There are not many Muslim tourists in Jerusalem. Most are Christian or Jewish and they move about in large groups on carefully scripted routes. A Muslim woman — me — praying at off-the-beaten-track mosques is unusual enough to elicit surprise among locals and scrutiny from the young, bored and heavily armed Israeli soldiers who stop me to check my passport.
With a tenuous ceasefire in Gaza and the West Bank and Jerusalem still under Israeli occupation, travel there is not without its complications, but I stuck to the mosques. When you go into one anywhere in the world, the formulas for interaction and worship are the same. It is incumbent on Muslims to travel to gain knowledge of each other and, in turn, inhabitants are compelled to welcome travellers. This makes journeying as a Muslim very special — and cheap.
The grounds of every mosque are holy but the Dome of the Rock (al-Aqsa) mosque in Jerusalem is one of the three of most blessed on Earth. Prayers and good deeds performed there carry special weight. So when Mohamad, a stranger, approaches me in the grounds of the mosque and invites me to meet his family in Bethlehem, I don’t hesitate to accept.
A few days later I am on a 40-minute bus ride to Bethlehem being fed toffees by a woman with a bright smile who sits next to me. In West Bank towns, including Jerusalem, public transport is segregated: Arab buses stop at their own terminuses; the tram, a modern European-style train, feeds only the Jewish areas.
We pass through an Israeli military checkpoint going into the West Bank.
An hour later, a taxi takes me through the city and I get my first glimpse of the wall. It is a chilling structure. Dubbed a “separation fence” by the Israelis, the wall is built of concrete and, at 8m, it is twice as high as the Berlin Wall. It bristles with barbed wire, security cameras, floodlights and watchtowers. It is the wall of a prison. When it is complete, it will be more than 800km long — and will symbolise an occupation that prevents Palestinians and Israelis from ever really knowing each other.
Welcome to the ghetto
The streets near the wall are quiet. A young Palestinian boy ambles away, kicking an empty bucket. An elderly woman walks slowly by under the hot sun. There are no tourists here. The wall is covered in Arabic and English graffiti; there is street art and slogans such as “the global revolution starts here”, “jihad for peace” and “welcome to the ghetto”.
We are not far from the tourist centre of Bethlehem where Christians gather at the Church of the Nativity to visit the birthplace of Jesus and shops selling religious memorabilia line the cobbled streets. Mohamad fetches me in a white Honda sedan. We drive through steep, narrow streets past empty shops — tour guides often discourage tourists from buying Palestinian goods, he says — to his home, a two-bedroom apartment in a small block.
His wife, Fatima, greets us at the door. She is a petite woman with steady brown eyes. She embraces me and waves me into the living room, a simple arrangement of old furniture and family photographs. We speak in broken Arabic and English. We drink tea and watch TV — al-Jazeera news tuned to English for my benefit.
From the balcony I look out on the valley. A huge Palestinian flag flies on the opposite side. The view takes in the balconies of other Palestinian houses and flats, new and old, their rooftops decorated with TV satellite dishes and rainwater cisterns. They are essential: West Bank tap water is supplied by an Israeli water company, but in summer the water is in short supply and diverted to Israeli settlements while Palestinian taps run dry.
That evening we visit Mohamad’s son, who does not want me to use his name. He lives in a large double-storey house about 10 minutes across town. He and his wife have just had a baby. Mohamad’s daughter arrives, as do several family friends. We sit and drink Turkish coffee — strong and spiced with cardamom — from delicate porcelain cups.
Mohamad’s son works in construction and is employed by a donor agency. In Bethlehem and other towns in the West Bank, a job with a foreign organisation is first prize. But, although donor agencies empower only a few Palestinians in this way, the fact that the United Nations and foreign non-governmental organisations are the biggest beneficiaries of the economy reinforces a donor-recipient hierarchy that is echoed in signs scattered around in Palestinian towns: schools and buildings and sections of roads are “donated” or “made possible” by a plethora of foreign sources, but not by Palestinians themselves.
Mohamad says life in Palestine has become too complicated for self-help solutions: “There are many leaders who say the continued occupation is our fault, but look at us — it is too much. What can we do?’
Devotion and division
I leave Mohamad and Fatima the next day after a simple falafel meal in front of the TV and a good night’s rest on the bottom bunk of their children’s old bedroom. Mohamad drives me to a taxi rank and bundles me into a minibus. We shake hands and wish each other asalaamu walaikum (I greet you in peace). It is a modest, hopeful goodbye.
The minibus heads south to Hebron and the beautiful Ibrahimi Mosque. Since the Israeli occupation of Hebron, which began in 1967, checkpoints surrounding the mosque make it hard for locals to get in to worship. In the Jaber neighbourhood around the mosque a few stalls offer spices and fruits and tourist trinkets. The shopkeepers look tired and hopeless.
A young Palestinian boy leads me through the cobbled alleys to the mosque entrance. It shares its grounds with a synagogue, but the two are divided by a wall erected in 1994 after a gunman opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29.
At another Israeli checkpoint my bags are emptied and searched and I am questioned. Eventually, I am let inside the modest mosque. Two old men finger their prayer beads and young boys hang around cadging spare change from a group of tourists.
From Hebron I travel north to Ramallah and Nablus in a minibus taxi with a young man named Hani. He is an engineer completing his master’s degree in environmental affairs and we talk nonstop for the 90 minutes to Ramallah. We compare living standards between Palestine and South Africa. The rents we pay are similar, but average salaries for Palestinians are about 3 500 new Israeli shekels (R7 800) for a professional man in a job such as engineering or medicine. Women, if they work at all, fill mostly teaching jobs, for which salaries are considerably lower.
“Everyone must have two or three jobs in Palestine to survive,” says Hani, who owns a coffee shop and also works for a local aid agency.
I stare through the window of the taxi. The roads are full of potholes and strewn with rubbish. The land is hard and dry and the earth is covered with rocks the colour of bone. Road signs to whitewashed settlements with Israeli names such as Ariel and Beiter Illit direct Jews past the Palestinian villages. At a bus stop at the side of the road a young boy wearing a yarmulke waits for an Israeli bus.
Ancient landscapes, modern reality
I say goodbye to Hani and go on to Nablus, the 9 000-year-old hilly city at the heart of the Palestinian olive industry. I stay in a guesthouse called International Friends, which offers a beautiful view of the valley and is a five-minute walk to the old city. I find a coffee shop and perch on a stool on the pavement outside. This becomes my morning routine, wandering through the souk. I am fed fruit, fried meat and tomatoes and spiced flat bread. I sample kunafa, a sugary pastry on top of melted goat cheese, a tasty local treat.
I visit an-Nasr mosque in the centre of the old city. It is locked, but an old man sitting on a chair in a circle of chattering men stands up, shouts asalaamu walaikum, jogs over and lets me in. The mosque was originally a Byzantine church, but it was taken by Muslims in 1187. It was rebuilt in 1935 after an earthquake hit Nablus and is close to the spot where Jacob was given the bloody and tattered coat of Joseph by his other sons.
Two days later I leave Nablus to return to Jerusalem. It is a stark two-hour journey. The checkpoint from the Ramallah road leading into Jerusalem is one of the largest and most notorious in Palestine. I join the queue. We are directed into waiting areas that resemble cattle grids. They are fenced on all sides and the top so that, when you are in them, there is no way out. Somewhere ahead of us an Israeli soldier barks over the intercom for people to come forward. One by one, with excruciating slowness, we are let through the gates.
I will return to the Dome of the Rock with a long list of additional prayers for all those I have met who have told me their stories. “Tell everybody in South Africa to pray for us,” they say.
Next to the queuing area is a water fountain. Under a trickling tap a man performs a washing ritual. He lays down a scrap of newspaper on the soiled floor. He kneels, puts his head down and prays.
Karen Jayes is the author of For the Mercy of Water (PenguinSA)