Muna Nashashibi is a Syrian Christian. “I was raised a secular nationalist. Acceptance was a cornerstone of my upbringing. We are believers, but when you’re in a secular home, you are free of the unnecessary chains that prevent conversation and engagement.”
Muna did not experience religious differentiation growing up in Syria in the 1950s and 60s. “In my day we didn’t differentiate between religions. Since then, things have only gotten worse,” she says, noting that the immigration policies of European nations in the 1950s had a significant impact. “They started welcoming Syrians Christians as part of their plan to segregate us and erase our shared culture.”
Muna also holds immigrants to account, insisting that many force segregation and intolerance upon themselves. “Many don’t want to tolerate those who are hosting them; they want to enforce their own way of life, their beliefs and systems. In this case, they should return to their own countries.”
This mentally, says Muna, is not confined to the working classes. “Education does not mean open mindedness and tolerance. There is no critical thinking in the Arab world, in our education systems.”
After graduating from Aleppo University with a law degree, Muna moved to Kuwait in 1969. There, she completed a Master’s degree in Business Administration and in 1980 moved to London with her husband and two children.
“The first thing that struck me was the presence of Jewish people. There were many of them and my children befriended a few at school and eventually I did too through the school and my voluntary work with English organisations.”
As an Arab nationalist married to a Palestinian, Muna wanted to change hearts and minds. “It was important to me to show the good side of our culture, to counter the bias and the political rhetoric. This took up a lot of my time.”
Despite her activism, she did not want to impact her children’s experience and so avoided talking politics in front of them. “But it was unavoidable, especially after the Intifada.” Her eldest son, then aged 13, wrote an essay about the injustices in Palestine as part of his common entrance exam for secondary school. “The teacher called me in to see her and I was expecting to have to defend my son but instead she said how moving an essay it was.” Fearful for his prospects, the teacher did, however, advise the student to write another essay for fear that the external examiner would not feel the same way.
This political divide continued to impact the experience of her son and others at school, says Muna. “There were a lot of Jewish boys and they would openly celebrate the invasion of Iraq and the teachers wouldn’t fault them. It was painful for the children. Politics impacted their experience.”
Muna herself didn’t find it difficult to integrate, though she acknowledges that she made few English friends. “I didn’t have many English friends but I did have friends from Ireland and other European countries, Jews included. I liked being with like-minded people. The English were insular and, in any case, not many of them remained in London.”