A tale of two Hagars: How an Egyptian Muslim and an Israeli Jew met in Vienna

The story of the Hagars is an interesting case study of some of the challenges participants faced from friends and family.

Hagar Haggag (left), from Egypt, and Hagar Levin, from Israel, show their matching name tags at the Muslim Jewish Conference in Vienna last week. (photo credit: DANIEL SHAKED)
Hagar Haggag (left), from Egypt, and Hagar Levin, from Israel, show their matching name tags at the Muslim Jewish Conference in Vienna last week.
(photo credit: DANIEL SHAKED)
Before Hagar Haggag arrived in Vienna for the fifth annual Muslim Jewish Conference, she had never met a Jew in her life. When she went to check in at the hotel lobby, she was given the key to her room, but the name on the card said “Hagar Levin.”
She asked the staff if it was her name and her roommate’s name together, as she thought Hagar was only a Muslim name.
At dinner that evening, as the conference kicked off, Muslims and Jews began to enter into polite and introductory conversations. But the tide quickly turned, an early icebreaker had participants confront deeply negative stereotypes affecting their own groups. On large sheets of paper, the Muslims wrote, “Backwards, terrorists, oppressors of women.” In the other groups, Jews wrote, “Greedy, insulated, control the media.”
It was an interesting start to what would prove to be a challenging week, where young professionals and students, in their 20s and 30s from all over the world, would seek to have the type of conversations that would break down or confront these deep-seated prejudices.
But before all that could happen, a 26-year-old Israeli Jew sat across from an Egyptian, hijab-clab woman and attempted to start a conversation.
“What’s your name?” she asked tentatively.
“Hagar,” the Egyptian answered.
“Me too!” Hagar Levin exclaimed.
In that moment, it was as if a wall had broken down.
The two beamed at each other; Levin, sporting a big, toothy grin, and Haggag, a soft, welcoming face framed by a blue head scarf. They immediately started comparing name pronunciations (a hard “G” in Hebrew, more of a “J” sound in Arabic) and reactions they’ve accumulated over the years.
“I always thought it was an Islamic name, not a Jewish name,” Haggag said.
“Religious families don’t believe that I am Jewish,” Levin said.
The Conference concluded last week in Vienna and had 140 participants from 35 countries. The makeup of the participants ranged from religious Muslims – from countries as diverse as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, England and the US; a majority of secular Jews; a handful of religiously observant Jews – from Israel, Europe and the US; and a few Christians to spice things up.
Participants were divided into committee groups beforehand, to better allow for conversations to go deep into challenging issues. Confronting racism, homophobia, stereotypes and differences in political opinions brought out heated debates. But the magic of the conference was in people’s ability to keep those discussions separate from the opportunity to learn about a different culture and background.
For Levin, while the discussions were hard, it felt productive. And in the end, she found herself able to leave the room and still have coffee, laugh and have light conversation. For her this proved that the group could “discuss things and disagree and see how different we are, but stay on a human level.” For both Hagars, Levin and Haggag, the conference highlighted this idea to focus more on the person, and not the ideology, as a positive step in being able to have more productive conversations about the bigger issues.
While the personalities and nationalities of the participants varied, the story of the Hagars is an interesting case study of some of the challenges participants faced from friends and family, and how young people are placing importance on interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue.
The nice Egyptian girl who’s traveling the globe Hagar Haggag had just returned to Cairo after spending a month in China, and with one day’s notice that her visa was ready, she was rushing to buy a flight to Vienna.
The 26-year-old was motivated to attend the conference, no matter what the price. For her, this was an opportunity she didn’t know if she would have again, a chance to meet Jews and learn about Judaism.
“I never met any Jews in my life. I know there are Jews in Egypt, they are a minority and even if I saw them, I’m not sure I would know they are Jewish or they would want me to know.”
Coming from an upper-middle-class family, Haggag said her parents have always encouraged her to travel and learn new things. She describes her childhood as pretty idyllic, and her favorite memory is how her father taught her to ride a bike. In fact, cycling is one of her favorite things to do in Cairo, and every Friday groups of riders go around the city, to get a bit of exercise and sightsee.
Ask her what she loves about Egypt, and if it’s not the food and the people, it’s the diversity. “We have two seas, the Mediterranean, vacation spots. You always have a place to go, and then there are the different cultures inside the country.”
A practicing Muslim, Haggag was taught how to pray by her parents at the age of seven. But while religion was important to her family, an outward show of piety was viewed as dangerous under former ruler Hosni Mubarak, a feeling her parents found hard to shake.
After Haggag graduated from Cairo’s Ain Shams University, where she studied Spanish and English, she felt her curiosity in Islam grow; she began to sign up for religious studies courses. Her parents worried, believing she might get caught up with extremists.
“I always told them, ‘If you want to come with me, it’s open to everyone,’” she said. “The university is known for teaching about Islam in general and Islamic studies, it’s a trusted source.”
Interested in interfaith and cultural exchange, Haggag can’t remember exactly how she found out about the Muslim Jewish Conference, but that it popped up on her Facebook. “My family has been encouraging me recently to travel and try new things, and knowing about the conference and given the fact that I have been studying more about Islam recently, they thought it would be a good opportunity to learn about a new religion and different cultures,” she said.
Yet with the war between Israel and Hamas, her parents worried that fighting would break out between the participants. “I can’t deny I was kind of tense as well. I didn’t tell a lot of my friends, but those whom I did tell were supportive, because they knew I have been interested in interfaith dialogue recently.”
But that wasn’t all that drew her. “Although it was a religious conference, I was interested to get to know more about the Israeli side – how do the Israelis think, how they see the conflict.”
A misconception, Haggag says, is mixing up Jews and Israelis. “In Islam, there is a verse that says, ‘We have created you into nations and tribes to get to know each other.’ So we don’t know a lot about Jews, yet we get to judge the other person, for example, and get to assume how they think and how they react when we don’t know actually what Judaism is, what do Jews think. Are they all the same?” Haggag’s first Jewish encounter was meeting her two roommates, Jewish women from Germany and Austria.
“It was shocking in the beginning,” she says. But then Haggag points to a moment on Shabbat that really emphasized a feeling in which she had already started to believe. “One of the participants said that in his family, it was tradition to whisper a blessing in the ear of the person sitting next to you. My roommate got up from where she was sitting, walked all the way across the room, and whispered in my ear, ‘I hope you find a nice job,’ because I told her I was looking for a new one.
“It made this idea that I knew I had, become more rooted: I look at the human being. We are not religion, we are not just a name, a nationality; we’re all human beings and in the end you get to know each person’s story.”
Not your typical Israeli in Berlin For an Israeli, Hagar Levin is no stranger to Islam.
Her earliest memory of interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue was at the age of 10.
Her school, in Hod Hasharon, had devised a pen-pal program with the Arab village of Umm el-Fahm. Levin remembers the experience as very meaningful, but also surreal. Even though the towns are in the same country, the people she was writing to seemed a world away. She met her pen-pal once and the two tried to keep in touch, but eventually it faded.
Yet a different passion had arisen in Levin, to learn Arabic.
After high school and her army service, Levin took some time off, working with the Jewish Community Centers of North America and traveling. She returned to Jerusalem to begin university, focusing on Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. She was always struck by how odd it was that as a country in the Middle East, there seemed to be a serious lack of understanding about the surrounding – and majority – culture of Islam.
And then, two things happened at once that led her to where she is today.
A program to increase ties between Israel and Germany, Kom-Mit-Nadev, was bringing Israeli students to Berlin for a year of study. They would learn the language, participate in seminars, study and volunteer.
At the same time, the MORUS 14 community center wanted to introduce an Israeli onto its staff. Located in a neighborhood heavily populated by immigrants from the Middle East, this quarter of Berlin is categorized as a hotspot for unemployment and crime. There is also a deep-rooted hostility against Jews in general and Israel in particular. Levin’s job would be to add a new element of education, with an emphasis on religious and cultural tolerance.
Nothing like this had ever been done before, and Levin was, for lack of a better word, served up as a guinea pig. Yet she was happy to do it, because for the first time she was intimately meeting with Arabs and Muslims. “You know in Israel you don’t really meet people from the Middle East.”
Her work at the center began gradually, as she just let the members of the community get used to her presence.
She would get to know their names, the names of their children and ask how they were. Slowly, people started to learn her name, and ask about her and her family. Levin says that for them to even say “Israel” was a big deal.
Part of the center’s activities involved interfaith coexistence projects. Muslim and Jewish children would do cultural or sport activities together, such as art workshops or Krav Maga classes. “The goal is to talk about cultures, talk about religion, but let the residents and the children feel it and experience it,” she said. “Not necessarily in the political way, but in the human way.”
She’s now been living in Berlin for two years. Her parents’ reaction? “They are positively shocked,” Levin said, adding that she gets this reaction from a lot of people; they are sure she must feel unsafe or always be involved in arguments.
But when her friends and family visit, she said, they are always curious to see the center.
And it becomes positive on both sides. Her friends and family see where she works and gain a better understanding, and the members of the center see that she is proud to show off her work.
When she told her younger brother that she was going to a Muslim Jewish Conference, she said his response was, “OK, so you’re not the only crazy person, there are more like you and you all meet in Vienna.” She pauses before saying that since the conference she has been talking more with her brother about her work. “This is basically the reaction I get, many people are surprised that this is happening.”
At the conference, Levin said she was asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict less than she expected to be. In the small committee that participants were divided up into, she said, it came up frequently as a means of explanation and comparison. “I think people wanted to touch on the subject… we wanted to discuss it, but we also didn’t want to discuss it.”
Levin’s biggest takeaway from the conference echoes that of Haggag: That people were much more concerned with the human level. “I think people were much more interested in asking about my life in Israel and Judaism, and if I keep Shabbat and more basic questions, than specifically about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.”
Moving forward, Levin has new plans for projects in her community center.
“Until now, I had many Jewish volunteers,” she said. A few of the participants, Muslims and Jews, live in Berlin, and Levin has approached them about visiting the center. “Up to this point, I didn’t think how great it would be to have Muslim volunteers… to show the kids how we work together, a Jewish counselor and a Muslim counselor.”
“To show how we communicate and work together, wanting the same thing, and that there is hope here between the different people.”