Last year I was lucky enough to attend the FODIP study tour of Israel/Palestine. http://www.fodip.org/ This tour consisted of a group of Muslims, Jews and Christians who wanted to work together as UK citizens to try and understand how the issues in Palestine/Israel had arisen and how we can work together better in order to alleviate the conflict.
When our group stayed in Jerusalem, I was a little shocked to hear that non-muslims were not allowed – not by devout muslims – but by the Israeli authorities to go into the famous Al-Aqsa mosque. This is a sacred place to muslims – as the Quran tells us that Allah took Mohammed (pbuh) on a night journety from the Kabah in Mecca to the Temple at Jerusalem. So when I heard that it wasn’t the muslims who were forbidding christians to visit the incredible Al Aqsa, I was appalled. There seems to be something in my genes that naturally rebels against injustice and oppression. I would still have been peturbed if muslims had said that the place was not available for christians to visit and to respect (as yes – sorry muslim pals – but I still would like to visit Mecca!). So when the Israeli authorities are dictating which religions can and can’t… as opposed to even the religious group that the place is held sacred by…Well.
Matters were not helped byt the fact that other christians in our group *had* seen Al Aqsa from the inside during previous visits, were waxing lyrical about how amazingly beautiful this mosque was. I was jealous…
So, me being the bolshy lass that I am – I spoke to my brother, and to my other muslim friends on the trip about their thoughts on the matter. Should non-muslims never enter Al-Aqsa? They were in favour that non-muslims should indeed be able to enter. And to share worship. They had no problem with a Christian attending prayers there. But more than that – even before I asked them, they had offered to help me to access Al Aqsa.
I decided to give it a try. So, I woke up that Friday morning and put on my hijab and my best baggy trousers and loose top. Incidentally, I had been wearing anywaya hijab for a few days now anyway – it gave me an interesting perspective of how women tend to be perceived in this part of the world. It was rather a shock to the system, the first day that I covered my hair, when I instantly felt ‘respect’ and a ‘distance’ from Palestinian men. In a way, I instantly felt more invisible and accepted. I could integrate, silently, at last. (As a feminist I am still trying to withhold judgement on all of this. Yes – I experienced less sexual harrassment and staring, being blonde and blue-eyed in this region of the world – but during the times that I was stared at when I was wearing the hijab and when I met someone’s gaze – it was the MEN’s eyes who were lowered after the first look. Not mine. It seemed that the hijab was presenting me with the sense of either; ‘No Go Area’ or ‘Like Us – due Respect’. Either way, if I ever toured the Middle East again, I would certainly wear a hijab, if only for the feeling of personal safety and acceptance. If a man wanted to engage me in discourse about the western female and liberation, I would be more than happy to give my views, but in terms of that curious blend of ‘When in Rome’ and personal need to get to the nub of how the culture and religion operates, the hijab won every time…
And (rather more flippantly of course) I thoroughly enjoyed no-one realising if I was having a ‘bad hair day’ or not….
So on that Friday, as Jumu’ah approached, two of the female muslim participants on the tour who had been keen for me to see Al Aqsa, linked arms with me amongst the throng of eager bodies towards the Dome. They took the decision to support me on that seemingly long, long walk, past the Israeli soldiers. My brother and several of our other male muslim companions walked ahead of us. Occcasionally checking over their shoulders to see if we were all still okay.
I have never felt so terrified in my life, as I noticed in the corner of my eye, the eight, armed Israeli soldiers at this particular All Aqsa gate’s checkpoint. Panicky questions streamed through my mind…. What would they do if they found out that I wasn’t a muslim? What would happen to my muslim friends who were clearly taking a huge risk to sneak me in to experience Friday prayers there? Was I being really stupid and jeapordising our whole study tour?
…But if I hadn’t witnessed the behaviour by female Israeli soldiers ‘on duty’ at the Western Wall- just some 24 hours before – I wouldn’t have felt so unnerved and intimidated about the military presence. Because, as the Call to Prayer echoed across the City the night before, I had witnessed a most unpleasant deeply seated contempt and disreguard for the people who were choosing to move towards Al Aqsa for Maghrib. Three young female soldiers, all around the age of 19, had been staring warily at our little group of Jews, Muslims and Christians. for some twenty minutes. Wondering perhaps, why such an odd assortment of people would want to visit the Western Wall together? So when the Call to Prayer began to float across the City, and our muslim companions left us, to go to Al Aqsa to pray – I noticed the atmosphere lighten amongst the soldiers in the small area that we were standing, close to the male section of the Western Wall. Now, instead of looking across at us – the bizarre ragbag of UK Jews and Christians, and frowning, they were now smoking and laughing. Those muslims had buggered off to pray. Nothing to worry about now. Their departure almost automaticaly led two of the female Israeli soldiers to hold their rifles to the air, faking gun shots – and the women yelled ‘Allah Akbar’ several times . After this, they all burst into laughter at their ridicule. And lit another fag.
The suspicion and the oppression felt overwhelming. For me, seeing ‘nothing but mere kids’ wielding guns (and the gun-wielders and disrespecters being females to boot) added into this new revelation of mine. A real sense of this heady cocktail of power and arrogance that I had inhaled as our little group had all been searched as we entered the Western Wall area in order to see this incredible place, of such importance to the three faithers.
So now, as we walked past the checkpoint at Al Aqsa, with only ten minutes until Jum’ah, I could feel the sweat of fear trickle down my back. Here there were only male Israeli soldiers, their eyes boring across the crowds flocking through the gate and into Al Aqsa. On my left was the marvellous Tahara, holding my arm firmly and quietely acting like a protective mother. And on my right was Uzma, stalking ahead and almost defying the soldiers with her fixed stare towards the dome – to stop us. Each of us knew the story that we would tell the soldiers if they asked about this rather pale looking muslim woman. ‘Sister Fatima’ was a new english convert who was not yet fluent in the Arabic of the Quran…
I practically stopped breathing when I saw that my brother – a white British muslim convert of many years – and two of his friends (UK-Pakistanic origin) had been pulled out of the crowd by the soldiers. Yet somehow, I carried on walking, moving towards the female side of the ablutions area. Uzma and Sonia showed me how they made wudhu (ablution) with the water there. As they dried themselves off, we were then relayed a message via one of the male companions – that my brother and the other men had gotten past the checkpoint fine. Nothing to worry about after all.
By the time we arrived at the central worship point, the women’s side was completely filled – overflowing with women preparing for prayer. I stumbled over the mountains of discarded shoes and felt clumsy. Like people were watching me for my obvious inexperience. But the place was heaving. We had to move outside again, to an outside praying area under a smaller (yet still enormous) stunning tiled dome – which I was told had originally been built asa ‘practice’ for the larger Dome. I found a little space to sit at the back and felt even more nervous by now. I couldn’t pray with my muslim sisters. Whilst as a Christian, I didn’t feel that anything they were saying or doing contradicted my own faith…I honestly believed (still believe) that we have very much a shared God and faith…I just couldn’t begin to try and engage in the prayers.
For starters, I didn’t know what to do – what to say. When do you do the bending down bit? Was was it that they say exactly? How would I manage to copy them – without that 3 second delay, and drawing attention to myself? I felt like a Christian – more used to a spontaneous evangelical service – must feel when attending a high church Anglican, or Roman Catholic service. I managed to generate a smile though, as I recalled the memory of my brother telling me how odd it had been for him, a Sunni muslim, mistakenly attending Friday prayers at a Shia mosque -when he first began working with the community at Glodwick, Oldham. ‘They did the prayers totally differently!’ he told me ‘I felt a right prat!’
Thankfully Tahara anticipated my embarrassment and said ‘Just do what you want. ‘ Uzma added ‘Sitting at the back is fine. If a woman is on her period she doesn’t have to join in with the praying’. So, somewhat relieved, I crouched on the little wall at the back. I tried to look like I was suffering with period pain, so I grimaced every now and then. I thought that perhaps I should give off a deeply spiritual impression – that I was actually putting my devotion to attending Friday prayers before my need to be in bed with a hot water bottle and some paracetomal. After a few minutes, I felt a little bit guilty about my crappy attempt at acting. But I still felt strangely righteous. As though God was smiling at me in fond amusement. ‘Hey – you made it! Don’t worry – you’re fine here. No Do’s and Don’ts…’ I closed my eyes and managed to relax.
It was mesmerising and humbling at the Al Aqsa. Watching the hundreds of women praying in rows before me. I spent a bit of time wondering what on earth the Imam was talking about over the very LOUD loudspeaker (I hope though, that I don’t sound too unfair here – but he really *was* ranting. He reminded me just a little bit of a USA televangelist – his intonation I mean. Still, it all being in Arabic, I wasn’t really in a position to judge. I didn’t understand a word that he said. He could have been blessing the marriage of Charles and Camilla for all that I knew ).
After ten minutes, I became a ‘smiling friend’ of a beautiful little Palestinian girl, who couldn’t stop staring at the odd-looking female at the back. I suppose that I looked like a very peculiarly dressed woman. I was wearing baggy trousers, a clumsily tied hijab, had strange blue eyes and freckles. But we smiled and rolled our eyes, and grinned at each other. I wondered at what age she would feel that she had to engage in the prayers. Like y nephews – I recalled them getting more involved at the age of around 7? Or perhaps earlier. Either way, I hoped that she would enjoy her staring and her obvious ‘drinking in’ of what was occuring, for as long as she possibly could.
When the little girl couldnt stop staring at me, and nudged her Grandmother next to her to look at ‘the odd lady’ (as I imagined it). I began to earnestly wish that my brother had taught me the word ‘menstruation’ in Arabic. I wanted to explain why I was looking, and behaving, so oddly, at the back of the building. But the only Arabic I could remember was ‘Ya Helwa Azim’. This was something my brother had told me he had learned from the locals in Egypt when he had studied Arabic there as a student. Something that the male of the species feels obliged to call out to the female of the species when a particularly pretty young lady saunters by them in the city of Cairo. Still. This was clearly NOT something that I would be able to utilise right here and now…
I sat tight and drank in the architecture, the atmosphere and the patience of the women.
Halfway through the prayers I realised to my genuine horror, that the carrier bag which I was clutching so tightly in front of me, advertised one of Israel’s most prominent Kibbutz-Hotels. Our group had stayed there earlier on in the week as part of the study tour. When all of the women bowed down on their hands and knees again, I used the opportunity to promptly plonk my bum onto the bag, in a very hurried and undignified manner.
When prayers finally ended, we retrieved our shoes. Uzma and Tahara introduced me to the elderly mother of our Palestinian coach driver who they had arranged to meet for Jum’ah. The older woman didn’t speak any English, but she hugged me and nodded and smiled. She laughed and laughed when she saw my scruffy carrier bag advertising the Kibbutz. Leading my muslim friends to explain how I hadn’t realised that I had been wielding it so defensively in front of me and had suddenly realised that it might be a rather sensitive accessory in this particular place. So, to make me feel better about things, she showed me her own shoulder bag. It was a large, tapestried affair. A tourists ‘Visit Bethlehem’ bag- a skyline in pretty impressive stitching, of the Bethlehem vista. But there were weird, uneven blue splodges of ink across it too. She laughed again and grinned, shrugging her shoulders, as our son, the coach driver translated to us
‘Ah – she says that she bought this bag when she was in Bethlehem because she thought it was beautifully made by local Palestinian women, but when she first came to Al Aqsa with it the men in charge painted blue ink over the crosses on the church spires. She says won’t get rid of it though. She says it is a good, strong bag – so why should she do that, just because it had a few crosses on it?’.
As we waited for Uzma to hand over the donations to ‘Friends of Al Aqsa’ which her Brummie relatives had dispatched with her, our male companions turned up as we neared the exit gate. All were jubilant that ‘Sister Fatima’ had made it past the checkpoint and were eager to hear what kind of experience that she had encountered. ‘Just beautiful – just amazing. Very peaceful’ – was all that I could honestly say at the time. I was still breathless from the experience, and struggling to process it.
My older brother was pleased that I had enjoyed the visit and been impressed by the whole experience, but he himself was still stinging a little from the fact that the Israeli soldiers had pulled him from the crowd and asked him to recite Shahadah as proof that he was indeed, a muslim. He muttered, with a healthy dose of outrage;
‘I told them that I reverted to Islam some 20 years ago and I ended up reciting stuff to them that I never even KNEW I knew!’
Then he continued to shake his head in disgust as Khalid, Pasha, Amin and Shamim all chuckled away at their friend, with Pasha adding;
‘Yeah – and Sister Fatima here hasn’t been a muslim for more than two minutes –AND she’s miles paler than you and she STILL she waltzes right past the soliders and into Al Aqsa on her first Jum’ah. Typical eh?! The unfairness of it all!’