(Photo: Sarah Ziyad)
August 24, 2011
Once again, I find myself in this place; I feel convicted, compelled to write—of things I’ve seen, of things I experienced, of things that shook me once again to my core and have haunted me ever since. I‘m speaking of Palestine, of the occupation—things I know could alienate me from some who prefer a different story, who will dismiss my words as bias, or simply refuse to read on. Because it’s a mess over there, and there are stories that rarely reach us in our tidy, partisan lives. But I must write. For now, I will only share one story.
After a slightly-painful-crossing into Israel (this time, they only questioned me 3 times, only made my friends wait for me for an hour), my friends and I boarded a bus to Jerusalem, relieved at our good fortune of having made the journey from Amman to Israel in less than half a day. Nearing the city, both bus driver and passengers were puzzled when traffic was re-directed—apparently, the road to the Damascus Gate was closed. Odd. We eventually found our way to an intersection near the bus stop, disembarking near the north side of the Old City. Immediately, we sensed something was wrong. Several Israeli officers on large, armored horses trotted quickly by us, and in the distance we saw flashing lights and a large crowd of agitated people. I rushed toward the disturbance, finding myself in the midst of a near-riot. Shouts of “Come, let us go down! Let us go pray!” filled the air, as throngs of people attempted to enter the gates to the historic Arab quarter. Police officers standing on barricades swatted at the young Palestinians, while mounted officers charged into the crowd to try and disperse those struggling to get inside.
A young German-Palestinian boy approached me and began to explain what I was witnessing: the Israelis had closed Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, for Friday prayers. No one from outside the city was allowed to enter, and inside the gates only those age 50 and up were allowed to pray. For all those attempting to come from other Palestinian towns, or, in my friend’s case, all the way from Europe, for this important pilgrimage, the answer was an unequivocal “No.”
The stranger soon vanished into the surging crowd once more, leaving me on the hot pavement, heart pounding painfully beneath the weight of this news. I can’t begin to describe to a non-Muslim the way these people were robbed. It is impossible for a non-Muslim to understand the significance of attending Friday prayers in Al Aqsa in Ramadan—or the sickening injustice of being blocked from doing so. I began to quiver with shock and indignation as I helplessly watched the batons swing at these would-be worshipers, there in the alleged “holy land.” Armed vehicles rolled into the streets, and water cannons were turned on the stubborn, shouting masses. As the situation escalated, some of the crowd began to dejectedly pull back, dizzy after so much shouting and jostling in the blistering sun (while fasting). Others continued to argue with the officers, arms waving and as they raised their futile pleas.
Suddenly, the buzz of the crowd was pierced by a lone, wistful cry—someone was reciting the call to prayer. “Allahu akbar….allahu akbar…” (“God is great, God is great…”)
“Time to pray!! Time to pray!!” shouted the crowd, as they clambered away from the soldiers and into quiet, neat rows behind the muzzein (caller). And so they prayed. In the street. Kneeled, prostrated, with bowed heads and closed eyes, as over two dozen armed officers, 9 mounted policeman, and two snipers (or more, if the others were better hidden) watched on. Watching their humble motions, dignified and utterly peaceful, I fought back bitter tears.
A thin man with a strong voice gave a sermon next as the worshippers sat quietly in the street, some holding flattened boxes over the elderly as shelter from the unforgiving sun. The man spoke with emotion, calling on his brothers to be strong, united, and faithful. He recalled that so many in neighboring nations were “suffering even more” than they—he cited Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen. He reminded them that God is near to us when we struggle and are victimized. He encouraged them not to lose hope and led the crowd in supplication, as they all raised open hands to the sky and murmured fervent petitions to their Lord. I joined them.
And when they finished with a resounding “Ameen,” they picked up their scraps of cardboard and carpet, and they left. They left in peace. I wish I could say as much for myself. I mean, yes, my friends and I went on to spend the next few days with Palestinian friends, exploring, laughing, dancing, and living. But I will never forget that Friday afternoon, and the horror I felt as the reality of the occupation came crashing another level deeper into my heart and mind. It was a relatively “small” incident in the grand scheme of things. Worse clashes have taken place, greater injustices have been done, and Palestinians (and Israelis) have been robbed of so much more than Friday prayers. I know this. Fifteen Gazans have been killed this week. My father, he was born in Gaza.
But I haven’t been sleeping well, I haven’t been eating much, because this sickness has infected me, now. I’ve been half-tormented ever since that day, because I carried those faces and voices home with me, and I hate the way those children were born into a world of walls. I hate the way no one will let me finish their story, when I try to speak. I hate this broken, broken “peace process,” and the way their world hangs on a web of agendas that looks more like a noose than a lifeline.
I need to learn so much more. I need to be the student of my Palestinian friends, the ones who live there, under the occupation, who never surrender their dignity or determination to live in freedom, but who, at the same time, cling steadfastly to hope and place their faith so beautifully in God. They take my breath away, with their sad eyes and gracious voices.
Lord, help us.