Sitting here in my hotel room, overlooking the courtyard of the Dome of the Rock and the boundaries of the Sacred Precinct, I can’t help but feel a bit perplexed as to why the air is so calm here in the Holy Land, Jerusalem. I’ve been told that the angels spread their wings over Al Quds; maybe it’s that, or maybe it’s the Iron Dome mobile all weather air defence system… either way, you’d never know what was happening 50 miles away. No one speaks about what’s happening.
When you walk into the compounds of the Al Aqsa Masjid you get a similar sense of stillness you find in Madina, in Saudi. Other than the occasional Hebrew news on cafe TVs, nothing disturbs the finely tuned tranquil state in the Old City.
Don’t get me wrong, since I’ve been here I’ve heard enough tales of tragedy and tyranny to bring me near tears, and though I’m no way near close enough to comment on the Palestinian experience, I have witnessed a taste of the checkpoints, border stops and stares from men with machine guns and Hebrew tattoos.
And yet I’m quite sure about and equally confused by the state of peace this city resides in.
The Journey out here
I only got a few hours of sleep before my journey began. The usual pre-flight nerves, coupled with the additional fear of being turned back. Since the onslaught began a week ago, the situation had only deteriorated further. I don’t think I need to elaborate on that too much; and working for an NGO which was and is currently operating in the besieged areas, I was worried that that might be highlighted as a point of concern for the Israeli border authorities. Anyway, I was packed and ready and knew I could sleep later.
With great difficulty I departed from my wife. My daughter was still asleep so I kissed her with a secret hope she might stir and wake, but I guess it was a blessing that she stayed fast asleep or that might have made an already difficult departure unbearable. My younger brothers did me a big favour and dropped me to the airport.
Meeting the group in the airport eased my nerves a lot. A mixed bunch, uncles and aunties, youngsters, ‘mipsters’ (muslim hipsters) and the occasional newly wed couple. I wished I could have brought my family too but this was work, so I couldn’t afford the distraction. Sounds horrible I know. The burden of worrying about your loved ones in a foreign place, with the added responsibility of work would have been way too much for me, for 2 weeks. I was happy looking at the eager faces of the families before me though. With high spirits everyone greeted each other and we boarded.
I spent the flight sat next to Shaykh Hasan Ali. A man whom has had my respect and admiration for many years. Though his beard has greyed, and if you looked at him you could see years of wisdom on his face, he’s incredibly humble, and the time with him on the journey only warmed my fondness of him. A truism of a description, but he’s an incredibly human person. We didn’t talk too much, but it wasn’t uncomfortable or awkward. Mostly he sat working his way through his tasbih (rosary beads). I forced myself to sleep (though I never can on flights) in preparation for the ordeal to come at Tel Aviv.
The queue for passport control didn’t take too long, and the lady at the counter was fairly pleasant. I’m choosing my words carefully, obviously. With a few short questions about the purpose of my visit, my passport was held and I was told to wait with a select group of our party, in a side room. Confused, despite having been warned about this, we spent hours waiting and then one by one, and maybe randomly, we were pulled in for questioning. When eventually it was my turn, I felt a tiny bit of sickness, I knew my travels for work would be a problem… but they weren’t…
‘Where have you been? Have you ever been to Iran, Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan? Do you know anyone from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan? Where will you be staying? How long will you be staying?’
Calmly (and quite charmingly) I answered the questions. I hid nothing. And with a thank you I was given my passport and permission to stay in the state of Israel.
Everything else until the moment I fell in my bed was a blur.
And then I woke up to an unusual sound and quite a powerful sight.
The sound of the adhaan had begun echoing out, droning and buzzing from the ageing loudspeakers, and I had one of those epiphanous moments where I realised where I was. The sound of the adhaan has an ancient quality, and seeing the unchanged walls of the boundaries of the Dome of the Rock, with the golden dome gleaming so proudly, I was kind of transported back in time a thousand years. The visits through the winding Old City alleys really solidified this feeling. It wasn’t nostalgia, it really felt like being in a different time. And like I already mentioned, a real feeling of peace, something you could only measure metaphysically.
Sights and stories
Since being here we’ve visited Hebron, Jericho and a number of religious sights. I was quite moved by the sacred shrines and the legends surrounding them, but it was the complicated drama of the situation of the Palestinians and their relationship with the settlers that has so far stuck with me most. In Hebron in the markets, the old souk-like alleys, overhead hung sweeping nets giving shoppers below shade. But the real reason they were hung there is because they offered a typically Palestinian impromptu-air defence system, protecting the merchants and their patrons from projectiles and general rubbish thrown and dropped by the Israeli settlers who live above.
As I walked through the market I felt a conflicting sense of gratitude to the shop keepers for their warm reception, and also disgust and sadness at the sight above my head.
I was also told by brother Ramzi, our Palestinian host, that in many parts of Hebron and the surrounding West Bank area, settlements had caused Palestinian families to be evicted from their homes, homes which had been with them for generations. When they were first forced to leave, most of the families took their house keys with them, which they still have to this day, in the hopes that they might somehow be able to return. So the key, the humble house key is actually an important symbol of hope in the West Bank, here in the occupied territories.
Aims and objectives
So these are my sprawled initial experiences and feelings. I’m here on this trip to document, photograph and video the various excursions, talks by the Shaykh and also charitable distribution of food organised by my host. But even before I came with these vocational objectives I knew I wanted to somehow use some of my time and skills to contribute to the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue for peace. After being here for a few days I’m not sure I’m any closer to knowing exactly what I want to say. Is it futile? I’m sure it’s not, I’m sure if I’m able to say something with a clear intention and honest voice it will have some good and lasting impact, however small. I guess I’m still only a visitor here in Jerusalem, so I’ll have to spend more time meeting locals, doing the job I’ve been brought out here to do the best I can, and figure out what I’m going to say when I finally start rolling the camera for my Palestine piece.
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To find out how you can get involved and support those suffering in Palestine visit http://www.muslimaid.org or https://zaimah.org
Picture: An Israeli soldier standing guard with a fully loaded fully automatic weapon. A young woman walks past. Please credit if used. Jubair Khan 2014