Friday, April 28, 2006

Interfaith Pilgrimage - Day 1

I was supposed to go on an Interfaith retreat in Bethlehem, but apparently there was trouble there that I didn't know about. Perhaps there was a news blackout on disturbances there. In any event, the retreat was cancelled but, fortunately, the women's interfaith group had a pilgrimage to the Old City in Jerusalem scheduled for the same time.

I met this group at Damascus Gate - which consisted of 15 Moslems, Christians and Jewish women. We were told we had been given the ok to visit the Al Aksa mosque, but when we got there the police said - absolutely no way. We just thought non-Moslems weren't allowed in, but when a Christian woman in our group gave her ID card to the officer, he told her she was allowed to enter. Never mind, there was another entrance which we tried to navigate. There, too, the police didn't allow us to enter (only the Moslem women) and, unfortunately, we didn't have the number and name of the person who said it was ok for us. Two of the Moslem women went in and were able to speak to someone in charge, and as we were walking away towards via Dolorosa, told us that the Wakf ok'd our visit. We were elated! At the entrance, we were again turned away by the police. One man came over to talk to the police: "By us, it's ok for them to come inside". Apparently the women told the Wakf that it would make a bad name for Islam if we weren't allowed in together. So he relented. But the police rules prevailed and we didn't get a chance to see Al Aksa. Apparently, it's ok on some mornings and before 2:30 pm. But it was after 3:00 pm and services were to begin soon at 4:00 pm. I held hands with one of the Arab Christian women walking down the stairs who struck up a conversation with the policemen. They were Israeli Arabs and wondered who the hell we were, as they don't usually see mixed groups of Jews and Arabs walking around town together.

"We are sisters" said my friend.

"Sisters?" they looked at one another. "How could that be"

"We are all the same chldren of God."

And with that we walked away from the confused policemen. The same reaction would follow us throughout our pilgrimage.

Even though we had not been able to go onto the Haram Al Sharif, or the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews, we had a Moslem guide talk to us about its significance from the Moslem point of view. While talking about the holiness of the place, he totally neglected to mention that before the Mosque was build, the First and Second Temples of the Jews stood there - as if that never happened. I prompted him a bit -

"Do you know that WE believe that Joseph dreamt his dream of angels right there on that rock inside the Holy Mosque?"

"I don't know. If it's written in the Koran, then I believe it, but if it's not written in the Koran, then I don't."

"But it IS interesting, isn't it, even if you don't believe it!"

He expected me to tell him about the Temples but I sidetracked him.

We continued on to via Dolorosa, where we entered the Sisters of Sion convent. They had something in their basement, I had never known existed. It was called the Lithostrophus (or something like that), which was where the Appolonia Fortress was situated, just north of the Temple Mount and where Pontius Pilate judged Jesus. We walked down in the basement where the water cisterns were, and where water travelled to the Temple area. A Roman main street was uncovered there as well, and one of the nuns had spent Easter there at the Chapel alongside of it. One of the sisters there, who was our guide, reminded me of the "Lorraine" character from Mad TV and I just smiled every time I looked at her with her trousers pulled up way above her waist.

Some of the group had stopped off at Abu Shukri's restaurant for his famous Humous which irritated some of the organizers. Luckily we were only 15 women and not 40, because it would have been totally difficult to corral all those women.

From there it was off to visit the Sufi Sheikh - Abdul Aziz Bukhari whose ancestors came to this country in the very early 1600s from Uzbekistan. He spoke for 1 1/2 hours and I felt he was similar in his beliefs to Hasidic Jews. He said praying 5 times a day isn't enough, one has to have God in his mind all day long, in every thing one does. In the after-life, there won't be separate lines for Jews, Moslems, Christians, Buddhists, etc. Only for Good and Bad. If bad things happen to someone, you may not know the reason for your suffering, but ultimately, it is for the good and only God knows what the eventual result will be.

We asked him to speak to us because some Armenian members of our group were harassed by local Jews, were spit on and on top of that, were not allowed to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the Saturday when they celebrated Easter by the police, who had arrested some of the people who scuffled with the "spitters". Many had travelled from other countries - like Turkey, Cyprus and even further and were devastated that they couldn't participate in their festival at the holiest church in Christiandom. This caused them so much anguish, and we discussed this with the Sheikh. Turns out there are 3 split factions of Armenians, but they all bonded together when this happened and are now working together with the police and Jerusalem municipality so that this won't happen again next year. So this horrible turn of events actually united them in the end.

The other Moslem women were inquisitive about Sufism in general and didn't quite understand what they are about. He told them that Sufis are the same as other Moslems, they only add on to Islamic practice. Just what Hassidic Jews do, I thought - and it was something I mentioned over dinner that night. I felt a real kinship with Sufi Islam because of its sprituality.

We walked out of his home and Israeli policemen were on the street for evening greetings.

"Erev Tov" (good evening) said one to me.

"Erev tov" I answered back, and walked towards my Moslem friend with her headcovering on. Again, he and his partner looked at our group as we exited the Sheikh's home, wondering what the heck is THIS all about. As we walked towards Jaffa Gate on Via Dolorasa, we heard a commotion and saw tons of police and army. Behind them were a large crowd of dancing Orthodox Jews.

The nun was horrified.

"This is no place for demonstrations in the Moslem quarter!!"

But then after asking someone, we found out it was no demonstration after all, rather a celebration of the Jewish New Moon, which this group celebrates by dancing around the Temple Mount each month. It still didn't make the Others in our group comfortable as we had to go through this very large and rowdy crowd. We held hands and walked across this sea of people so that the Others would feel safer. I'm sure nothing would have happened, but it's funny how a mob of dancing and singing Jews can feel scary if you are an Arab woman walking around. And us Jewish women felt their discomfort and over dinner we had a discussion about the various ways Jews celebrate the new Jewish lunar month. Next time they see a mob like this, they may feel less uncomfortable.

Photos to come tomorrow.

1 comment:

Stacey said...

I have enjoyed reading of your adventure. Thank you for sharing it with us. May G-d bless you in your future journeys.