I never understood the Israel/Palestine conflict. I never understood why people who once upon a time lived together can suddenly turn against each other. Many things about this conflict and its history are not written in books or taught in schools, not because it is a big conspiratorial secret, or a Pandora’s box. Rather, it is about the complexities of human minds and hearts. Many things about this conflict have to be observed and experienced.
Every Muslim is very sore about the Israel/Palestine conflict, and rightly so. Bait ul Muqaddas is the first qiblah. Muslims used to bow in prayer facing the Temple of the Dome. It is from here Prophet Muhammad went to Heaven to meet the Almighty. It is a beautiful mosque. Equally beautiful is the Al Aqsa Mosque, which was originally built by Salah-uddin. I can see where the Ottomans got their inspirations from when building their amazing mosques. Although I have only been to Istanbul I can say they are all so beautiful it is difficult to pick a favourite. I don’t remember which mosque our tour guide said that the marbles you see on the walls represent the devil and they are of the same marble which is in the Al Aqsa mosque in Palestine. I didn’t know the Al Aqsa mosque and Bait ul Muqaddas were different, but now I do.
The Al-Aqsa compound where both the Al-Aqsa mosque and Temple of the Dome Mosque are located is a serene place, the Temple of the Dome Mosque is on a hill, where you can get a good view of the surrounding areas. You can see church tops and the Jewish quarters. There are olive trees, children having classes and minarets. In the morning the classrooms are filled with children getting lessons. During their recesses the boys play football. There is harmony between people and their surroundings, and the setting is absolutely beautiful. I felt so lucky to be there.
The Qiblah/ direction of the Muslim prayer was changed to the Kaabah in Mecca to avoid confusion with Judaism and to create distinction between the two religions. The Prophet Muhammad was told by the Almighty during Salaat to change the direction. Hence, the mosque with 2 qiblahs in Medina. Now that I have seen both the qiblahs, I have greater appreciation and understanding of the story of the changed prayer directions.
These pilgrimages are important to develop a connection between faith and practice and the significance of acknowledging other belief systems, even if you disagree politically. Islam developed from Judaism and Christianity and share the same messengers. We all share the messages of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Jesus, Noah, Joseph, Zachariah, Solomon, David and many more, but as mentioned in an earlier entry, the 3 faiths have different interpretation of events.
Having heard so much about the Wailing Wall, watched documentaries about it and seen it in the news, I was not to refuse the opportunity to see it myself. My friend who had been there recently told me about the traditions when approaching the wall which appealed to the anthropologist in me, so I was well prepared to embark on a new cultural and religious experience.
When we asked about the Wailing Wall the guards said you mean the Wall of Barak? When we described it, they called it the Wall of Barak. It is located in the western quarters of the old city. After the passing the security we were told not to take any pictures, although people were taking snaps with their mobile phones. The men have to wear the yamura, and if you don’t have one you are supplied a white nylon/polyester one. After passing security, you enter a big compound and at the end of the compound, towards the Temple of the Dome Mosque is the Wailing Wall. I expected there would be more people and I didn’t know it was divided between male and female section until I saw it. I had my piece of paper with my wishes written on it. I walked towards the wall slowly, found a crevice to put my piece of paper into, touched the wall with my right hand and was just grateful for the experience and walked slowly backwards, one step at a time.
In the women’s section some where by the wall, reading the Torah, others sitting on chairs by the wall. A few were sitting reading the Torah, facing the wall by the partition between the male and female section. I had always thought women were not allowed near the Wailing Wall. But as mentioned above, many things have to be seen and experienced to be understood in their actual context. As I was leaving the female part of the area there is a water fountain, some Jewish girls and ladies were filling their thermos or water can with this water. I washed my hands and moistened my face with it. The fountain/watertap remined me of Ab-e-Zam Zam. I wish I had asked the ladies if the water had any religious significance or it was there for convenience.
As I stepped back from the Wailing Wall, I had a good look of the compound. It was very different from the Al-Aqsa compound where you have a good view of everything in the surrounding area. From the Wailing Wall compound you can see the golden dome of the Temple of the Rock Mosque clearly from all directions, and one of the minarets of the citadel, which you had to take a good look to notice. In the background are constructions. I don’t know if they are residential blocks or special wings with balconies, built from donations from prominent Jewish families to expand capacity for religious study. The names of the families are written on the walls.
From the Wailing Wall, we left the citadel of Al-Quds. It’s a beautiful place. I loved the narrow, stone paved alleys. It was like time travelling back to a bygone era. I wish I had more time to explore the western part of the citadel, which is the area around the Wailing Wall. Al-Aqsa is in the eastern part. There were plenty of fruit and vegetable stalls in and around the citadel.
Now I can better understand why most Palestinians and Arabs tend to be fruit and vegetable sellers in Denmark. It’s an extention of what they used to do in their places of origin. Some are taxi drivers also. So, really, they are very similar to the Pakistani migrants who they are so very fond of looking down upon in the Middle East. However, I was very surprised by the warm reception we got in Jerusalem by the Palestinian Arabs. Wherever we went they would ask where from, are you Muslim? When we said yes, we’re from Pakistan, everyone would put their hand on their heart and say welcome, Ahlan wa sahlan. However when these same people go to other countries in the Middle East, they forget their natural friendliness.
As I was walking in the Al-Aqsa compound after Asr prayer I saw a lady sitting on a bench and I asked if she spoke English, which she luckily did. She asked me the common question where from. I said Pakistan, she was very happy and shook my hand with great warmth. She told me she is Palestinian from Jerusalem. I asked her if she had Israeli passport, because I thought that those with Israeli passport are the only ones allowed to enter and leave the occupied territories. She told me she had Israeli ID. “I’m from Jerusalem and everyone from here has Israeli ID which is blue.” She showed me her photo ID which was in a blue plastic cover with the Israeli stamp on it.
She told me there are 3 kinds of ID for Palestinian Arabs. Those living in Jerusalem have a blue ID. There is an orange and a green ID for the other occupied territories. I guess, the green is for the West Bank and the orange for the Gaza Strip. I didn’t want to ask her any political questions because I don’t carry the world on my shoulders and those issues are for the politicians and international people to deal with. Moreover, I couldn’t really believe I was actually in the hub of civilizational clashes. Everything seemed so surreal. I realized even if people are suffering and being killed unnecessarily because of misrepresented sense of rights of belonging vs a conqueror’s rights of belonging and use vs a denial of the basic human right to national self-determination because of misplaced trust in the general community, there is so much about this issue I’m ignorant of. As a professional I was lucky to live and work in a place simultaneously to get a local perspective. As an external observer I can say fencing off entire regions from the rest of the country is nonsensical even from a security perspective.
There are so many facets of this conflict I disagree with. My support is with the Palestinians, but I can only rely on hearsay and what is reported in the media. If I have to go from personal experience with Arabs, with very few exceptions, I with regret and sadness say that if the Israeli/Zionists are bad, the other side is just as bad. They just mismanaged their opportunities, and I can’t help but respect the Jewish community for their commitment, unity and drive to succeed at any level. If going by the novels of Leon Uris, the Jewish settlers turned a swamp into an orchard. Their unity also shows that with much support anything is possible. Yet, whatever atrocities allegedly committed to the Palestinian Arabs is unjustified. I can only blame the Arab community for failing the Palestinians
As mentioned above, I had no idea Bethlehem was in the West Bank. So much for my geographical knowledge! We wanted to make the most of our trip and since we had paid our respects to Al-Aqsa and the Wailing Wall, the Church of Nativity was next on our list. To my horror and dismay it turned out that the checkpoint the taxi driver told us about was THAT wall. It is an absolute monstrosity! Worming itself around the border between Jerusalem and the West Bank like a massive python snake. I remember watching a news section on tourists in Israel and the impact of the wall on them. One of the tourist was very agitated when she said “I know there are people on the other side, but I can’t see them.”
I can understand the Chinese building the Great Wall, and maybe the other wall serves the same purpose, to contain the enemy. I can even understand the need for security against frustrated Muslims. However, it’s not only Muslims who live in the West Bank and Gaza, Christians live there too, so why fence them off to the other side, what did they do to deserve this isolation? During my interview before being issued a visa to enter Israel, I was asked if I was going to enter the occupied territories. I was surprised the officer used the term occupied territories, but I had no idea Bethlehem was in the West Bank. Considering it is the birthplace of Jesus, and the Church of Nativity is just as significant as the other places, it never occurred to me it would be fenced off from the other historical/religious sites. I’m glad I didn’t know. When she asked me if I’m politically active or an activist, I uttered the first thing that came to my mind, “ no, I’m not Arab, I just want to visit the historical sites”.
I was warned that upon entering the country there would be a lot of questioning, but that’s standard procedure and they need to do that because of security concerns, but otherwise there is nothing to worry about. I expected more annoying behavior on their behalf, but they were actually quite friendly. Jewish people are known for their politeness. It’s a tiny country with a massive voice and influence and in a strange way I felt lucky to be there.
The Church of Nativity is beautiful. In my mind a Danish hymn about the birth of Jesus was playing in my head, and I was smiling to myself that I was actually in the birthplace of Jesus as per Christian belief. In Islam he was born under a tree. The place were Jesus was born was in the basement of the Church and there was a long queue. And as by following the traditions of the Wailing Wall, I touched the spot where Jesus was born.
I think it important to pay homage to these special places and thereby pay respect and acknowledge the Prophets. Hiking Mount Sinai and walking up the Steps of Repentance, soaking in the atmosphere and the experience of being in Al-Aqsa, touching the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and visiting the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, enabled me to understand what the Quran means by the words that Islam is a gift to Mankind, it has been perfected. Prophet Muhammad is the last messenger and the Muslim community must protect and preserve this gift. However, this is in connection with Islam and Muslims. Generally speaking, religion/faith is a gift to Mankind, it doesn’t matter what you believe in because that is the individual’s personal business.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to be a person of faith and practice a religion in the midst of all the confusion of interpretation, not to mention the obscenity of mistaking cultural practices for religious practices, or, the fixation on honour and shame, purity and impurity in a modern day context. In the daily day of living an entire cultural system, which religion is, it is easy to lose sight of the actual teachings and become dogmatic, or go to the other extreme of liberated irresponsibility and alternatively shun religion altogether. Whatever you end up believing or rejecting is a personal issue, but respecting others irrespective of what they practice or are in terms of race/ethnicity is important for the sake of humanity. Nevertheless, land has always been a contentious issue of control, and Jerusalem is sacred for for both Jews and Muslims, albeit for different reasons.
In conclusion, Jerusalem belongs to both Jews and Muslims. As for the borders of pre-197 to be restored I support it, but find illogical. If some sort of co-sharing agreement can be reached the way it is currently, but with the Palestinean Arabs getting a bigger financial share and administrative influence than currently, that might be a more workable solution. If Jerusalem can become a present day Switzerland where both Muslims and Jews have equal say, maybe then it might be easier to pave the way for a Palestinean state.