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Taking a smile to the world

Taking a smile to the world

Hany El Banna says he is 7053 years old: “53 belong to me and the rest to my beloved Egypt. All Egyptians love their country, no matter where they are in this world. Great people have lived there – Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jesus and Mary.

Issue 5 May/June 2004

Interview by Mahmud Al-Rashid


It is the land of history and many cultures co-exist; you have great mosques and synagogues and churches, and the Nile is a river from heaven.” Hany’s passion for his native civilisation exudes from his every breath. He returns to Egypt at least once a year with the whole family. “Egyptians are very loyal people – more so than any other Arabs are to their country. Only recently have Egyptians started to emigrate in numbers.”

So how is it that such a proud Egyptian could accept an OBE from the British government, considering the history between the two countries? Hany becomes dewy-eyed. “That was in recognition of the work of Islamic Relief. I am just the figurehead of this organisation. I accepted it on behalf of all those people who have sacrificed so much for Islamic Relief.  One of our workers was shot dead in Kashmir, four others died in an accident in Chechnya and two were taken prisoners in Baghdad and held at gunpoint for three weeks. And for the many extraordinary people, here and abroad, who have given so much to this organisation, to this cause, for so long. It was for them. In any case, despite my feelings for the country of my birth, I am a British national; I belong here and I want to contribute to the development of this society.” In recognition of his efforts Hany won the Muslim News Award 2004 for promoting Understanding between Global Cultures and Faith.

He was born in Cairo in 1950. His mother stayed at home bringing up the two girls and two boys. His father was a professor of Islamic Studies and taught at Al-Azhar. The family was reasonably well-to-do and enjoyed life in the Hilmiyya region of Cairo. Hany was the youngest of the four children and so enjoyed greater freedom – and he made sure he took advantage of that. When he was about six he wanted to go and see Mother India at the local cinema. Without telling anyone he took some money from the house and went to the afternoon show. He then watched the Oscar nominated film again and again, unaware that a massive search party was scouring the streets of Cairo. At one time he heard someone call out his name inside the cinema; recognising a relative Hany sank deeper into the seat until the man went away. After midnight – and after some hours of sleep – young Hany left the cinema and duly got lost in the night. Eventually he came across a man who knew his father and took him home, where he was met by the whole extended family. That night Hany’s father saved the little boy from his mother’s wrath.

Hany has fond memories of the Banna household. Their home was open to anyone and provided a sanctuary to many women who had domestic problems of their own. Hany’s mother would welcome them and listen to their woes. Their home was so welcoming that, untypically in Cairo, many relatives on his father’s side would come to see his mother. That way Hany grew up showered in love by both sets of relatives. Over the years others have benefited from this upbringing: the love that he received at an early age has prepared him well to unstintingly give love to all who come his way.

The young Hany was very entrepreneurial. Aged nine, he started his own business: selling lollipops on the way to school. He franchised the idea out to other boys but made sure he remained their leader and thereby benefiting from their sales too. And like most boys he had a great love of football, usually playing in goal, where he would simulate fantastic diving saves. This is despite suffering from polio since birth. Many a person has commented on seeing Hany running with a pronounced limp to catch a bus in Birmingham, for it wasn’t until recently that the head of Islamic Relief acquired a full British driving licence.

Like many mothers in Cairo, his wanted him to be a doctor, whereas his father wanted Hany to be an Islamic  scholar. And true to Egyptian tradition, the mother’s wish prevailed. Hany loved poetry; he was taught classical and poetic Arabic by a private tutor and to this day he still composes verses. His latest inspiration came last year whilst sitting by the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad; an epic of 165 pages.

Hany hated medicine, but was too considerate to upset his mother. After two years he gave her an ultimatum: “as soon as I fail the next exam I am out of medical school.” His mother agreed. But Hany continued to pass and he was too proud to fail an exam deliberately. And so began an award winning medical career that saw him travel to the UK in 1977 for further qualifications. When I ask him whether he was related to the Hassan Al-Banna of Muslim Brotherhood fame, he gives a well-worn sigh. “No. Everyone asks me that wherever I go, from Latin America to Indonesia. I tell them there is more than one Banna family in Egypt.”

When I ask him when he first heard of the aforementioned Hassan Al-Banna, he looks at me as though I was a half-wit. “In Egypt, you don’t hear of Hassan Al- Banna, you grow up with him. He was a phenomenon, just like Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali are. His presence could be felt everywhere even though his name dare not be uttered openly. Our area, Hilmiyya, was the Brotherhood’s headquarters and Al-Banna used to pray in the mosque where my father gave khutbahs (sermons). You could breathe Al-Banna’s teachings in the air. He was held in so much awe and respect.” Hany never met the man who has left such an indelible mark on Egyptian society, yet the moral influence of the great reformer is noticeable in many Egyptians.

During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war Hany was in Libya where his father was teaching. “The Libyan authorities and media were broadcasting the news that the Arabs had defeated the Israelis and there were huge celebrations all over,” he recalls. “School-children came out to express their joy. Some men went on the rampage and started burning down Italian buildings,” – which Hany condemns utterly. “It was only later we found out the truth: it was a crushing defeat.” In just six days the Israeli army had demolished the collective Arab armies. Hany remembers the days of depression that followed thereafter. “People were angry that their leaders had fooled them with lies about the war.” Not much has changed since those days; many an Arab leader is high on rhetoric and fighting-talk, but low on delivering benefit to his people.

Though the defeat in 1967 heralded the downfall of President Nasser, Hany speaks of the man with some admiration. “Nasser was very charismatic. A natural leader of people. He gave hope and a vision for a better future. But he was badly advised. Those around him were not the brightest of people. And he had flaws too. He could’ve brought more people on board; he should’ve opened dialogue with his political opponents and brought more reforms.” Instead of glory, the charismatic Nasser died a broken man. Cynicism pervades much of Egyptian political discourse. They’ve been marched up the hill and down again too many times. Despite that Hany remains optimistic. “The national characteristic of an Egyptian is patience. We are a very old people and we can wait for as long as necessary. Change will happen in Egypt, change for the better, insha-Allah. It is just over the hill.”

As a young man Hany was influenced by the writings of Tawfik al-Hakim, M. Abbas Aqqad and Yusuf Sebai. After he first arrived in the UK he began to read Sayed Qutb’s classic In the Shade of the Qur’an. “Qutb was hanged by the regime in 1965. But even as a young man he was a visionary.” Hany also found comfort in the writings of the late Muhammad Al-Gazzali. He wasn’t particularly religious initially, but an incident in Aberystwyth co pelled him to draw closer to his faith. “I was short of funds and I met up with a group of Christian professionals. I overheard two women (one Swiss, the other a German) speaking: “See, I told you he’s from Egypt.” I went up to them and introduced myself fully. They then took me to meet another Arab who proceeded to invite me to Christianity.

To be honest, I felt insulted because I thought he was taking advantage of my weak position. However, I realised the lack of knowledge of my own faith. And so I began reading Qutb, Gazzali and others.” Hany then engaged himself in interfaith dialogues and this brought him even closer to Islam. Later, in 1983, Hany set up a study group in Birmingham and ran it for nine years.

“Those meetings were a tremendous learning curve for me. People assume just because you are born and brought up in a Muslim country, you know everything about Islam. That is not true  – as I found out. We had men and women in our study group and we conducted the lessons in English.” Hany also started giving the khutbahs at Birmingham University and in 1985 he was UK President of the Egyptian Student’s Union. He was also a member of the FOSIS executive committee in 1985/86.

Today, of course, Hany is known throughout the world as the founder of Islamic Relief. “It all started during the famine in the Horn of Africa. There was a medical conference in Sudan in December 1983. I didn’t have enough money to pay for the flight, so I went along to the Islamic Cultural Centre (in Regent’s Park, London) and asked the Imam there whether he could help. In true Islamic fashion, Sheikh Hamid Khalifa (a former student of my father) found some money for my journey. I then asked a Lebanese colleague where the conference was. ‘I don’t know, just go to Khartoum,’ he said. ‘Where in Khartoum?’ I enquired. ‘Just go,’ he replied, ‘just go to Khartoum and you will find it.’ So I went – via Cairo, of course, and asked the taxi driver to take me to the five star hotels, of which there were three at the time. We struck lucky at the Grand.”

After the conference Hany was taken round some of the refugee camps in Sudan. He was told these people had fled their homes because of the famine in neighbouring Eritrea and Ethiopia. The plight of these refugees so moved him that he resolved there and then to do something about it. This was arguably the seminal moment in Hany’s life. On his return to the UK – via Cairo, of course, Hany met up with a Palestinian doctor and they started collecting funds. Actually, even before that, during the stop-over in Cairo he collected 300 Egyptian pounds from friends and family, and he remembers the very first donation came from a young boy who gave away his snack money (of about 20 Egyptian pence). Back in Birmingham Hany and Dr Ihsan Shabeeb formed the Committee for Helping Muslim Refugees in Africa. They then went door to door, street to street and within a few days raised £500. After a while they went further a field to London and Newcastle. Hany was still working in a hospital full-time (he eventually gave up medicine 1995).

The Committee then became registered as Islamic Relief. “This name was actually suggested to us by Yusuf Islam (who founded Muslim Aid a year later). Yusuf had come to see us in Birmingham. He was equally concerned about the famine in Africa and wanted to do something. Yusuf was very well-known and his advice to us was very useful.” After five years Hany decided to register Islamic Relief in Europe. In 1990 he went to Germany; in 1991 to France and Belgium. “Whenever I was on a plane I would look at a map of the world and start planning where I would like to see Islamic Relief.”

“The early years were manic,” Hany recalls. “In 1987 I nearly left Islamic Relief. I was physically tired of studying, working and touring the country to raise money.” He went to Egypt to buy some land to farm. “I love farming,” he says with unbounded joy. “But I couldn’t buy any land at that time, so I returned to England to finish of my Doctor of Medicine. Then came the flood in Sudan in 1988, followed by the first Palestinian intifada in 1988/89, an earthquake in Iran in 1989 and a flood in Bangladesh in 1991. We were just carried from one disaster to another; from Africa to Afghanistan, Bangladesh to Bosnia. There really was no time to rest.” I ask him what keeps him going. “Responsibility,” he replies simply. “And for as long as I can continue to give something, I shall do so. When I can’t, I shall leave.”

What does Islamic Relief do that is different from other relief organisations? “We add the Islamic values to the international community of humanitarian organisations. Muslim charities need to be present on the international scene. We are proud to be Islamic and to exercise our values in the field of humanitarian work. We assist anyone that needs our help. I remember our qurbani projects in Southern Sudan this year. About 17 of the tribal leaders, most of whom were Christians and animists, came for a share of the meat. They later said that this was the first time they had been treated so fairly and equally by anyone – even though the qurbani is a distinctly Muslim festival. We follow the Qur’anic injunction that one should feed the needy simply out of love for feeding them.”

For the future Hany wants to see Islamic Relief continue to bridge the gap between the East and the West in humanitarian and charity work. “We will continue to bring the Islamic ethos into this area. After September 11th life was made difficult for us, but we never ducked down; we defended our work. We had to fight hard to win respect and recognition. We stood up for our values. This struggle was boosted by Prince  Charles when he visited our London offices in November 2001.”

Hany has acute observations of the Muslim community in Britain. He describes three major developments over the years. “Firstly, the structure of the University Islamic Societies; up to the mid-80s they were dominated my overseas students. Since the 90s the active members are local students. Likewise, with the Islamic Movement organisations – they are mainly composed of British Muslims. I was very close to the Young Muslims UK which was founded in 1984 under the guidance of the late Khurram Murad. The second change I have seen is the economic development of Muslims. From the corner-shops many have moved on to own major companies. Many are now entering the professions. And the third is the increased political awareness and maturity of the community. This is vital to successful integration. Though there is some representation at higher levels, this is not enough and more Muslims need to engage in political activities.”

Hany firmly believes the Muslim community has been a dynamic one. “There has been growth in businesses, institutions, literature, in everything. Even the three Gulf Wars have not hindered the growth of Islam in Britain.” I ask him if the current situation does not belie his analysis. Are these not dark days? His answer is that of a sage: “As the sun sets, so it must rise again. That is the sunnah (way) of life.” Hany is confident the anti-Muslim hysteria will die out. “The UK is the most appropriate country in the West for Islam to be nurtured, more so than the US after 9/11. There is a vital need for the West to understand Islam and the British have the most interest because of their past encounters with Muslims. Those of us living here need to help that process along.”

How does Hany view the increased radicalisation of young Muslims? “For many such Muslims trying to live Islam in the West is a new experience. They are growing up in a cultural environment different to that which their parents experienced, and so they often cannot benefit from the wisdom and guidance of their elders. As a consequence their natural eagerness has made them over-zealous. They see things only in black and white. But the increase in radicalisation and extremism is also a sign of an emotionally disturbed youth whose condition has been brought about by repeated accusations of disloyalty, discrimination and rejection. There is not enough love shown to young people. There are some Muslims that promote hostility; though they are only a few, the media insist on making their voices loud because it suits their purposes.” Hany believes that what is happening to young Muslims now can happen to the youth in any community if they are sufficiently vilified and put under such intense scrutiny. “When a community is under so much scrutiny, it is not surprising that some react in an aggressive manner. We need to calm the situation down and take the tension out of the air. The media need to be less provocative and keep a sense of balance and proportion.”

Hany’s fear is that if the youth are brought up in a cultural vacuum, they will be easy prey for extremists. They need to understand their rich Islamic heritage and live their faith in today’s pluralistic society; learn to co-exist with diversity and aspire to enrich British society. “It all starts at the home,” Hany declares. “Many a family has lost control of its children. Greater affection and concern needs to be shown to youngsters; they need to be inspired to achieve great and good things. They need good and powerful role models.” Hany himself has one ambition for his five children: “for them to be better than me in Islam; in knowledge and education. I want my children to be just, for justice is the essence of Islam; it is the name of God and it is His Heaven. Merely being a Muslim is not enough – you can do good or you can do bad. Many Muslims have become oppressors now. They should be reminded of what God says: ‘I have forbidden oppression for Myself and I forbid it for you.’”

Though only 53, Hany has lived a fulfilling, and one can say enjoyable life. His name means happiness and joy, and Banna means builder – very appropriate in the context of Islamic Relief. However, he has encountered his fair  share of danger too. “I was in Grozny in 1995 and 1999. Those were very dangerous times. Even Prince Charles expressed admiration at how we managed to do our work at that time in that frightful place. Then there was Mount Igman in Bosnia in 1995. I have avoided Serb sniper fire, and in 1993 crossed the tunnel under Sarajevo airport. But the closest I came to death was in January 2002 when I had an attack of diarrhoea and vomiting in Afghanistan, crossing the tunnels of Salang. I lost 20 litres of fluid in 2 hours. They rolled me up in blankets and those heavy Indian quilts. But nothing worked. I then remembered the verse in the Qur’an about honey. I took some and prayed; the next day I was fine, thanks to God.”

And what does his wife say when he recounts these tales to her. “I married well!” he beams proudly. “Our families met and two weeks later we were married. My wife doesn’t worry any more – she has put her trust in God. We married before I got involved with Islamic Relief so she has been through it all with me. My children are more inquisitive now. So I tell them everything about my work.”

Of all the experiences Hany has had, what has shocked him the most? “Bosnia,” he replies instantly. “It was a live show of massacres, rapes and destruction. It shocked everyone, not just the Muslims. The sheer wickedness has left an ugly scar on Europe, indeed on the whole world. I met many of the survivors, heard their stories firsthand; women and children who had not eaten for days, who had witnessed the brutal murder of their loved ones. But the horror of all horrors was Srebrenica. I met a woman called Sabriya. She was a 24 year old mother of two girls, Samira 4 and Amira 2. I listened to her story (the award-winning journalist Maggie O’Kane wrote about her too). The Serbs had come to her village and killed all the men. They took the women and young children away to these “rape houses”. Sabriya was dragged into a room and raped by seven soldiers and then mutilated. She then saw Samira in the next room lying naked and unconscious with blood around her legs.

Forgetting her own ordeal, she picked up her two girls and fled the building. On their way to Tuzla Samira was crying when she tried to relieve herself. The doctors then confirmed the fouryear old had been gang-raped. Hearing this sickened me. I cannot forget about it, and many other similar stories of wickedness and brutality. Later, whilst in Yemen I wrote a poem entitled Suada, after the young Bosnian woman who hanged herself from a tree after being repeatedly raped by Serb soldiers. The image of her death was supposed to have moved President Clinton to finally intervene militarily.”

I ask the obvious next question: How do you cope? “I make myself busy with work. There’s so much to be done. And I write my poems, to express my pain. God oversees everything and life goes on. I think of the Great Day when I and everyone else will be asked how we fulfilled our responsibilities on Earth. I carry on, doing what good I can, hoping to make sure I have an acceptable answer on that Day.”

As we arrive at Terminal 4 Hany thanks me for the drive down. “It has been an honour to have your companionship; I know you are a busy man,” he compliments me. But those very sentiments sum up Hany’s life very well. Caring more for the other person than for himself, something that he considers a matter of honour and duty. And so I really meant it when I replied “The pleasure has truly been all mine.”

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