You can find true happiness, wrote Mujir al-Din, the 15th-century historian buried on the Mount of Olives, “eating a banana in the shade of the Dome of the Rock”by / January 25, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The bus driver taking us from Amman towards Jerusalem was playing Fairuz’s lament for the Holy Land’s “city of prayers.” I must have heard the Lebanese diva’s song a dozen times while in Jordan. It was a week since US President Donald Trump declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, and tensions were simmering in the country that lost the eastern half of the city in 1967. Approaching the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge, the current border between Jordan and Israel/Palestinian Territories, our driver turned up the volume.
The bridge has a chequered history. It was constructed by the British in 1918, a year after General Allenby entered Jaffa Gate and claimed Jerusalem. A Jewish militant group blew it up in 1946, and it again fell victim to war in 1967. After King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin made peace in 1994, it was rebuilt with Japanese help. Now it’s a busy entry and exit point for Palestinians, as well for a motley group of foreigners seduced by the city’s mystique. Jerusalem, despite what Trump says, doesn’t belong to one people—or one state.
The Israeli border official told me I’d been selected for a security interview. A British passport bearing my name raises eyebrows in the Middle East. For some reason, Arab officials think I’m from Afghanistan. Israeli questioning is more sophisticated. The last time I crossed this border, I had 45 minutes with a friendly woman keen to study my background. “That’s a Shia name, isn’t it?” was her opening question. Later she asked whether I’d ever visited southern Iraq, or Lebanon perhaps? My wife, meanwhile, was mildly offended that she wasn’t deemed important enough to be interviewed.
As we waited, we got chatting to our neighbours. A group of Sri Lankan Christians in purple t-shirts were looking forward to walking the Via Dolorosa. A frail Pakistani-American travelling alone said he was making the trip in honour of his recently deceased wife. She was descended from Bukharan Jews and had always wanted to see Jerusalem.
Mostly we saw Palestinians arguing with Israeli officials. “Only seven days!” complained one woman about the short time she was allowed to visit her family. “Take it up with the Palestinian Authority,” he replied, standing under a picture of King Hussein lighting the cigarette of Rabin—one of many faded commemorative photos on the walls. Two guards were dealing with a gesticulating elderly woman, but the only Arabic phrases they knew were “What’s your name?” and “Come here.” My wife stepped in to translate; it turns out she needed a wheelchair to get to the bus. Slowly everyone else filtered through but still we waited.
You can find true happiness, wrote Mujir al-Din, the 15th-century historian buried on the Mount of Olives, “eating a banana in the shade of the Dome of the Rock.” Sitting on a plastic seat with only hard dates to chew on, Jerusalem seemed very far away.
The Israeli guards looked as bored as we were. A young woman presented a cake to her handsome supervisor and sang “Happy Birthday” in the manner of Marilyn Monroe. Their colleagues smiled indulgently.
Suddenly our passports were returned with a blue ticket instead of a stamp. In an otherwise tense experience, it was a welcome bureaucratic concession. Visitors are advised not to mention to the Israelis if they are going to the West Bank. But in this land of double-think, buses from the bridge will take you to Jericho and other Palestinian Authority cities. On our bus to Jerusalem there was one more check from a young woman wielding a gun as big as she was. We held up our foreign passports like referees giving a red card.
Driving through the complex junctions and onto the main road, we passed the looming settlements—really self-contained cities—that pepper the West Bank. Snaking into Jerusalem at sunset, the Dome of the Rock came into breathtaking view. After dropping our bags, we walked swiftly to Damascus Gate. We’d been told to expect demonstrations but there was only an uneasy calm at the glowing Ottoman walls. Christians, Jews and Muslims rushed to their respective holy sites. Tourists enjoyed the bustle of the Old City. Just before we reached the gates of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, I remembered to stop at a fruit-seller and buy a banana.