This travelogue was written by me in 1993 when I was an undergraduate student at Tufts University. It is about my journey to Israel and Palestine two months before the “historic handshake” between Arafat and Rabin. It attempts to provide a backdrop to the peace overtures that made history then. Almost twenty years later; dissatisfaction continues; and sadly this glorious terrain remains tinted with trouble.
In the deeper recesses of London’s Gatwick Airport is “Check-in Zone A”. There are neither windows nor outside doors here. Tension runs high, for this is the area where passengers bound for Northern Ireland and Israel go through airport formalities. The only distressing denominator which these two regions have in common is an impending fear of terrorism, sadly triggered by religious and cultural differences. Why, thought I, should religion be the cause of such bitterness and strife? After all, religion often motivates benevolence and charity of great merit. Crimson crosses and crescents flashed in my mind, along with venerable personages such as Mother Teresa and Hakim Said (A Pakistani philanthropist). Perhaps, it is the innate pugnacity of human nature that exploits religion and causes such vile behavior. Bigotry: that’s the key concept, I resolved to myself, which instills hatred of this magnitude. Why does one group feel that it has monopoly over righteousness? “Live and let live”, the most wonderful of clichés, is truly “easier said than done!” In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “We have still not learned to disagree without being violently disagreeable.” Religion brings out the best in people but also the worst. Yet that is true of so many human phenomena: whether it be atomic energy, computers or polythene bags, we seem to wring out goodness and evil from almost anything at our disposal. Must we then make religion a scapegoat? These confounding thoughts would perplex me to the extreme in the days to come. So let us, for the moment, leave this apparently profound realm of contemplation. The gravity of these issues brings me back to reality on earth!
As my mother and I stood in the serpentine queue of Zone ‘A’, waiting for our turn to come, we noticed numerous security personnel who were unobtrusively mingling with the crowd, metal detectors in hand. An occasional dog was visible, using its highly trained olfactory senses to sniff out trouble. There was a perceptible look of suspicion in the eyes of some passengers waiting with us, as they sized up my mother’s Muslim garb. We were the only noticeably Muslim passengers on this El Al chartered flight. One elderly woman was even intrepid enough to inquire if we were actually going to Israel. I politely answered “Yes”, to which she responded with a tentative smile, barely concealing a twitch of anxiety. Her husband uttered something in Hebrew which sounded like a nervous admonition to his curious wife. How tragic, I thought, that Muslims have been reduced to synonyms for terror in the minds of so many people.
After forty five minutes of waiting in a narrow corridor, which by then had evoked in us a previously unknown claustrophobia, we were called over for security questioning. Despite our bonnie blue American passports the questioning was rigorous and comically detailed. From asking us about who packed our bags to identifying relatives in a stray photograph, they asked it all – with a tone that showed a monotony of having to repeat similar questions to three hundred passengers. Our inquisitors were, however, quite polite and smiled genuinely when I commented on the similarities between Judaism and Islam. This remark, I must say, was quite irrelevant but it made us feel more comfortable. It is also true. There are very few religions which share so many common bonds as do Judaism and Islam. Despite the antagonism which persists today, followers of both Faiths have coexisted through many historical times with at least a semblance of peace. The Moorish rule in the Iberian peninsula is one such instance. While the Christian Court tacitly supported forced conversions and gave the Jews epithets such as Marrano (pig), the Muslim rules showed far greater tolerance to their plight. By the way, this is not a specious comparison of the “best of one” with the “worst of the other!” It was due to the comparatively humane attitude of Muslims, that after the Judaic expulsion from Spain, following the Fall of Granada in 1492, many Jews decided to settle in the Muslim areas of North Africa. The conversational digression did not deter one of the security officers from acknowledging our amiability by saying “Well, we are People of the Book.” The Quran has given Jews and Christians this title which shows the congruence between Islam and the other Abrahamic religions. In fact, despite occasional censure, the Quran even allows marriage (the most intimate of unions) between Muslims and “The People of the Book.” The questioning wasn’t that bad after all.
By the time we got on the plane, our throats were parched and our vocal chords stringing with exhaustion. We voraciously enjoyed the wholesome kosher meal served aboard: dietary laws (with slight modifications) are yet another common feature between Islam and Judaism. The lady sitting next to me on the plane turned out to be an officer in the Israeli army. We somehow managed to have an interesting chat. She told me that it was compulsory for all Israeli citizens to serve in the army for at least two years and that their training was generally conducted in the States and Europe. In a distinctly rhetorical style she also remarked: “Isn’t it strange that a small sliver of land, like Israel, is wanted by so many people. That’s why we have to guard it.” I veered away from this subject, knowing well that a defensive statement from me would open a Pandora’s box of historical blunders and tragedies. The fact is, I said to myself, that Israel now exists as a highly fortified state, and we have to find peace and justice for both Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the land (both of them happen to be Semitic – at least in semantic terms).
It was almost midnight when we arrived at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. The airport is surprisingly unimpressive. I was expecting a sprawling building with touristy embellishments but the structure before me did not even have the comfort of tunnels to funnel us into the building. Instead, we walked down a canopied flight of stairs, descending into a blast of blazing air. Surely with such a massive tourist industry and inordinate amounts of American aid Israel should have a nicer airport. Maybe it is on the agenda. We sailed through immigration and customs without any difficulty. The scene outside was quite unexpected as well. I was reminded of Karachi airport, before the new ostentatious Jinnah terminal had been built. There were swarms of people huddled together in a sea of sweaty confusion. Some were standing on chairs or on each other’s shoulders with placards. Others were yelling names, oblivious of the fact that synchronous shouts made their calls quite incoherent. It was almost miraculous that amidst this chaos I managed to spot the young lady who was supposed to receive us. A Jewish friend of ours had arranged this trip and had been gracious enough to request her friend’s daughter to meet us at the airport: A long-winded connection but exceedingly helpful! She guided us through the crowd and took us to the Taxi stand, where she haggled with one of the drivers to take us to Jerusalem. Refusing to accept any payment, she bade us farewell while we continued to shower her with thanks as the car drove away. The taxi ride was uneventful. Simple silence prevailed throughout the forty five minute drive. As we approached the city, silhouettes of hills started to become visible, and the air acquired a favourable nip. Jerusalem, like Rome, is built on seven hills. Some historians have suggested that this is the reason why seven is so important a digit in our calendar scheme – constituting the number of days in a week. The origin of the Gregorian calendar was, however, the last thing on my mind as I drifted away to slumberland in our cozy little room on the eleventh floor of the Jerusalem Tower Hotel.
The sound of Arabic awoke me the next morning. Alas, it wasn’t the muezzin’s call to prayer but the persistent and annoying gossip of maids in the corridor. Too excited to fall back to sleep, I opened the curtains to get my first bird’s-eye view of Al Quds (The Arab name for Jerusalem, meaning “The Holy one”). The vista before my eyes was indeed spectacular. Ancient monuments and oases of greenery speckled the sandy undulating surface of the city. The majestic building of the King David Hotel dominated the skyline from my vantage point. This was the hotel which the Israeli freedom fighters, including former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, had blown up during their struggle for independence. Restored to its original splendour, it still stands as a sad testimony to what human beings might do if they are suppressed beyond limits. Reprehensible terrorism for sure, but today those who perpetrated this crime are on the other side of the fence. If only they could understand why the Palestinian movement is being driven to similar acts of violence. History is repeating itself in different guises. Five decades ago it was names like Vladmir Jabotinsky, the Irgun and the LEHI (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) that made news; now it is Yassir Arafat, Hisb Allah and Hamas that fodder the media. We must not condone terrorism but try to comprehend what may cause humans, be they Muslims Jews or whatever, to resort to such heinous activities.
Breakfast was complementary and surprisingly sumptuous. Apart from the usual morning entrees, there was a profusion of olives on the table which gave our palate a characteristic Middle Eastern flavour. Having satiated our appetites for food we set off to satisfy our spiritual needs. A visit to Al-Haram Al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) was first on the agenda. We ambled our way to the Jaffa gate: one of eight entrances to the ancient urban fortress known as Jerusalem’s “old city.” Having lived in Lahore Pakistan, I was familiar with the concept of “walled cities”, but unlike the squalid slum that bears this name in Lahore, the walled city of Jerusalem is quite pleasant. The city, as it stands today, was rebuilt during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Suleman I. The narrow cobbled streets are arrayed with colourful vendors desperately trying to lure unsuspecting tourists into their shops. The marketplace, riddled with arches, is reminiscent of the Kapali Carsi bazaar of Istanbul (supposedly the largest and oldest covered market in the world). Unlike the Istanbul market, the merchandise here was very limited in variety. Shop after shop, we saw the same kinds of brass minoras, plaques and artefacts.
The old city of Jerusalem is divided into four distinct quarters: The Muslim, The Jewish, The Christian and the Armenian. The division itself shows that this is probably the only city in the world which is sacred to the followers of three major religions. To reach the Al-Haram, we walked through the Muslim quarter – the largest of the four. My mother’s dress (a modest Pakistani shalwaar kameez and hijaab) was a perambulating advertisement for our adherence to Islam. The same garb, which had evoked consternation at the airport, proved to be an asset here. The Muslim shopkeepers treated us with special deference and an astonishingly large number of passers-by, ranging in age from senility to toddlerhood, wished us a most affectionate “You are Welcome.” Not once did I feel a hint of the oily arrogance which I had encountered among some Arabs of other countries. These Palestinian Arabs (a majority of whom are Muslims, with a sizeable Christian minority), treated us with warmth of feeling and concern that I had not experienced from any other “strangers”. What surprised me, however, was that a large majority of the locals identified us as South Africans. After a while I realized that the main visitors of South Asian origin to Israel are from South Africa because Pakistan does not have diplomatic ties with Israel and India established relations only two years ago. Diplomatic deadlocks on the recognition of Israel are indeed very disconcerting. So many Muslims are yearning to visit Al Quds but the fanatical intransigence of regimes in most Muslim countries (except Egypt & Turkey) prevents them from savouring the splendor of this land. The recent visit of Libyan pilgrims to Jerusalem was a welcome change but such incidents are very rare: that is why they make it to the press!
One of the shopkeepers, along the way, respectfully gestured us to enter his shop. We were assured, beforehand, that no purchases of merchandise would be inflicted on us. After the usual inquiries on our origin he asked his ten year old son, Muhammad, to guide us to the Al-Haram. He once again reminded us that this was not for monetary gain but rather a privilege for him to be helping Muslim agnabis (strangers). He also gave us his phone number in case we needed further assistance. Suspicions of all sorts crowded my mind but the sight of our diminutive guide with his most cordial of smiles assuaged all my fears. The child could barely communicate in English but that did not hinder him from trying. Gesticulations and contortions of facial expressions sufficed. We took a shortcut through the bazaar and within five minutes reached a wooden gateway leading to our destination.
The compound known as the Al-Haram Al-Sharif encloses two major monumental buildings: The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Both were built by the Caliph Abdul Malik bin Marwaan in the later half of the seventh century AD. As its lithic name implies, the Dome harbours the sacred rock from where, according to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on his night journey (mairaaj). This journey is the subject of considerable controversy within and without the Muslim community because there are differing interpretations of the relevant Quranic verse (XVII: 1). Much to the chagrin of many Muslims, such as myself, this journey is also one of the subjects of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In my opinion, criticism based on academic research is fine. However, scurrilous attacks and fictional ridicule in any form should not be encouraged. Death threats to writers are certainly not acceptable but at the same time authors who try to make fun of human sentiments under the pretext of literature do not deserve formal meetings with the President of the United States. Apart from injuring the feelings of many, such actions can also lead to grave misunderstandings between already estranged communities (as was the case, quite literally, with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses).
The primary importance of Jerusalem and the Al-Haram for Muslims stems from the fact that it was the first qibla: Muslims prostrated themselves in prayer towards Jerusalem before injunctions for a change towards Makkah were revealed (The transliteration “Mecca” is phonetically incorrect). There are also numerous sayings of the Prophet (ahadith) which give Jerusalem a special sacred significance for it has been at the crossroads of numerous Prophetic missions: the ultimate cradle of monotheism. The Caliph therefore spared no expense in beautifying this city after its conquest in 638AD. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque are both superb examples of Islamic art and architecture. The octagonal structure that surrounds the rock is crowned by a magnificent golden dome that shines as an incomparable landmark of Jerusalem. Turquoise-coloured geometric and vegetational motifs glaze the exterior walls while the interior is rich with gold and elaborate mosaics. There is a massive rock outcrop within the building, under which is a cave for private prayer and cogitation. Exquisite Quranic calligraphy is ubiquitous in both the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa mosque. The latter is more simple in form with a smaller silver dome but the prayer chamber is itself cavernous and quite overwhelming. I felt a serenity of spirit seldom felt in today’s hurly burly world when I said my prayers in this mosque. The ambiance was indefinably sacrosanct. Even non-Muslim tourists who ambled in and out of the chamber commented on this quality.
After our prayers, young Muhammad took us to a small adjoining building which I discovered, on entering, was the Islamic Museum. The first sight which meets the eyes of visitors here is a massive display of gory rags on the front wall. “The blood of shaheeds (martyrs)”, commented Muhammad in a bold tone. These are the clothes of some of the Muslims who were killed by the Israeli army during a protest in 1990: a grim reminder of the continuing turmoil which surrounds Muslims in this land. The dramatic entrance exhibit had sobered my thoughts to such a level that I paid little attention to the other displays of medieval armour and jewelry housed in the museum.
Concluding a quick, depressing round of the museum, Muhammad led us with alacrity to the “Wailing Wall”, which is actually a retaining support for the Al-Haram complex. It is one of the most holy places for Jews, where thousands come to pray daily. Prayer notes are rolled and tucked in crevices between the massive blocks that constitute the wall. So important is this a place for divine supplication that there are fax services for Jews abroad, who wish to send their prayer notes to be placed here. The wall commemorates the destruction of Soloman’s temple by the Romans. The anguish felt by some mourners has led to the site’s contemporary name. Many militant Jews still feel that the Al-Haram should be destroyed and a new temple built on Mount Moriah. Déjà vu? Indeed, the Ayodhia episode in November 1992, where belligerent Hindus destroyed an ancient Muslim mosque, claiming that a temple for Rama had once stood at the site, occurred with similar pretexts. Militancy unfortunately occurs in many theological forms. In fact, three years ago, the Israeli police caught an envoy of militant Jews with explosives, thankfully aborting an attempt to blow up the Al-Haram complex. Archaeological excavations adjacent to the Al-Aqsa mosque have also led some to conclude that the legendary Ark of the Covenant is buried at this site.
We were so pleased with the conduct of our young guide that in appreciation I decided to phone his father. Abu Yousaf was delighted to hear our praise for his lad. He further asked us if we wanted to undertake an exciting excursion to some areas where no Jewish tours would dare to go. Spirited as ever I said “Yes,” after seeking maternal approval, of course! It was decided there and then that we would meet him at the Damascus gate in an hour’s time. This gate has acquired a nasty reputation for being the hotbed of protests and a place where xenophobic Palestinians abound. At least, that is what our tourist guidebook told us. I shall, however, be the last person to vouch for the veracity of that book because we were received with usual warmth and good cheer. Being a Muslim tourist in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem certainly has its advantages! As we approached the gate, I must say, we did see a spectacle that might give credence to the guidebook. A noticeably Hasidic gentlemen, clad in the characteristic dark suit with sidecurls, was walking with two young boys when a group of adolescent Arab children cried out “Yehud” and hurled some vegetational mush at them. Feeling outnumbered in this quarter of the city, the Jewish gentlemen decided to ignore this provocation and walked off while the two boys yelled for vengeance. The impetuous Arab youngsters were at once reprimanded by their parents. Such incidences, we were told by Abu Yousaf, are common on both sides. It has become a vicious circle where no one knows who cast the first stone. Embroiled in revenge and counter-revenge, this conflict is similar at the macroscopic level as well.
Just outside the gate, Abu Yousaf was waiting for us along with a congenial taxi driver named Marwaan. He would be our escort on the afternoon trip to the infamous “West Bank” territory (known to some Zionist residents as Judea and Samaria). This area was occupied by Israel from the Jordanians after the 1967 war. It is a bit ironic that although the area is controlled by Israel, only Arab taxis are allowed to enter most cities here, and they too must have special permits. Security measures have become particularly stringent since the Intifada (Palestinian civil disobedience movement) started a few years ago. Abu Yousaf, however, assured us that, being Muslims, we were in no danger of becoming the targets of stone throwing from frustrated Palestinian children nor was the Israeli army likely to trouble us because of our American passports. The price was rather exorbitant ($110) but excitement prevailed over our purses and we agreed without much haggling. After traversing the tumultuous traffic of southern Jerusalem we arrived at the tomb of Rachael which was to be our first stop. The tomb is sacred to all three Abrahamic Faiths since Rachel was the wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. We quickly said our fatiha (recitation of the first surah or chapter of the Quran is customary on tombs). Before our departure from this land we would reiterate the same surah several times. This land is so rich in its tribute to ancient history that tombs and shrines dominate the scene in all directions. Among others, we later visited the tomb of Prophet David on Mount Zion and the tomb of Prophet Zechariah, which is built at the bottom of a deep ravine, east of the old city.
Driving through the West Bank is a disquieting experience. The thoughts with which I began this essay crept into my neurons most zealously during this drive. Graffiti proclaiming the moral supremacy of Hamas (a militant Palestinian organization) was rife on the decrepit walls of the villages. Israeli soldiers were a frequent sight. They were a familiar presence in the old city as well, but their demeanor was different here. There was a sense of urgency in their bearing. Hebron, the highlight of this afternoon’s excursion is where we had our first personal encounter with the soldiers. An envoy stopped our taxi and told the driver that this area was prohibited to tourists. We were subsequently asked to produce our passports. Once again the American connection came to our rescue. On seeing “Massachusetts” written under the birthplace heading on my passport, the soldier’s face lit up. “Home of the Boston Celtics!” he said with a sudden change of expression. “Sure shot,” I replied, hoping that he would ask me nothing more about the celebrated basketball team of my state – about which I knew hardly anything else. The Celtics, God bless them, were our permit to visit the ancient shrines of Hebron, which in the bible is called Kiryat Arba and Mamreh. Without much ado, the soldiers allowed us to pass, reminding us that we must return to Jerusalem before dusk.
Hebron is called Al-Khalil by the Arab inhabitants of the city. The etymology of this name is simple: it is the Quranic title of Prophet Abraham (meaning the friend of God: Surah IV, verse 125), and since this great patriarch of monotheism is buried here, the city couldn’t be called anything else – as far as the Muslims are concerned. Among others, the shrine of Al-Khalil contains the tombs of Prophets Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (also known as Israel: he sired the twelve Jewish tribes) and Joseph. According to local legend, Adam and Eve are believed to be buried here as well. It is therefore not surprising that this is one of the few places in the world where a mosque, a church and a synagogue are to be found within the same complex. The structures around the tombs were constructed and destroyed several times and it isn’t quite certain who built the conglomeration of buildings within the complex that exists today. It is dark and solemn inside the shrine that sits atop a barren hill overlooking the disorderly squalor of the city. The graves are actually inside the Machpelah cave on top of which the tombs have been constructed. We paid our respects to the venerable occupants of the tombs and quickly retraced our steps back to the taxi. The atmosphere was too tense for an extended prayer session. On the drive back, we also stopped in Halhuul, where Prophet Jonah is buried. A modern mosques has been constructed around the tomb. Our final stop that day was at the fabled city of Bethlehem, which lies a few miles south of Jerusalem. The birthplace of Christ, although situated in the West bank, manages to attract a considerable number of tourists and pilgrims. The Church of Nativity, which houses the grotto of the Holy birth, is a simple but solid structure. Although this church does not rival the architectural magnificence of European churches such as St. Peter’s or Notre Dame, its importance for Christians is, in essence, primordial. We treated our ears to the wonderful echoes of choir singing within the church and made a quick round of the nativity grotto. The small dark cave of nativity is surrounded with glowing tapers and the heavy fragrance of incense permeates the air. Before dusk we were back in Jerusalem after a very fulfilling day indeed.
I shall not attempt to bore you with all the culinary details of our stay because food for us was quite peripheral. Day in and day out we consumed falafels and shredded red cabbage, pocketed in pita, which made us flatulent as ever! The preoccupation with seeing the maximum amount in our limited stay kept us on the move, despite occasional complaints from our digestive tracts. From now on I will try to avoid logistical details and stick to the central theme since I have, up till now, given you a protracted narrative of “a day in the life of a Muslim tourist in Israel!” It sounds a bit like the celebrated photographic book series from Collins (A Day in the Life of…). There I go again on a tangential diversion. Please excuse my discursive tendencies as the subject at hand lends itself to stylistic staccato!
The next day was a Friday: the Muslim “Sabbath”, as some refer to it. It is on Fridays that Muslims gather for congregational prayers at mosques. On Fridays no tourists are allowed within the Al Haram complex. It was with regard to this rule that I had a rather unpleasant altercation with an Israeli soldier that day. There I was, clad in my Western trousers and shirt with a baseball cap snugly covering my head. My enormous Nikon camera case exacerbated the obscenity of my appearance, for no one at the gate of the mosque would believe that I was a Muslim! The soldiers told me that I would be bodily removed if I did not leave at once. I felt torn between fear and fury. Fortunately, before the matter became worse, a gentleman from the Waqf (the Muslim authority which administers the mosque) came forward and asked me to recite from the Quran in order to prove my Faith. Never before had I been asked to prove my Faith but I did so without hesitation. The gentleman assured the soldiers that I had passed the test but they still insisted that no camera would be allowed. This was quite strange because the previous day I had carried the same wretched camera through the same gate. Seeing the bloodshot eyes of the soldier I decided not to pursue the matter any further. The Arab gentleman took my camera and asked a nearby shopkeeper to lock it in his shop till the prayer was over. And so, deprived of my photographic weapon, I was finally able to participate in the prayer. The Haram was seething with humanity. The sheer number of people had given a vigour and life to the mosque which I had failed to encounter in my first visit.
Our post-prayer excursion was to the top of the Mount of Olives. It is a bit hyperbolic to call this hill a “mountain”, but in any case it certainly is covered with olive trees. The significance of the hill is manifold: It is the point from where Jesus ascended to heaven. It is the most holy burial ground for Jews. Mary is said to be buried at the foot of the hill. The Church of Mary Magdalene, with its distinct “oniontop” architecture, is situated on its slopes. And last but not least, the great sufi saint Rabiya Aladwiya Basari is buried at the top of the hill. She is one of the most revered women in Islamic tradition. Travelling from the Iraqi city of Basra, the town of her birth, she spread the message of God far and wide. Her piety and complete devotion to God is manifest in one of her most famous prayers.
“Oh my Lord: If I worship thee for Heaven cast me unto Hell
If I worship thee for fear of Hell cast me thereunto;
But if I worship thee for thee alone, then keep not from me
Thy everlasting mercy.”
The tomb of this lady is in a dimly lit subterranean vault. We were the only visitors at the time, which surprised me greatly. The shrines of sufis in the Indian subcontinent are bustling with activity – day and night. Mysticism, apparently, does not hold the same importance among Arabs as it does in my ethnic tradition.
Much to our dismay, the Church of Ascension, which supposedly houses a footprint of Christ, was closed. As we made our way, dejectedly, to the marketplace atop the “Mount”, a jovial Arab gentleman summoned us from afar. His invitation for a quick cup of delectable mint tea gave way to a very interesting and enlightening chat. Some middle-aged Palestinian gentleman were sitting on the same table with us. The ensuing conversation almost inevitably led to a discussion of the plight of Muslims in Israel. “They want us to recognize Israel but they don’t give us citizenship, nor do they allow us to vote, even if we are willing to accept the government,” said one embittered voice. “We are discriminated against for employment, social services: anything you can imagine,” cried out another. These men had some valid points. Many Palestinians (in the Occupied Territories) are willing to recognize Israel but they are still not entitled to citizenship. The only non-Jews who have been given complete Israeli citizenship are some Bedouin tribes and Druze (a small religious sect, considered heretical by most Muslims). Israeli Arabs, (those living in “non-occupied” territories), have limited political leverage, but they too must endure many restrictions (eg. they are not allowed to serve in the army). Days later I related the misgivings of these people to a woman who vehemently supported the Israeli government. Her response was simple and revealing: “Don’t you see: Israel is by definition a Jewish state; it was made as a sanctuary for the Jews of the Diaspora. That is why we can’t allow all the Arabs to vote.” What a crooked paradox: On the one hand, Israel prides itself on being the sole democracy in the Middle-East, yet a substantial portion of its population is deprived of political representation or even voting rights, which constitute the crux of democracy. Anyone who dares to voice these flaws risks being branded “anti-semitic” (as mentioned earlier, this term is actually a misnomer in the context of the Judeo-Arab conflict). The impassioned speeches of many Palestinians and their supporters (such as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said) used to seem like mere histrionics to me, until my visit to Israel. After observing the predicament of the Arab populace in Israel, I was forced to change my opinions. The policies of the government are definitely out of order. Unfortunately, it is difficult to accept mistakes – specially when one has daunting power.
The following morning found us heading south-west. This was our first experience with an Israeli tourist agency. The guide was a linguistic miracle. Fluent in Hebrew, English, Danish, Italian, Arabic and French, she had every reason to sound a bit haughty. On the way to Beersheva, a thriving desert metropolis, we were told of the wonders worked by Israel’s agricultural scientists: “They made the desert bloom,” was a frequent refrain. Once again, there was ample justification for our guide’s pride. Lush green corn fields stretched out to all visible horizons. Sprinklers of huge dimensions were busy in their irrigative pursuits. Not too long ago, I had seen infrared satellite photographs of Israel and even from that far above, the agricultural success of this country could be delineated. There was a stark boundary where Israeli greenery ended and Egypt’s Sinai began. Some environmentalists argue that the massive irrigation projects of Israel are of short-term value only. For the time being, the country is quite satisfied with its success and I am sure that innovations would readily be devised from the numerous research centres here, if a crisis were imminent.
Beersheva is dry, dusty and quite inhospitable in summers. We inundated our singed gullets with fruity beverages, soon after arriving here. The main reason for our visit to Beersheva was to witness the exotic frenzy of a Bedouin market. The garish clothes and ornaments were of little interest to me, but numerous Euro-American tourists in our group were quite enthralled to see the merchandise being offered. The Bedouins are nomadic Muslims who lead simple subsistent lives in the desert. They are known for being very conservative and even in the scorching sun, their women were clad in dark and demure outfits. I was reminded of Pathan Gypsies in Pakistan who frequently visit urban centres with similar attire and merchandise. Apart from the din of the market, Beersheva is known for a University and for the site of Abraham’s Well. According to Biblical tradition it is also the place where Hagar and Ishmael found a miraculous spring. Muslim tradition places that spring in Makkah. The slightly saline, sacred waters of Zum-Zum still flow beneath the Masjid-ul-Haraam, where millions travel for pilgrimage (The Haj) each year.
By midday we had travelled north-eastwards, past the infamy of Sodom and Gommorah, to Masada. The plateaued mountain known by this name stands like an island in the sandy sea of the Judean Desert. This is the place where a group of Jews, known to history as the Zealots, sought refuge from Roman invasion in 66AD. For seven years they eluded Roman onslaught. Finally when the invaders managed to make a ramp to approach their refuge, the Zealots committed suicide: it was a choice between humiliating subjugation and respectable death. Although, suicide is generally discouraged in Judaism, there is an exception made for the Zealots. Some secular historians argue that there was no suicide because the remains of only a few bodies have been discovered. Nevertheless, I feel that the benefit of the doubt should be accorded to the Zealots who endowed the English language, itself, with a renewed “zeal” – adding their title to its vocabulary.
We ascended the mountain in a small cable car which was packed with people. An acrophobic American tourist yelled herself to abusive hysteria as we gained altitude. No one listened to the poor lady’s pleas. She simply had to wait for the driverless carriage to stop at the top. Over-excitement had apparently dampened her perception when she got on. Down she went in the empty carriage, as soon as we had disembarked. Our ears had endured enough for one day, and it was a welcome relief to experience quiescence at the summit. The sun was shining with infernal fury from the cloudless firmament: Biblical verbiage is really essential to describe this land! The heat was so intense that my mother decided to wait in the shade while I walked around the ruins with our group. We were shown the remains of a palace which had existed before the Zealots and the changes which had been made by the refugees in order to survive in this barren, bare and isolated environment. The remains of the oldest synagogue in the world are also to be found here. For me, however, the most spectacular scene was a view of the Dead Sea, and beyond into Jordan, from a small shaded alcove on the eastern face of the mountain. The Israeli flag was waving restlessly in the hot dry air at the precipice, guarding a truly breathtaking vista. After a few silent moments of reflection I walked to the cable car and descended back towards the potent Sea below.
The dire name of the Sea between Israel and Jordan, has no political connotations. Nor is there any watery demise apparent here! The name stems from the fact that the Sea supports relatively few organisms because of the extreme salinity of its water – or should we call it brine instead. Beyond all limits of saturation, huge crystals and amorphous mounds of precipitated salts surround this enormous inland lake. Geothermal activity, has blessed the shores with sulphurous springs and “black mud” which is renowned for therapeutic value. When we arrived at the Ein Gedi spa, a short ten minute drive from Masada, our guide informed us that the Dead Sea is actually an elixir of life for many patients of psoriasis and more serious dermatological ailments. Thousands of patients from Europe and elsewhere, come here on a regular basis to relieve their suffering. However, don’t be deceived by this elusive elixir: though the waters are externally soothing, ingestion of the brine, or even its contact with mucous membranes, can be painful and dangerous. The Israeli tourism board, whose posters are a common sight in London’s tube stations, call it “the strangest beauty spot on earth.” I quite agree with this assessment. Apart from being a medicinal wonder, the Sea also presents an intriguing illustration of Archimedes principle. The water is so dense, that with some careful maneuvering, one can actually “sit on it.” Once again the tourism board has cleverly exploited this marvel by printing posters of attractive women reclining effortlessly on the Dead Sea: it certainly seems full of “life” to me!
The next day was a Saturday: The Jewish Sabbath. A day of rest, when one is supposed to spend time with the family and avoid professional activities. Most shops and businesses in Israel are closed Saturdays. However, we were pleased to discover that tours are still conducted on this holiday. So we decided to head north that day. The guide was a Sephardic Jewish lady with a perpetual smile and a delightfully affable personality. We were told that in order to avoid being stoned by orthodox Jews, who prohibit cars in their neighborhoods on Sabbaths, our bus would skirt around the city before hitting the highway. The drive to Nazareth, our first stop, was very picturesque. To our right, the Jordan river meandered to and fro amidst heavy electric fences and occasional army stations. Desolate, barren hills rose abruptly to the left, above fields of maize and melons. Our guide proudly pointed out the remains of Jericho which is thought to be the oldest city in the world (dating back to 8000BC). According to the Bible, Jericho was destroyed by “fire and brimstone” for the evil doings of its inhabitants. The Holy Quran is also replete with similar tables of divine wrath, narrated to deflate the hubris of humankind.
Two hours later we arrived in the hilly town of Nazareth, where Mary received the inspiration of the birth of Jesus. It is also the city where Jesus is believed to have spent his childhood. The Chapel of Annunciation which houses the grotto where Mary heard the voice of Gabriel, is the most prominent structure in this city. Built in the middle of this century, it presents an interesting blend of classical and modern architecture. The main hall is shaped like a lily, which is supposed to be a symbol of Mary. Another comparison comes to mind: The Bahai Temple in New Delhi is also shaped like a flower – a lotus in their case. Incidentally, the headquarters of The Bahai World Faith are located in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. Returning to the Chapel’s description: Artwork from various parts of the world, including Korea, Brazil and Japan adorn the walls of this massive building. A service was in progress and so we were not allowed to enter the nativity grotto itself. Nevertheless, we saw the entrance to the grotto and also the excavations of several other caves, within the premises, which may well have been the actual site of the holy revelation. Mary holds a unique position in Muslim tradition. There is an entire Surah which bears her name: Mariam in Arabic. The Quran venerates her in the following words:
“Behold the angels said: O Mary! God hath chosen thee.
And purified thee – chosen thee above the women of all nations.” (III, 42)
Noon was approaching by the time we set off from Nazareth. The drive to the shores of Galilee was quite enchanting. A plethora of fruit trees arrayed the hilly road on either side. Orchards of mangoes, oranges, guavas and papayas, coupled with vineyards of ripening grapes gave the scene a touch of Eden – as I envision it. In the distance, the gentle slopes of the fertile hills could be seen merging with the tranquil waters of a huge lake. The Sea of Galilee is Israel’s only freshwater lake. No wonder, the lands surrounding it are so prosperous. This “sweet sea” supplies the country with most of its drinking water while the Dead Sea supplies the populace with salt. The lake is also a thriving tourist resort. The city of Tiberias was our next stop. Though its name is of Roman origin, the city was a seat of many Talmudic scholars and is now a holy burial ground of revered Rabbis, such as Akiva. From Tiberias, we took a ferry ride around the lake – a very refreshing experience. On the Eastern banks of the lake, the foreboding humps of the Golan Heights were visible. This territory was taken from Syria by the Israelis after the 1967 war. Since the Peace talks began, two years ago, there have been rumours that Israel might return the territories to Syria after recognition of its sovereignty. However, many Israelis do not want to give up these mountains, which provide the country with its only ski resort. Two days before this, I had witnessed a vociferous demonstration of Jerusalem asking the government not to even bargain with the territory. The matter is indeed a tenuous one.
Our next stop was at Capernaum, a small village north of Tiberias, where Jesus spent many years of his life. It is also the place from where he miraculously walked on water. The Jews hold this place in high esteem because the Prophet Nahum is said to have lived here. The dress code is strictly enforced in Capernaum. Several, exuberant tourists, clad in shorts and tank-tops were not allowed to enter the area. Fortunately, my mother and I were appropriately dressed. The village contains the ruins of an ancient synagogue and a modern structure commemorating Peter. The building has been cleverly erected atop an archaeological excavation. It seems to be suspended above the site, supported on four corners by massive concrete pillars. Magenta bougainvillea creepers greatly enhance the serene beauty of this location. On the way back to Jerusalem, we passed by the Mount of Beautitudes and numerous other sites of importance in Christian tradition. For a few minutes we stopped at a “Baptism site” on the Jordan river. The jade green waters of the river passed through a shaded alcove where numerous Christians were busy emulating Prophet John’s age-old ritual of spiritual purification.
If only we could purify ourselves from the animus which is spreading like a scourge within the “Children of Abraham.” Peace is usually the message of all religions. It is more than a mere nicety; it should be the essence of existence. In Islam, even the most common greeting invokes peace: Assalam-o-Alaikum, means “Peace be on You.” Beyond doubt, Islam is an evangelical religion but the message must not be spread with the sword but with good sense. Jihad, one Arabic word with which our media seems to be well-acquainted, is only ordained for defence and for quelling fierce rebellion. Allow me to mention some Quranic verses in this regard:
- “Let there be no compulsion in religion…” (II, 256)
- “It is part of the mercy of God that thou deal gently with them…” (III, 159)
- “Call unto the Way of thy Lord with wise discourse and argue with the disputants in the kindliest way…” (XVI, 125-8)
- “Revile not ye those whom they call upon besides God…” (VI, 108)
- “If the enemy incline towards peace, you too incline towards peace.” (VIII, 61)
The drive back brought with it a sense of longing and despondency. The following day we were to leave Israel. A marvelous trip was coming to a close. The setting sun gave the scene a soft pathos as we traversed the same route back. Certainly, I had seen only a small portion of this resplendent country but it had left an indelible impression on me. You must be wondering, that I have enumerated so many “troubles” that surround this land, and yet have offered no solutions. Like most international problems simple solutions elude us. Self determination is the key: whether it be tax-burdened farmers in Colonial America; the survivors of the Holocaust; the targets of ethnocide in Bosnia; the victims of atrocities in Kashmir; democratically elected “fundamentalists” in Algeria, or the Palestinians. We must let voices be heard. It is easy to politically ostracize communities because of the foolish acts of a few of their members, but that rarely solves the problem. Ecumenical dialogue and efforts for better cooperation are fine. However, at the same time one must recognize that certain differences are irreconcilable. That is why we have nations and countries. In view of this, the only viable solution that comes to my mind is a separate Palestinian State, in the West Bank and Gaza – part of the land where Arabs had lived for centuries before being displaced. At the same time all Arab nations should recognize the sovereignty of Israel. The logistics of such a demarcation are beyond my grasp but I firmly believe that it is possible.
Coming from a country (Pakistan) which was itself formed on the grounds of religio-cultural differences, I see this as a beacon of justice for both sides. Just like the formation of Israel, it will not be an easy task and will take considerable effort for acceptance, but at least there can be a lasting peace. Limited self-rule in Jericho and Gaza might work in the short-run, but a separate Palestinian state is essential for a permanent settlement of the issue. As Israelis, themselves are quick to point out, the Palestinians have not been treated very well by many of their Arab brethren: The Black September episode of 1970, when over three thousand Palestinians were killed by Jordanian authorities, is one such example. Therefore it is quite preposterous to suggest that the Palestinians are actually Jordanians or that they should be accommodated in “other” Arab countries! It is also unreal for Arabs to think that they can simply wipe Israel from the map of the Earth. Fortunately, the “Peace Process” seems to be moving in the right direction. Despite the many hurdles which come in its way all too often, I feel that slowly but surely it will bring a lasting peace to this troubled terrain. We must stop languishing in the shadow of past mistakes and try to correct our follies with amicability – a secret of simple success which we can surely find within each of us.
If love with thou and I could fate conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire
Would not we shatter it to bits and then
Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire
(From E Fitzgerald’s translation of one of Omar Khyaam’s quatrains)