I’m sitting here in the lobby of the Golden Walls hotel in Jerusalem, beside windows that look out at the walls of the Old City, and perhaps it sounds strange but I feel like I’ve roamed a place I’ve read about all my life, a place that is just like they say it is.
I’ve been nervous about visiting the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif since the start of this trip. So we needed to go through Israeli security in order to enter the area. Tedious but easy enough. Also quite easy to wander up to the doors of Al-Aqsa mosque, take off my shoes, and step into the mosque. Except that the guard at the door, blue uniform, Muslim and Arab, has already flagged me as a non-Arab Muslim. In fact I think I was announced as such through the walkie-talkie. So inside the mosque doors, as I’m preparing to wander around with my head tilted up at a painful angle, taking in the space and the sounds and the stained glass, and finally settling on a nice corner in which to sit, I’m met by another uniformed individual, in black this time, who will now take me around the mosque, offer to take my photo in front of the minbar (pulpit) built and used by Salah ud-Din, obtain several donations (not accepting Israeli shekels), and finally asking me if I wanted to make a prayer and selecting a spot for me in which to do so. He was surprised that I didn’t want a photo of myself in front of the minbar but I let him take a photo of the interior of the mosque for me.
Unfortunately this situation repeats itself at the next shrine, the Dome of the Rock. I’m happily surprised that the door is open, people entering and leaving, hurriedly take off my shoes and slip inside, preparing to be wowed and overcome and instantly introspective, have a chance to sit down, when I’m met by my next guide (how did they know this time?), an older man from Hebron. I have a moment in which I try to convince myself that had the guide not located the foreign Muslim I would not have known about the bronze shrine erected above the place on the rock said to contain the footprints of the Prophet Muhammad (you’re instructed to stick your right hand in and feel the shape) before he ascended to heaven. Again the guide is disappointed that I don’t want a photo of myself in the entrance of the cave that takes you right under the rock itself, but he’s happy to snap random photos of the interior of it for me. In the cave, I turn one ear towards my guide and run my hands along the walls and roof of the rock. The cave provides an additional little carpeted prayer space (a shelf of rock inside the cave actually contained a young girl, reading Qur’an). The place is quiet, like Al-Aqsa, men and women both pray without separation or clear allocation of space (in fact I feel several of those trying to pray and sit quietly looking at me and wondering why anyone needs a guide in such a place). Perhaps here I was flagged as well, since upon leaving the mosque the blue-uniformed guard asks me if I’m Turkish.
The rest of the afternoon I am sad to report that I am preoccupied with fantasies of having been allowed to enter both places of such historical and religious significance and left totally to myself. But all I remember of the Dome of the Rock is the guide’s beard! Yet of course, I got a chance to see both of these places, while the rest of my group was barred for not appearing Muslim enough. Besides myself, I only saw one other woman wandering Al-Aqsa snapping pics. Everyone else was sitting, standing, praying, reading, snoozing, even one young men stretched full out on the floor of Al-Aqsa with a magazine on his face. These are mosques the way I’m used to them. The level of anxiety associated with arriving in the area, going through security, and being treated as a religious tourist seems to belong to a parallel world.
So the Muslim guides flag me as an Islamic tourist. A shop owner in Old Jerusalem perhaps flags me as an Arab as well as Muslim. I’m prevented from using the ATM in his shop, and directed to the ATM around the corner, the Arab ATM where I’m greeted in Arabic.
At the Wailing Wall I’m greeted in Hebrew and asked to make a donation to a charity.
The most gratifying part of the day was buying a glass of iced passion-fruit juice from a fruit stall from a young boy. I have no idea what religion or ethnicity he was nor what he assumed about me. The juice was excellent.