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(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.

Sarah Ziyad

Sarah Ziyad is a American-born Palestinian, university student, and free-lance writer and photographer with a focus on art, activism, and the Middle East.

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10 Responses

  1. annie on January 5, 2012, 2:16 pm

    impressive, chilling. wow, thank you sarah ziyad.

    looking forward to more of your writing.

  2. Eva Smagacz on January 5, 2012, 2:59 pm

    Hello Sarah,

    Please, be patient. People around the world are learning about injustice done to Palestinians. Israelis will be humbled. Inshallah.

  3. GalenSword on January 5, 2012, 6:18 pm

    It is worth mentioning that Allahu akbar is a literal translation of Gadol Adonai which occurs throughout Jewish liturgy.

    From Psalm 145:

    ג גָּדוֹל יְהוָה וּמְהֻלָּל מְאֹד; וְלִגְדֻלָּתוֹ, אֵין חֵקֶר.

    3. Great is the LORD, and highly to be praised; and His greatness is unsearchable.

  4. john h on January 5, 2012, 8:42 pm

    Sarah, you’ve told one more compelling story, and placed one more small nail in Zionism’s coffin…

    The man spoke with emotion, calling on his brothers to be strong, united, and faithful.

    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.

    Lord, help us.

  5. dbroncos on January 5, 2012, 9:57 pm

    Thanks Sarah

  6. optimistCitizen on January 5, 2012, 11:38 pm

    It is mind-boggling how ordinary human beings can be turned into sadistic, cruel animals!

    Where is Richard Witty? How would he justify the prohibition of prayer in his beloved country where he would rather not live?

    • john h on January 6, 2012, 1:24 am

      First, optimistCitizen, welcome to Mondoweiss!

      Second, what a good first real post, which you did on RW himself! We have here a couple of posters that write like that, but yours belongs with them, so I hope you have more in the pipeline.

  7. Clif Brown on January 6, 2012, 5:27 pm

    Sarah, I’m an atheist who believes that we are chemical machines with nothing about us that is supernatural or spiritual (non-physical).

    But that said, I believe that such events as you describe can re-wire the brain in an instant – can change views, can alter behavior from that point on. We are all powerfully affected by what we see others do and particularly so if we are in a position to join them. At worst this produces mob violence but at best it results in what you saw. I would bet that none of the people who participated in the prayer that day left the scene quite the same. They were strengthened by it, religion at its very best.

  8. NickJOCW on January 6, 2012, 7:10 pm

    A very moving account that will stay burned in my memory. Since I read it this morning, something has been nagging me and I just now realised that it echoes back to that time immediately after WWII when details of the treatment of prisoners in Nazi camps began to filter through to people like my parents. I was only about 8 but I have a recollection of their shocked incredulity. Despite the horrors of the war and the bombing (we were Londoners) most people had no vocabulary for what they were hearing, my mother would frown slightly and shake her head, it was too awful to trigger emotion. They saw the pictures but it was as if they still couldn’t believe it. Strange, after all these years, to rediscover such feelings.

  9. Kris on January 7, 2012, 8:45 pm

    Thank you, Sarah Ziyad, for this beautiful story. I am humbled by the faith and dignity of the Palestinians.

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