Everyday for 20 days, I’ve awakened to the sights, smells, and sounds of Jerusalem. For twenty days, Jerusalem has been “home”. But today, we say “goodbye” to our home. We say goodbye to Jerusalem and all of the lovely people and places we’ve met.
So we started off the day as we usually do, but a little earlier for our daily breakfast in the Old City. We went to one of the first spots we found that serves eggs in the morning, not just hummus, pita bread, and foul (pronounced fool) (beans). We had to start early–we were on a mission to go to jumua at Al Aqsa and there has been rumors that getting into Al Aqsa would be difficult because of Wednesday’s events. Myron called and confirmed the rumors as true. His wife heard on the radio that only men 50+, women, and children were going to be let in for jumua today.
But we are hard headed, we tried anyway…to no avail. Noora and I would be let through, but not Hassan. Though Hassan tried and pleaded at several gates and everyone on the streets warned us, the security detail weren’t budging. They were everywhere, making a makeshift security checkpoint with their bodies and fences. After Hassan’s persistence, one guard even asked him his name and told him that he didn’t want to have to use force on him. Sighs. Time to go. They told us that I was more than welcome to come through, but I wasn’t about to get separated from my family again. What a shock–praying jumu’a is easier in America than in the Holy Land. Would we be able to ever see Al Aqsa again?
We started questioning people in the streets. What exactly happened the other day? An Israeli settler killed a Palestian boy. “Don’t bother, don’t care,” we were told on the streets, “this happens to us all the time.” Some say the settler was crazy. Some say he overstepped the boundaries and went to a place where he wasn’t supposed to go…where the people were hostile and would fight back…where he started something. Allahu alim. You know, I was thinking, I was so rattled by the fact that an Israeli killed a Palestinian. But this is something that happens all the time back home. People get shot in walking distance from where we are, but we don’t pay it any mind. It’s normal. And the news doesn’t really go into nationalities or ethnicities unless it is important to the story…like when a Muslim does it, or when a Black person does it to non-Blacks. Here, it is important what a Palestinian does to the other, what an Israeli does to the other. But at the end of the day, a person killed a person. And that ain’t right.
So we made our way out of the Old City to try to catch jumu’a in Ramallah. We didn’t. By the time we got to Ramallah, we saw people existing the masajid. But we were going to meet Ana and her family anyway to say our “goodbyes”. We were very surprised to find the checkpoint and the roads in and out of Ramallah basically empty. Jumu’a was underway–all the stores were basically shut down. We were given the unique opportunity to see Ramallah for all its worth, without the distraction of the people…of holidays…of festivals…of shopping frenzies. And I loved it. I love Ramallah. Its mansions with their Mediterranean terracotta roofs and whitewashed walls…its unfinished buildings…its olive tree groves and farms…and yes, even its lack of stoplights and road divisions, and predominance of trash (which actually wasn’t that apparent to the naked eye today). Today was the only day that we drove in Ramallah without the hymn of my du’as characterizing the ride. Ramallah has grown on me. It has become home. And if you asked me 19 days ago if I could ever live in this city, well, the answer would have been a definite “no”, decorated by an expletive of my choosing and I am not one to cuss.
It was hard to think that this was the last time we would see Ana and the girls for a while. It was bittersweet…good to see them, but sadly, under the auspices of a goodbye. Ana cooked a lovely lunch for us…arroz con habichuelas y pollo frito. That’s rice with red beans and fried chicken for all the non-Puerto Ricans out there. It was a little glimpse of a home that both of us shared once upon a time…a glimpse into what Hassan and I were returning to, because we surely had had our fill of shawarma, pita, and hummus.
We then visited Khadra and her family to say goodbye. They had pulled out all of their tatreez to share with me and made us a special wall hanging for our home. The memory of so many people seeing us off is etched in my memory clear. They had all become family. The time went by so fast–we had spent the whole afternoon with Ana and her family, only leaving to re-pack some items she had given us and get ready for our sojourn home.
On our way out of Ramallah, we passed through the Qalandia checkpoint. We saw the usual group of boys parading around the cars for a few shekels. Seeing us foreigners, a few came to our window. The boy who opened the door that night not so long ago passed us by. We learned their names, their ages. They all had good names…the one name I can remember is Mahmoud. They were 6,8,12. Babies. Elementary age. The children that I would teach art to if I was still an elementary art teacher. Hassan took their pictures. I took pictures of Hassan taking their pictures. They wanted us to buy their items. Only one won us over though. He was astonished that we were from America and shook my husband’s hand upon learning that. He was sweet and didn’t push too hard. He was selling water. We gave him enough money to buy multiple water bottles, but we didn’t want the water bottles. He threw them in the car anyway, excited from his fortune. Other boys soon learned of his fortune. They ran back to the car. One in particular threw a tantrum whilst attached to our car window. He was upset that the other had gotten money, and he hadn’t. If we had more money we would have given it to him. The way he was shrieking in Arabic, he needed it. As we reached to find something…anything to give this child, we crossed some line while driving through the checkpoint…I don’t know if it was visible or invisible, but the boy couldn’t proceed any further. The Israeli soldier on post at the watchtower yelled for him to get back. He retreated, defeated. He knew he had reached the limits of Ramallah. Next time we come insh’Allah, we’ll make sure to break the big bills down into little ones for little boys like Mahmoud to share.
We drove back to Jerusalem and dared to go back into the Old City. Those security guards weren’t getting rid of us that easily. Of all the people we said goodbye to, a certain place was more deserving. The place that started this whole trip in the first place. The place that drew us in with its beauty, its candor, its mention in various hadiths: the Noble Sanctuary.
Walking through the streets of the Old City before maghrib (sunset), we stopped at Omar’s family’s cafe. They gave us beautiful posters of the Old City to always remember them by. We will hang these up for all to see in our living room, insh’Allah, retelling our adventures for those who dare to listen. Then, another surprise! Remember that family we told you about in Eilat that we thought were from Malaysia? You know, the only ones who really gave us heartfelt salaams during our excursion on Eilat’s boardwalk? They were walking through the Old City! Right down Omar’s street. We tried to signal them, but they were too far to notice. Still, it was a treat for our eyes.
Now, we had to make our way to Al Aqsa’s premises. We had to try. We had to. How could we not? So we made our way briskly to the gates. We walked so fast, we were both dripping with sweat. I didn’t know if I should be allowed in to pray from all that sweat. But I was going to pray anyway. It was my last chance. We didn’t have a test to pass today. We simply preempted the Muslim guards inside the gates with a beautiful salaam which they met with a beautiful response.
We were in. A breath. The sins falling off. We could feel it. I was smart this time–I came with wudu. I don’t know if I’ll ever use the bathrooms on the premises again out of fear of separation. So we just made our way to Al Aqsa. And then as Hassan and I got ready to go to our respective areas of the masjid, we saw them again–the group from Eilat. “As-salaamu alaikum!” I yelled, with a further reminder “Eilat! Eilat!” They returned my salaam. The girl of the group smiled. She remembered me. She came over to help me with the bags that I was struggling with (the bags of posters). Mash’Allah. We walked to the women’s area together, we greeted the masjid together, took a picture together, and then prayed salatul maghrib together. I learned that her name is Nur and that she is from Singapore. Insh’Allah, maybe one day we’ll meet again through our travels. Who knows? I say you meet a person three times in this life. I’ve met her three times during this stay, but as Palestine has proved, the world is small. It’s tiny. You can run into anyone, anywhere.
After prayer, I went into the courtyard right outside of Al Aqsa. There was still something left to do. A Palestinian friend asked me to bring her back some dirt from Al Aqsa. This is not unusual. This is the plight of Palestinians who leave their home. There are people in Ramallah (which is 20 minutes away) who haven’t been to Al Aqsa in more than a decade because of the difficulty of getting a hawia (permit). For some who left Palestine for another country, they are told that they can never return. But you know, Allah willing, they will return. They have the right to return. I felt more Palestinian in these last three days than in my entire time here. I was told that I could not go to a place that I did have a right to go to. Doors were shut, gates were closed, and checkpoints wouldn’t let me through. It would have been simple enough for the Israeli soldiers to just open them, but no, they had rules to follow they said, orders to obey. The objects standing in my way were simple objects, but they barricaded me from what I wanted…what I yearned…a place to pray and a home. I know this doesn’t encompass the entire Palestinian experience, but it does touch on a key characteristic of it. How can one be denied entry to a visible place demarcated by an invisible line?
So I bought perfume bottles earlier on in the week to accomplish this task of putting remnants of a homeland into a bottle. I actually bought three. One for her, one for another Palestinian friend who isn’t allowed into the country at all, and one for me…to always remember…to never forget. They cried when I told them I was going to Palestine…to their home…to their villages. Little ol’ me could pass through some invisible lines…not all, but more than my Palestinian counterparts. And in a way, my Palestinian friends have won already. In an instant, the political lines will vanish as they touch Palestine’s dirt and find themselves touching home.
After gathering the dirt, we made our way to the gates of the Noble Sanctuary. We looked back. But I didn’t take a picture of the Dome of the Rock like all the days past. This picture…this moment…like all the moments that have preceded it bundled up into one…is taken and inscribed in my heart forever. After leaving Damascus Gate, I snap a picture of Al Ayed Restaurant. It is blurry–it is perfect…a memory of the hunger we had on our first night here. I won’t say “goodbye”–I will say, as the Palestinians say, “insh’Allah, I shall return.” Goodbye doesn’t say enough. In Arabic, ma’salaama means “go in safety” or “go in peace”. Jerusalem…Palestine…Israel…I leave you in Safety, I leave you in Peace…in the hands of the Only One Able to Provide Safety, Security, and Peace.