Finding Al-Quds in Jerusalem

A day walking through the occupied walled city of Jerusalem (al-Quds) was the most enchanting, depressing, awe inspiring, infuriating and spiritually uplifting experiences of my life. I could not believe that I could experience the intensity of all those emotions within a few hundred meters of land in a few hours. The Western Wall—a remnant of the Jewish Second Temple (Hebrew: Bet HaMikdash; Arabic: Beit al-Quds) destroyed by the Romans in 70BC, reminded me of the similarities between the rituals and ethos of Islam and Judaism. The mesmerizing rhythm of hundreds facing the wall, reciting the Torah, whilst swaying back and forth felt so comfortingly familiar yet seemed tragically alien. I did, however, note with some wicked satisfaction that women were crammed like sardines in 25% of the Western Wall. Men were comfortably praying with ample room to spare along the remaining 75%. Thank goodness, that like a naughty child Muslims too can protest criticisms of our spatial and social discrimination against women, by pointing out that Jews do it too, in fact they did it first!

One of the things one cannot miss in Israel is the proliferation of archaeologists and archaeological sites. There are a number of those around the Western Wall, Haram-al-Sharif compound, and in the rest of Israel. Archaeology as a discipline and practice is one of the key contributors to Israel’s legitimizing historical narrative and imagination. Never mind that archaeology, like history or any other discipline, is invariably embedded within the prevailing social and cultural discourses. The knowledge generated by the discipline is therefore also inflected by the prevailing political and cultural ethos. A somewhat obvious point that Columbia University Anthropologist Nadia Abu El Haj argued and got into trouble for in early 2000s.

The somewhat scripture like legitimacy that Israelis assign to archaeology is remarkable.  Israelis, like everybody else generally cannot agree with most of the rest of the world about what happened within historical and living memory time spans. But for most Israelis archeological evidence about the motivations, religious affiliations and accomplishments of the (definitely) Jewish rebels at the citadel of Masada along the Dead Sea in 73 C.E. is incontrovertible, as is the religious lineage, location and significance of assorted Jewish holy and secular sites from thousands of years ago. Ruins of Arab villages from a few decades ago or living communities of Palestinians on the other hand are an anti-Semitic illusion. As one tour guide said to me—of course we know the location of the 2nd temple—archaeology tells us! As if faith ever needed scientific confirmation to be real. I guess some Israelis need the scientific historic legitimacy for their faith, just as many Muslims with little knowledge of the Quran or science, seek science in the Quran and vice versa.

The Western Wall forms the western boundary of the 35 acre Haram-al-Sharif or Temple mount complex housing the visually better known Haram-al-Sharif or dome of the Rock, and the less picturesque but politically better known–amongst the Muslims—al-Aqsa mosque. The entrance to the complex is typically manned by right wing Israeli extremists protesting its very existence, Israeli police, who asked me to recite the Surah Fateah to establish my Muslim faith to let me into the complex, and employees of the Waqf that manages the complex, who further make sure that non-Muslims may not sneak in. The Israeli government maintains a strict policy of no non-Muslim prayers allowed in the complex to avoid provoking any religious trouble. Non-Muslim tourists are only allowed into the complex between 7:00 am-12:00 noon, and that too in tour groups. When in there they may not enter the two buildings of Haram-al-Sharif and Al-Aqsa mosque. To be inside the two historic, exquisitely beautiful and spiritually significant buildings was a deeply moving experience for me, especially to be at the spot where according to tradition Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) ascended to heaven. But that experience was tinged by a deep regret that I could not share a beautiful monument to my spiritual heritage with my non-Muslim colleagues and friends.

My Muslim colleagues and I did try to sneak a Hindu friend into Haram-al-Sharif pretending that she was a Muslim but we were thwarted by the Waqf functionaries. Frustrated with our failure, I went off on the waqf functionaries on why they would prevent non-Muslims from admiring the glorious architecture? Why do they want to convey to the non-Muslim world that Islam is somehow an exclusivist secretive religion? Why would they not want to win friends on their side by showing the architectural marvels that are being threatened by fundamentalist Jewish aspirants to building the 3rd temple on the temple mount? Aren’t all children of God entitled to enter the house of God with respect and humility, for God to decide what is in their hearts? They were deeply apologetic and protested that it was not their decision, and they didn’t like enforcing it. In fact, if anything many Palestinian tour guides could earn a living by conducting tours through the buildings. But there were real threats by extremist Jews to the two structures and any adverse event could usher in world war 3, they protested.

The reasonable security reasons for protecting the two buildings notwithstanding, it seemed to me that blanket exclusion of non-Muslims from the buildings and from the complex was inimical to the interests of the local Palestinians in addition to disastrous public relations—something that the Palestinians and the Muslims definitely do not need. To my mind there was no need to replicate the salafist paranoid exclusion being enforced in Saudi Arabia. After all before 2000 the complex was open to non-Muslims, only to visit and not to pray, and before the creation of the State of Israel to people of all faiths to visit and to pray. 

The onward visit to the Holy Sepulcher via the enchanting Cotton Market Street, and then Via Dolorosa—the path Christ took with his cross on the way to crucifixion was the third stop. Holy Sepulcher is one the holiest shrines in the Christian faith built over the site where Christ was crucified and his body interred into a cave. The site like the Western Wall and unlike the Haram-al-Sharif is open to followers of all faiths to visit and to pray. The resonant Catholic mass by Benedictines followed by a ceremony of the Orthodox Christians is a feast for the eyes and the ears. The church is adjacent to the Umar Ibn-Khattab mosque built by Caliph Umar in the 7th century upon conquest of Jerusalem. The church is closed at night and its keys are handed to a local Muslim family for safe keeping—just in case either one of the Christian denominations get any funny ideas about excluding the others from entering the church the following day.

The bazaars and narrow alleys of Al-Quds are charming to the extreme. The walled city is 90% Palestinian–Christian and Muslim, with the 10% Jewish population concentrated in the newly reconstructed Jewish Quarter at the south-eastern end of the city. The streets of the old city are abuzz with tourists and pilgrims from India, East Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. But old Jerusalem is a living city, which doesn’t just cater to tourists. There are vibrant communities of artisans, and tradesmen, along with a number of small women owned businesses.

Outside of the walled city Arab neighborhoods of Sultan Suleiman, Salah-ed-Din, Sheikh Jarrah, American Colony, Wadi el Joz and Ras el Amoud give a flavor of Palestinian life under occupation. Even though Palestinians in East-Jerusalem are technically Israeli citizens very few if any have opted for Israeli nationality.

Moving into Palestine from Israel was not just a move across town but across a geopolitical fault line. A simple Muslim greeting opened doors and hearts and brought broad smiles on scowling older Palestinian women’s faces. Life has to go on in the longest lasting military occupation in modern times, but it doesn’t go on without perpetual passive and intermittent active resistance. A few dozen Jewish settlers in a complex next to my hotel in Ras-al-Amoud had a daily flavor of such passive resistance through the exceptionally loud fajr Azan. The Azan was followed by the loudest and longest speeches seemingly intended more to wake up the denizens of the Jewish graveyard surrounding the neighborhood, rather than calling the faithful to prayer. I am sure that tested the settlers’ resolve, in addition to my sanity every morning.

Resistance has seemingly diffused into the cell structure of the Palestinian society. Walking along an alley in East Jerusalem I saw some Palestinian children burning some loose paper and shouting Allah-Akbar. As I turned the corner, the reason for the commotion became clear. The little children were taunting an Israeli military patrol, composed of young fresh-faced teenagers itself. In that moment to me was the saddest snapshot of the two societies–young men, women and children being brutalized as oppressors, occupiers, resistors and victims. It is to the reflections on that reality that I will turn to in my next and last essay.

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