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Navigating The Sacred And The Dangerous In The Holy Land


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Kazim Ali
American poet, novelist, essayist and

I was driven from the sea through the mountains to Jerusalem. Where every street has three names that do not always translate from one to another. Street of the "Mujahideen" translated into English and Hebrew as "Lion's Gate Road." But the "mujahideen" are not the 20th century martyrs but meant instead to refer to the men who fought with Saladdin nearly 1,000 years earlier.

History has long arms in a country crossed and recrossed by lines. Buildings, neighborhoods and whole cities are built one on top of another. Sound familiar?

But before I even got to Jerusalem, before I even got in the taxi I sat in the Passport Control room, waiting for hours. I talked to three different homeland security officers about why I was coming to Israel, what interest holy places had for me, and what my fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers did for a living.

Finally at the end of it, strung out, agitated, annoyed, I waited to talk to yet another officer. His name was Adam, so named for the first man. He asked me point blank, "Do you intend to do violent acts while you are here?"

In spite of myself, and probably it wasn't the best reaction, I burst out laughing.

Later at the hotel, with the others in my delegation who had all arrived hours early, I recounted my adventures. Met with their indignation on my behalf I soothed their feelings with a bitter
admission: it was nothing I hadn't experienced before at the hands of the TSA in the United States whenever I returned to my home country from abroad.

I have as hard a time going home as I do coming to the one country that most emphatically not my home, that excludes millions of people like me based on their faith, including the ones that live inside its own borders.

Today we went first to Al-Aqsa, the Temple Mount. As we climbed the creaky wooden causeway we could see through the slats, Jewish worshipers who had come to the small fragment of the Western Wall. It was a poignant sight: a wandering people in their homeland, but still hovering at a remnant and in very temporary settings -- sitting in plastic lawn chairs or dragging makeshift podiums over on which to place their prayer books. And there, just ahead of us on the causeway, the other side of the whole equation -- twenty or thirty body-length riot-shields, stacked with easy reach for quick use.

On the Mount itself, the enormous Dome of the Rock and a mosque, built and destroyed many times. Around the mosque in the great tree-lined park, many small groups of men reciting the Quran. As with many Muslim mosques, it is not the building but the space itself that is important. In this case, the rock under the mosque. When you go inside there is a little stairwell under the rock you can climb into to prayer.

Where one can and can't pray is fraught here with all kinds of meaning. When a group of Jewish men came up onto the plaza the Muslim men began reciting loudly at the top of their lungs, a sonic resistance but a resistance nonetheless. One of the Arab men called the Jewish people "settlers."

Though I had always thought of settlers as people out in the territories building their kibbutzim, it isn't so. There are settlers inside Palestinian cities like Hebron and there are even settlers buying up or confiscating Palestinian buildings and apartments inside the Muslim Quarter of the old city and in East Jerusalem. You know them by the enormous Israeli flags hanging from the roof and by the barbed wire, surveillance cameras and other security measures.

Unlike the Jews who are not welcome inside the Dome of the Rock or the new Al-Aqsa mosque, I went straight up to the Western Wall. I put my hands on it and thought about what it would take for these two peoples to find their way to a peaceful understanding. I know there can be no peace without justice. I thought about writing a note dreaming of peace and wedging it into the wall, but felt I should leave the spaces in the rock for others.

We drove out to East Jerusalem and there found another wall -- the huge concrete barrier constructed around the territories is inside Palestinian land. It separates neighborhood from neighborhood, and choked off the livelihood of countless Palestinians, prevented them from reaching their jobs, squelched the growth of their economy and isolated them from Jerusalem, still the largest Palestinian city, with a population of more than 300,000 Arabs.

Nothing is simple in this place and the more you find out about what is actually happening here -- not in history or in legend but in the immediate daily lives of people living in the place -- the more complicated things become.

How does one travel from one wall, representing the lost hopes of a scattered people, to another -- which not only metaphorically represents but physically actualizes the lost hopes of another scattered people?

The characters are different, the events take place in different times, but one can't help but slowly realize that the story is the same.



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