By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 19, 2008
It takes charm, courage and chutzpah to master the Washington diplomatic scene, and Houda Ezra Nonoo, Bahrain's first female ambassador here and the first Jewish ambassador of an Arab country, is well on her way.
The granddaughter of Iraqi Jews who migrated to the tiny archipelago in the Persian Gulf, Nonoo came into public view in 2004 as a founding member of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society. She helped bring attention to the plight of domestic workers and other foreign laborers and worked to promote the rights of women and children.
In 2006, Nonoo was appointed to the Shura Council, the upper chamber of parliament. She replaced her brother Ibrahim, the first Jewish member of the council, who decided to devote himself to his business concerns.
Then news leaked out that King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifae had informed U.S. officials of his intention to name Nonoo as ambassador here. Bahrain's news media shot down the move to name a "Jewish ambassador" as a public relations stunt by the Sunni dynasty, which rules over a disgruntled Shiite majority in this country of about 700,000 people.
"When newspaper headlines said the government was sending a Jewish envoy to Washington, that really upset me. I was hurt because I am Bahraini. They took my religion and forgot I was Bahraini," Nonoo said, adding that her grandfather served on the 1934 municipal council, which was elected. "I think I was chosen because of my work on human rights. I was outspoken, and that is what catapulted me into this position. I never expected to be here serving my country in this capacity."
Asked about reports that some Shiites felt left out when Nonoo was appointed, her predecessor, Nasser Beloushi, said: "We don't think about it in that way -- Sunni, Shiite, Christian or Jewish. You are a Bahraini first, and you should serve your country. Bahrain is that way."
Beloushi said Nonoo's father was a well-known financier and "one of the original pillars of our banking system. He was trusted and well liked." His money exchange business grew into the Bahrain Financial Company.
"Her brother's merchant companies are highly regarded and successful," added Beloushi, who said he knows him well.
Nonoo's grandparents initially considered heading to India but settled on the sleepy, barren island surrounded by oyster beds and coral reefs. Her grandfather, Ibrahim, started out with a money exchange business, the oldest such company in Bahrain.
About 500 Jews lived in Bahrain in the early 1940s, according to Ali al-Jalawi, a Bahraini author who has written a book about the community. After the creation of Israel in 1948, attacks on the homes of Bahraini Jews triggered an exodus from Manama, the capital. But Nonoo's family stayed.
"They never thought of leaving Bahrain, because it is their country and what they know. It is hard to just get up and go. Home is where the heart is," she said, sitting in her spacious, sun-flooded office on International Drive.
Today, 36 Jews live in the country, and they are all related, Nonoo said. There is one synagogue in Manama but no rabbi. A "learned scholar" presides over special religious celebrations and funerals, and kosher meat is flown in from London. The last bris was performed 80 years ago, and the last Jewish wedding took place in 1965, she said. Such functions are now held abroad.
Nonoo said she is not strictly religious but observes the high holidays, fasts on Yom Kippur and is respectful and mindful of "basic" Jewish traditions.
"At the end of the day, I am always going to be a Bahraini. Culturally and morally, I am an Arab," she said.
When Nonoo goes on speaking tours in the United States, she is often asked the same questions: Can she go out in Bahrain? Can she walk around without a veil? Is she allowed to drive? The answer to all of the above is yes.
Born in 1964, Nonoo attended a coed school run by Italian nuns, and her classmates included Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Bahais. They had play dates at one another's homes. "I never felt I was different," she said.
At 15, she was sent to boarding school in England, where she obtained a bachelor's degree in accounting from City of London Polytechnic. She also received an MBA from the International University of Europe in Waterford.
When she presented her credentials to President Bush this summer, Nonoo said she was nervous and slightly apprehensive, but "the door opened and he made me feel just like a friend."
Soon after her arrival, Nonoo attended the Meridian Ball, one of the glitziest events of the year, where diplomats, officials and A-listers get together for dessert, champagne and dancing after embassy dinners. "Everyone wanted to meet me. I had just arrived and I was overwhelmed," she admitted.
But Omani Ambassador Hunaina Sultan Ahmed al-Mughairy, another woman representing an Arab Gulf country, took Nonoo under her wing, she said with gratitude.
The demands of accompanying her country's foreign minister to appointments in New York on Tuesday morning did not prevent Nonoo from hosting her first big reception in Washington that afternoon.
Radiant and exuding a natural liveliness, Nonoo greeted well-wishers to an event at the Ritz-Carlton marking Bahrain's National Day. Understated yet chic in pumps, a tapered black lace dress and a short red satin jacket, she stood next to her husband, a British citizen of Iranian descent, and her defense attache. An oud player in traditional Gulf robes strummed lilting melodies in the background.
In Washington, Nonoo lives in a two-bedroom apartment but is contemplating revamping the embassy's old residence. Her husband, now visiting their sons, ages 16 and 17, helps run Gulf Computer Services in Bahrain, a family business. They often meet in London, where her older son studies.
"She is a breath of fresh air," noted Ina Ginsberg, a Washington member of the American-Bahrain Friendship Council. "She adds a new voice to the conversation. It takes guts for any woman to come here as ambassador, but she is going to be a trailblazer."
Arab League Ambassador Hussein Hassouna, who recently joined Nonoo on a speaking engagement at Harvard University, said he was taken by her intelligence and warmth. "She is a great addition. Arab countries do well to send women and envoys from minority communities."