [ of Jerusalem ]?


It’s just difficult living as a single woman in the Arab world to begin with, and its even more difficult to be living alone as a single Arab woman in the Arab world. People always interfere in your business. People are always watching where you’re going, who you’re going with. In the Jewish part of the city, nobody cares, so it was much easier.


What challenges did you face living in the states as an Arab ?


That presents a different set of challenges. Because being in the states as an Arab, moves you into stereotypes and what ‘being an Arab’ means, what being an Arab in America today means. And on top of that being in the states today as an Arab and muslim, because for so many people Arab and muslim are interchangeable. Obviously that is not the case, not all Arabs are muslims, and not all muslims are Arabs. But the stereotypes will have it be that the two equal each other. So that’s one challenge, trying to break down the stereotype. The other challenge is to try and redefine the words; what Arab means and what muslim means. And if I said it’s easy to live in the states as a woman, it is much more of a challenge to redefine what Arab and muslim means inside people. And not just people outside the Arab and muslim community, but people within the Arab and muslim community have very fixed ideas about what being an Arab or a muslim means, and one of my goals though my work is to redefine those terms.


When I first moved to the US I decided not to connect with the Arab and muslim community there, because I wanted to get to know America on my terms..


This was pre-9/11 ?


…yes. And this was in Seattle, because I lived in Seattle for two years before I moved to New York. So I determined not to connect to the Arab/muslim community and get to know America on my own terms, simply because I didn’t want to go through the same arguments with the Arab/muslim mind or community, that I’ve been having in the middle east for the longest time through my own personal experience and my work. So, the first couple of years in the US were completely solo, just me getting to know America.


9/11 changed that obviously because I stepped forward and identified in a much more public way, as an Arab and as a muslim. Not just to try and break down the stereotypes that became even more fixed in peoples’ minds after 9/11, but also to fight that voice, that ethos and mentality that the attacks were trying to stamp onto world history. The 9/11 attacks represented a kind of muslim or Arab since the 19 hijackers were muslim Arabs. At that time I decided to push much more for a different muslim and Arab voice. And so I became much more identified as an Arab and a muslim, and then when I moved to New York, I met fellow Arabs or fellow muslims whose ideas were much closer to mine. So I was able to plug into a community that I was much more at ease with.


9/11 was a turning point for your career ?


Yes 9/11 was a turning point in my career as well. At that point I stopped being a reporter and opted more for [ being an ] opinion writer, because it was so important to me to leave the supposed objectivity of the news reporter behind and address my voice which is a liberal secular muslim Arab voice.


And then I moved to New York  and found similar minded people, one of my friends launched The Progressive Muslim Union of North America… We were one of the co-sponsors of the group prayer in new York that was led by a woman. This helped establish our voice on the Arab and Muslim agenda. It was 50 men and 50 women praying in new York, but the reverberations across the Arab and muslim world were amazing. We had Qaddaffi saying in an Arab League Summit that we had created a million Bin Ladens. In the middle of all the problems in the Arab world and the Iraq war Moqtada El Sadr told a BBC documentary team that asked him; ‘what was the worst thing the Americans have done’ , he told them, rather than say destroy my country and invade Iraq, he told them ‘allow a woman to lead prayers.’ This is what we achieved through this prayer which was basically a hundred people in New York. So this is what finding a community of like-minded Arabs and muslims in New York did to me. It really helped us form this solidarity, this union of like-minded people that really felt energized to take on these very stale stereotypes from within the community and from outside the community.


What presents the bigger challenge; changing the stereotype within the Arab/muslim community, or changing the stereotype in Americans’ minds?


From both. It’s equal on both. Because I’ll write an opinion piece about the need to establish a liberal secular voice or to criticize something about what’s happening in Palestine, or criticize whatever [ is happening ] in the Arab world. I’d get supportive emails from people in the Arab world but Arab Americans would write to me saying ‘how dare you say this, you’re just making us look bad, isn’t it enough we’re being attacked’… and I write back and tell them you have no idea what it’s like living in the Arab world right now. You were born and raised in the US as Arab Americans, and you have a very old idea of what the Arab world is like. And I’m going back and forth between the Arab world and the US and I am telling you that there are so many people on the ground in the Arab world here, fighting for a liberal secular voice and the last thing they need is you waving the flag of this sort of traditional, pan-Arab, Arab Nationalist, Muslim unity.. or whatever of these old stale terms that we’ve been fighting for so long.



Published In Community Times 06


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