Dear Friend, Ramazan is upon us. Once again I fear violence and bloodshed. How ironical that our holiest month should witness a clash between the Muslims and Jews. How unfortunate that we who have lived in Jerusalem for decades should be barred from visiting the holiest of the holy sites during this month just because we are Muslims. You were lucky to sit amidst cedars and olive trees breathing the sacredness of a divine presence inside the Holy City of Jerusalem when you came last year, a week before fasting began. You and I sat on a bench looking straight at the grandeur of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the actual site where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) prayed before ascending to Heaven.
The sun was setting, a gentle breeze made the evening more beauteous. You looked heavenwards to see the blue of the sky turn into a riot of colours creating a rhapsody that sent shivers of spirituality down our spines. Yes, you and I sat, silently absorbing its divinity in every fibre of our mortal being. We wanted to take in the totality of the meaning of our existence on earth. It was God around us.
The silence was broken as the azaan called us for maghrib prayers. As if in a trance, we walked to enter the Holy Mosque. I noticed the expression on your face. It was one of awe. The sprawling red carpets wall-to-wall presented an expanse of space. Unknowingly, you wandered off to the male section, thinking that men and women could choose to pray wherever they wished. A man standing next to you pointed to the women’s area. He looked irritated. You looked unhinged too! Why have segregation in the house of God, you complained to me. I just shrugged my shoulders.
The sun was setting, a gentle breeze made the evening more beauteous as the blue of the sky turned into a riot of colours creating a rhapsody that sent shivers of spirituality down our spines. We sat silently absorbing its divinity in every fibre of our mortal being. We wanted to take in the totality of the meaning of our existence on earth
Earlier, remember when we entered the Muslim Quarters that we call Al Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) where Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are situated, you were stopped at the gate and told to cover yourself from head to toe. We went and got an abaya for you to wear.
Prayers being over, I showed you the south end of the mosque. You saw the bullet holes on the pillar. In 1951, King Abdullah of Jordan was gunned down here. His grandson, Prince Hussein, who later became the king, survived due to the medals he was wearing over his chest. The late King Hussein of Jordan donated the gold, that you saw covering the Dome of the Rock. Our Prophet (PBUH) ascended to heaven during his Night Journey from here.
Last Ramazan, Israeli police stopped the males in my family from offering prayers at Al Aqsa Mosque. The situation was tense as daily fights broke out between Palestinians and the Israelis. Tension continues with deaths on both sides. As Arab-Palestinians, we demand immediate end of Israeli occupation of Jerusalem forcibly conquered in 1967. Clashes have erupted between Muslim worshipers and Israeli police whenever Jewish men have sneaked into the Muslim Quarters. Jews are not allowed there. But the Jews lay claim to Al Aqsa and call it the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism.
Read A History of God by Karen Armstrong to understand how Jews, Christians and Muslims over the centuries have laid claim to Jerusalem as their holy place, and how these three monolithic religions have ‘shaped and scarred’ the city for thousands of years. Recently, you must have read Unesco’s executive board resolution declaring Israel as the “occupying power” where stand Al Aqsa Mosque / Al Haram al-Sharif — the third holiest site for Muslims after the mosques of al-Haram in Makkah and Al Nabawi in Madina. While criticism against Israeli occupation of Jerusalem by foreign countries continues, it’s America, where you presently reside, that stands solidly behind Israel. Israel receives the highest military aid from the US. Not surprising, the IS [militant Islamic State group] has jumped in and is now threatening to attack Israel to ‘free’ Jerusalem. It’s not good news for us Muslims who are already treated with hate and suspicion by the Israeli police. Imagine what will happen if IS was to infiltrate into Israel. It will be a double-whammy for Arab-Israelis like us. We don’t want the IS thugs to come and occupy us!
Last Sunday, I went to the same café where you and I had our falafels. “How is your friend from Pakistan who now lives in America? She was not wearing the hijab?” remembered Ibrahim, the aging proprietor of the café. “Do write to her from me and ask if she has changed her mind and is now covering her head as all God-fearing pious Muslim women are supposed to do.” I know that you don’t feel the need to wear the hijab and I respect your decision, but in East Jerusalem, where the Arab-Palestinian population is concentrated, most women, as you must have noticed, have their heads covered. To cover or not to cover one’s head is solely a personal choice. It has nothing to do with being a good or a bad Muslim. So, when next, I visit Ibrahim’s falafel place (the best in Jerusalem!) I’ll tell him that you are still running around without a hijab!
On a more serious note, what do you think of ‘President’ Donald Trump? He’s disastrously toxic for the Muslims in America. We too have a ‘Trump’ in the Israeli cabinet. Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist Palestinian-hater, is the new defence minister. He holds the second most powerful position in the Israeli government and has threatened to conquer Gaza controlled by the Palestinians to build more settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank. He has called for removing Arabic as an official language. With this extremist at the helm of affairs, the hope of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel is gone.
Oh! By the way, I ran into your friend Ayesha, the manager of the hotel where you stayed last year. She looked concerned, as she’ll have a lot of empty rooms to fill this Ramazan. The possibility of bloody clashes between the Muslims and the Jews will keep tourists away. Last year was different when you came. We walked the ancient alleyways late into the night, enjoying the feel of freedom. There were tourists all around. They too wanted to live in the moment — transcendence unequalled in the world except Jerusalem!
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 5th, 2016