I grew up hating Jews but today I find it an honor to belong to the Jewish nation,' says Mark Halawa, who was born to Muslim parents, but whose maternal grandmother was Jewish.
“I was born to a secular Muslim family in Kuwait,” Halawa told Tazpit News Agency in an exclusive interview. “We didn’t strictly follow Muslim traditions, but I would accompany my grandfather, who was religious, to the local mosque.” Halawa spent a lot of time with his grandparents and knew early on that his maternal grandmother came from a Jewish family. “We knew that our grandmother’s family was Jewish but it never meant anything more,” said Halawa.
“I saw a siddur once in my grandma’s home and sometimes I would see her tearfully read from it when she was alone,” he recalls. “I once even found her birth certificate, which contained the last name, Mizrahi, and Hebrew, Arabic and English on the document’s header.”
At age 13, Halawa’s family left Kuwait following Sadaam Hussein’s takeover of the tiny Persian Gulf nation which had left his father’s business in ruins. The family immigrated to Canada but eventually returned to the Middle East. Mark, however, stayed behind to pursue studies at the University of Western Ontario.
It was during his time in Canada when the hateful stereotypes that Halawa grew up with against Jewish people and Israel began to fall apart. “In Kuwait, when I would go with my grandfather to the mosque, the imam always preached horrible things against Jews. The media, scouts, everything around me was against Israel and the Jewish nation.”
But the moment that marked Halawa’s official shift took place during a chance meeting with a Jewish rabbi at his university’s library in Ontario. “I was studying in the library one day and I saw a man dressed in Jewish Hassidic garb. “I went up to him, and asked him, are you Jewish?”
Halawa’s Jewish grandmother was born in Jerusalem during the years of the British Mandate in the 1930s. She had married a Jordanian soldier, Muhammad al-Masri from Nablus, and converted to Islam. The couple moved to Zarqa, Jordan, where her husband was eventually stationed. When King Hussein expelled his army of Palestinians following the 1970 Black September uprising, the family moved to Kuwait, where Halawa’s mother met and married his father.
Interview with Israeli Channel i24 News