On an ever so cool and overcast day in London, a welcome change from the heatwave that parched most of the UK this summer, I sat down at my desk in the lounge and wrote a few thoughts about a meeting I was about to have. With Skype fired up, I waited to see if Harry had come online yet and felt nervous as our appointment approached. This was to be the very first time I was interviewing someone I didn’t know personally and have admired their work from afar for a few years now.
Checking my intentions and making du’a for a successful interview soon calmed my nerves, as I took sips of water from my oversized slushie cup (overpriced spend from our last visit to the cinema - worth it) and deep breaths.
Interviewing Harry today wasn’t just about his life and work. This was my very firm step in the direction of creating meaningful content that I so deeply want to engage in. You have to allow me this: I’ve grown so tired and weary of the deeply disturbing effects in social media consumption, and granted, a little rebellious of me to increasingly step away from it to nurture my fragile spirit. I decided that I wanted to create my own platform and tell meaningful stories. Welcome to my blog!
People have always fascinated me. As a young child I easily made friends, from school peers, teachers, friends of my mum, and even the elderly. Perhaps it’s because at that time I had only one living grandparent whom we saw every couple of years or so, until she passed away when I was a tween. I always loved and craved the company of elderly people the most.
It is my love of stories that people have to tell that keeps me fascinated and curiosity leads the way. And that’s what grabbed my attention when I came across Harry’s work in 2012. That, and he bears a resemblance to my youngest brother.
Harry's videos began circulating on FB, reporting from Gaza about the struggles Palestinians were facing, young, British, and ACTUALLY in Palestine? My first thoughts were: What!? Why? How did you even get there? And as I continued to watch his videos it was very clear that here was a young man, clearly on a mission to seek solidarity with a people in a terrible situation that has gripped Palestinians in a brutal way for decades, sharing what was going on around him. It wasn’t all so bad all the time, though. His candor and cultural respectfulness emanating from his posts on social media are really touching and one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the web.
When we finally get Skype set up and settle in with cordial pleasantries I’m tickled that Harry was sat in a Costa in a suburb in Cairo. Not surprised by the commercial reach of a massive coffee house chain, but bemused nonetheless. Throughout our conversation the sounds of honking horns and sirens had me thinking he could just as well be in Peckham.
Sat in Costa in Cairo, with his breakfast, having to listen for a few minutes to my intro. Even though we’ve emailed a few times over the years I’ve never actually revealed much about myself and thought if I just gave him a quick skim of who I am perhaps that may alleviate some worries. After all, this was going to be a very personal conversation.
Harry was born and grew up in the picturesque county of Oxfordshire, nestled in the South East of England.
Home to one of the top universities in the world and steeped in history dating back to the 8th century, it’s hard not to think about this place full of wonder without noting it down as a place to visit soon. Very soon, In Shaa Allah.
Rural Oxfordshire, an idyllic setting for a family to flourish, and as he fondly shares some of his memories of attending a private school I can’t help but dream of a similar setting that my family and I could possibly dwell in one day too. As I homeschool my children, an academic institute to send them to is not something I’m planning on doing soon. I’m curious though because the way Harry describes his secondary education doesn’t quite match the stereotype given with the alumnus of men who attend such establishments. I realise and dismiss my stereotypical thoughts without hesitation as I listen to Harry speak about his unique experience at a small private school that I can only imagine teachers were very keenly in tune with their students and eager to encourage them to pursue their individuality and interests.
Work & Passion
Harry has worked as a reporter for RT, given a few TEDx talks, and numerous interviews on news channels during his time in Gaza in 2012 when a brutal offensive was launched on the people in Gaza, dubbed as Operation Pillar of Cloud.
Of all his work that I’ve seen a few stand out as unforgettable, namely his reading the names of the dead on UStream during the short lived aforementioned war, ‘The Globalised Heart’ & ‘Political, passionate, personal development’ - TEDx talks.
When I first reached out to Harry I had so many intriguing questions about his work. It didn't feel right to bombard him at the time so when I plucked up the courage to ask if he would do this interview, I was so surprised and happy that he accepted. Within a hop, skip, and jump our appointment was set up and all my questions just came pouring out.
The Road To Gaza
Warning: Contains images that can be upsetting.
Nilly Ilgüy: It’s really fascinating you mentioned that at a young age you were reading about the conflict in Gaza, is there a particular book you recommend?
Harry Fear: There’s one book in particular that stands out, ‘Freedom Next Time’ by John Pilger - this book alone really put the seed in me to visit Palestine at some stage in my life.
NI: Tell us a bit about your background and how that led you to go to Gaza.
HF: Sure, I went to Gaza when I was 22. I wanted to go since the age of about 18 or 19. I’d been reading about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and it was like, the epitome of outrage.
I always wanted to see and stand in solidarity with Palestinians, and so through making friends on Facebook who were living in Gaza at that time, they sort of said “Come, you should make videos here.” By that point I was working on a documentary on Islamophobia and other small video projects.
I went to Egypt for the first time at the beginning of 2012 and then in the summer of 2012 I went to Gaza - through Egypt, and then again in the Winter. It’s that Winter when Israel started that military operation in November. So that was my first experience of seeing the situation escalating to a dangerous level there.
NI: Were you prepared for something like this?
HF: As this was my first time going to somewhere, that in the public eye was quite dangerous, I had thought about the extremes of how far I was prepared to go. Actually, when you arrive there and you just walk into the territory, in its own sense more dangerous than where you just stepped from [Egypt into Gaza], — well, it’s not really so binary. It’s not like stereotypical images of security situation there. Of course, it’s more dangerous than Egypt but there aren’t bombs going off every five minutes [and it’s not like] nowhere is safe. It’s more complicated than that.
And when you see it with your own eyes for the first time – y’any I was also young – you start to see it more clearly. I was unsure of what to expect before then so I was willing to risk death to go.
I almost can’t compute how I went [to Gaza]. The first time I went it was much safer than it is now but at the same time I would be reticent about allowing my 22 year old to do the same.
It’s not that my parents allowed me to do it, it’s that they brought me up in a way that it was my decision to make and I had to the live with it. So that’s an amazing thing I think.
NI: What challenges did you face when going there and how did you overcome them?
HF: It was pretty smooth going to be honest with you. Allah facilitated it, Alhamdulillah. Getting into Gaza was an obstacle in the sense that the bureaucracy was quite extraordinary. I had to find a reason to be going, a justification, even though it wasn’t the whole reason I was going. That in itself required some engineering, some logistical work. You can’t just go to Gaza and see things, that’s not a valid reason. Alhamdulillah in the end it all worked out, and people were extremely kind in Gaza. Especially when a people have been besieged for so long, there’s an openness to see people from the outside, people are incredibly open in a loving way.
NI: Wow! Ma Shaa Allah! So what were your first impressions of Palestine?
HF: When I first crossed over from Egypt into Gaza my first reaction was “Oh this is weird, everything looks the same”. The architecture was the same as where I’d just been in Egypt. In the border district they speak the same dialect, the people look similar – it looks just like an extension of Egypt.
And then you notice that every 400-500 metres there’s a building that’s been destroyed. You notice every building you have just passed has flags on them for different political parties, and you notice there are martyrdom portraits of people killed, everywhere. Then you’re able to see that it’s not how you initially thought.
NI: How did that make you feel?
HF: So I felt like I was in an extraordinary place and the way I’ve described it before is that: I felt like I was closer to the core of the earth. It feels like everything is much more alive, richer, and more profound.
You feel that in social interactions and in the environment.
NI: When I watched your Ustream content, and vids on FB, I got the feeling of Iman [belief, faith] and how moved you were…
HF: It was the Palestinians that I met when I went there who helped me see and live that. It’s hats off to them as I wouldn’t have been able to go by myself. I keep in touch with most people I first met; it’s like old friends always there for each other.
NI: What kind of person were you once you left?
HF: After the first time I left I was profoundly changed by it because I was so inspired by the people I met, the hospitality and steadfastness and the resilience of the people - incredible. It’s a beautiful resilience. It’s well-intentioned and well-practiced among most people and that’s really inspiring, it’s incredible.
When I left I felt like the work I was going back to in the UK wasn’t as meaningful in comparison. There’re Palestinians in Gaza who were struggling to survive and hold onto everything and anything. It was a “good” fight, a rich life - in the sense that it had meaning and depth and a struggle. I felt drawn to go back quite quickly and felt life in the UK wasn’t that meaningful in comparison to working on something to do with Israel & Gaza. So I planned to go back quickly and I went back a few months later in November for a few weeks.
NI: Was this when you returned to the UK and went on a mini tour to talk about your experiences?
HF: Yeah, that was after the second time when there was the War Eyewitness thing that I think we called ‘Reporting Aggression’. VISIT HARRY'S BLOG TO READ MORE
That was an incredible experience because it allowed me to see so clearly what the international solidarity movement is like and where it is in different parts of the world and what are the different things that coalesces [people] in different parts of the world, and that was one of the most inspiring experiences to be honest.
NI: Who did you find came to these meetings?
HF: There were some people who hadn’t been to such an event before and they were drawn from the random luck or because of the fact that I was British or something. And then there were people who are long time solidarity people who’d been there before but had never been during a war, they wondered what the eyewitness descriptions would be like. And then almost all of the people would be people who cared though not necessarily active. It was incredible to meet people from all sorts of different backgrounds.
I went to quite a few different places in two and a half to three months and that was interesting to see as well also – what people knew in different places. For example the people in Malaysia see it as a religious conflict quite often; I was telling people that’s not how I see it.
NI: Overall, how do you feel your visits to Gaza impacted you?
HF: I went through phases after I was there. I felt so inspired and so activated by the experience. I felt like little else mattered in life except fighting for the Palestinian cause. And that’s how I felt for a couple of years. My life was that for a long time. But at the same time I had a naïveté to it. Not in the political sense or in the worldview sense, but in the practical sense. Y’any you can’t live like that, you can but it has to be institutionalised - somehow. It has to be structured somehow.
So that changed and related to that change is I think that my being convicted by it was also somehow being radicalised, not in a political sense, but radicalised in a practical sense. So I felt like it was almost like an addiction and I think activism can become addictive for people but I don’t think that’s healthy, especially from an Islamic point of view.
I had to pass through a maturing stage in that respect – also, an acceptance stage because you can feel things too deeply and it’s no longer the right way to live if you feel people’s pain too deeply, it’s not a balanced equilibrium.
One of the things that captures that change for me is the – thinking in a metaphor – it was like a cycle I had to go through, like a lunar cycle or a solar one, but at the other end, I saw things more clearly, that people have challenges everywhere. From a political, practical, geopolitical sense we can say that the situation in Gaza is bad in one sense, like with violence. To reduce life down to “Gaza is one of the worst places to live in the world” at some level is true. At another level it’s too essentializing to be true.
One of the litmus tests for that is the following: You can have people in Gaza who have perhaps some of the strongest faiths in the world, personal faiths, religious faiths, and that beautifies them and strengthens them and gives them the ability to live better lives. You can have someone that’s living an incredibly secure lifestyle in the city of London but they don’t know God and they don’t know themselves and they have an internal torment; so let’s be realistic about what really matters in life, this is the point.
Finding Your Calling In Life
Harry is self taught in documentary filmmaking. An only child, he speaks lovingly about his parents‘ dedication and support in his upbringing that no doubt nurtured the space he found himSELF in. Not by mere coincidence and nor does it come as a surprise by any stretch of the imagination then that he then went on to make bold and brave decisions that would impact him personally and professionally.
NI: When did you discover that you wanted to become a documentary filmmaker?
HF: It wasn’t my idea, actually. I discussed it with my family. We did like an aptitude or career talk, and they came up with the idea and I was like, “that’s genius!”
You know in like some cultures we have the parents choose the spouse? Well, in my case it was more like the parents suggested the career.
NI: HAHAHAHAHA that’s awesome!
HF: So they match made it. It was their idea and it had a great sense of truth to it.
It’s really refreshing to listen to Harry talk about his parents' testament of their love for him, that they were always so supportive and encouraging.
We parents worry about the injustice we deal in by our God given duty but pray our children will find their way. To be strong believers, kind, resourceful, diligent workers, and meaningful contributors. It’s a huge challenge being a parent but no doubt, anyone who has been given the honour is capable of doing their best for Allah SWT, bi’idhnillah.
NI: Let’s talk about your YouTube channel, it’s been pretty quiet for a while, have you got any plans to revive it?
HF: Yeeeaah… So, when I was working for RT full time as a reporter I didn’t have time to work on my own stuff, but then I’ve always had the aspiration to produce my own stuff again. Normally people do that at the end of their career, not the beginning. Sort of like a reverse arc.
I’m currently working on a documentary about mental health in Gaza, that’s my full time thing. Plus I like to be in different places.
NI: When did you first go abroad and where do you love to travel to?
HF: I left Europe for the first time in 2012 - when I came to Egypt.
I’ve been to 33 countries now...
...and one of my favourite places is Egypt – even though it has some problems at the moment, politically, economically, socially, with de-islamisation of the country.
I love Egypt for the warmth of the people. There’s an expression here which goes like things happen in Egypt “by love” – like by the heart.
I love Malaysia, I try to go every year. Another Islamic country in its own way, although much more Islamic than here. Other favourite countries are Canada and Morocco.
NI: Y’know, I thought you went to Egypt to study the deen as so many people I know did this…
HF: I did come to Egypt to learn Arabic. My deepening knowledge of Islam has been at the heart rather than the mind level.
NI: So can we talk about your reversion to Islam?
HF: It happened related to trying to understand Islamic theology towards Islamophobia. So what does Islam say in its doctrine about the fear of Islam by non-Muslims?
It was this question that I had that was my intrigue and I started to find answers quite quickly through searching online. But then it led me to think: well, this is very logical and beautiful in its sense of logic and continuity. I grew up in a Christian community, though not very religious. In terms of soul searching what answers does Islam have in my not believing in the trinity, for example? And I was absolutely convinced once I’d found the answer in a matter of minutes. Allahu Akbar.
And then over the next few weeks I tried to find more answers and it became clear to me quite quickly that, intellectually speaking, it was sensical. It was like I *knew* the answer, but I can *see* it now. Like an intellectual ‘returning home’ kind of process. Things becoming located rather than dislocated. This is how it was at the mind level.
The mind and heart level changes happened at different times. Like at the heart level, I think I had a draw to Islam at the age of 13, I was always curious about it. And it managed to manifest in odd ways over the years. It definitely was something that developed at a different pace.
It got to a stage where at one point I was filming segments about Islamophobia in the UK, so I was filming in mosques and filming people in ‘itikaf* at the end of Ramadan and these things really turned my heart. To see the people's hospitality and devotion and to see it not on webpages but to see it lived. And also in the UK. So that’s what turned my heart and then really after 6 or 7 months after this process, that’s when the light bulb went on. And for me it was… really – it’s difficult to put it into words – you know it’s too kind of abstract to codify – one of the things that really turned the light bulb on was I’m not really living for anyone else apart from myself, in respect to my relationship with my Creator. It was that kind of liberation from social constructs, from social pressures (even my own pressures I’ve learnt along the way which weren’t really mine) – like not of the soul but of the nafs**. That for me was like the opiate so that’s what really did it for me.
I started to learn to pray, learnt wudhu. After 2–3 months I converted. I went through a stage where I’d accepted it in my heart but not fully into my identity yet, even though I was still dabbling in prayer; even fasting. I didn’t know how ‘that’ was going to become me. I had to kind of resolve that and in the end I wasn’t able to resolve it and I had a Muslim friend of mine saying: “This is ridiculous, you prayed with us in congregation, obviously you are Muslim. You just have to let go of whatever is holding you back and think that if you get hit by a bus on the way home, you’re going to die as a non-Muslim instead of a Muslim. So you’re in denial about something, so you need to clean up your act and shake yourself up.” And that kind of wet-smelly-fish-around-the-face did it and khalas [done]! Within 2 weeks I took the ***Shahada.
I was entrapped with a part of the nafs like holding onto something. [It was] more about control I think(?). There were different elements. I was aware that once I do the Shahada, my slate gets wiped clean and cleared and I was afraid I wasn’t in the right place to take it [yet]. I felt like my heart wasn’t pure enough; I felt like I wasn’t in control.
NI: Where is your favourite place to pray?
HF: It’s a mosque in Cairo called Ibn Tulun.
Some people say it’s the oldest mosque in Cairo because it’s the oldest purpose-built mosque in Cairo and it’s also one of the biggest. It’s just an incredible mosque to be honest. I’m not going to say it’s the most clean – and the architecture: it’s not like up to Abu Dhabi standards with marble floors and stuff. It’s kind of like the exact opposite of that. It’s like grit and soul rather than marble and gold. It has an incredible sense of ancientness to it and it’s an incredible place.
Looking To The Future
NI: What are some of your goals?
HF: Short term: about another 6-8 weeks working on this documentary on mental health in Gaza. Medium term: writing a book (kind of autobiographical and spiritual; it’ll be a book of words and photos). Long term: marriage and two kids, In Shaa Allah.
NI: Do you have a favourite ayah or hadith?
HF: The one where The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said: “Work for the affairs of the world as if you were going to live forever but work for the Hereafter as though you will die tomorrow.” [Darimi; Mishkat]
NI: Lastly… Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
HF: In Shaa Allah working in documentary-making and -directing; teaching students; married with two kids and a house in the UK. And giving motivational Islamic lectures.
In Shaa Allah indeed!
The interview may have ended there but no doubt we’ll be seeing a lot more from Harry in the near future In Shaa Allah.
Transcribing the interview by hand was challenging in itself. As I listened and relistened there were deeper meanings that I was drawn to and didn’t realise until conducting this interview that I was meant to hear it. And now I’m listening more. Open to learning more. Being more.
It’s humbling to hear when someone like Harry has a firm grasp on what really matters. The support of his parents boosted him to take to a path very much suited to him. And though it seemed unconventional it turned out to be the easiest and quickest way to connect the dots in his life, playing to his strengths.
I am at a stage in my life now where I’m fine tuning what I know about myself and who I really want to be. Though I feel like a late developer in this, I also appreciate that it’s never too late to figure yourself out and connect your dots.
And if you’re really listening, you’ll find what you’ve been looking for. You’ll realise how much is already happening for you.
I’m so grateful that Allah has opened my eyes and heart to a lot more than I had intended by doing this interview, and I can’t wait to share with you more insights in my personal journey through these personal growth pastures.
If you enjoyed this interview please do share and let me know what you loved most! Look forward to hearing from you In Shaa Allah.
All photos used in this article are courtesy and copyright of Harry Fear - All Rights Reserved
HARRY'S RECOMMENDED READING LIST:
- Freedom Next Time by John Pilger
- How To Re-imagine The World by Anthony Weston
- Free To Be Human by David Edwards
- The Devil's Deceptions by Imam Ibn Al-Jawzi
Some words and their meanings:
Alhamdulillah - (Arabic: الحمد لله)English translations include: "all praise is due to God alone" (Muhammad Asad) "all the praises and thanks be to Allah" (Muhammad Muhsin Khan) "praise be to Allah" (Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Marmaduke Pickthall) "all praise is due to Allah" (Saheeh International).
Ma Shaa Allah - (Arabic: ما شاء الله, mā shāʾa llāhu), also Masha'Allah, Ma shaa Allah is an Arabic phrase that means "God has willed" or "as God willing", expresses appreciation, joy, praise, or thankfulness for an event or person that was just mentioned.
In Shaa Allah - (Arabic: إن شاء الله), also inshallah, in sha Allah or insha'Allah, is the Arabic language expression for "God willing" or "if God wills". The phrase comes from a Quranic command which commands Muslims to use it when speaking of future events.
bi'idhnillah - A means of expressing a desire to undertake an action.
Translation: By the permission of Allāh.
Fee amanillah - phrase means '(be) with the safety of Allah'. It is used like goodbye is used by English speakers. True Form: في امان
*'itikaf - an Islamic practice consisting of a period of staying in a mosque for a certain number of days, devoting oneself to ibadah during these days and staying away from worldly affairs.
**nafs - is an Arabic word occurring in the Qur'an and means "self", "psyche", "ego" or "soul".
***shahada - the Muslim profession of faith (‘there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’), one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
Prophet Muhammad (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) - (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)