The road to Bayt al-Maqdis (Jerusalem)

“It is impossible to know Jerusalem without some respect for religion” wrote Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of a book on Jerusalem and I couldn’t agree more.

Stones and buildings are found all over the world but only a few places evoke a sense of spiritual connection, beyond the grasp of our sensory faculties, which is felt and recognised only by our inner beings. Jerusalem is a city whose past, present and future is embedded in religious tradition. Wandering through the streets of Jerusalem, you see and you hear but you also experience a strange sense of connection – knowing that these are the same streets where the Prophets, their Companions, the Saints, the Sufis, the Mystics and the Wanderers wandered. Almost 700 years ago Ibn Battutah wandered through the streets of Jerusalem, and armed with his Rihlah, I set out rediscovering the Holy precincts of Al Quds.

In 1326 when Ibn Battuta visited the lands of Palestine he seems to have been able to cross through Qatya to Ghazza without any hindrance, perhaps it was his uncanny knack to solicit favours from the rulers of the lands he travelled through (?)Or perhaps after the fall of Acre in 1261AD Muslims could travel without difficulty. Nevertheless in our times it is an impossible journey to enter Ghazza. Unless you know your underground tunnels of course!

From Ghazza he went on to visit Al-Khalil (Hebron), Bayt Lahm (Bethlehem) and al-Quds (Jerusalem) amongst a few other cities in Palestine. For my part I had two options, either to catch a plane to Tel Aviv or go via one of the three land crossing between Palestine and Jordan (all of them controlled by Israel). I chose the latter.

It is not uncommon for Israel border security to ask for access to one’s personal email and social media accounts especially those whom they think don’t while away their evenings watching Fox News. In fact the British FCO website has the following remark in their “Entry Requirements” section for Israel

“Israeli security officials have on occasion requested access to travellers’ personal e-mail accounts or other social media accounts as a condition of entry.”

This tied up with the reports I heard from travellers I had met along the way who had already been to Palestine and Israel. The likelihood that I’d be questioned at length and my email and social media activity scrutinized, being a single male Muslim traveller of Pakistani origin, increased exponentially.

I went about clearing my inbox and un-subscribing from Palestine Solidarity Campaign email list. A quick follow-up search of the term “Palestine” in my Inbox yielded countless more emails than I had previously imagined, including correspondence with my local MP – which I did not wish to part with. Nor did I want to expend a lot of time and energy archiving and moving them elsewhere. I decided to leave it at that, declining to give them access to my Gmail or Facebook if it came to it. Knowing fully well that it meant I could be denied entry (an inevitable outcome I suppose if they went through the correspondence with my MP).

Me and Adrian, a Swiss national, I meet at the hostel in Amman decide to share a cab to King Hussein Bridge – the only crossing Palestinians can use to move back and forth between West Bank and Jordan (also called East Bank – taking their names after the two banks of River Jordan). I had been told that this crossing was the most rigidly scrutinized but doubling back to Aqaba to cross through Eilat would have meant a long detour to reach Jerusalem. I decide to take my chances.

The taxi ride takes an hour. After dropping our bags on the conveyor belt for scanning we proceed to what is the first of many passport checking counters. We both hand our passports. Inspecting mine, without a word the young looking border agent (interestingly the first line of counters including a few lethal looking guns are all manned by young female border agents that all appear to be in teens or early twenties) stamps a sticker on the back of mine which has four English numerals and four in Hebrew. She circles three out of the four in Hebrew and one in English, while Adrian’s has a lone circle. I know from here on our journeys will follow a separate course. At the next counter I am ushered to a waiting area while Adrian eases past emerging a few mins later with his visa. We decide to meet later in Jerusalem, if I eventually get through!

A female border agent approaches beckoning me to follow her. She takes me to a quiet corner and proceeds to casually ask me a couple of questions, some of them outright ridiculous. “Why aren’t you married?” I can think of a number of responses which will deny me entry straightaway but I politely reply “Haven’t met the right person yet”, “Who gave you the money to travel?” “Are you carrying any weapons?” Seriously? I think “I have a Swiss army knife in my backpack” I retort in interest of full disclosure. “Will I be able to find your employer if I Google them” Sure go ahead. After a few questions about my dual citizenship and Pakistani passport that is still in my back pack she says, “Welcome to Israel!” (Err no Palestine is where I’m going) that wasn’t so bad I thought – hardly trailing 30 minutes behind a Swiss national.

At the next counter where I expect the visa to be handed over I am told to wait and fill out a form that pretty much asks for all my family details. This time a middle aged guy with thick glasses wearing plain clothes approaches and causally takes me to the side. He seems to be in contention for the ‘most ridiculous questions’ prize, and armed with his own set fires away, “you look tired, are you fasting?” “Why aren’t you fasting?” “Do you usually fast ?”, “Do you pray?”, “Where do you offer your Friday prayers ?”, “Why are you travelling alone?” questions me at length about the details on the form, my family and my travel plans all the while annotating the form with remarks and notes in Hebrew that I cannot decipher. He jots down all the numbers I’ve held in the last few weeks of travelling through Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. “Do you know any Palestinians?” “No” I reply. “Do you know any Israelis?” I had met two un-apologetically bigoted Israelis over the course of the past few weeks I had been travelling, including a Tunisian (born and raised) girl who felt she had more right to Palestine and the territories than the non-Jews who were born and raised there and whose families had been living there for centuries, “No I don’t”. He takes the form and his notes and tells me to wait.

While I wait there is a little commotion in the other corner. An elderly American woman is hysterical. I ask the guy who seems to be part of the same group as to why they are being held up. “I’m (an American) married to (an American) Palestinian. My sister and I are visiting Ramallah, where my wifes family hails from, for the first time and she has just been granted a visa while they have denied me entry. Why? I’m the one married to a Palestinian!”

It is my first encounter with a Christian Palestinian family. They have no choice – He has to return to Amman and wait a few days while his wife and mother-in-law and sister go to Ramallah and get the marriage registered with Palestinian Authorities who then have to inform the Israeli authorities before it turns up in the border security system. The border agent who seems a little empathetic to their predicament tells them that had he not mentioned they were married he would have been granted entry but now he’s in their system. I always knew marriage came at a hefty price (freedom, opinion, liberty and what not) but marrying a Palestinian has its extra set of challenges!

Christians Palestinians are rarely talked about in the context of the Palestinian conflict, something that propaganda machines wants us to believe has an entirely monolithic identity – Muslim identity, thereby robbing the Palestinians of their ethno-religious diversity. Enforcing the narrative of a conflict between the ‘ever persecuted’ Jew and the ‘ever violent and irrational’ Muslim alone. Something that would easily appeal to the increasingly Islamophobic world of today!

Two hours later the guy emerges again, “Can I see your phone”, I think this might be it, he’d want to see my email. “Why?” I respond “I just want to go through the contacts list to confirm you don’t know any Palestinians” I wonder what made him suspect I might. He takes the seat beside me. I key in the pass code and hand him my Iphone. Punching in a few things he turns the phone around and asks me who Zafer is. I have completely forgotten that I had saved Zafers number, a Palestinian travel agent, recommended by Khaled the hostel manager in Amman. He takes a note of his number and disappears once again.

Six hours have now elapsed since I handed my passport at the first counter, minutes later a different person calls out my name and hands me my passport and a separate printed visa card for 3 months.

I grab my back pack, find the first serveese that’s heading to Jerusalem and jump in. Jaffa Gate Hostel is in the Muslim Quarter of the old city run and owned by a Palestinian. Jaffa Gate or Bab al-Khalil (al-Khalil being the Arabic name of Hebron as the tomb of Ibrahim al-Khalil AS is there) is one of the eight gates of Jerusalem. The serveese drops me of at Damascus Gate (Bab al-Amud). There is heavy armed police and military presence there. I’m told a day earlier a Palestinian youth was shot here amidst an altercation with an Israeli soldier.

I reach the Jaffa Gate Hostel just as the Maghreb Azan is being called out. An elderly Asian Christian lady greets me at the reception; she tells me that the owner is away for Maghreb prayers but that she’s manning the desk and the property as any place unattended can technically be taken over by settlers (?!) She comes to Palestine every year for her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and always stays at the Jaffa Gate Hostel.

I drop my backpack and set out to catch my first glimpse of Haram al-Sharif. As I head out I can’t help but think about the day’s ordeal – In the lapse of 700 years, with all the advancement in modes of transportation, it seems to have become increasingly difficult to reach Palestine and perhaps even more so if you are associated with a certain faith…


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