Saturday, August 08, 2009

How to Nearly Start A Riot at Al-Aqsa Mosque


It was hot. Very hot. Knowing exactly where I intended to go that afternoon, I decided not to dress the part. My destination was certain, and the truth is that I was uncertain of my social and religious boundaries. In large part, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock is not exactly the place to wear the costume of a Muslim woman when one is, in fact, not Muslim at all. And for a Jew, well, there are a whole lot of other religious imperatives about why a Jew should never set foot on the site of the former Temple Mount without proper rabbinical instruction. Long story short, the part of me that believes in voodoo decided it would be best to dress modestly but neutrally, so as not to piss anyone off.

For so long now, I have played the part of an ambiguous-looking local so exceptionally well. Depending on my attire and usage of my minimal language skills, I can so easily slip in and out of many social situations. My particular strength is looking like either a secular or modern Orthodox Israeli, a secular Muslim, or a Palestinian Christian. With my Arabic and generalizable cheekiness, I have gotten so many free rides and discounts here and there. Everything from free fruit from the fruit guy to an impromptu tour of the rooftops of the Old City, many Arab folks have instantly embraced me for my "Arab face". Of course, mention that this "face" is only attributed to the coloring of my Italian mother, but face and half-green eyes are actually that of my Irish/German father and his American pedigree. Of course, my ability to "fake it" in the past as a half-Muslim has always been a fun way to get invited for tea and keep the conversation going. It has given me an inside to a very closed world. In my mind, I have often giggled that this little white lie has let me bravely go where no white girl has ever gone before...

But obviously, it is not like I am ignorant or insensitive to the emphasis on costuming here in Jerusalem. More than anywhere else in the world, the art of self-expression through how one dresses takes on enormous social, political and religious implications. In fact, it was out of my recognition of this that I was so deliberate in choosing not to look so local that day. Call it a mixture of respect for the sacred or just basic fear for preserving my life, I was happy to play the part of the bohemian tourist on the day that I made the decision to spend the afternoon wandering to all of the places I have neglected to see over the course of my time in the Holy City. This was the day that I would visit the holiest of holy places of Jerusalem, the place where the Jews were the first to claim that this particular spot on earth is where Heaven and Earth touch, and the direct connection with G-d exists. I was paying a little visit to the site of the former Jewish temples and the hotly contested place where the Muslim folks have their sacred mosque and famous, glittering dome today. Yes, folks, I was headed to the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock complex that sits upon Mount Moriah. I was going to the place where all of the centuries of Jewish hurt and ethnic conflict is about.

The truth is that I had no intention to speak to anyone, much less be anything other than a polite guest to this holiest of holy places. For this reason, I choose a pair of extremely baggy, bright green cotton parachute pants over a long skirt. Since most of my clothing has been bought in Israel, I knew that the cut and style of all of my skirts might automatically mark me as a Jew. For safety reasons, this was not the look I was going for that day. Instead, my over-sized green pants were more than modest and skirt-like without making me look too modest or pious in any regard. Added to the pants, I layered a white tank top under a long sleeved white shirt. With another layer of a pink scarf that would not show the skin of my neck, I was the intrinsic package of Mediterranean comfort and modesty. Overall, I knew that the outfit that did not fit the mold of piety, and this was the point. Certainly the pants were a bit eccentric, but nothing about what I selected was openly Western or defiantly immodest for where I was going that day.

My arrival with other tourists during the allocated visiting hour to the top of the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock complex was without ceremony. Like everyone else, I passed through a metal detector and said, "USA" in clear-as-day American English when the Israeli police asked my place of origin. But, unlike the others, I was a woman alone. And so, without an escort, I was immediately approached by several men within the first 30 seconds that I arrived on the scene. Testing my nationality, they each began generically in English. Because they were pesting me, I decided to play dumb and not respond. When English didn't work, one tried Italian,while another tried Spanish. I smiled and said nothing. Then another addressed me in French. The first one tried a different tact and asked me a question in Hebrew. Still no response. Finally, I decided that the game would be more interesting if I spoke to them in Arabic. I smiled and told them all that I was fine, thank you, but I did not need their services.

Realizing that they would get no money out of me, three of the men disappeared to harass the other tourists, but one remained glued to my side. He asked if I would like to look inside the window of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I saw no harm in it, so I followed him to the wall of the mosque to peek inside.

Perhaps my remarks were overly enthusiastic. Perhaps my Arabic was more convincing than I realized. And perhaps the cheeky, adventurous part of me suddenly got way too cheeky for its own good. But when the guy asked why I could speak and understand Arabic so well, I decided to use my typical line, "My mother's family came from Palestine many, many years ago."

"Are you Muslim?," he said.

"My mother was Muslim, but I have no religion," I played.

"But if you like, I can take you inside Al-Aqsa and you can pray for your mother," he said.

Of course, I knew that this was crazy. And yes, of course, I knew that as a Jewish person it is probably not the best choice to casually enter the third holiest site in Islam as a fake Muslim, even one who is supposedly twice removed by a playful lie. I knew this, but I thought it would be such a totally cool experience to actually go inside and see the joint for myself. Authentically Muslim or not--who cares? This was awesome. What an incredible opportunity. My inner inquisitive explorer--the one who always selected "invisible" as her desired super power--simply could not say no.

"It would be my greatest honor," I said to the man with a smile.

The man looked me over far too quickly, and perhaps he saw only what he wanted to see: A half Muslim girl in a very weird outfit. He pointed to the scarf at my neck and said that I should cover my hair. Then, quickly and far too excitedly he walked ahead of me and told me to follow behind him. As I hurried to keep up, I did my best sloppy job of making a proper hijab with my scarf, as I was taught two years ago by a 16 year old girl in my West Bank refugee camp. I knew that it looked convincing enough, but it also occurred to me that I was really pushing the envelope with this little number. Still, the guy scurried ahead, and before I knew it, I was standing at the doorway of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, thinking: Holy, holy shit!! I can't believe I am doing this!!!

Of course, I had not placed a single toe inside the doorway before a crowd of men in traditional Muslim dress came running and screaming out of nowhere. One grabbed my guy and yanked him back from going inside. In fast and angry Arabic, he asked the guy what he was doing. I, of course, was about 4 feet away, and froze in my tracks to see what would happen next. Other people grabbed the man, but no one touched me. In fact, no single man even said a word to me. The men would neither look at me nor make eye contact with me. It was like I was invisible. Though I was obviously the source of the sudden commotion, all of the anger was focused on my guy.

It was hot. Very hot. And tempers were obviously beyond the boiling point. The man with the strongest voice screamed that my guy was a dupe and that he was breaking the rules of Islam. In turn, the guy defended himself by saying that I spoke Arabic very well and that my family was from Palestine. At this point, someone asked me directly if I was from Palestine.

"My family came from Palestine," I replied. Clearly it was best to stick with the story line.

"From where and what is your family name?," asked a man to my right.

I told him the name of the family I lived with in Bethlehem. I added that my family left in Al-Nakba (the 1948 war), and that we have not been practicing Muslims in America.

By this point, the crowd swelled. Older women joined the group. One came up and examined me. She touched my pants and quizzically looked at my face for some sort of genetic marking of my Arabness. She exclaimed, "Look here! The girl looks Arab for sure!" Apparently the combination fo her assessment and my answers were strong and convincing enough that everyone's focus turned back to the guy. The thrust of the debate was that he was basically an idiot that no one particularly liked, and they were all waiting for a reason to banish him from the complex for always causing trouble. Clearly, the fact that I am really not Muslim wasn't the problem. From what I could gather, this man made a big mistake by thinking it was ok to take a Muslim woman wearing PANTS into the doorway of Al-Aqsa Mosque. The woman examining me pinched my pants at my hip and said, "You should have more respect, child."

I felt bad about this, but knew that it was best to agree and get out of the way. With a big, goofy smile, I said an apology to the people for my obvious ignorance. I told a woman that I meant no harm. I feigned ignorance and youthful innocence. I even said that it honored my family to be here, and that was enough for me. In my mind, I thought, Just keep this up. No one will want to kill a pretty, half-Muslim girl from the Holy Land who is really too good at playing dumb. My exact thoughts were, Let them say I'm stupid as hell, but let me get out of here without getting anyone hurt. With this, I quickly put as much distance between myself and the crowd around me as my feet would allow.

As I walked to the nearest exit, I looked back to see that the crowd had now doubled in size. The men were red faced, screaming and wildly gesticulating in an Arabic that I could no longer comprehend. The Israeli police issued a warning on a bullhorn to disperse the people. Some of the police pulled out their batons and began to walk toward the crowd. Meanwhile, my glaringly green pants and I slipped across the hallowed grounds to the nearest exit I could find. With my head still covered, I glided through the security point, into the dank, cool stones of the covered Old City. I recognized it immediately as the entrance to the Dome of the Rock that is reserved for only Muslims. But I gave a faint smile as I passed and the 4 Israeli guards with loaded guns did not stop me from exiting. With the heat of the day and screaming I had caused still at my back, and I would soon only be a memory in the fears and imaginations of the crowd I left behind.

It took me a few minutes to catch my breath. Fortunately, I know this part of the Old City well enough. I kept my head covered and made a few roundabout turns in the twisting streets just to make sure that I had not been followed. Assured of my safety, I felt better when I stopped in a side alley to quietly uncover my hair and shove my scarf in my bag. While it came as quite a relief to disappear as my little bohemian self again back into the obscurity of Jerusalem street life, perhaps the very best part of the whole ordeal was that my cheekiness and I lived to tell about it.



Alicat said...

After all these years, I have finally started following your blog (I hope you don't mind!), just when you're thinking of ceasing it. I have only read the most recent 10 or so posts, but I am mesmerized, as I always have been by your writing.

As for this particular post, it makes me laugh because it is SO you how composed you were during all of this! You never cease to amaze me!

I send my love, from Denver, across these vast distances; hope it reaches you.

Namaste said...

LOL. Ali, you of all people know my "calm face". We'll talk off the blog. Glad to know that you found me again and smiled. Love you.

VJ said...

Funny stuff indeed. And yes, even at this great distance I immediately discerned the problem once I saw the photo and the bright green para pants. 'No that won't do' I thought & suspected even before I read the ensuing description. But a thrilling adventure nevertheless. And it's great to finally see a decent pic of your face, and to know, despite all the travels, and the many miles & assumed identities along the way, you're still your mother's daughter. Just lovely. Thanks again for the funny stuff & lovely pic. Gold Domes always give me shudders though. Something always brewing inside underneath... Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

Unknown said...

Great post. Why am I not surprised to find you in the middle of a mob of men daring to do something so courageous. I wouldn't think you'd act/react any other way. I'm glad you made it through experience ok and in good humor.