An American Muslim in Jerusalem
I’ll be live-blogging my trip to Jerusalem in this post over the next few weeks. This is meant to serve only as a travelogue for friends and family who are interested in following my adventures while I’m gone. Longer and more reflective posts will be be written when I return, after I’ve had time to process the experience.
We spent the day touring the West Bank. I met some of the most beautiful and brave people I’ve ever met and saw some of the most breath-taking country I’ve ever seen. I’m pretty sure heaven looks like Bil’in.
This was a long, hard day. It started out with a confrontation and ended up with a confrontation. I’ll write more extensively about this later when I get home.
We studied Sephardic Judaism and the position of Arab Jews in Israel today, with the evening devoted to a concert by a Moroccan Jewish group who are passionate about bridging differences between Jews and Muslims with language and music. Afterward I was invited to dinner at the home of a Palestinian family in East Jerusalem and was treated to some good home cookin’. The hostess was gracious, the food was delicious, and the hospitality was incomparable.
Today was Jummah and the Sabbath in Jerusalem. I cried five times:
1. I got up to get ready for the day and found myself sitting in the bottom of the shower and sobbing for fifteen minutes. I have tried to write an explanation for why I was overcome with emotion but words are clumsy, so this is the best I can do:
There’s a thread that is more delicate than a strand of silk that keeps me tied to my creator. I go about my daily life and pretend like it doesn’t exist. I can’t really see it. It’s too thin and the light of the world is too dim. Sometimes, when I’m engaged in some particularly inspiring reading or making a meaningful dua, I’ll feel a tug on it. When a truly amazing, transformative thing happens in my life I’ll feel the tension on it for a while. It reminds me (sometimes at the oddest of times) that God is there, and this can be both uncomfortable and reassuring.
Since I’ve been here in Jerusalem, not only have I felt the tension of it– but flashes of light have showed it to me in all it’s fine and golden glory. I see my connection to The Divine so clearly in certain moments that my whole self feels like I will dissolve into some kind of painful ecstasy from the sight of it. It is a state I couldn’t live in even if I wanted to–but the intermittent experience of it is truly, completely, beautifully humbling. Alhamdolillah.
2. The second time I cried today was inside the cave in the Dome of the Rock. (See above)
3. The third time I cried today was during Jummah.
4. The fourth time I cried was during a meeting with Tova Hartman who told us the story of founding the first Orthodox synagogue in Israel in which Jewish women share leadership and worship services. Her description of what it was like to overcome her own insecurities; to be actively discouraged by the leadership of her religious tradition as she struggled along the way; and the reconciliation she had with her father (a Rabbi) once her work was accomplished moved me so deeply.
5. The fifth time I cried was after the Shabbat dinner we had at one of the SHI teachers’ homes. I got back to the hotel late from dinner at 11pm after having been on the go since 7am, and sat in the lobby for a while exchanging stories with some of my colleagues. I pulled out my phone to show a picture of a stray falafel I’d seen lying on the sidewalk in East Jerusalem and out of sheer exhaustion and the ridiculousness of the photo I started laughing so hard, tears ran down my face.
Today we had a full day of academic study and discourse at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Part of our program is to receive the same curriculum of training for Rabbis who visit the Institute, giving us an idea about what is being taught in most mainstream Jewish congregations in the U.S. It was incredibly rich material and the discussions we had in our groups were both challenging and rewarding (sometimes at the same time).
If the only thing we take back from this experience is the ability to model these types of spaces where tough conversations can happen between the American Muslim & Jewish communities, we’ll have received something extraordinarily valuable during our stay here.
In the middle of lunch at the Shalom Hartman Institute, our facilitator rushed in to tell us that we had to cancel the program for the rest of the day and leave NOW for the hotel. What was the emergency? SNOW. Apparently Jerusalem isn’t really equipped to handle the snow so we had to get back before the roads became too bad.
When we got back to the hotel me and one of my colleagues decided that since this was actually Christmas Day (eastern Orthodox) we would walk to the Old City in the snow and see what was happening. When we got there we saw a big group of Orthodox Christians walking together through the streets so we followed along behind them and ended up at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the site where Jesus was crucified and entombed).
We wandered around the church for a while, and then decided we’d try to find coffee before we headed back to the hotel. We wandered through the shuk and found a place open and ordered amazing coffee and bakalava. We sat down next to some American tourists from San Diego and compared notes about our experiences in Jerusalem.
By the time we got back to the hotel, the snow was in full effect and we’d been out walking around for more than three hours. After a big dinner and one last working session with my group, I went up to my room and had the first good night’s sleep I’ve had since I arrived here.
Today we spent the entire day traveling around and listening to the narratives of Arab Muslims living as Israeli Citizens. We drove to Baka al Garbia, visited Araq a Shabab mosque, and then went to Lod before returning to Jerusalem. It was fascinating, surprising, disturbing, inspiring, and completely mind-blowing at different points. That’s all I have to say about that until I have more time to process.
9:47pm – I feel better. The sun was shining in Jerusalem (even though they are predicting snow later this week). I did a lot of walking, and a lot of talking today. I also received some encouraging messages from friends back home.
The things keeping me sane right now are prayers and friends (and praying with friends).
We went back to al-Aqsa for Dhuhur & Asr prayers during our midday break. An old Arab woman spied me and came up and asked if I was Turkish. I told her “Amreekan!” and she said, “Amreekan AND Muslim?” When I nodded she grabbed me, gave me a huge hug and drug me over to pray in line next to her. I guess that’s just about the warmest welcome I’ve ever had at any mosque in the entire 15 years I’ve been a Muslim.
After prayer time I wandered the shuk and chatted with some of the shop keepers. I got a few gifts for friends back home. I drank fresh squeezed pomegranate juice and it was amazing.
Our sessions at Shalom Hartman have been stimulating and challenging in many ways that I am not yet ready to articulate. But my main objective in being here is to find space where both commonalities can surface and disagreements can be productive. I do believe that I’ve seen some of that happening already, and that gives me some of the much-needed hope I was looking for this morning. Alhamdolillah.
It is 7:11 am in Jerusalem. I slept fitfully, and woke up depressed. I don’t think I’ve ever felt less optimistic in my life than I do right at this moment. And that is really saying something. Maybe it’s the jetlag. Maybe it’s the vibe of this city. Maybe it’s the hate I’ve had spewed at me personally online the last few days. Maybe it’s the visual confrontation of things I tried so hard to pretend weren’t really there, while sitting cozily on the other side of the planet. It’s probably a combination of all of that, plus the realization that in the end, change is improbable. If for no other reason but that most people just don’t want it.
Today I’m looking for some hope.
May God have mercy on us all.