Mark Gerban Exclusive Interview – ‘As An Adult, I Realized Success Transcends Mere Victories’


Mark Gerban was recently interviewed by and below is the Q&A session we had with him.

Mark Gerban As Cover Story – January 2024 Edition (Swipe Left)

Could you provide a brief summary of yourself, including your background, interests, and any significant life experiences?

My name is Mark Gerban, and I was born in the city of Philadelphia, United States, to an American Jewish mother and a Palestinian father. Although I was predominantly raised in the Jewish tradition, I also acquired knowledge and understanding of the Muslim faith during my upbringing. This laid the foundation for a life journey where I sought to discover the true meaning of my background, eventually leading me to become a professional rower. Notably, I made history as the first Palestinian athlete to represent the State of Palestine at the 2005 World Championships, achieving the highest-placed finish (16th) for a Palestinian athlete in any sport at the time.

Since retiring from rowing in 2008, I have actively immersed myself in the fintech and automotive business sectors, contributing significantly to the latter with nearly 20 filed patents. In 2022, I rekindled my connection with the sport of rowing by taking on the role of a volunteer manager for Palestine’s national rowing team. Currently, our focus is on working towards the goal of having Palestine’s single sculler, Amel Younis, qualify for the upcoming Olympics later this year.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your life and how did you overcome it?

One of the most significant challenges I faced in my life was in 2005 when I made the decision to row for Palestine. At that time, I had been unjustly expelled from my rowing club due to discriminatory issues. Undeterred by this setback, I embarked on a journey to Germany, determined to train for the World Championships and, ultimately, pursue a shot at the Olympics.
Being on my own in a foreign country, I encountered numerous challenges, both on and off the water. Despite narrowly missing the Olympic qualification, the experience of living in Europe during that period profoundly changed my life. I had to rebuild myself emotionally and navigate the unknown, facing the complexities of adapting to a new environment. In retrospect, this challenging chapter turned out to be transformative. It forced me to confront and overcome adversity, shaping my resilience and determination. The journey, though difficult, ultimately led to positive outcomes, and I emerged stronger, both as an athlete and as an individual.

Can you share a significant aspect of your cultural heritage that has played a crucial role in shaping who you are today?

A significant aspect of my cultural heritage lies in the diversity of our family background. Raised by a Jewish mother and a Muslim Palestinian father, my upbringing was immersed in different cultural perspectives. While my personal journey predominantly embraced Judaism, the unique dynamic of my family took an added dimension when my sisters chose to fully convert to Islam, just days before 9/11 occurred. At the time, this brought division into our household, and I had to learn from my own faults to accept and understand the differences in people and ways of thinking. Now, as I can easily identify as Arab, Israeli, and Palestinian, my cultural identity is inherently multifaceted, reflecting on the complexities of the region today. Moreover, living in Europe, particularly in Germany, has served as an additional catalyst for broadening my cultural horizons. As European, American, and German, I’ve had the privilege to engage with diverse communities, fostering an understanding of different viewpoints and cultivating respect for various cultural perspectives. This diverse heritage has had significant impacts on my acceptance of social, cultural, and political differences, perhaps molding me into becoming more open-minded and aware of things in the world today.

What motivates and inspires you on a daily basis?

Inspiration usually comes from pursuing things with a greater good and purpose, especially when defining individual goals. Be it in the realm of business, where challenges are approached with the heart of an inventor, or in sports-related endeavors such as rowing, each day is motivation enough to bring about greater change and improvement for myself and others. I like to think that this contributes to the overall picture of the world, where, with all these small steps, this may one day make the world, in a small way, a better place

How do you balance work, family, and personal life?

When it comes to juggling work, family, and personal life, I take a pragmatic approach. I value the idea that taking care of others contributes to a more balanced and fulfilling life. Staying focused is essential, and my involvement in sports keeps me on track while satisfying my curiosity for learning. I also prioritize time for family and friends, making commitments and sticking to them. This consistency is important to me, and I believe it fosters a respectful environment for everyone involved. Respecting the time of others, regardless of their status, is a principle I follow without making constant adjustments to schedules. It’s about finding a practical balance.

Can you describe a turning point in your life that helped shape who you are today?

A pivotal turning point in my life occurred when my sisters converted to Islam, just days before the tragic events of 9/11. Initially, I felt a sense of shame as they began wearing headscarves because I had become closed-minded, influenced by growing up in a Jewish neighborhood at the time, and I was ignorant.. This reluctance to accept and understand persisted for a while. However, the turning point came when my sisters, a few months after 9/11, started receiving death threats. Witnessing the challenges they faced and the courage it took to stand up for themselves forced me to confront my own unreasonable and ignorant attitudes. It was then that I realized the need to reassess my preconceptions and explore the heritage I had distanced myself from. Recognizing the gaps in my understanding, I began to re-explore my lost heritage. This experience taught me the importance of empathy and open-mindedness, ultimately shaping me into the person I am today.

Can you share an experience where you felt a clash of cultural values and how you resolved or navigated through it?

Certainly, during my senior year of school, I experienced a notable clash, almost quite literally, when I began writing about my understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in my university newspaper. I delved into sensitive topics such as the Sabra and Shatila massacres, attempting to unravel not only the conflict itself but also my father’s perspectives as an Israeli-Arab. This exploration exposed how he was raised, almost akin to a separate-but-not-equal society, reminiscent of some civil rights movements in the United States. After the first publication, the discussions that ensued were eye-opening, prompting accusations that I was an anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew, and a horrible human, directly from some of my Jewish fraternity brothers, notably one whom I had known for 10 years. Later, I engaged in back-and-forth articles and almost a physical altercation in one instance, highlighting the challenge of presenting a more balanced perspective, with others often veering towards justifying the harsh occupation in Palestine. The situation escalated when the Israeli Consulate and Daniel Pipes, a notable public figure on the topic, became involved, labeling my work as “the literary equivalent of suicide bombing.” This marked a turning point, making me realize the impact of my perspective. The strong reaction from such authorities to a college kid underscored the gravity that there was something bigger than me. This experience ultimately sparked an interest in considering to row for Palestine, after I became a US National Champion the following year.

Have you faced unique challenges as a diaspora individual, and how did you overcome them while maintaining a strong connection to your roots?

As a diaspora individual, I certainly faced unique challenges growing up with a dual identity, being raised both Jewish and Muslim. During visits to my father’s village when I was very young, I learned how to pray in a Mosque, embracing this tradition alongside my Jewish upbringing. When I returned to the US, I tried to maintain both aspects of my identity, praying as a Muslim while staying connected to my Jewish culture. However, as I grew up in a predominantly Jewish and Zionist-influenced neighborhood, I found myself leaning more towards Judaism and a Zionist ideology. Influenced by certain teachings in Hebrew school, I began to perceive my Palestinian heritage negatively, believing that being Jewish was special, that I was entitled to belong to Israel, and there was no room for anything else. It wasn’t until later in life that I recognized the challenge of understanding and acknowledging my roots fully. Lessons learned from exchanges with my father and experiences like writing school articles in the early 2000s, prompted a realization that embracing both sides of my heritage was essential, challenging the biases and perceptions instilled in me earlier. Overcoming these challenges involved a process of self-discovery and a reevaluation of the values I had internalized, which eventually led to a stronger connection to my roots.

How has your cultural background influenced your personal and professional aspirations?

Coming from a mixed cultural background has certainly shaped my personal and professional aspirations, especially in proving that many things are possible, even when people tell you they are not. Growing up amid the Israel-Palestine conflict, I often heard individuals claim that people with my parents’ background could never exist together. Yet, here I am, a product of them being together for over 45 years. Such influences likely led me into life as an inventor, as I frequently encounter industry colleagues dismissing ambitious ideas as impossible. However, my cultural background instills the belief to prove things can be done, demonstrating that perceived limitations can be overcome. Overall, this cultural experience has taught me that a positive attitude and a full perspective are everything, and that you should never sell yourself short.

What is your definition of success and how do you measure it?

When I was younger, success meant achieving race results and winning – that was my perspective as a young athlete. However, as I matured, I realized success transcends mere victories. It shifted towards the ability to look in the mirror and be content with the person I saw. While some may value levels of wealth, life has shown me that genuine success isn’t tied to material possessions. It’s about discovering happiness, consistently doing the right thing, and paving a strong moral path for others to follow. I believe the ultimate level of success is to pass this mindset to my children and other future generations. By instilling an open-minded approach, encouraging consideration of all perspectives, and teaching how to navigate difficult challenges rather than avoiding them, this can allow future generations to build the proper foundations for peace and a better world.

Can you share a situation where language presented both a challenge and an opportunity in your personal or professional life?

Certainly, when I first came to Germany, I didn’t speak any German, and it posed a significant challenge. The language barrier created obstacles in terms of job opportunities, making friends, navigating daily life, and understanding the culture. Admittedly, frustration did set in at first, but this prompted the right motivation to learn the language. Over time, I learned German fluently, and now speak with an American accent during German keynote presentations and panel discussions in front of hundreds of people.Interestingly, my accent often prompts inquiries from Germans about my origin. Initially stating Hamburg, people typically press further, curious about my true background. And as I share a few details of my story, people tend to open up and trust more, creating an atmosphere where meaningful and trustworthy conversations become easier for all of us.

Additionally, how do you actively contribute to and give back to both your first and second homes, be it through community involvements, philanthropy, or other means?

Certainly, I believe in giving back to different communities through various avenues of volunteer work. In Hamburg, Germany, I’m actively involved in volunteer efforts for a local rowing club. On a broader scale, I extend support to the Palestinian Sailing & Rowing Federation in Gaza, coordinating programs with the World Rowing Federation and the Palestinian Olympic Committee. To encapsulate the essence of my cultural background, I’ve authored a book detailing my unique upbringing, my journey to represent Palestine in rowing, and my relocation to Germany. Currently seeking a publisher, this book aims to educate people across all cultures, emphasizing that ordinary individuals can achieve extraordinary feats. The underlying message is that the differences among us are often only the ones we choose to believe in. I advocate for the idea that if we believe in working together to make things happen, we can achieve great outcomes, including the pursuit of peace.

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