Tag Archives: Muslim

The Unwanted Pilgrimage

We exited the elaborate courtyard whose massive walls surround some of the holiest sites for the Ibrahimic religions. To Muslims, this is the location where it is believed the prophet ascended to heaven. The site is extremely protected and many people try and are unable to enter. Having attempted multiple times to enter during the extremely short and oddly timed tourist hours, we, myself and a friend I had met at the hostel, had decided it was time to play the Muslim card, that is, use the fact that we come from Muslim families to get into the beautiful holy sites. For my friend, this was literally a card. She possessed one of the controversial Turkish ID cards. Heavily criticized for including the bearer’s religion, it was that small crescent moon and star on her card that had allowed her easy access into an area many religious pilgrims never step foot in. My US passport had offered no religious evidence, obviously, but my Arab name and Arabic quickly convinced the guard who had greeted us with the only too familiar “Closed today, Muslims only,” to let me in. So, head scarves in place, we had entered into the peaceful sanctuary about an hour before.

A small sample of the beautiful Byzantine art

A small sample of the beautiful Byzantine art

I was immediately mesmerized by the elaborate Dome of the Rock. Each inch of the massive structure is intricately designed with Byzantine art,and the gold domed roof, the staple of the Jerusalem skyline funded during renovations by Jordan, shines with a faith instilling vibrancy. Entrance into the Dome is prohibited, and while strict rules such as what religions can enter at what times, who guards the doors, and what places are off-limits are irritable to the curious visitor, it is diligent adherence to these rules that keeps the city from breaking out into violence. In fact, it was Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount or Haram Al Sharif, (the name of the courtyard used by Jews and Muslims respectively) after Yasser Arafat refused to give up either the holy site or East Jerusalem during negotiations, which set off the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising) The solid rock under our feet was unsettled ground, and as I tried to capture the glow of the gold roof, its demand was no wonder to even myself, one of the biggest religious pessimists.

We had moved on to Al Aqsa Mosque. We had entered the prayer area and were hit with a calm wave of energy, a sensation similar to the feeling of entering an air-conditioned room after being out in the heat. The comforting feeling of entering the prayer room in a mosque had beckoned us in from the political controversy that remained all around. The women’s prayer room was humble. Every few feet another small book-case was overflowing with copies of the Quran, the Sunnah, and the Hadith. A few people had been scattered about the room praying quietly while we looked around.

Our final stop had been the Marwani Mosque. Known to some as Soloman’s Stables for the short period it had been used to hold horses during the Crusades. The mosque is located below ground. Recent renovations by the Israeli government underneath Al Aqsa have left visible cracks throughout Marwani, causing large protests from Muslims worldwide.

We exited through one of the 11 gates around the courtyard, slipping out near the Muslim quarter. The rain was beginning to fall, and we found ourselves seeking shelter under a falafel stand. Sick of falafel, but happy to be out of the rain, I ordered a small cup of humus and purchased a kilo of fresh pita bread. As we waited out the rain, we began speaking to an older Arab gentleman. After finding that I spoke some Arabic he began with the usual list of questions, the answers to which revealed that we were both of Arab origin, with Muslim fathers, and were, of course, therefore Muslim.

He immediately pulled us into the rain and beckoned us down the street to a location he didn’t find the need to share with us. Happy to have learned I am from Colorado, he began ranting in Arabic about the Colorado River, which he had seen on TV.

“It is a big river, but not as big as the Nile or the Amazon. “ He continued as if he did not hear my repeated inquiry as to where we were going. This sort of event may seem strange, but very often we were ushered into a shop for tea or cookies, so we followed without much question.

After about 5 minutes of walking down the soaked and muddy rock road of old Jerusalem we found ourselves at another entrance to the courtyard, whose wonders we had just experienced less than 30 minutes before. At this point what was going on became clear.

This man, upon discovering our Muslim heritage had taken to escorting us on a pilgrimage to the Temple Mound/ Haram Al-Sharif, not realizing that we had already been into the site. “Muslims only” came the warding off by the soldier at the gate. The old man approached the IDF guards and began explaining to them in Arabic, that while we do not look Muslim, we were in fact, and that they needed to let us in. The conversation that ensued included 2 languages and zero communication.

“Shukran Amu, bes….” (Thank you, Uncle, but…) I said to the old man, but he continued to argue with the guards, one of which had begun demanding our passports from us to see if we were Muslim.

“Amu, we went to Al Aqsa already,” I paid great attention to make sure I got the past tense correctly in the Arabic sentence so if he didn’t understand that we had already gone, maybe the guards would.

“Bil Araby” (in Arabic) He demanded that I communicate with him in Arabic. I was speaking Arabic. And very simple Arabic even.

At this point the guard was getting impatient. Having acquired my companion’s passport and religious verification, he turned to me.

“Give me your passport.” The old man continued to speak to the other guard in Arabic asserting our religion and insisting our admittance.

“I don’t want in.”

“Give me your passport.”

At this point surrendering my passport seemed easier than arguing. Was it because I was a woman that they weren’t listening to me, or because none of us spoke fluently the other party’s native tongue? Here the guards who spoke Hebrew to each other were speaking Arabic with the old man, but English with us. I was speaking, or I guess attempting to speak, Arabic with the old man, and English with the guards. And the old man was speaking a bit of English and Arabic. Regardless of the words being spoken, none were being heard.

I handed over my passport, which did little to convince the guard that I was Muslim. Having quieted the guard for a moment, I returned my focus to the Old Man, but he wasn’t listening to me, but rather waiting for the verdict on my entry from the guard.

“Recite the Quran” the guard demanded looking up from my passport

“I DON’T WANT IN!”

“If you are Muslim recite the Quran”

“No”

“Yalla, Al Fatiha” He demanded me to recite the first Surah in the Quran.

“Yalla,” the Old man echoed the guards command.

“FINE!” I gave in and at a speed hastened by my frustration and bafflement, I recited the most famous verse of the Quran. The guard, satisfied, gestured toward the gate. And submitting to our fate, we followed the old man into the familiar courtyard. Once inside the old man welcomed us and pointed out Al Aqsa Mosque. Satisfied in his success at taking two Muslim girls on one of the most significant pilgrimages they can make, he left out the gate.

We stood in silence staring at each other before we broke out laughing. Here we were at one of the most worshipped places, where thousands of Christian pilgrims are denied entry every day, especially on Fridays such as today when no tourists are permitted in due to Muslim prayer. In fact, many Christians have covered their heads and tried lying to get in (hence the recitation test). We had been lead there, and despite our drawn out resistance, been forced into the sanctuary.We took one last walk around the grounds then exited through a different gate.

Later that day, as we wandered through the mystical old city, we unintentionally started down one of the many small roads that end at one of the gates into the too familiar mound.

“Closed. Muslims only” came the call like a broken record.

“We know.” we giggled as our response puzzled the guard. We turned around. “All roads lead to Al Aqsa” became our old city wanderings mantra.

All roads lead to Al Aqsa.

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“What’s your religion?” and other fun questions en route to Nablus.

Weeks before I left my boyfriend got a job teaching English at a school in Nablus. Of course, I was super excited because this meant I would be 110 kilometers (68 miles) away from him all semester. Of course, what would be an hour drive down I-25, turned into a 9 hour trip, leading me to wonder if it would have been possible to put a more difficult 70 miles between us.

I left to go visit him after my class ended at 4 on Thursday. It was the day before Yom Kippur would begin, so I had been extremely careful in planning my travels so I could make it into the West Bank before the checkpoints would be closed, and would be able to leave and get back for my classes on Monday. My program helped me arrange a taxi to the Sheik Hussein border (known as the Jordan River border in Israel). The taxi passed through Irbid, and some beautiful hilly valleys before it approached the crossing. Once dropped off at the gate, I entered Jordan’s side of the border. I smiled at the man behind the counter, kindly asked if he would put my stamp on a separate paper. He happily accommodated my request, and sent me on my way. From there I got on a bus that would take me over to the building that I would come to know a little too well.

I must stop myself for a second and let you know about the plans I had made before hand. First, I had not brought my Libyan passport after this was strongly suggested by several people in my program. I had also could not tell the IDF my boyfriend is teaching in the West Bank, so I created a slightly not so true alternative to why I am entering Palestine.

There are two sections of the Israeli side of the Sheik Hussein Border crossing. The first is security and the second passport control. It is my understanding that security is not operated by the IDF. The security guards did not wear the uniform, and one man told me operated separate from the Passport control. So, I get in the security line, which should be as simple as showing your passport and scanning your bags. No other people were asked questions or anything. As soon as the security guard saw my name, she asked, the first in what would be hours of stupid questions,

“Do you have another passport?” DAMN! They are good. Fitouri doesn’t even look Arab when written in English, at least not to me. Perhaps she is taught to question all foreign names? I don’t know.

“No”

“What is your reason of travel into Israel?”

“Tourism”

With that she let me continue through to the tigers at Passport control.

Tiger is not a fair assessment at all, really. Passport control is run almost entirely by 18-22 year old girls. With made up faces and flowing hair, they are quite possibly some of the most beautiful girls I have seen. Perhaps they are more like poisonous frogs, like the ones you see at the zoo that are bright colored yet deadly. I handed my passport to the girl at the window. All was going well for about a minute and a half. She asked several procedural questions and accepted my responses without hesitation. I thought I would try my luck,

“Do you mind, I’m a student and I still have a bit of traveling to do. Would you stamp my passport on a separate piece of paper?”

She acknowledged my request and continued with the questions. And then came the bombshell…

“What is your father’s name?”

Ok, so it is easy to lie about your travel plans, you’re major, etc. But at this point I was faced with a dilemma, deny my Arab heritage and have an easier time passing through, or tell the truth, and risk a long delay or possibly being turned back. I couldn’t lie on this one, because in the back of my mind I kept thinking, I shouldn’t have to lie.

“Ezzedin”

Pause.

“What is your Grandfather’s name?”

Shit. Already chose to say the truth, right?

“Mohammed”

The young girls face looked as if I had screamed curse words at her. She said something to one of the girls at the other window, and then sent me down to her.

That is when the real interrogation began. This time, my answers were not accepted and each time I answered, the truth or not, it only lead to deeper questions.

“Where are you traveling in Israel?”

“I’m meeting my boyfriend, tonight in Nablus, and tomorrow we are going to Jerusalem?”

“What are you going to do in Nablus?”

“See the holy sites”

“Where are you staying?, Who are you staying with?, How long will you be there?, What are their names? Why were you in Jordan? Where was your father born? Where were you born? What state? What city?

The questions went in circles, finally she passed me a paper and told me to write down my name and phone number. I put my US home number and my Jordanian cell.

She continued the questions in the sweetest voice you have ever heard, which made me want to vomit.

“Why do you have a cell phone in Jordan” (Didn’t you know, statistics show that 7 out of 10 “terrorists” possess Jordanian cellphones.)

“Because my program provided me with one”

“What program?”

I could already see where this was going. Arabic

“AMIDEAST”

“What are you studying in Jordan?”

What do you think, woman?

“Jordanian Culture, Politics, and Arabic.”

“Oh, you speak Arabic?”

“Very little, I just started studying it.”

And by just started I mean I went to a Muslim Sunday school where I learned the letters, have spent months in Libya (which you don’t know about because you won’t get to see my Libyan passport), have taken 2 full years at my University, and helped create the Arabic Club at my school.

After what seemed like an hour of this badgering I was told to sit down and wait. I sat down next to two American girls. After talking I learned that they went to Berkley and in their hippy ways had failed to make any concrete plans about their trip, during which they planned to spend 2 months couch surfing throughout Israel. When I sat down they had already been there for 6 hours.

Over the next several hours I sat waiting. Every now and then one of the girls would peak their head out the door and ask me another question, usually one that they had already asked. I arrived at the border at 5:30 Israel time. At about 8:30 I began to panic. I had been warned that the checkpoints into the West Bank would be closing, and no one was sure what time exactly. A call from my boyfriend sent me to tears when he suggested I turned back because I probably wouldn’t make it into the West Bank. By this time the Border was almost completely empty. The IDF soldiers were sitting around laughing and playing with each other while drinking coffee and pop, and I was sitting alone in tears. One of the girls, who I am very indebted to came over and started talking to me.

“You are a young pretty girl, you are supposed to be happy, not sad”

I explained to her my situation, and she assured me that people were often held for several hours, but they were always let in. She also seemed shocked when I said that the checkpoints would be closing because of Yom Kippur.

“But the Arabs do not fast on Yom Kippur and they need to get out, so why would it be closed?”

Because your country has oppressed the Palestinians to the point where they have resorted to acts of desperation that makes your government concerned for security reasons.

She began to mobilize making phone calls and talking to the other guards to find out about the checkpoints. She did discover that the checkpoint I had planned to pass through was closed, but there was another check point that was going to be open all night that was a little ways away. One of the soldiers escorted me so I could go to the place to exchange money. Another wrote out directions for a cab driver in both Hebrew and English. Then the final run of questioning hit.

This scrawny little girl, who had been the meanest so far, yelled to me where I sat from 15 or 20 feet away.

“Why does your boyfriend have a cell phone here?”

Reassured that I would be let through by the other soldier, and by the fact they had been helping me, my answers became bolder.

“Because in American currency it was dirt cheap and he wanted to be able to call me for cheaper.”

That’s what happens when your economy is entirely dependent on mine.

“What is your religion?”

The room got quiet. All the girls who had been helping me stared at their comrade. One girl said something in Hebrew that sounded like a protest to the question.

“I don’t have a religion.”

“You know, Christian, or Muslim….”

Yes, because there are only 2 religions in this world.

“My father is Muslim, and my mother was raised Christian if that answers your question.”

“What is your boyfriend’s religion?”

I get at this point that she doesn’t give a fuck what we actually believe, but wants to know how we were raised.

“He comes from a Christian family.”

In the Middle East not having a religion isn’t really an option.

She retracted back into the office, and within a half an hour of the border crossing I was presented with my passport and a stamp on a separate paper allowing me to enter the Zionist country, and the occupied Arab lands. My posse of new found friends had at this point arranged for me a taxi that would take me all the way to Nablus for the steep price of 600 Shekels ($162.00). I negotiated this down to 550 Shekels ($148.00), but the cab driver refused to go lower because it was after 10:30 at this point and it was risky to cross into the West Bank. This taxi driver was Israeli, and because of this was not permitted to take me into Palestine. He passed me off to a Palestinian driver who took me the rest of the way into Nablus. I arrived in Nablus at 12:00 am, approximately 9 hours after my journey had begun.

Reflecting over this trip I found 2 specific points very interesting.

1-      Because in general, Israelis cannot enter the West Bank and Palestinians cannot travel out of the West Bank easily, information does not travel between the two populations. This allowed the Israeli population to have access to the actual hours of the checkpoints, while everyone in the West Bank had been told and believed that all the checkpoints would be closed.

2-      I found it interesting that while the Israeli Government/ IDF were keeping me from entering the country; it was IDF soldiers that were reassuring me and helping me make plans and arranging taxis for me. This was a reminder that in any country where military service is mandatory, there are going to be soldiers who aren’t dedicated to the actions of their government.

Once in Nablus the trip was really enjoyable. The city is very depressing. I learned that Nablus had been destroyed during the second intifada and up until recently still experienced nightly raids. The population had been forced to live their lives in fear. The physical structures had clearly been through war, and writings and drawings on almost every wall were a reminder of the pain this city had been through, or rather, is going through. I have spent years researching the facts, attending and even running protests, arguing with friends, but no matter how much you think you know the conflict, it is impossible to feel the conflict. What I felt when walking down the streets of the old city and seeing pictures of martyrs on the walls was only a taste of the feeling that is occupation. A feeling that every kid on the street was born into and lives with everyday. I repeat the mantra echoed through the Zionist organizations prior to the creation of the state of Israel. Visit Palestine. If you are in the region, visit. If you aren’t, go someday. Because there is nothing you can read, research, hear, that will teach you how it feels to be in the occupied lands.

I departed from Palestine Sunday morning. I took a service to Jenin, and then do to a miscommunication that I still can’t figure out, I ended up on a second Service that took me to the Malik Hussein (Allenby Bridge) border crossing. This meant going from Jenin, back through Nablus to Jericho to the Border. Woops! This apparent curse, turned out to be a blessing. Foreigners are only supposed to travel through the Sheik Hussein border because that is where they issue Visas. My visa, still good for 3 more days, allowed me to cross through the Malik Hussein border, an experience few foreigners have. This Border is used almost exclusively by Palestinians, and the condition was reflective of the degree Israel respects its neighbors.  I quickly passed through the Palestinian Authorities side of the border. The next stop was the Israeli point. We were herded onto large busses with about 50 people. The bus drove up to a gait and parked behind a line of five identical busses. Lucky to be sitting next to a Palestinian woman who had been born in the United States, she explained that the IDF only let through one bus every 15 minutes, or at least it was supposed to be 15 minutes. In reality it was much more inconsistent than that. It was about 2 hours before our bus was let through. At that point there were 8 busses lined up behind us. The bus was hot, crowded and had no air-conditioning. Who knows how long the people in the last bus waited for? That bus took me to another building that was dirty and full of booths to check passports. The IDF agents were unhelpful and stern. Then one told me to go to another desk because I had an American passport. That desk took me to a different room for foreigners. This one was clean and empty. After paying a ridiculous exit fee of 167 Shekels ($45.00), I was let through with no problem. I waited about 1 hour for a bus, which took me to the Jordan entrance.  Entering Jordan was Hassle free, and I shared a taxi back to Amman with three other people making the cost only 8 JD ($11.00).

                It was more than worth it to go to Palestine, but the shit they make you go through to get there is, well, Shit. I have never felt more devalued and humiliated than I did entering the country, and all they did was ask me a bunch of questions and made me sit in a room for several hours. The occupation has destroyed the lives of MILLIONS of Palestinians. Whether it is by forcing them to leave their homelands and seek refuge in surrounding cities such as Amman, or by depriving them of fundamental rights and destroying their towns.

I have included a lot in this post, but if there is anything else you want to know, or would like me to elaborate on something, please post a comment and I will be happy to respond.

 ألحرية لفلسطين

 Freedom To Palestine

Sara

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