SATURDAY, JANUARY 2, 2016 – DAY 6
9:00-10:00am The Mood on the Palestinian Street w. Ziad Abu Zayyad, Co-founder of the Palestine-Israel Journal
The next morning, I had trouble waking up, but I made it to breakfast in time. With the Californian delegation, we heard a bit of the Palestinian perspective from a Muslim journalist at Haaretz. For her, the perspective was depressing. She didn’t find the BDS movement successful because it wasn’t powerful in changing the agenda; rather, she argued that requiring visas from Israelis to Europe might work – though the measure would be unlikely to pass the regulation. She spoke for the Palestinians; many of the stabbers – those perpetuating the recent attacks in Jerusalem – were young teens. She told us of a story of a teenage boy who was stopped by a Jewish shopkeeper. The shopkeeper had grabbed the boy and told him not to go to security checkpoint and attempt to stab the IDF soldiers. The boy simply replied, “I’m dead anyways.” She rejected the statements of Knesset parliament members who argued that the textbooks in Palestine included hate speech against Israelis. Having done a comprehensive amount of research – including reading all the provided textbooks in the West Bank – she found no evidence of hate speech. Compared to her own education, Palestine was hardly ever mentioned in the Israeli-monitored education system in Palestine.
The rest of the day was site-seeing. It was also my last day, as I would start my fellowship at the Madeline K. Albright Institute of Global Affairs at the beginning of the week. Most of Sunday would have been spent learning about the Holocaust and the Palestinian perspective. I was dejected to leave the group so soon.
10:30-12:30pm Visit the Old City of Jerusalem
We headed to the Old City. Unlike the rest of Jerusalem, which looks like a weathered cosmopolitan with cobblestones paths and open streets, the old city reminded me of Jaffa, but busier and full of bustling culture. Before entering the city, we were joined by two security guards in civilian clothing and from a private company.
In the old city, tourists mingled with the Jewish, Arab, Muslim and Christian locals. Small stores that sold items at exorbitant prices lined the streets – I haggled for two decorative camel structures, but I am sure, the shopkeeper still sold them to me for a higher price. We walked through a Christian area – King David’s tomb, the church for Mary and the room of the Last Supper. Maya said that most of the monuments weren’t made until the Crusades and had gone through much renovation during the times of different control. For example, the Last Supper room had Qur’anic verses carved into the wall. Though maybe the scientific justification for the monuments was uninvestigated, the areas were brimming with tradition. For every monotheistic religion, there was a place of great value in the small area. And no one religion could take claim. The keys to the Holy Spheculture were held by a Muslim family, and the Israelis locked the Dome of the Rock to all after the Muslim prayers.
When it was time to visit the Western Wall, Maya arranged for me to see the Dome of the Rock with her friend and fellow tour guide, Imad. I wanted to see the Wall – in fact, we were supposed to see it the previous night – but I also knew this was perhaps the only time I could ever see the Dome of the Rock and that I could see the Wall from the eastern side.
The monument of the Dome of the Rock was closed to tourists and non-Muslims due to security concerns and the contention around the Mosque Al-Aqsa and the Dome. Consequently, my group was not allowed to enter the area, which was disappointing since most expressed interest in seeing it.
As we left for the Dome, I felt a little lonely at first. I definitely missed the company of my group and it felt odd – almost uncomfortable – being without them. Imad, however, quickly distracted me with his detailed descriptions. The alleyways became smaller and more crowded as we approached the Dome. The shops changed too – the Armenian ceramics, stars of David and crosses were replaced with Arabic calligraphy and items indicative of Palestinian nationalism. When we got to the security entrance, two men watched us approach, deciding if my bulky sweater and long skirt were modest enough and more or less, if I was Muslim enough.
At the gate, they asked for my passport and information regarding my heritage. Upon learning I was American, one of the men commanded that I recite Surah Al-Fatiha. Much to his chagrin, I did.
And then we finally entered the court of Dome of the Rock. I was awestruck., There; upon an open plain of elevated of marbled tiles was one of the Islamic monuments I only recognized from Sunday school projects. The rain had stopped and the water on the golden dome glistened as a few sunrays emerged from the closed.
For most of my life, the Dome was a distant intangible memory. Something you only dreamed of, drew in quizzical disbelief and pondered its historical controversy. Only until I walked into the cloud-covered courtyard did the Dome become a reality. I can’t describe the sort of happiness I felt – maybe it was the connection Ellie spoke about – but I felt at home.
Alhamdulillah – praise to be God. For I am so grateful and so lucky.
I didn’t know that the Dome was originally built as a monument and then converted into a prayer space for women. I had thought that the floor would be tiled, but upon entering the Dome, it looked like any of the renovated mosques in the US. Rugged floors with a qiblah pointing towards east and shoe shelves by the entrance. The walls and ceilings however were different, covered in mosaics of gold, glass and innumerable colors. The rock, at the center of the octagonal building, was framed with bright green renovation curtains. However, you could see it when entering the Cave of the Souls. After finding a secluded area for women to do wudu – about 50 meters away — I prayed with the women of the Dome, who translated much of the Arabic announcements. I prayed for my parents and my family, out of thankfulness, forgiveness and blessing.
Minding the one-hour given to us to explore the area, we headed to Al-Aqsa, were most of the men prayed. There was a funeral for two people. A parade of men carried two long wooden crates. The coffins were simple wood and painted, but also without a cover. I could see glimpses of the deceased as they were being carried quickly out of the mosque.
Most of Al-Aqsa hadn’t survived but the lower level still had some of the old structure – reinforced with modern columns. We walked along the eastern side of the Western wall and exited the courtyard. We met Maya and the rest of the group at a shwarma place in the old city. I said goodbye to Imad and thanked him for bringing me to the Dome.
After shwarma, we walked through the Bazaar. I picked up a plate for my family the time in the bazaar was short and rushed through – for security purposes. I never felt unsafe.
As a group, we headed to the Dead Sea.
3:00-5:00pm Float on the Dead Sea
Within ten minutes of driving, the rolling mountains and forests of Jerusalem quickly changed into desert-like dunes of rock and soil. Small Bedouin villages lined the highway – the houses were made out of tin and the furnishings were simple, if not, worn out. Olive trees were replaced with date trees, and we could see the outline of Jericho a few miles away from the highway.
And undoubtedly, the Dead Sea was beautiful. It was warmer than it was in Jerusalem – around 60 degrees. The sea itself was a beautiful blue that matched the pink and purple sunset behind the Jordanian mountains. Salt made the path to the beach rough, but patches of clayish, grey mud were smooth and soft. The water was incredibly salty – you could see it in clouds and also crystallized on the boundary ropes. The oddest experience was the weightlessness of the water; we all floated on top. And of course, I got water in my eye and that was incredibly painful. But floating in the Dead Sea was my favorite to do; I felt at home with the group, and I could do nothing but smile. I felt happy except for the moment when I got a drop of water in my eye. That hurt.
After swimming in the sea, we headed back to the hotel – only 20 minutes away – and showered. In the lobby, we reflected about the trip and then went off to dinner to say goodbyes. Liam and I were leaving to head back to the states.
7:00pm Dinner and departure
Leaving was the sad part, but I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I also felt incredibly honored and privileged for the experience we had, the people we met – and knew that even the first night in Israel was enough. Easily, I can say this one of the best experiences in my life, and every moment was unprecedented and profound – including the people.
I didn’t get a sense of clarify out of the trip; rather, I am confused about what to make of all what we learned. Each person has their own truth, and even if it’s different from mine, its right and justified. To say Israel and its people are complicated is an understatement; it’s like when the answer is so hard to elucidate, but at the same time, it feels like the answer should be easy.
If time exists to make sure everything doesn’t happen at once, Israel is the place where everything does happen at once. A few hours after we left Tel Aviv, a shooting that claimed the lives of two and injured more happened on a street at which we had spent time the previous night. The terrorist was an Arab Israeli with a history of mental illness and problematic actions; his father turned him in. Some hours after leaving Nahal Oz and Sderot, the missile alarms went off at the bequest of Al-Qaeda and Israel retaliated with their own – no one was killed. And in Jerusalem, the day after we departed for the States, another stabbing occurred – neither the assailant nor the victims were killed. Something more intangible was – the hope that things would be okay.
I think that hope isn’t mortal though. It’s recurring and reincarnating. In Israel, history isn’t the past. It’s very much the current, the future. Memories from thousands of year ago are as lucid as the moment. Certainly, there’s a state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence (kuebiko), but, there is too an unprecedented resilience.