By Khaled Diab
In Jerusalem, within the space of a few hundred metres, you can stroll between the holiest sites of the three monotheistic religions - in a kind of short-distance leap of faith!
A couple of friends have referred to my trip as a 'political pilgrimage'. And pilgrim was how I felt negotiating the narrow streets of Jerusalem.
Without prior warning, my path crossed that of Christ. You can say I found Jesus... And his location was the second station of the cross - where Jesus actually picks up the cross - on the Via Dolorosa (The Way of Grief) - that route so gruesomly depicted by Mel Gibson in his controversial and fundamentalist The passion of the Christ. Inside a Franciscan church built on the supposed spot, a group of melancholic pilgrims sang hymns and a priest said something in Latin, before a Jesus stand-in lifted the cross on to his shoulder and carried it into the chapel with the faithful following him grimly.
On hallowed ground
A couple of hundred metres along, I saw the golden-coloured Dome of the Rock rise above the buildings. For Muslims, the Al Aqsa Mosque is not only the first qibla towards which the earliest Muslims prayed before it was switched to Mecca, it is also a potent symbol of the Palestinian struggle.
Entering the complex required a rite of passage, you could say. At the gate was a Palestinian policeman and two Israeli soldiers. I realised immediately by the way they looked at me that I had not chosen the most appropriate clothes for the occasion - long shorts and a fireman's shirt! The Palestinian policeman asked me if I was Muslim. I told him that I was. He asked me my full name and, as it had a Mohamed in it, that was the first proof of concept.
Then he asked my nationality, so I told him I had dual Belgian-Egyptian nationality and I handed him my passport which he handed to the Israeli guards who started flicking through in search of my stamp.
The policeman asked me if I intended to pray inside. I said that I intended to look around and might return the following day for Friday prayers, whereupon he set me a surprise quiz. He asked me how many raqaa's there were in each of the five daily prayers. Being faith challenged and having not prayed for years, I confused one of the prayers - which caused him to look sideways at me with suspicion. "Look, I'm not very religious, okay?" I said to him. I remembered the comment of the older Palestinian man I'd met earlier who told me that when he was young people of different faiths would visit each other's places of worship.
The Israeli soldiers did not know that you could enter the country without a stamp on your passport and were also suspicious at first and radioed to ask their superior. One of them saw the Ethiopian visa in my passport and asked me if I had been to "E-tee-oh-piya". Seeing from his face that he was of Felasha descent, I said I had and asked him if he was Ethiopian. He proudly informed his comrade that I had been to his great country - a description which didn't seem to impress the other soldier - and proclaimed confidently about me: "He's a good man!"
Inside the complex, I was enawed, although I suppose some more faithful soul might think that the opportunity was somewhat wasted on me. That's not to say I didn't feel anything spiritual. No one can be among so much history and symbolism- both above and below the ground - without feeling a sense of humility.
Many of the faithful inside the complex gave me funny looks because of my clothes and I had apparently become something of a celebrity among the security dotted around the grounds. "Are you the Egyptian?" I was asked several times.
One disapproving stiff came up to me and held me by the elbow. "Tell me brother, why are you wearing that? You are inside a holy area, you know."
"What's wrong with it?" I returned. "My shorts are shari'e (legit according to Islamic principles)." Having no adequate response, he turned away without another word and marched purposefully off.
The compound was much larger than I had ever imagined. When you hear about the politicised nature of the Al Aqsa Mosque, you hardly expect the tranquility you encounter inside and all the families sitting around enjoying picnics and the children playing football. One little three-year-old girl decided that I was her friend and took me over to meet her parents after I took a photo of her. I chatted with them for a while. The father told his daughter that I came from the country of Ehab Tawfiq and Amr Diab. I asked him if she could sing any songs. He said that she couldn't as she was only three but she had learnt some of the Quran. She recited the Fatiha with all the rolled 'r's turned into 'l's.
Under the Temple Mount is the Western Wall, the most sacred site for Jews. After another longer security check, I entered. It's not quite as spectacular as I imagine the second temple which stood on the site until it was destroyed by the Romans was. Modest or not, the Jews there stared at the wall with intense reverence, with the orthodox ones unwilling to take their eyes of it or show disrespect so they walked blindly backwards.
It felt surreal to be among all the bizarre fashion sense of the Hessidic and other orthodox Jews. There are the curls, the string which dangles around their trousers, apparently because God ordered Moses to do so, and the piece de resistance, the weird miner's lamp contraption they wear on their heads. This apparently symbolises the way that Moses was unable to look directly at God's aura. The swaying backwards and forwards while reciting scripture reminded me a lot of young Muslim children who go to the kutab (Quranic school).
©Khaled Diab. Text and images.