TSL: What are your goals as Ambassador and what have you been doing so far?
Houda Nonoo, Bahraini Ambassador to the United States: Traveling, visiting different states, visiting different universities, visiting different institutions, telling them about Bahrain. A lot of [people I talk to] don’t even know where Bahrain is and they ask me, “Where is Bahrain, is that in Iraq, or which state is it in?” So its just an overall education basically just telling people what we are, where we are, what we do. Since I’ve been here over a year and a half, I’ve been to about nine different states. This is my tenth state actually, so I’ve been around quite a bit.
TSL: What do you hope is the long term result of students and Americans as a whole being more aware of Bahrain as a country?
Nonoo: I want Americans not just to be aware of Bahrain, but to be aware of the whole of the region.
TSL: What are the most common misconceptions of Bahrain and the Arab Gulf Nations that you would like to eradicate?
Nonoo: The way we treat our women. That we all live in the desert with a big tent and have a camel parked outside. They need to know we’re just as modern as the Americans. We do live in houses, we do drive cars, our women do work. Our women basically do everything from A to Zed. In Bahrain, we have female taxi drivers, we have females who are ministers, we have females who are pilots. Women cover every single aspect of work in Bahrain. In the army we have females, in the police force we have females. It’s very rare that you find that in the rest of the Arab countries, but Bahrain has it all. We have the first two female judges, we have an elected member of parliament [who is female]. So Bahrain has always pushed its females forward and that’s what I want to bring out to the Americans.
TSL: How is this situation different in other Arab nations?
Nonoo: I’ll give you an example: my Dad’s secretary, she’s Bahraini, and she used to come to work wearing a miniskirt and short sleeves. I don’t think you would get this in any of the other Arab countries at that time. So Bahrain was extremely open, extremely forward-thinking, and has always been forward-thinking.
Aysha Murad Ali, Cultural Attaché from the embassy: My father lived in Iran for 15 years. They are more conservative, whenever we go, they ask me and the Ambassador why the Bahrain woman [are] not as conservative as other women in the neighboring Arab counties. My grandmother told me many things about Jews, Christians, Muslims living together. She told me that women in Bahrain were never inside the house. Women were highly respected by men. When men went on long fishing trips for several months, women could not afford to sit at home and wait for someone to feed them. They had to go out to provide for their children and for their families. In the ‘50s, the first women’s association was started, it is the third one in the Arab world. And the president of that women’s association was nominated for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. They worked proactively with other women’s associations to improve situations for women in the villages.The most pressing issue for the Bahrain woman is the lack of a personal status law, we are working on it, we are not quitting, but we are doing it with the support of men because we look at men as our partners. Not as our enemies or masters.
TSL: You are Jewish, correct?
TSL: How big is the Jewish community in Bahrain?
Nonoo: 36 people.
TSL: What is it like practicing in such a small community?
Nonoo: We practice within our family. So basically we keep the high holidays. We celebrate the Jewish New Year.Ali: But this year you celebrated it in my house.Nonoo: Because this year it coincided with Ramadan.Ali: In Ramadan we were inviting students to make them feel at home. Students who were far away from Bahrain. So I had a Facebook group of Bahrain students in North America and you can find me, and you can [add me] and I will confirm you. So we announced to the students they could come to my house for dinner. At the same time I told them that we are celebrating the Jewish new year with the Ambassador. Many people liked that and we had almost 30 [people]. It was a very beautiful evening.Nonoo: At our peak there were over 1,000 Jews but they left during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Now we’re coming back to Bahrain. We’re slowly increasing again our numbers. My cousin just got married to a girl from Montreal and she’s come back to Bahrain. Because in Bahrain we’re all related to each other, so we can’t get married to each other, so we go outside and they come back to Bahrain with us!
TSL: How do you respond to the media attention that has been shed on the fact that Bahrain doesn’t officially recognize the State of Israel?
Nonoo: We are taking small steps. We do want to have a relationship, but it’s going to be hard because all of us [politicians] have to agree on the same thing. And that’s basically that the two-state solution is the best solution and it needs to happen. Someone once asked me “You’re Jewish and you are Arab, so who do you stand with, the Israelis or the Palestinians?” I said, “I stand with the people.” The people on both sides are suffering and both sides need to get their act together and be able to live together in peace.
TSL: When others have highlighted the fact that you are Jewish, you have said that you are “Bahraini first.” What is it that makes you so proud to be Bahraini?
What makes you proud to be an American? It’s my nationality. I’ve been brought up to love Bahrain for what it is. I go to places and they say to me, “Who’s trained you? To say the things that you say?” I say, “No one’s trained me. This is coming from inside, from my heart. This is how I really feel about my country.”