We were greeted by a strange man today. You know the kind…the one that talks, sighs, and grunts to himself in the street and makes you want to walk the other way. The kind that will say anything to you without hesitation. The kind of crazy sage that speaks some truth amidst their chaos. He walked right up to us in our apartment’s courtyard.
“Eh…….where ya’ll coming from? America?” the man asks in an American accent.
“Yes”, we reply.
“Wow, welcome to the land of blood and guts…uh…I mean milk and honey!!! I, myself, am from New York. So what are you doing here?!!? In the Jewish ghetto?” he asks with worry.
“We are just visiting and sightseeing.”
“What?!? Did you think this was the land of milk and honey? Man, this is the land of blood and guts…no…I shouldn’t say that. I’ve been in this Jewish ghetto for way too long. Get out while you can. Man…I didn’t come here for sightseeing. I didn’t want to stay here. I was imprisoned here. Tryna find my way back home. See, what happens when you’re here too long? Ya’ll have a nice stay in the land of milk and honey.” He outstretches his hand to shake Hassan’s.
Eerie dude. Who seems to speak the truth. Don’t worry man, we won’t be here for long. Insh’Allah we are leaving tomorrow. We’ve had enough of the land of milk and honey…er…blood and guts?!?!
I didn’t even want to come out today. I was already nervous today…still frazzled by yesterday’s events. The encounter with this man didn’t really help my perspective. But still, here we were, getting ourselves in our rental car to make the 50 minute journey to Hebron and it’s surrounding villages which hold the tombs of a lot of prophets. Allah, help us. Hebron makes me more nervous because it is the place notorious for head butting between Palestinians and Israelis. This is the place where when you look up the city, you always find pictures of Israeli soldiers pointing guns at children.
Alhamdulillah, we didn’t see anything like that though. We knew we were going into new territory where Israelis perceived a threat because of the difference in the wall’s construction (total concrete and really tall) and the number of checkpoints to get there. We were going to no man’s land…a place where many don’t venture…a place that doesn’t even have signs in how to get there until you get to the city right next to it: Bethlehem.
So we found our way, to a town on the outskirts of Hebron: Halhul. This is the place that holds Mount Yunis, and on it, the tomb of Yunus/Jonah (as)! Problem was this town drastically needed a sign makeover. Where there were signs (and there weren’t many), they were faded, so you couldn’t tell where you were. We started asking people on the street. Meanwhile, I started snapping pictures of an interesting mosque that had only faded signs on it. It looked really run down. We started to ask people, “do you know where Nabi Yunus is?” They all knew and kept giving us directions on the same street. Meanwhile, we kept passing the faded mosque. Hassan got out and asked a partially blind old man with a cane in front of the mosque on the street opposite it…the old man took his hand and they walked across the street. They went inside the mosque, and there he was, Prophet Yunus (as).
We prayed dhuhr there, and received a warm welcome at the masjid. We could tell they didn’t get many visitors. People came up to us to shake our hands both before and after the prayer, and some even invited us to their house! Mash’allah! But we were on a mission…we still had the Ibrahimi Mosque to go to…a place of lots of contention in the past.
So we set out for Hebron major…it’s a big city…and we got lost trying to find it. Unlike some of the other cities we’ve visited in the West Bank, Hebron suffers from a lack of road signs to it. It’s like it’s not meant to be found…like they don’t want visitors.We passed two checkpoints to get there and a lot of watchtowers with cameras compassing them all around. At one of the checkpoints, we asked a guard how to get there. He didn’t even know. He asked the driver of the car in front of us, and she was going there. So we followed her. Stopping at the second checkpoint, after getting cleared for passage and being told to move on, I guess we looked suspicious. The car we were following had a longer process. We told the guard we were following that car. He either didn’t understand or wanted to corroborate our story. After verifying our intentions with the driver ahead, we were told to move up in the line next to the car. Our guide car was cleared and started moving, but then the guard got curious.
“You Jewish?” he asked my husband.
“Did you convert?”
“Did your girl convert?” (referring to me)
Okay, I’m calling this whole country the land of hills, stairs, and questions. That’s all there ever is constantly wherever you go! But to return to the story, we drove off and followed the white car which had been moving while we were questioned by the curious guard.
Enter Hebron. Where in the world were we? I think this city is much bigger than Ramallah. It seems a little cleaner and a little more organized, but of course every so often you see little reminders that you’re in the West Bank courtesy of the trash piles.
We found a taxi driver to guide us to Ibrahimi mosque. His name was Ashraf. I don’t know if he really knew how to get there. But he worked diligently to find out the way, and he didn’t even want to be paid. We paid him anyway. He passed by four fares just to drive us to the Ibrahimi masjid! He was so soft-spoken and mild mannered, mash’allah. There couldn’t have been a better gentleman to guide us there. And I don’t think gentlemanliness is a predominant trait here…though I’ve met a few.
Ashraf took us through the alleyways of a little souk on the way to the checkpoints right outside Masjid Al Ibrahimi, which reminded me of the Old City. It was like the Old City on a miniature and minimalist scale, except for a big black horse that was tied to one of the doors. Though it was early afternoon, many of the shops were closed and the streets weren’t busy. Everyone was just sitting and chilling with their products doing the task of marketing themselves. A break from the hustling of Jerusalem’s Old City but also a reminder of how shut down the old city of Hebron is…
Before leaving us, Ashraf made sure we knew to keep our passports on us and shook my husband’s hand. “Go with Allah”, he said as he took us through a maze of narrow streets that reminded us of the Old City.
We passed through three checkpoints right outside Masjid al-Ibrahimi, each equipped with its own metal detector, a full body turnstile, and two armed soldiers with helmets and bulletproof vests on. Funny thing is, the metal detectors looked more for show. We beeped through each one–both of us. I was carrying the stroller and my purse. Hassan was carrying Noora, the phone, and keys. But no one checked our bags or wanded us. I guess they figured that we were tourists with a baby and weren’t intent on making trouble. Then again, they, like mostly all soldiers, are college age and forced into service–I don’t think they care. One in particular was complaining in English about how hot it was.
We found ourselves at the bottom of stairs lined with beautiful chandeliers with a calm light to them. We went up the stairs to be greeted by an annoying bunch of young men who were trying to get money out of us and trying to sell us stuff we didn’t want. They reminded me of the boys in Ramallah at the checkpoint, except they were teenagers on the brink of adulthood. One wrangled some dollar bills out of Hassan–he wasn’t selling anything. He just said he wanted it for his school. He seemed more genuine and understanding than the others. The others wanted to know, “why help him? why not me?” Sighs. We must have a big dollar bill sign on our foreheads.
Shaking the boys off, we went inside to find a beautiful masjid accented by blue painted geometric designed domes, cool stone floors and walls, and bright red prayer rugs. We could tell we were in the middle of history. You could smell it, you could see it, you could feel it…the stone walls and floors, the stone arches that became columns in the prayer spaces, the stone inscriptions in the walls all pointed us towards some past legacy…some secret of a beautiful time long ago.
We were greeted by two groups of middle-aged men, welcoming us to the masjid with smiles and handshakes. They pointed us in the direction of those we wanted to see…and there she was. Our first greeter. Sarah (ra). Abraham’s (as) wife. I got a strong feeling before I even read the plaque bearing her name. I felt connected to her immediately.
Then we looked to our left which was the main space of the masjid. And there they were: Ishaq/Isaac (as) and his wife, Rebecca (ra) parallel to him. Looking though the bars of the windows around their tombs, I could see a film of dust over the cloths draped over their resting places, but it wasn’t a turnoff. It was beautiful…a treasure…a gift from the past…a glimpse into history.
We proceeded to the front of the masjid to find one of Salahuddin’s original remaining minbars (the other original is located in Syria at the Ommayad Masjid. The one in Al Aqsa was burnt down and rebuilt). Beautiful. Then we greeted the masjid with prayer.
We then proceeded to look for him (as)…our father…the patriarch…the seed of the nations…the friend (khalil) of Allah: Ibrahim/Abraham (as). The one who the entire city is named after (Palestinians refer to Hebron as Al-Khalil). He had his own room to himself. You could feel his presence. Gates entirely encompassed it. Light encompassed it. The green cloths on top glisten in a way that puts my wedding sari to shame. Mash’Allah. Here he was. The main prophet I wanted to see all this time. Right here before me. We had arrived. As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh ya Ibrahim!!!
After coming to the realization that we couldn’t stay here forever and had to go, I remembered that there was one more prophet here: Yaqub/Jacob (as) and his wife, Leah (ra). I noticed women walking around in blue and brown cloaks. They were Christian and gave me a painful reminder that we wouldn’t be allowed to see his tomb. He was on the Jewish side of Masjid Al Ibrahimi…in the synagogue section. And only Jews were allowed. Not even Christians could go see the prophet that was dear to us all. So I gave him a salaam through the wall barricading us from him. And then we left.
Leaving the masjid, we were greeted again by the same begging boys. It took all our patience to be nice, but we managed to get through their hassles. We received a phone call while leaving the area of the masjid–we were to meet a Palestinian family that believed they were in custody of Zakaria’s (as) tomb. I had been researching the possible burial sites of prophets…and Zakariya, father of Yahya (John the Baptist) (as) and guardian of Maryam (Mary) (ra), Mother of Isa/Jesus (as) was very hard to find. Sources pointed everywhere and he was one of my favorite prophets. So we were going to check out this possible site in Al-‘Aroub, on the outskirts of Hebron, close to Bethlehem.
We got a little turned around as 1) we followed someone into Hebron in the first place and 2) we furthered followed someone to Masjid Al Ibrahimi. Some of the begging young men offered to show us the way, but we couldn’t take much more of their company. So we set off, and without too much trouble, we found Al ‘Aroub. We met a man named Atallah at a gas station…he was to be our host for the afternoon. He took us to the masjid in the Palestinian village of Hirbeit Zakariya. It was very small. The minaret and tower wasn’t fully built–the custodian of the masjid told us how the Israelis told them that they could no longer do construction on the masjid and refused to give them permits. Sighs. To make matters worse, upon seeing the masjid, I had doubts that it was the actual location of Zakariya (as) as 1) my heart didn’t feel his presence and 2) there was a fan on top of the grave mound. Any Muslim with any common sense knows that one should shouldn’t put anything on top of a grave….it hurts the occupants. And this was a prophet?! His grave deserved more respect than any regular Joe. So hmmm…Allah knows best.
After praying asr at the masjid, we were taken to a school on the masjid’s premises. It wasn’t supposed to be there. There wasn’t a permit for it. Securing money for a place that’s not supposed to exist is hard. So we were dropped quite a few hints that donating to the school would be a good deed, indeed. Indeed it would! We were later to find out what made life so hard for people in this town. The Palestinians in this village and the Jewish settlers in a nearby kibbutz (a Jewish commune) had peaceful relations and actually enjoyed a sort of friendship. In fact, it was from a Jewish settler that we even learned about Atallah!!! How do you like that? But this friendship…this peace…wasn’t agreeable to the Palestinian authority that the town was under, nor the Israeli government. So securing money was hard. The way the school kept on standing and kept on being constructed is by the Jewish settlers turning their head and not mentioning it. So we turned our head too. Education is always a good thing. And a good education is the road to peace.
Atallah offered to take us around Bethlehem. He asked us if we liked knafa, the infamous Palestinian dessert! And started talking about his uncle whom we would hopefully meet. The way he sounded made us think that we were going to get a big welcome from his family, uncle and knafa included. But there was no uncle and no knafa. He took us to a restaurant to eat. Big disappointment. We were told that a Palestinian family wanted to host us. But our welcome was only from one man whose whole motive seemed to be to show us a good time so that we’d pay for the school. At least he took us to eat. Did I mention that we felt like we were fasting that day?!?! Going all around Hebron, we basically forgot to eat until we were all dried up! Atallah insisted on paying the bill and upon dropping him back at his house, he kept on hinting at giving the money to the school. My husband gave him a large bill, which was a lot for us and a lot in regards to the Palestinian standard-of-living. Atallah’s reply to the shekel note was, “Is that it?!”
What?! Did he think we were millionaires?! Just cuz we’re American? Jee-whiz!
So Atallah left, and sat on the side of the road for all of about 5 minutes (which really seemed like 10 minutes of staring). Yep, he was looking at us basically the whole time. Then he left. I guess our host was done with us. So we texted the Jewish settler, Myron, who hooked us up with Atallah. We couldn’t call him because it was the Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles/Booths, the Jewish seven-day holiday that is reminiscent of Thanksgiving. On the first day of the Sukkoth, like on the Sabbath, Yom Kippur, and other Jewish holy days, many practicing Jews fast from technology and devote themselves to more spiritual matters. Jews regard the sukkah (huts/booths with palm tree roofs) as their homes during this holiday in remembrance of the fragile dwellings that the followers of Moses/Musa (as) lived in during their 40 year exodus from Egypt. During this time, being mindful of the temporalness of this life, thankful to Allah for the harvest, and welcoming of guests is the spiritual focus. So earlier on in the week, Myron invited us to his sukkah, and we accepted.
I know what you’re thinking…some of you…how did we get in contact with a Jewish settler?! How could we trust him? How could we go to his sukkah? Well, the term Jewish settler sounds bad, but it is what it is. Myron is a Jewish man from the States who settled down in Palestine/Israel. And he is one of only a handful of people in all of Israel/Palestine who kept tabs on us and made sure we were alright during our stay. Got it? Good. He’s good people. Really. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have called him.
So upon asking Myron if he would meet us, he replied a simple “yes” through text messaging and walked over from his kibbutz to the Palestinian village. I start worrying about him. I know he is good friends with Atallah, but what will the other Palestinians in the neighborhood think?! I don’t see them allowing a Jewish settler just waltz on into their neighborhood, but that’s exactly what Myron did. Here comes this middle-aged man with grey hair, white shirt, black pants, and yes, kippah (yarmulke) on his head. We never met him before–all previous contact had been by phone or email. Myron, like Irit, had been schooling me on Judaism 101 for some stories that have been telling themselves in my head. He’s carrying a bag–of Jordanian dates for us to snack on! (He later explained that didn’t want to give us any from the occupied territory in case they weren’t halal! He even started worrying about whether throwing the pits from the dates on the ground was littering on not….we agreed it was something from the earth returning to the earth). He receives hellos, salaams, shaloms, and smiles from the Palestinians. They chit-chat and laugh in Hebrew like old friends do. Again, he’s good people.
So we want to sit down to talk. Because Noora is sleeping in the car and really needed a nap, we decide to drive outside the Palestinian residential area to the Lone Tree, a historical site where many battles have been fought, where Palestinian as well as Israeli lives have been lost, and where perhaps Myron’s journey into interfaith and intrafaith understanding and peace-building began. Note here: Myron did not ride with us in the car. He thought about it, but decided against it. Though it’s close to sunset when the first day of Sukkoth would be over, he is still an observant Jew who abides by the law of not working, driving, or unnecessarily engaging in technology during holy days. Besides, I think he broke the rules for us in sending or even allowing for a text message :).
So we park by the Lone Tree, and Myron filled our heads and hearts with stories of the past, present, and future. Stories of war, love, triumph, and failure. Stories of Israelis and Palestinians getting along. Stories of Israelis and Palestinians not getting along. And this Lone Tree, which is more than a century old, saw it all. We were in Gush Etzion (also written as Gush Ezzyon), the Hebrew name for a group of Jewish villages established in the 1920s in the West Bank, that had been established, uprooted, and then established again many times. All the trees in this area were also uprooted once upon a time under the Jordanian rule of the West Bank and East Jerusalem (1949-1967) except for this sole lone oak tree. Hence, its name…and because of its witnessing of losses and gains on both sides, its almost sacred nature to all inhabitants of this area.
Myron talks of the peace talks. He tells us that while everyone wants them to work and to go through, they will never work. Everyone wants peace, but no one wants peace, and it is because of people’s actions and also lack of action. For instance, Myron spoke of the school that the nearby Palestinian village is building. Everyone is turning their head, but is anyone helping them to secure the funds and get through to both governments? No one is taking up action to make things happen, and this is precisely why there are a lot of failed attempts at peace…at education…at understanding.
Talking to Myron was as refreshing as the nice cool lemonade with mint leaves that has become my daily treat here. Hearing an American-born Israeli talk down-to-earth and honestly about the situation here gives me hope…for the future of Palestine and Israel…and for Muslim-Jewish interaction. I wish more Palestinians could meet Myron. Perhaps they would become less jaded and unify in action with him and other like-minded Palestinians and Israelis alike, rather than consuming their souls with the feelings of hate, and prejudice that I have witnessed during my stay. I think Myron wants to meet more Palestinians and Muslims. And I think if there were more people like Myron around, perhaps there could be a peace here.
Then Myron surprises us–during the course of our conversation, he labels himself a Zionist, and accepts the label of him being a settler. We are perplexed. How could we agree with a Zionist? How could a Zionist be so cordial to Muslims and Palestinians? Well, my dears, it’s all in the word. Myron wasn’t going to leave that big Z-word that carries so much baggage in the air to bog us down. Zionism has gotten a bad rap. It is responsible for so much pain and heartache on the part of Palestinians. So without any prompting, Myron defined it for us in the way that fits him, and we are okay with his definition. We accept it, and we accept him, though we don’t like what Zionism has done to the Palestinians. For Myron, as well as many Jews who moved to Israel, Zionism is the word that encompasses supporting the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people based on the (Biblically-speaking) historical homeland of the Jews. It is a movement saying that the Jewish people are an ummah (a nation) and are entitled to a national homeland. I don’t know…during this whole stay, I’ve wondered why a people who know displacement, prejudice, racism, and nationalism all too well would do the same to others, but then again, in psychology, one learns that the abused often repeat patterns of abuse. Here, understanding requires taking a walk in the other’s shoes, both Israeli and Palestinian alike.
So we took a walk on the wild side. Myron invited us into his home in the kibbutz, a Jewish commune, and we accepted. There was security all around the kibbutz…it had its own little checkpoint, but no one was on duty. I guess the guard was enjoying his Succoth. Myron just keyed us in through his phone and off we were on our first adventure to an Israeli settlement. It was nice. It reminded us of home. The sad thing is, the kibbutz is ten minutes walking distance from the Palestinian village and they look and feel worlds apart. In the kibbutz, we were in the First World…with all the luxuries of America and the West in tow, including toilets that you can flush paper down (a lot of the Palestinian toilets suffer from bad plumbing). In the Palestinian village, you would’ve thought we were in a commercial for aid to Africa or something. Flies, animals, cement, rubbish, and the signature of construction that is never completed. While the inside of Palestinian homes always look nice and pretty modern, the two just don’t compare. We were worlds apart. Sighs.
On a lighter note, Myron more than made up in hosting us what his Palestinian counterpart lacked. We enjoyed yummy jasmine tea, cake, and fruit in his sukkah. As we still hadn’t made maghrib (sunset) prayer yet, Myron invited us to pray in his sukkah. He even chased his dog down to make sure that he didn’t bother or invalidate our prayer. Mash’Allah. Through talking to him and his wife, we learned that Jews and Muslims have more in common that many think. I think further discussions would profit both Muslims and Jews, and I believe further discussions like these are necessary to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Forget the peace talks. The people of Palestine and Israel need to talk and get to know their neighbors. It doesn’t look like either is budging from their “homeland”, so its best to make the most of it rather than repeat the cycle of vengeance that is plaguing both sides.
More satisfied than the beginning events of the day, we left Myron and his wife to their kibbutz and made our way back to our home in Nachlaot. We were stopped at a checkpoint and told that tourists were not allowed through. The guards thought we were coming from Bethlehem, and said that we needed to go back through Bethlehem to another checkpoint. We kept explaining to the guard that we weren’t coming from Bethlehem and didn’t even know how to get back through Bethlehem. It would take us another hour to get home that way. The guard didn’t care. He wanted us to turn our car around and then he’d give us back our passports. So we turned our car around, and Hassan got out of the car to do the awesome bargaining that he always does.
He was out of my sight for all of five minutes, but to me it seemed like an eternity. I didn’t know where he was, and based on how rude and unrelenting the guard was, and how I know my husband, I feared the worse. Was he being detained? Was I going to have to operate this car (I don’t have a driver’s license) and get my baby and me out of here? But Hassan came back with a smile, telling me what took place.
He pleaded and reasoned with the guard that we had been previously dealing with until that guard told him to talk to his captain. Hassan went to speak to the captain, who didn’t speak English and didn’t want Hassan to speak English. Hassan told him in Arabic that we were coming from a kibbutz in Gush Ezzyon. The captain was astonished. Gush Ezzyon? A kibbutz? What were Muslims doing there? Hassan told him how we were visiting our friend Myron, and how we were his guests during the Sukkoth, and how we had tea and cake in his sukka. We knew about the Sukkoth? Yes, Hassan told him. We knew about the Sukkoth. The captain was dumbfounded. Muslims and Jews sharing a friendship was unheard of. He asked Hassan to phone Myron. Myron didn’t pick up (we later learned he was washing dishes–he called back to check on us). The guard believed my husband anyway. I guess there were too many details on all-things-Jewish for him to be lying. We were let through the checkpoint. For a moment there, I felt Palestinian. For a brief moment…my American citizenship didn’t even rescue me. It was a friendship that saved me…saved us. It was a friendship that I was talking about with you that could change things. That friendship with a Jew…an Israeli…a Zionist?!?!…Myron.