Asking for directions to the Tomb of the Patriarchs we get to talking with one of the few Arab families still living in the Jewish Quarter.
“Of course they make life here for us very difficult.” explained the man. “But we cannot leave. If I buy a house in the main city and go live there, they’ll have taken this one before I make it down the street.”
The building housing the tombs is split into Muslim and Jewish sections. As it is Friday, we go through to the synagogue and make our way towards the guarded entrance.
We start to pass one by one through the metal detectors at the front and I nod at the dark haired IDF soldier on the other side.
‘Where are you all from?’ says he in bored, businesslike manner
‘Around. Some Americans, some British.’ My standard response at checkpoints.
‘A variety. Some like this, some like that.’
‘What religion are you?’ he puts a stress on the last word.
A small alarm bell goes off in my head. There are few positive outcomes to this conversation.
But I cannot bring myself to lie.
He stiffens, ‘You cannot come in.’
‘Why?’ I ask, knowing full well the answer but feeling unable to walk away without making some kind of a stand, however futile.
‘No Muslims are allowed in the Synagogue’ he says shortly.
‘Not allowed.’ He repeats and shifts his rifle uncomfortably on his shoulder. ‘Do you want to see the surgeon?’
Realizing that this was not, in fact, a threat and that he meant his superior; possibly sergeant, I say yes, bring him over.
Half of my friends were inside while the others were queued up outside – unsure of what was going on.
‘Let them through then.’ I say before being made to exit. I wait apprehensively for the sergeant.
The sergeant, a slight man with a very dark, handsome face comes over. The story is relayed in a few words of Hebrew accompanied by the word ‘Muslim’ and he is turning back to his post almost without breaking stride.
‘No Muslims,’ he calls over his shoulder.
A nearby girl in uniform reiterates his verdict.
By this point my friends are aware of the situation. Ellen and Nick come immediately to my side. There is much debate between us and the IDF girl.
‘This is ridiculous’ says Nick ‘you asked her a question that you had no business asking. We’re all together, just let us in.’
‘Why shouldn’t she be allowed in?’ says Ellen. ‘You’ve no right to do this, she’s a British citizen.’
‘It is the rules,’ she says
‘Whose rules?’ we shoot back.
‘No it’s not,’ says Nick. ‘Show me where it says Muslims aren’t allowed in. Show me where it’s written that. This is politics, not religion.’
Of course, even after much back and forth nothing had changed. But I was deeply appreciative of Nick and Ellen’s support. If you’re going to get kicked out of a synagogue in the occupied West Bank – it feels infinitely better to have it done to you with a couple of good friends around you.
It was also good just being able to debate with the soldiers about it. We didn’t get our way but at least we spoke. At least we voiced our thoughts and opinions. Calmly and politely. We didn’t just slink away but instigated a dialogue and got one in return.
We made a plan to meet afterwards and I stayed outside as the rest of the group made their way inside.
As they go in I hang out for a bit, not really sure what to do with myself but feeling like I couldn’t just tuck my tail underneath my legs and walk away.
So I make my way back to the sergeant.
He is on his walkie talkie and motions for me to wait. He is not much taller than me, perhaps in his early thirties and I want to ask where he is from originally. His skin is very dark and his English very good. Neither of which are very common in Israel.
‘Why can’t I go in?’ I demand of him.
‘Because, you are Muslim,’ he explains impatiently. ‘Jews cannot go to the mosque, and Muslims cannot go to the synagogues. Christians can go everywhere.’
‘So, let me in anyway.’ I say. ‘There’s no real reason not to. You can come with me.’
‘No.’ There is no compromise in his voice.
‘But look at me, I am such a nice girl.’ I say, smiling as charmingly as possible.
This, at least, merits a small laugh from the man.
‘I’m sure you are very nice,’ he says ‘but you still can’t go in.’
‘Just go to the mosque. There you can go in.’ He says in a tone that really says ‘just go to where you belong.’
‘It’s closed for Friday prayers,’ ha! I think. My irrefutable logic will, surely, flummox him into letting me in to see the tombs.
‘No, you will be able to go in because you are Muslim.’
‘Oh.’ I felt somewhat deflated by the deft puncturing of my argument, but was excited to hear the mosque was open. ‘Well where’s the mosque then?’
‘Over there’ he gestures unhelpfully.
I look at him pointedly.
‘Come with me,’ he sighs.
He takes me through soldiers’ area in a shortcut to the Muslim side of the Tomb. I get a few very unfriendly looks from the soldiers who, by now, are aware of the situation. Otherwise, they didn’t seem all that bothered as long as I was on the outside.
As he escorts me to the Muslim side and points me up towards the entrance of the mosque, I hear an agitated shout from the entrance. A man is coming down gesturing angrily.
‘somethingsomethinghebrew 'Muslim'!!’ shouts back the sergeant, drawing much attention to us.
I sigh inwardly.
The sergeant turns back and I make my way to the mosque and the agitated man who is very, very unfriendly.
‘Where are you from??’ he demands angrily.
I’m now by myself, in one of the most volatile cities in the West Bank, have just been escorted by an IDF soldier to the mosque in a move which can not look good and I’m not sure which side this guy is on.
‘Lebanon?’ I say hesitantly.
He snorts. ‘What religion are you?’
Not this again.
‘Show me your Koran.’
‘Errm, what do you mean?’ I am somewhat bewildered as I am certain neither about where his hostility is coming from nor if I had understood the question correctly.
‘Show me your Koran,’ he repeats.
‘Ummm, I don’t have one.’ I say looking down at my bag in confusion and wondering where he was going with this.
‘What Muslim doesn’t carry a Koran,’ he says scornfully.
At this point I realize the conversation is starting to spiral out of my control.
‘Excuse me but where are you from exactly?’ I ask in what, I hope, is a subtle attempt to get a handle on things. I still feel a little bit shaken from my experience at the synagogue and was not looking for a repeat.
‘From here!’ he exclaims passionately yet unhelpfully.
‘Yes. Good. So… Are you a Muslim, a Jew or a Christian.’ Another clumsy attempt to figure out exactly what is going on here.
Ah ok, now at least I know what I’m doing. I slip into Arabic and ask him what the problem is.
He’s suspicious and demands that I recite something from the Koran to prove my Muslimness before being allowed into the mosque.
Of course at that very moment my mind goes completely blank. But then, out of pure habit of repetition, the Fatiha comes rolling off the tip of my tongue.
‘Aha! Welcome! Welcome!’ he opens his arms with an enthusiastic fling. ‘Come in!’
At this point you could have told me the sky was green and I would have been too perplexed by the events surrounding me to disagree. He ushers me in to the mosque where I pass through a metal detector guarded by two men with guns. I crane my head back at them after passing to confirm what I thought I saw.
An Arab man is sitting quietly inside the entrance of the mosque, he looks like he’s been sitting there forever. Watching people come in and out. After also taking great pains to confirm that I am a Muslim, he indicates a line of capes hanging on the wall for me to wear.
‘Umm… those soldiers outside? They are Israeli?’ I ask quietly.
‘Yes,’ he replies simply.
I look at him questioningly and he lifts his palms in that universal gesture of futility and says sadly, ‘Allah byifrija’. God will open a window.
‘Inshallah,’ I agree and make my way in.
It is peaceful inside; spacious. A long corridor flanked by praying areas to its left lies ahead of me. As I walk in my cape flaps around me and I struggle to keep the triangulated hood from falling down and uncovering my hair.
As I near the end of the corridor I am pulled from my reverie by a voice from the room at the end of the corridor.
‘I am in charge here,’ says a middle aged man at a desk surrounded by a few other men on chairs.
‘Hello,’ I say.
‘Where are you from?’
Surely not again I think.
‘Ah, you are Muslim?’
‘Ok. We just wanted to check. You know on Friday we only allow Muslims.’
By this point I am well versed in who is and isn’t allowed in to where at which points in the week. I smile and continue. I look like a foreigner so I understand his questioning.
I spend about half an hour in the mosque looking at the tombs and sitting quietly in a corner of one of the rooms. The whole building is richly decorated, a feeling of ancient, light tranquillity calming me. The silence in here doesn’t oppress or bear down on you. The silence in here doesn’t shun you. A marked difference from the oppressive silence of the streets outside.
I sit for a while, quietly, before reluctantly leaving to rejoin my friends. As I walk out I see the same IDF sergeant striding through the corridor of the mosque. I bid the man in the office farewell and ask, ‘the soldiers, they can come in whenever they want?’
‘Whenever they want.’
I thank the man at the entrance, still sitting quietly in his chair watching this mad world go by, and catch up to the sergeant on the stairs.
‘What are you doing here?’ I ask. ‘I thought you weren’t allowed into the mosque.’
‘It’s different.’ He replies. ‘I am police.’
‘Ah’ I say. ‘So on that side you have your rules, and on this side you still have your rules.’
He looks at me angrily. ‘Anyway, this place is for me’ and stalks off down the stairs. After getting half way down the street he turns back and yells something to the man who made me recite Koran.
The man looks at me wearily. ‘He says I should explain to you the situation. He can come here whenever he wants because he needs to make security checks.’
‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘I got that.’
We regard each other silently for a moment. There is nothing to say except a quiet goodbye and a heartfelt 'good luck'. I walk back down the street to my life.