A profile on A. Joseph Howar, the CCAS benefactor behind one of Washington’s most iconic cultural and religious institutions
By Vicki Valosik, Isabel Roemer, and Nancy Howar
A. Joseph Howar, an immigrant from Palestine who became one of the most prominent Arab-Americans of the early 20th century, touched the lives of countless people during his 103+ years. A talented real-estate developer with an uncanny instinct for location, Mr. Howar was determined to give back to both his adopted country and his homeland. A proponent of education, he built a school and mosque in Palestine, and was the catalyst behind the creation of the Washington Islamic Center, which remains an important cultural and religious icon on Washington’s Embassy Row. Even closer to home, Howar’s legacy continues at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, where for more than 25 years, the Howar family has generously funded a scholarship in Joseph’s memory for students of the Master of Arts in Arab Studies program.
Abraham Joseph Howar (originally Mohammad Issa Abu Al-Hawa) was born around 1879 in Tur, Palestine. Leaving home at the age of fourteen, determined to reach America, Howar stowed away on a ship that took him to India. He worked odd jobs in Bombay and later in England before booking passage to New York. On the ship, he asked the steward where the king of the United States lived. The steward told him there was no king but that the president lived in Washington, D.C. Howar responded, “If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.” Howar finally settled in Washington in 1902, where he peddled fine lace and eventually opened a clothing store. Around 1920, he invested in an apartment building designed by an architect he knew. He paid close attention to the construction process, learning enough about the industry to start his own highly successful real-estate development company.
Howar is best known among Washingtonians for spearheading the construction of the Washington Islamic Center, the largest mosque in the Western Hemisphere at the time, and the first mosque in the nation’s capital. Designed by Italian architect Mario Rossi, the Islamic Center includes a library and classrooms where classes on the Qur’an and the Arabic language are taught. Howar was inspired to build the Center after the death of Turkish ambassador Munir Ertegun in 1944, which highlighted the need for a place for Muslims to gather and worship in the Washington, D.C. area. His role in finding the space and the funds for construction, even during a shortage of materials caused by the Korean War, was integral to its completion in only ten years. The mosque was dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957. Howar received international recognition for his efforts, including the Egyptian Order of Merit and the Jordanian Medal of Honor, among other awards. The mosque not only served the local Muslim community—and continues to do so today—but also became a destination for dignitaries, presidents, and visitors of many faiths from around the world.
Despite the lasting roots he established in Washington, Howar always maintained a deep love for his homeland and returned often to Palestine to build schools and a mosque, and to marry his wife of many years, Bader Haki. The couple had five children—Raymond, Edmond, Patricia, Joyce, and Nancy—and 17 grandchildren. Howar passed away in 1982, leaving behind a lasting legacy that will continue to impact future generations.
The Howar Scholarship, established in memory of A. Joseph Howar at CCAS, is meritoriously awarded each year and has provided more than $147,000 in crucial financial support to students of the Master of Arts in Arab Studies program, including many of Arab-American descent.
This article was jointly written by Vicki Valosik, Isabel Roemer, and Nancy Howar. Read more about Mr. Howar in his biography A. Joseph Howar: The life of Mohammed Issa Abu Al-Hawa by Harry Sweeney and online at the Arab American National Museum’s Howar Family Collection.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.