Palestine, day 3

2009-04-09 00:00

“It’s not religious; it’s political,” says the policeman with a big smile, as if to make me feel better at being refused entry into the Al-Aqsa mosque (pictured below), third most holy site for Muslims around the world and the world’s oldest Islamic monument.

I have no idea what he means. What can he possibly know of my politics simply by looking at me?

“If you really want to go, you can apply. It will take a day or so,” he goes on cheerfully, gesturing vaguely, I assume, in the direction of some office in the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary).

Having braved the Passover crowds around the Western Wall and endured an arduous security check to enter the sanctuary, I’m not about to seek any more engagement with authority. I console myself with a quick walk around the undeniably impressive Dome of the Rock (pictured left), Jerusalem’s glowing landmark. According to Islamic tradition, the dome covers the rock from which Mohammed ascended to heaven and received the teachings of Islam. The rock is also deeply sacred to Jews who believe it to be the place where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac. I have to take this on faith, because I don’t get to see it.

But that’s okay because there’s a feast of mind-spinning experiences on offer.

In this neck of the woods, you can go from the tomb of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah to the Old City tomb of Jesus Christ in roughly an hour. But with the restrictions on movement and checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian National Authority, it’s better if you have some local help.

Ours comes in the form of the soft-spoken Sheikh Abdul Aziz Burkhari, co-founder of an independent, inter-faith organisation called the Jerusalem Peacemakers and head of the Naqshabandi Sufi order in Jerusalem.

Bukhari is known as a Muslim voice for peace and reconciliation in Jerusalem. He also hosts the Uzbek Cultural Centre of the Holy Land in his home on the famous Via Dolorosa (Jesus’ route to his crucifixion) where his family, originally from Uzbekistan, has been living for 400 years.

Driving us around, Bukhari wants to show us the isolating effects of the Israeli separation wall on a town outside Jerusalem called Abu Dis. Previously a five minute drive from the Old City, Abu Dis can now only be reached after about 25 minutes of car travel. Since the wall went up in this area about four or five years ago, residents of Abu Dis are unable to travel to Jerusalem without applying for special permission for once-off visits. Thus, the wall has disrupted access to jobs, schools, hospitals and markets for locally-produced goods such as furniture and fruit and vegetables.

I suggest to Bukhari that people living in Jerusalem are relatively privileged, being able to travel to Abu Dis and other areas with fewer restrictions. “We pay other prices,” he says. “Property taxes are high and also, the children of my daughter who now lives in Gaza will not be allowed into Jerusalem.” Bukhari’s daughter, who married in Gaza and now lives there, has just returned to Jerusalem for her first visit after 10 months.

At the Abu Dis Emergency Clinic, built last year with funding from the Norwegian government to compensate for the town’s lack of medical facilities, we meet Abdullah Abu Helal (pictured right - the tall one), one of two medical doctors working at the 24-hour clinic which services roughly 70 000 people. Helal had hopes of training further to become a surgeon, but restrictions on his movements from Abu Dis make that impossible. In the meantime, as a GP, he sees about 50 patients in the clinic before lunch time. One of his recent patients, he says, is a 17-year-old boy who lost some movement in his limbs after coming under Israeli fire, causing three bullets to be lodged in the back of his head. Although the bullets appeared to be rubber, clinic staff say they carried metal components inside.

Abu Dis has a twinning relationship with Camden in the United Kingdom which provides an exchange of expertise and helps raise awareness about the conditions facing the town and other Palestinian areas. Co-ordination of the Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association takes place in a house next door to the clinic from which education and human rights projects are run.

Above: A wall painted by Palestinian children outside the Friendship House in Abu Dis which speaks for itself.

Bukhari is a confident driver, which comes in handy, particularly when we go through the checkpoint outside Ramallah and have to push our way through a chaotic queue of cars waiting to get into the hilly West Bank city. Drivers are generally aggressive here and have little hesitation about taking the gap when they can or expressing their displeasure with their horns. Once through the checkpoint, we are greeted with heaps of rubbish – limited resources for municipal services, says Bukhari – and lots of unfinished buildings: “Nobody wants to live behind the wall,” he says. The country’s independent young children wind their way unaccompanied, on foot and on bikes, through the rubble and the chaos.

At my request, we make our way to Arafat’s tomb (pictured left), a startlingly white and startling large monument to the dead politician which sits behind the headquarters of the Palestinian National Authority. Huge photos of Arafat and current PNA president Mahmoud Abbas My companions use the opportunity to say one of their five daily prayers in the modern mosque built alongside the tomb. “We’re not praying for Arafat, you understand. It’s our prayer time,” says one with a smile.

On our return from Ramallah, Bukhari stops outside a large multiple-storey unfinished building just outside the relatively upmarket American Colony in East Jerusalem. “It was meant as a Palestinian cultural centre, but the Israelis put a stop to the building,” he said. The purpose of our visit to the enormous concrete shell becomes clear as he knocks on a steel door and introduces us to some of the building’s occupants – a family from Abu Dis who have been living there for 12 years.

It’s a bizarre experience. We sit in their “lounge” which is demarcated by thin board partitions and softened by drapes on to which are pinned pictures of the family’s children and some prayer texts. I sip on a small tumbler of delicious cardamon-flavoured black coffee and reflect on how sane these people seem despite their un-sane living conditions. In total, 30 families occupy the cavernous construct.

Back in the Old City, I need no local guide to show me the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. A well-worn alley lined with tourist shops and the general flow of tourists/pilgrims leads me there without much trouble. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t having to fight back tears which come while I hover by a pillar listening to the hymns of a mass in progress.

It seems crass to pull out my camera, although eventually I do because everyone else is snapping away around me in the point, shoot and run manner of modern tourists with digital technology.

Intoxicated by wonder, I leave the maze-like church by a different entrance and immediately lose myself in another bigger maze: the alleys of the Old City. When I finally find my way back to the hotel, BBC is carrying news of clashes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the village of Safa, just outside Hebron, where we visited the day before. Never a dull moment…

* Sharon Dell’s trip to the Middle East is being made possible by local (South African) Muslim sponsorship.

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