Never in my wildest dream would I have ever imagined that one day I would be walking on the beach of Tel Aviv.
Never, in an even wilder dream, would I have conceived of an Arabic picnic all around me. The unmistakable aroma of home-made kebabs sizzling over tens of portable barbeques every 50 meters or so. Men reclined like Haroon Rashidi in a make-shift bed with shishas in their hands. The few who were not smoking were clapping for the one or two dancing to Arabic music. Yet I was in Tel Aviv, just half a mile away from Jaffa. Inside the walls of Jaffa life was wilder still. A town that had all the hallmarks of Arabic – everything – yet people rushed about communicating in two languages like that was just what everyone did everywhere!! I really did not expect that much “harmony” between Arabs and Jews, and curiosity got the better of me, so I called the Arabic waitress over for a quiet word after she handed me my freshly squeezed lemonade. And in my abrupt and to-the-point manner I asked the direct question – you get on well with them? “We all grew up here, it is our home, we were here first but it is their home too now.” Then she called the Jewish waitress over and said something I am guessing it meant Egyptian. The second lady beamed with the widest smile, welcomed me warmly and run next door to fetch us the coffee her own joint did not serve. I filed it all under “surprise, surprise“.
Back onto the beach for a couple of miles walk, I stopped between two very different sites. To my right a fully functional Mosque and to the left a derelict building covered in graffiti I could not read. To an accidental tourist, like myself, there never was, or at least there should never have been, a connection between the two buildings. Alas, there was. Twelve years ago a young misguided man from the building on the right crossed that very road to the building on the left, a building designated for young people to meet and celebrate their weekend, and detonated a bomb killing himself and 30 other children aged 14 to 18. My heart sank as I heard the story and my tears obstructed my view of both buildings. The locals chose to leave the bombed-out old site untouched, as a memorial to the innocent children who perished. I said a prayer at the memorial stone in front of the burnt nightclub and called a taxi back to the hotel. That was my last memory of Tel Aviv, a painful reminder of the terrible reality of life in this country. I prayed that my next destination would leave me with a healing image.
The roads were practically deserted all the way to the checkpoint close to the City of God. It was after all Shabbat. The young female soldier signaled the driver to open his back window revealing his passengers and my heart missed a beat or two. This was the moment I have dreaded since I made it through the borders a day earlier. Remarkably, without our travel documents clearly indicating our origin, we apparently looked like everyone else. She did not even request to see our documents, simply wished us a Shabbat Shalom and away we drove. I had very little time to marvel over the hospitality before the driver assumed a tour guide role and explained the walls on both sides. To the left and the right is Palestine, only the road is Israeli. He elaborated with a brief explanation of the history of the walls concluding with a wish for peace. Amen we agreed.
The taxi fare from Tel-Aviv to our hotel in the City of God left our humble budget bankrupt. Walking was now the new riding and we were not the only ones walking it seemed, even though everyone else walking was returning from a synagogue heading home. As we arrived to the city center, I could not help but wonder if the hotel receptionist actually understood our reason for heading out. Having followed her instructions, we successfully reached the very centre where she assured us there will be lots and lots of falafel or shawarma outlets. Did she think we were just looking to photograph these joints? They were all closed! Hungry, tiered and too walked out to even contemplate a walk back, I was about to suggest throwing all financial caution to the wall and taking a taxi back to the hotel for anything eatable at this point, nuts from the mini bar would do! Then the first miracle occurred. A shop keeper opened his door and turned the front lights on. Within seconds the same thing was happening like a domino effect, it was unbelievable. The street just came alive in minutes and people like movie extras hiding till then, suddenly began to populate the streets. I have never seen anything like it. I so much wanted to see the rest of the city but patience was all I had. I had waited 50 years and I wanted my first view of it to be in daylight. So like an extended fast, I took my longing to bed for one more night.
I will never forget the first view of the walls, every step I took past the first gate – one of many – left me breathless with excitement. The birth place of Mary was the first door I saw inside. A tour guide followed us offering his service which we respectfully declined. I did not want anyone else’s voice or vision. My husband agreed this was a time to soak it in quell tel. It took such a long time to navigate our way to my destination. The number one reason I was there, the Aqsa. Standing trembling at the gate, a security officer proclaimed “Muslims only beyond this point” much to the disappointment of many. “I am Muslim from Egypt” and he simply stepped aside. No questions no verifications nothing, not another word. Inside the gate a second checkpoint manned by a civilian who advised me to wear a coat or borrow one of his little collection. I did and proceeded to the steps leading to the holiest place I have ever been. As I reached the closed copper gate I was overcome with tears. The doors were locked and I feared I had come all this way never to see the inside of the mosque and just then the call for prayer echoed around me. Before my crazy mind began to plot a way to access the closed gate a second miracle happened! A young woman heading to a side door assured me there was always a door open, and so it was. I stepped inside and I could no longer contain my emotions. I wept like I haven’t done for a long time. The female caretaker came to my aid, hugged me and said, “it is ok… it will be ok.” That is all she said as she smiled and took her place for the prayer.
I needed some time to collect and pull myself together before we proceeded to the Jewish quarter. Somewhere in the depth of my soul I needed time between what was completely Islamic and the coming Jewish experience. We sat for drinks just inside the Jewish quarter. A joyous and loud processions accompanied by drums was approaching. Some ten boys or so were being led to the Kotel for a blessing. That is what the waitress said. She did not elaborate on what exactly the Kotel was. We followed the music after we paid our bill and what a sight! The first thing that struck me was the artificial symbolic wall separating men from women. Women sat on the right side of the Kotel – the Wailing Wall – absorbed in prayers, men just stood on the other side and for only the second time since I arrived in Israel I saw soldiers. I rearranged my scarf over my head and approached the wall. Though I had no intentions of making a prayer for myself – for obvious reasons – I had a little prayer to place in the wall for a dear Jewish friend. I stood there for some time marveling over the power of stones and walls and the very different emotions they can evoke in everyone. Before we left the area I took a photo of the distant cemetery and prayed for mercy for their souls from a far.
On our way out we found the magnificent church tucked away behind Omar’s mosque. We exited the old city at sun set from a different gate still and stood watching the very different rhythm outside the gates. From afar we could see two men about to perform what appeared to be a suicide mission from where we stood. Facing each other on top of one wall that acted like a gymnastic beam they began flipping backwards and everyone held their breath. I looked away and just prayed they would not fall. Thankfully they did not. My time in Jerusalem was coming to an end, I wished I had weeks to stay but I did not. My husband promised me we would go back one day. I would do it all again, and again and again. Inside those walls was a world like no other, love like no other, fear like no other and hope, yes hope like nowhere else I have ever been. The walled city is the only place in the world whose walls should always stand just as they are for ever and ever. Amen.
YaLa Young Leaders