Friday, May 21, 2010

My Walk through Jerusalem

The unsurpassed place to feel at peace in Jerusalem is to find a rooftop in the Old City and
listen to the sounds of prayer from the many different houses of worship that trace their
beginnings to Abraham's decision to worship One God only. On a Sunday, recurring chanting
from the Coptic Church shares the air with the Muezzin reading from the Holy Koran and a
elated ringing of bells. In the Holy Sepulchre, the Orthodox Church shares space
with the Catholic Church. And softest of all, from down at the Wailing Wall, comes the frenzied
sound of Jews praying. You can easily forget the history of conflict between these faiths when
sitting on a rooftop listening to this sacred discord. The level of tension in the city is weighty. It's
not just the current threat of violence, it's the astounding pace of physical change in the city's
landscape transforming neighborhoods overnight. Serenity is no longer a molecule in the air
people breathe.
I live in Jerusalem territories near Ramallah. My journey to Jerusalem therefore begins with the
antagonizing expedition through the Qalandia checkpoint. Qalandia as you may know is not the
average checkpoint. It is one of the greater of the Palestinian's injustices. The Israeli checkpoint
is like a nightmarish version of airport security—even longer lines, extremely sensitive metal
detectors, and a substantial dose of humiliation. And like airport security staff, the soldiers
managing these checkpoints are bored from the tedium of it all. The only logical justification for
these checkpoints in the thick of the Palestinian territory is to protect the Israeli settlements there,
which are illegal by international law. Yet regardless of where the checkpoints are, all of them
make life more difficult for Palestinians.
Depending on when I go, it could take from ten minutes to over an hour to pass through the
checkpoint. The Qalandia checkpoint is a brief break in the prisoners wall that snakes in and
around the West Bank. Looking back at the barred tunnel-cages which mark the first
control stage of the checkpoint. The only way to know if you are getting through the
metal revolving doors is whether it jarringly locks in front of you or lets you pass and
saves the aforementioned fate for the poor shmuck behind you.
Checkpoints Take Toll on Palestinians, Israeli Army” published in the Washington Post. Here's an excerpt:
“As the Palestinians inch forward, armed soldiers standing behind sandbagged concrete walls shout orders to have bags opened and their contents dumped on the ground. On one recent morning, soldiers demanded that a man squirt shaving cream from an aerosol can to verify its contents. They ordered another man to rip the red-and-silver wrapping paper off a box to reveal what was inside: a doll for his granddaughter.”
Here are some of the things I have seen proceeding through the checkpoint. A middle-
aged Palestinian man has to pass through the metal detector one, two, three times.
Beep. Beep. BEEP. After the first couple beeps he takes off another accessory or article
of clothing. After the third he complains to the Israeli soldier behind the glass—but he is
ordered to do it again. He flashes a pained smile at his friend standing in front of me,
and his friend laughs and says something in Arabic. Meanwhile the line swells behind
us. BEEP. The man then lifts his leg up in the air to the glass, then pulls his pant leg up
to show that he has no firearm or knife strapped to his ankle. Finally he is let through. A
Palestinian woman passes through the metal detector. BEEP. She tries again. BEEP.
"Take off your shoes!" barks an Israeli voice over the intercom—in English. I wonder if
this poor woman even understands English. There are some days the Israeli soldiers decide to let
only one person at a time to pass through the revolving doors. A woman was standing in front of
me with her four small children. Ages I’m guessing ran from about 6 years of age to 6 month
year old child. Since the soldiers only allowed one person, that is child or adult, in at a time the
woman had told one of her children to go in and she’ll come in right after and not to move. A
child doesn’t understand what to do with metal detectors or x-ray machines, so he just walked
through. That started a series of yelling and grunting from soldiers to the child who didn’t
understand what was going on. Even with the mother pleading with the soldiers on the other side
of the door did not make a difference till twenty minutes later. They eventually let her in with all
her children in tow. As the mother was presenting her identification to the soldier behind the
glass; one of her younger children stuck their hand in the conveyer belt of the x- ray machine.
The child broke a couple of his fingers. I wait almost a half an hour in one of the
lines. When I finally make it through the revolving door, to the metal detector, I place my
backpack on the conveyor belt for the X-ray machine. It doesn’t move. I soon learn that
the machine is not working at this station—there was no warning before I got into line. A
woman with her purse finds this out as well. So we have to trek back out and get in a
different line, and wait another half hour. I wonder if it would have been that hard to
put up a sign that said "X-Ray Machine at this station not operational—if you have a
bag, please move to station 3 or 4."
When I finally reach Jerusalem I feel as if I’ve been caught in a time machine; especially in the
old city gates. Orthodox Jews pass by on narrow winding alleys while from above Muslim calls
to prayer float from needle-thin minarets. Stalls in ancient bazaars still sell relics to Christian
pilgrims. The cobblestones are worn from thousands of years of daily repetition and the
sandstone buildings reflect narrow bright sunlight beams that filter past interdependent
dwellings. Jerusalem is home to the world's largest monotheist religions--Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam. All have placed their signature firmly on the city's soul.
The old city of Jerusalem can be summed up in one word, labyrinth. As I wander through the
four quarters (Jewish, Arab, Christian and Armenian) I realize every turn offers visuals that are
stimulating, as they most likely have been for the last 3000 years. Several turns after entering
Damascus Gate and I am deep into stalls filled with spices and other things. That soon changes
into butcher shops mingled with clothing stalls all with Arabic signs. Jerusalem a city of unrest
and turmoil, yet the only dangers are the sellers desperately wanting me to look over their goods.
These words from a travel sage named Mark Twain ring in my ears:
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
Jerusalem is what I aimed to discover.
Jerusalem is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own feel and attraction. From modern to
ancient this city has it all. The old city is surrounded by ancient walls and is the most culturally
diverse area of Jerusalem. The walls date from 1538 though some parts are over two thousand
years old. There are eight gates through the walls but the primary three are the Jaffa, Dung and
Damascus gates. The best way to explore is to just wander. One very distinctive way to travel the
Old City is via rooftops. You will find a stairway at the corners of St. Marks and Kahbad Street
in an area where the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Quarters overlap. The Damascus Gate is the
main entry to the old city and connects with East Jerusalem. It is also the most magnificent and
offers an Arabic feel. Here the smells of spices and curries blend and Arabs are sitting smoking
tobacco pipes and playing shesh-besh, a sort of backgammon. The El Wad Road or the Suq
Khanes-Zeit and you will pass shoppers' heaven. The markets in the area sell for residents not
tourists. The area the Old City encompasses is only about 1.5 miles around yet holds countless
I finally reach the final point of my destination. At the heart of Jerusalem is the Noble
Sanctuary, Al-Haram al-Sharif, enclosing over 35 acres of fountains, gardens, buildings and
domes. At its southernmost end is Al-Aqsa Mosque and at its center the illustrious Dome of the
Rock. The entire area is regarded as a mosque and comprises nearly one sixth of the walled city
of Jerusalem. For Muslims the area has a special significance, as the site of the Prophet
Muhammad's Night Journey, peace and blessings be upon him, and as the first qibla for Islam.
Glory be to He Who carried His servant by night,from the Holy Mosque to the Furthest Mosque,the precincts of which We have that We might show him some of Our signs.Surely He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing.------------------Sura al-Isra' ------------------Qur'an 17:1
Walking through the Al-Haram’s court I feel the presence of all those who stood before me on
this very ground. The battles that were fought and will still be fought. They have seen
much blood and some of humanity’s most heinous crimes, yet I cannot help the foreboding
feeling of peace. A shiver runs through my body as I watch the Muslims begin to gather for Asr
prayer, and I bear in mind this is a place where all the prophets stood in prayer together. As I
look up at the glittering gold dome I realize what true beauty is.

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