It was the most beautiful and poignant place in the world for me. Jerusalem, the Holy City, surrounded with innumerable graves, many unmarked, its history saturated with death, warfare and magnificence. God, or fate, whichever one you may believe in, played a joke on humankind when it was named Jerusalem, City of Peace.
While I sat at the Israeli border, for seven hours, I pondered this. There I was, a devout Muslim American, stuck sitting and waiting, waiting with patience evaporating as it does from a pot of boiling water. It was a city beloved by my Israeli mother, whose father and uncle fought for its liberation and it was a city beloved by my Palestinian father whose parents chose exile for fear of the Israeli forces and fought for it's defense.
This place, where I sat waiting endlessly, was full of flies. There was some black gunk on the tiles and no air-conditioning. This infuriated me as I realized these conditions were for my benefit and the rest of the second rate humans – the Arabs. I sat on and off alone during those seven hours. They took my brother aside several times for interrogation and left me sitting there. Finally, I had had enough. I, an American, was not used to having lawful prejudiced displayed to me (except for my VIP treatments at airports, of course). I told my brother I wanted to go back to Amman and I did not want to wait any longer. So we told them to give back our American passports and we wanted to leave. They finally let us through, only 10 minutes before they closed.
It was an uneventful trip to Jerusalem except for the disconcerted looks I got when people noticed my headscarf, my American accent, and my Pakistani outfit, which I wore as a tribute to my raising and a consolation to my culturally torn soul. We arrived late at night at a distant cousin's house. I was surprised to find that they had stayed up waiting for us, even the children. Not eating, but waiting to share this meal with us as their honored guests. Then we were to set off sight seeing. I was moved by the honor they granted us. We had three days until I had to return to Amman and then to the United States.
As we set off into the night, I felt as if my mind and my vision were clear and precise, even in the dark. Truly this was a place of holiness. This pilgrimage was soon tarnished by the constant stops at all the checkpoints. We were in two cars, and the car I was in got stopped constantly. The other car, which had my brother Rajab, who is half Palestinian and half African American, and my light eyed and light haired cousin, was never stopped. The driver, (a distant relative?) grumbled something in Arabic and my aunt agreed. When I enquired, she explained, "They stop us because of your hijab (head scarf) and your brightly colored Pakistani clothes. They don't stop Rajab and Khalid (my cousin) because they look American."
This sat uncomfortably on my mind. Out of everyone there, I was the one who was the third generation American, I was the one who spoke English and I was the one who was actually Israeli! – I wondered if they would actually have treated me differently if they had known. I decided that from then on I would smile broadly at every stop at the suspicious and/ or puzzled soldier.
Soon, I was in the car with my brother Rajab and my cousin Khalid. Rajab started to lament at the arduous time we were having. He began to recall his interrogation, and tried to add humor to the moment. He recalled an ugly, uni-browed soldier asking over and over again whether he had been to Saudi Arabia. "No." was Rajab's answer and he would offer his passport as proof. But this did not discourage the soldier from his relentless pursuit. My cousin laughed and commented, "Poor Ilana! Her first time in Palestine and she was treated with such hospitality! We'll just have to make up for it." I laughed, but not because of his wit. Rather, his tone reminded me of that kind of humor my mother described as Yiddish humor.
The events of the day sobered me and I looked out the window a lot except for the occasional stop at a checkpoint. I asked, "Is it common to wait seven hours at a checkpoint?" Rajab translated for me. "Yes", answered my cousin, "especially after 9-11. In Gaza it always happens. There over 400 women have given birth at checkpoints." His tone of acceptance and normalcy stunned me.
Khalid then pointed to a fancy building. He spoke with a tone of pride and happiness. Rajab translated. "Khalid's first job as a contractor, when he came to this city, was that building. But, he is not allowed in it because he is Palestinian and here they are second class citizens." Rajab never hesitated to put in his opinions in subtle ways.
I looked out and saw two soldiers talking. They were a boy and a girl. They looked down at the pavement and seemed to be talking casually, but shyly. I began to think of them and how they seemed so oblivious to the consequences of their actions and the role they are playing. They were completely unaware of what they instilled in the hearts of others through their actions.
That night I cried. I cried for dashed hopes, for love lost, and for hate that seems to triumph in this land and beyond. I had been given a window that looked onto despair, injustice, and a place where wrongs were considered commonplace. I could not help but feel that the idea of a second rate citizen was absolute perversity. I remembered my cousin's face when he looked onto the building that represented for him a great accomplishment. The weight of this experience started to weigh heavily on me and started to be overwhelming. I felt as if I couldn't breathe. I recalled the Civil Rights Movement and thought that this must be how Blacks felt at that time. Tears streamed down my face and I buried my face in the pillow so that no one would hear my gasps. I felt anger, frustration and fear of the endless violence. I wanted to go home. I wanted to go back to America. I reached over to the dusty glass window and wetted my finger with my tongue and wrote, "Equal, please."
I want you to imagine that you wrote a great paper and your teacher gave you a low grade. Imagine the anger and frustration you would feel. The proof of your hard work is there in black and white. You followed the directions and reviewed everything. How would you feel? Well, multiply that so many times, maybe one hundred times or even a thousand. Because, this injustice consistently defines who you are and your future and you can't do anything about it.
The next morning we were to visit the Dome of the Rock. The goal of our pilgrimage. As the family stepped out of the hotel and walked toward the car, I looked out onto a view of the Old City of Jerusalem. There was the Dome of the Rock. The brightness made my eyes feel naked. I was seeing a skyline that I had only seen in pictures. Our guide was a Christian Arab. He took us to the holy sites of his religion and told us, when we were on the road, that Jesus had taken this route when riding on a donkey and entering Jerusalem.
Finally, we entered the Old City walls and walked in a labyrinth of walkways and steps. I saw East Asians, South Asians, Greeks, Italians, Germans and many Russians. As for the Palestinians, I was surprised at the range of colors: some as black as the darkest Africans and others so red and white that their lashes shone white in the sun, Such a view of diversity warmed my heart. I loved it.
As we entered a church I saw people were crying and praying at a slab of stone, sometimes children even kissing it—the site of Jesus' crucifixion, according to the Greek and Russian Orthodox Church. Then we exited and went back on the street where Druze priests, Orthodox Jews, Shiites, Sunnis and church bells littered the street. We weaved our way through the massive marketplace that seemed to infiltrate every vein of Jerusalem. The walking seemed never ending. It was when we past the Western Wall that we came near the end, walked past three Muslim graves and out a gate. A courtyard full of huge trees greeted us. A Mexican couple lost their group (their shirts had the flag), and I smiled, as a language, though incoherent to me, felt almost as familiar as English, flooded my ears.
Then an awesome sight met my eyes. From between the trees stood the enormous image of the golden Dome of the Rock. It was like seeing the sun up close and realizing it was a sphere. And as we got closer and closer, you could see the blue, green, white—and even red marble. There was such immense attention to detail, it was mind boggling. Our Christian tour guide entered with us in the Dome of the Rock. The inside was so amazing, I can't describe it. Such pains taken to make God's blessed place beautiful and through abstract art, prefect in geometry and symmetry, glorifying God in exquisite calligraphy—it overwhelmed my heart and my eyes filled with tears. It brought such peace and thankfulness to my heart. I felt a passionate need to pray, and I did, bowing up and down in the ritual prayer and during supplications.
We then walked down to the Omar Mosque, right next to the Dome of the Rock. It was a magnificent palace—no, even superior—beautifully decorated columns reach up so high that several trees could be piled up.
"Rajab," my voice seemed intrusive, but I went on, in awe, pointing to the ceiling, "There are birds." People lay on the floor of the mosque, perhaps some asleep. Others read Qur'an or prayed. Peace filled the place and my heart felt at ease. After praying a bit, my brother and I lay down, our faces upward contently observing the amazing art of the ceiling. Two birds circled the dome above us in opposite directions. "Maybe they are praying in their own way," Rajab remarked. "Look at the stars." He pointed to the vibrant colored glass. "Look, the center star is the Star of David. Maybe the Islamic star is the Star of David overlapped with more Stars of David," he said in a totally serious voice. I sensed no rancor or sarcasm. "It's places like this, our mosques, which give our souls peace, a sanctuary from the turmoil of the outside world." That last comment struck such a cord of truth in my body. Perhaps, God created such holiness, such peace because the nature of life can be filled with such turmoil. Maybe such places are a reward for those who turn to God in their time of need. Maybe God created such a sanctuary amidst chaos to give us this comfort, because the nature of humankind is to pray in need. But because chaos exists doesn't mean its right. Perhaps God places holy sites where peace is needed most.
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