'We thank you for this friendship'

Longtime Muslim community leader expresses gratitude as he and his wife prepare to leave province

Rob Antle rantle@thetelegram.com
Published on June 26, 2010
Mahmoud Haddara pictured at the Al-Noor mosque on Logy Bay Road in St. Johns will soon be leaving the province, after nearly a quarter century living here. Haddara has been a longtime spokesman for the provinces Muslim community. Photo by Rob Antle/The Telegram

On a too-rare warm June evening, several dozen people are gathered in the basement of what looks like any parish or church hall in Newfoundland.

Tables are laid out for guests. Food is ready in the kitchen. A microphone awaits speakers.

But this isn't just any church or parish hall. It's the Al-Noor mosque in St. John's - the only such Muslim place of worship in the province.

On a too-rare warm June evening, several dozen people are gathered in the basement of what looks like any parish or church hall in Newfoundland.

Tables are laid out for guests. Food is ready in the kitchen. A microphone awaits speakers.

But this isn't just any church or parish hall. It's the Al-Noor mosque in St. John's - the only such Muslim place of worship in the province.

And it is not only members of the Muslim community here tonight. Representatives are present from a rainbow coalition of faiths.

They are saying goodbye to the local imam, Mahmoud Haddara, and his wife, Faiza Enanny.

After nearly a quarter century in St. John's, the couple is moving to Ontario. They want to be closer to family when they both retire later this year.

They listen on this night as leaders of various faiths - running the gamut from Hindu to Jewish to Catholic - sing their praises.

For Haddara, it's a little much. He tells an Italian proverb about how the only way to get praise is to die.

"I'm sure this guy has never been to Newfoundland," he says to an eruption of laughter.

"In Islam, it is vanity to listen to one's own praise. But praise coming from friends is an expression of love and friendship. And we thank you for this friendship."

°°°

Haddara and Enanny's journey to Newfoundland did not exactly follow the traditional route.

They both grew up in Egypt and spent time in the U.S.

In 1985, Haddara and Enanny were living and working in Kuwait. Two of their sons were ready for university. One wanted to do medicine. But it was very tough for expats to gain admission to Kuwaiti medical schools.

They could have sent their son away to study, but didn't want the family to be separated.

By chance, Haddara saw the name of a colleague in an advertisement for a professional society. He hadn't seen the acquaintance in 15 years, from his days studying at Berkeley in California.

On a whim, he wrote a letter, telling his friend that he was looking for new opportunities outside Kuwait.

Haddara's friend was a professor at the University of British Columbia, and had recently visited Newfoundland. He wrote back, informing Haddara that MUN was looking for someone in his area of expertise.

Haddara wrote to the dean. A month later he heard back. After a visit to Newfoundland, he was offered the job. The family moved to the province in 1986.

"It might seem a coincidence, but I don't believe in coincidences," Haddara says.

He had never even heard of Newfoundland. The words "culture shock" were an understatement.

The family had the misfortune of arriving just in time for one of the worst winters in a half century.

"We used to joke about it - that we replaced the sand storms of Kuwait (with) the snowstorms of Newfoundland," Haddara recalls.

In addition to his duties as an engineering professor at Memorial, Haddara immediately got involved with the local Muslim community. The mosque opened in 1990, and he was chosen imam. An imam is the leader who helps organize religious functions.

Things were quiet.

"People left us alone. We were engaged with the main communities, just like any other citizen."

Quiet, that is, until the fall of 2001.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks galvanized the local Muslim community. Haddara says they realized a need to inform people about what Islam is, and what Muslims stand for. He was selected as the spokesman.

They began a dialogue with the St. John's council of churches. When the Jewish group Havura formed, they expressed interest in working together. Schools were invited to come visit the mosque. Local Muslims became founding members of a wide-ranging religious coalition formed to fight poverty in the province.

Meanwhile, their community grew.

In the mid-1980s, there were just 20 Muslim families and fewer than 10 students. Today, there are 150 to 200 families, and 300 students.

The big growth came for two reasons, Haddara says - grad students came here, enjoyed it, and left with a good impression. Word spread. And after 9/11, many who would have gone to the States chose to come to Newfoundland instead.

The community's relatively small size presented its own unique challenges.

"It is a rare thing. If you go to Toronto, for example, there would be a mosque for Shi'a and a mosque for the Sunni ... in big places where there is a critical mass, people usually tend to separate."

Not so in Newfoundland. Occasionally, eyebrows would raise - usually when someone new came into the community. But the response to any questions is firm, Haddara says: forget your background. This is what we do here. Everybody together.

He has taken that message of peace elsewhere. In 2005, for example, Haddara was one of several imams from across the country who publicly condemned the London subway bombings.

"You see, the name Islam is a derivation of the word peace," Haddara explains. "So, if people are turning this around and making it aggressive and violent, then it has to be straightened out. In the Qu'ran, it says if you kill a single soul with no justification, then it is as if you have killed the whole humanity."

There have been no repercussions for his outspokenness, Haddara says, and he is not worried about publicly airing his opinions.

"It had to be done. Someone said the courageous dies once, and the coward dies every minute, or many times."

°°°

Newfoundland is not exactly known as a bastion of multiculturalism, with the collective skin tone generally resembling Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Things are changing, however.

When Haddara first arrived a quarter century ago, meeting simple Muslim dietary needs could be a challenge.

"It would be funny, you know, because you would go to a restaurant and say, 'I don't eat pork,'" Haddara recalls. "Then you end up with a meal with bacon in it."

Most things were cooked in lard; now it's vegetable oil.

And the scene at the Al-Noor mosque is evidence of those evolving times.

The food is delicious - sumptuous and delectable offerings that once would have sent local taste buds into anaphylactic shock.

"We're so privileged to have you among us ... if nothing else for the food we have here tonight," Father Paul Lundrigan jokes.

The stories continue.

St. John's Hindu temple, it is noted, was kickstarted in part by a donation from a local Muslim woman.

That's only fair though - the mosque was the work of a Hindu architect and civil engineer.

Finally, the tributes are over. It is time for the guests of honour to speak.

"Our stay in Newfoundland was the longest that we ever stayed in one place, and also the best years of our life," Haddara says.

They may be moving to London, Ont., he says, "but Newfoundland will always be home for us."

He says they feel rich, because wealth is measured in the number of friends they have.

"I think you can see how rich we are tonight."

rantle@thetelegram.com