Israeli paramilitary police walk in the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City after the worst violence between Palestinians and Israel in years, Oct. 26, 2015
I was 5 years old when my family went to Jerusalem to visit my grandfather in the hospital. I remember how impressed I was by the green grass, the wide open spaces, the elevator — which I thought could take us from one place to another — and the sesame cookies that Jerusalem is famous for.
Just like thousands of Gazans, my grandfather worked at a hotel in Jerusalem, and he was diagnosed with heart disease that claimed his life 23 years later.
I remember asking my grandfather about every single thing that was new to me, as a child who was growing up in a refugee camp in Gaza. “Why is this woman’s hair like this?” I asked. “She is Jewish,” my grandfather replied. “Why are there so many trees?” I asked. “This is the park of the hospital, where people visit patients,” he said.
While everyone was worried about my grandfather’s health, no one forgot about me. They answered my questions and then grabbed me by the hand. This is how residents of a refugee camp express their love, with compassion.
I am 33 years old now, and this is the first time I have gone back to Jerusalem. I remember seeing the city from afar when my family returned from the United Arab Emirates overland to Jordan, the West Bank and then to the Gaza Strip in 1997.
I could not believe I was finally going back to Jerusalem. I had tried to get a permit from the Israeli authorities many times in the past, but my request was never accepted. But here I was, in a car heading to the Beit Hanoun/Erez crossing after the US Consulate managed to get me and 17 other journalists a permit to participate in a two-day workshop about investigative journalism ethics with the Egyptian-American trainer Hoda Othman.
On the way to Jerusalem, the first thing I noticed was the vast horizon where the sky and the land appeared to meet. One can only see this when the horizon is broad and far, and the only horizon in the Gaza Strip is the sea.
The streets and buildings in Jerusalem reminded me of Europe, but the nature and mountains looked like home to me. I had mixed feeling of belonging when I visited Jerusalem; nothing on this road looked like home to me, and the billboards’ language was foreign and so were the drivers. Jerusalem is only an hour and a half from the Gaza Strip. I felt that it was all becoming real, despite the political situation making one feel Jerusalem is a far-fetched reality.
This time around, I was visiting Jerusalem as an adult, and I felt the same astonishment at the green spaces and the same feeling of estrangement. My grandmother, who would tell us about her memories of Jerusalem, never felt such alienation. It was as if I could “feel” her stories now; I could imagine her childhood that was paradise at the time.
Arriving in Jerusalem was more beautiful than dreaming of it. I saw different kinds of jasmine trees. I saw buildings made of old stones.
“We are in East Jerusalem, part of the occupied territories since 1967, and West Jerusalem, which was occupied in 1948, is on the opposite side,” the hotel employee told us.
“So there are two occupations in Jerusalem?” I asked. “How many occupations can a city endure?”
I left for a walk at 6 a.m. I picked jasmine flowers in front of an old house in East Jerusalem; the only thing missing was Fairouz singing for me.
When I heard the voices of the residents of the house, I quickly walked away so they would not see me taking their flowers. At the same time, however, I wished they had opened their door so we could have talked about first impressions.
Despite its uniqueness, this city reminds me of Amman and Beirut.
News about tension in Jerusalem started to come in, and I received news alerts on my cellphone. However, I did not see anything happening on the ground.
Media outlets — especially biased ones — have the ability to transform places and inaccurately present them. My understanding of political tension is based on what I experience in Gaza: Political tension means shelling and war.
While Gazans and Jerusalemites have compassion for one another’s situation, each believes that their place of residency is superior. “The city has plunged into chaos,” I overheard a man say in the street. Meanwhile, I was enjoying my walk. It was windy and raining lightly. “It’s the first rainy day since summer,” another man said.
Jasmine flowers appeared from between the cracks in the ancient walls, while the conflict cast a spell on the city. There was a lull I cannot describe as coexistence. Coexistence is a far-fetched statement when Jewish Israeli students await their bus accompanied by a police car, while a Palestinian child with a broken ruler is accused of intending to kill and is then arrested by Israeli security forces.
It is a tough experiment, and it is new for me. It is a different kind of suffering to live with one’s occupier in the same city, where everyone behaves like civilians.
But this could be my Gazan ideology speaking. Had I grown up in this city, would I have been able to live the same serenity?
If the sea characterizes the Gaza Strip, then ideology is its charm. Jerusalem bears the conflict for which such ideology was born in Gaza. Yet still, it is not an ideological city. The mere occurrence of 24 stabbing operations in less than a month convinces me that this is not about ideology, but about usurped rights of the Palestinians.
When I returned to the hotel, Fairouz songs were playing in the public area. I smiled, for my wish to hear her sing had come true.
I did not cry while walking around Jerusalem, but I cried inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque as I prayed for my family. Such moments are similar to the birth of a first child, a graduation or a first love. Sometimes collective memory gives places a certain level of importance as it deepens feelings and turns reality into a myth.
Foreign tourists entered Al-Aqsa Mosque and took pictures. The only difference between me and them was that I was there to pray with a deep feeling of sadness that made everything seem out of place. The pictures I took resembled those that hundreds take on a daily basis. However, mine did not resemble the picture of the little girl that ate cookies amid happy faces.
Al-Aqsa Mosque’s visiting schedule is being divided: Foreigners can visit until 2:30 p.m., and settlers continue to try visiting the compound at other times.
During my visit, a settler entered the compound with three Israeli policemen before leaving through the gate on the other side of the courtyard. The Mourabitoun (Muslim activists) chanted “Allahu akbar.”
Despite all of the provocation and incitement, there is a balance that prevents things from exploding, namely the strong religious identity of the city. It is the birthplace of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and serves to balance pressure.
I went back to the hotel in East Jerusalem. Traffic was bad, and the car came to a halt in front of the house I had picked the jasmine flowers from earlier. The residents opened the door, and I impatiently waited to see my “friends.” A settler stepped out, with his children wearing small kippahs (skullcaps) on their heads. The driver noticed my shock and said, “An Arab family used to live here, but they failed to keep the house. They erected a tent in front of it for a while but then left.”
At that moment, as I felt tired of the differences I saw in the new city, my grandfather’s words came to mind: “Don’t worry, my dear. You will be back in Gaza shortly!”
I rushed to go back to ideology!
(Source / 07.11.2015)