Interview: Houda Nonoo
Houda Nonoo is Bahrain’s ambassador to the USA — and Jewish. She speaks exclusively to the JC.
Houda Nonoo, Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States. Her appointment was a way of “showing the tolerance of my country”, she says
If there was a competition to find the most unusual job performed by a Jewish woman, Houda Ezra Nonoo would undoubtedly win. As Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States, Nonoo is currently the only Jewish female to be ambassador of an Arab Gulf state. In fact, she is the only Jew ever to be an ambassador of an Arab country. She says her mission is to promote a country of which she feels very proud. Such was the publicity engendered by her appointment that she could fairly have been said to have achieved her goal before she even started her new job in Washington DC in September.
Nonoo, in London for a dinner hosted by former Labour Party fundraiser Lord Levy, reflects on the huge interest in her appointment. “I do seem to have celebrity status,” she laughs over a cup of hot chocolate at a Knightsbridge hotel.
“We had a reception a month ago which I was hosting with the [Bahraini] Minister of Finance. About 600 people turned up — they were actually queuing up to stand there and have a word with me — just to find out what I was all about. I have never seen anything like that in my life.”
So why was Nonoo — who, despite having being appointed to the Shura (the upper house of Bahrain’s parliament) in 2006, has no diplomatic experience — given her country’s most prestigious and important ambassadorial role? Part of the answer lies in her obvious charm, intelligence and her great appetite for serving her country, but she also acknowledges that there was another agenda.
“It was a huge shock to be appointed — I never expected it, but it has proved to be a good way of promoting Bahrain. It was a way of showing the uniqueness and the tolerance of my country. When they told me I was going to be ambassador to the United States, I thought that maybe they should have sent me to Timbuctoo first because I didn’t have any diplomatic background, but I have been very well accepted in the US.”
But how do the ambassadors of the other 21 Arab states feel about having a female colleague, and a Jewish one at that? “Yes, I was worried about how I would be received but it hasn’t caused any problems whatsoever,” she says.
“There is already a female ambassador from Oman, so she set a precedent. I had a welcome dinner from the ambassador of Syria and the ambassador of Iran. My grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Iraq so the Iraqi ambassador was very interested to learn of my background.”
She has also made courtesy calls to all her Arab colleagues and has attended a meeting of the Arab League. “At my first meeting, no one knew who I was,” says Nonoo, who is a youthful-looking 44. “I walked in and said good morning, but no one responded, so I sat down at the end of the table. They passed around a sheet to be signed by all the ambassadors. When the sheet was returned to the man chairing the meeting he looked up and said: ‘It seems we have to welcome the new ambassador of Bahrain. We didn’t realise she was so young.’”
Since then, Nonoo has felt warmly accepted into the diplomatic community, even by the ambassadors of countries who would never themselves appoint a woman, let alone a Jew. “The Saudi ambassador is amazing — he has become a good friend. So has the Kuwaiti ambassador,” she says.
There is one aspect of her role that may cause her problems. As a Jewish woman, educated for four years at the now-defunct Oxfordshire Jewish boarding school, Carmel College, Nonoo is now ambassador of a country which does not recognise Israel.
She chooses her words carefully. “We don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel. Having said that, our foreign minister at the United Nations General Assembly in September put forward an initiative that asked for all Middle Eastern countries, without exception, to meet together. In an interview, when he was asked what countries, he specified all countries, including Turkey, Israel and Iran.
“At the end of the day, I’m an Arab. I describe myself as an Arab Jew. I’m proud of it. I was asked by someone in England whether I felt Jewish first or Bahraini first. I said I was Bahraini first. He got quite offended, but that’s the way I feel.”
There is not a huge Jewish community in Bahrain — she thinks it currently numbers 36. But nonetheless, her family were proudly Jewish and she had a happy upbringing. Her father managed cinemas. “We had actors and actresses coming from Egypt or India. So I grew up in a very interesting house.”
Her schooling was just as cosmopolitan. Initially, she went to a convent — a Jewish girl in an Islamic country being educated by Italian nuns. “There were Muslims, Hindus and Christians, so I didn’t feel any different from anyone else. I never had any discrimination. We kept our religion at home. It was more or less impossible to keep Shabbat because we had school on Saturdays, but whatever we could do we did. Even now, we keep the High Holy Days — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, plus Purim and Chanucah, because they’re fun.”
Nonoo recalls the culture shock of arriving in Britain at the age of 15 to begin her stint at Carmel. “My dad didn’t tell me until a week before that I was going there.” Did she enjoy it? Nonoo laughs again: “Who enjoys boarding school? In Bahrain, everything was done for me. I was thrown into this environment where you had to make your own bed, put your own clothes away. I wasn’t brought up that way, but it taught me independence. Plus, it was very Orthodox — I wasn’t used to that, either.”
She stayed in Britain, attending the then City of London Polytechnic (now London Guidhall University), graduating in economics and accounting before doing a masters in business administration. At that point, she imagined she might stay in Britain. She lived in St John’s Wood in North-West London and started a business. However, when her father was killed in a car accident in 1993, she returned to Bahrain.
“When he died, I went back to take over a computer company that he had started. The plan was to sort it out and come back to England. One year became 15 but I have no regrets about the way my life has turned out.”
Except perhaps in one respect. Nonoo’s family — her husband and two boys aged 17 and 16 — have remained in Bahrain. “Americans are very friendly and they make you feel at home straight away, but it can be hard at weekends. Without my family it can be a little lonely if I have nothing to do, but otherwise I’m having a good time.”
And she feels she has an important job to do in correcting preconceptions about Bahrain. “People have heard of one Gulf state and they think all Gulf states are the same. They ask whether females are allowed to drive, whether women have to cover up. In Bahrain it’s your choice. Knowing my country the way I do, these are weird questions.”
Her appointment has done much to answer them.
Bahrain in 1964
Attended a convent school in Bahrain before being enrolled at Carmel College in Oxfordshire at f 15. Studied economics and accounting at City of London Polytechnic and read for a masters in business administration.
Ran businesses both in Britain and Bahrain. She became president of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, which led to her appointment by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah to the upper house of the Bahrain parliament in 2006. Was appointed ambassador to the United States in April.
On her Jewish identity:
“I was asked by someone in England whether I felt Jewish first or Bahraini first. I said I was Bahraini first. He got quite offended, but that’s the way I feel.”