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I was not prepared. Who could have been?

Remission Gate. There were two Israeli soldiers in the gateway.

It was December 2000 and the second Intifada was in full swing and there were soldiers everywhere. At least here they were on foot; at Damascus Gate they’d been mounted. I walked through the gateway into the Sacred Sanctuary of al-Aqsa – and a few enclosed acres became a world. At my back the city behind the walls, but in the great sweep ahead there were tall, dark pines, broad steps rising to slender white columns and, beyond them, a golden dome and the biggest sky I had ever been under.

A sanctuary on a hilltop. Around it the earth fell away.

Palestinians are masters of terracing; they built Jerusalem on a hill and the old city slopes gently towards the south-east, towards the Sanctuary, and there the central and biggest of twenty-six terraces is for the Dome of the Rock. From the south twenty steps lead up to it, from the north just nine. You can see the Dome from the surrounding hills, but you cannot see it from the city. Only when you come very close to one of the great gateways, when you are almost through it, is the Dome revealed: light, almost float- ing, framed by necklaces of slim colonnaded arches and attended by other domes and pulpits and fountains each of which, alone, would have commandeered your attention. But in the Sanctuary they are modest, demanding nothing, content to be here.

From the gateways behind me, through the trees and across the grass, women were coming in from the city for sunset prayers. They crossed the white piazza and passed through the canopied doorway in the blue-tiled wall. Girls paused to slip simple white cotton skirts on over their jeans. I followed: up the wide stone steps and under the laced archway and stopped. Right there, in front of me, was the blue octagon, and across the gold of its dome birds dipped and swooped and wheeled low in their last flight of the day. At the far end of the Sanctuary a reticent wide build- ing under an austere grey dome was the Southern Mosque. And in between and all around I seemed to recognise the scattered, smaller pieces of architecture. I sat down on a low wall of white stone; I was at home, among friends.

I kept going back, that first week. It was the first time I’d come right up close to the story I’d been following all my life, the first time its pieces had come together. The women befriended me, took me to their nearby homes. I realised that the north and west walls of al-Aqsa are not walls at all; they are a porous urban border that houses people, schools, libraries and archives. And all these institutions, and the Aqsa itself, were charities supported by a vast waqf system; a system of trusts and endowments. The Sanctuary has for thirteen centuries been a charitable Islamic waqf at the centre of a matrix of endowments and funding. In 1948, many of the lands and properties and businesses support- ing the al-Aqsa Waqf fell under Israeli control. The administra- tion of the waqf was assumed by Jordan.

My new friends’ homes were each growing out of the other, al-Aqsa was their neighbourhood mosque, its court their own front yard. They told me how East Jerusalem had stood firm after Israel occupied it in 1967 and demolished a whole neighbour- hood in the Old City. For two decades the Israelis had been unable to get a foothold in the place. Then one man had succumbed, vanished overnight, taken his family and his new dollars and put an ocean between himself and his old neighbourhood; Ariel Sharon had secured the first settler house in the Old City. Barbed wire went up, Israeli flags were hammered into balconies, eaves and porches, searchlights and cameras were trained on the streets, on the neighbours.

That was thirteen years earlier. Now, a woman showed me, a new settler family had moved into rooms in the building next to hers. From her stoop we watched the settlers obstruct path- ways, blast settler music from the windows and throw rubbish into their neighbours’ yard. When the neighbours remonstrated the settlers summoned the soldiers. One night, I was told, they’d blocked an ambulance and someone had died.

The Arabic root, 7/ll, is to arrive in a place with the intention of staying. It can lead to i7tilal: ‘occupation’ and i7lal: ‘substitu- tion’. The Palestinians say that the Israelis in East Jerusalem have moved from the phase of i7tilal to that of i7lal. We can deal with them living here alongside us, they say, but they want to live here instead of us. This is 1948 all over again.

Within three days of the end of the 1967 war and with a massive deployment of bulldozers, Israel demolished 140 houses just outside the west wall of the Sanctuary – the ‘al-Buraq Wall’, and forced the displacement of 650 Palestinian residents. In their place Israel created ‘Wailing Wall Plaza’, later ‘Western Wall Plaza’.

In 2000, on that first visit, in a street near Wailing Wall Plaza, I came upon a hole-in-the-wall outlet displaying ill-printed leaflets that spoke of ‘The Third Temple’. The millennium was upon us and the world was full of crazy ideas.

But from the western wall the Israelis were digging under the Sanctuary; digging since 1968. They claim the dig is for archae- ological reasons. The Waqf Authority says that the tunnels are undermining the foundations of al-Aqsa. The cliff-face under the Sanctuary’s southern wall is now a puzzle of excavational entrances and archaeological walkways. Tunnels deeper under- ground come out in Silwan, the pretty, green village just outside the southern walls. And there, through demolition orders, fines, taxation, police raids, closures, stop and search, detentions, banishment and attacks or provocations by settlers, the Israelis are clearing a space to construct an alternative reality. Instead of Silwan, a theme park: the City of David.

q/s/a: to become far. From this root the emphatic ‘qassa’ is to narrate – and also to cut. A story can cut the distance between us and what is far.

in 1187 ad / 583 ah a batallion of young volunteers from the Maghreb fought alongside Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi to liberate Jerusalem after eighty-eight years of Crusader rule. Victorious, Salah al-Din re-established the pact that Omar, its first Muslim ruler, had made with the city when he took it: everyone had the right to leave the city or remain under the new rule, their safety, possessions, churches and crosses guaranteed. With this Salah al-Din reinvigorated Jerusalem’s links with its past and breathed new life into it. And in recognition of the young Maghrebi volun- teers, the state, six years after Hattin, established a charitable waqf for the benefit of people from the Maghreb ‘regardless of gender, faith or purpose’. The Sidi Abu Madyan Waqf covered some 45,000 square metres immediately to the west of the Sanctuary, starting at al-Buraq Wall. It included houses, schools, mosques, bath-houses and lodging-houses. This became known as the Moroccan Quarter.

‘One of the most pleasant features of the al-Aqsa Sanctuary is that wherever a person sits within it, they will feel that they have found the best position with the best view,’ the Baghdadi encyclo- paedist, Yaqoot al-Hamawi observed. Nine centuries later I heard his words and lingered. A building led to its builder, to its patron, to a story. One dome is Mahd 3eesa, Jesus’ Cradle, other domes are named for Solomon, for Joseph, for the Prophet’s Night Journey and for the Scales of Judgement. With Mi7rab Maryam, Mary’s Chamber, the Sanctuary embraces the story of the Virgin’s seclusion as she awaits her confinement. The Prophet David gives his name to a gateway. The multiple narratives of Jerusalem are accommodated here, made room for, honoured.

Within its walls and its eight hundred metres of cloistered galleries, al-Aqsa has seven individual mosques, four minarets, twenty-six terraces, ten domes, twenty-five wells, fourteen fountains, eight colonnaded arches, as well as museums, libraries, archives and court registers and twelve schools. Many are exquisite works of art. Most have been restored or adapted or augmented over the centuries. They demonstrate in stone that aspect of Muslim artistic and scholarly practice that we see so clearly in music and in thousands of manuscripts: the newcomer comments on, embroiders, riffs off, develops, competes with, refutes, rejects – but always sees their work in relation to what has come before. Every piece is unique, a layered treasury of the materials, the styles and practices of different architects, patrons, builders and periods. Many are at the centre of a network of endowments and financial instruments and social relations that spread across the entire world. Here, stone by stone over a millennium and four centuries, a civilisation constructed a layered and harmonious work of civic and sacred art.

On our first PalFest, in 2008, I was eager to bring our authors to the Sanctuary. I wanted them to see all this, and to have that moment – the moment I kept coming back for, the moment when you step in from the noise and the trouble, from the soldiers and settlers and guns, into this open space of thoughtful clarity. I chose my favourite of al-Aqsa’s nine great open doorways: Bab el-Qattaneen. We strolled the length of the covered Cotton Market to get to it. In the gateway the two laconic Israeli soldiers asked if we were Muslim. There were twenty-five of us. Some are and some aren’t we said. Non-Muslims, the soldiers said, are not allowed into al-Aqsa; the Muslims will not permit it. That’s not true, I said, I’ve never heard of such a thing. I appealed to the Palestinian caretakers behind the soldiers: what do they mean the Muslims won’t permit it? The rules of the Israelis, they said. I could see the white terrace rising to the Dome, the white columns. I argued and argued and the soldiers just repeated ‘Moroccan Gate’. We raced through the streets. We asked for Moroccan Gate and were taken aback at the curtness with which people waved us onwards. We raced past Mutahharah Gate and Chain Gate and then were halted by an Israeli checkpoint: glass and steel and show your passport and put your bags through a scanning-machine and we emerged into Western Wall Plaza – and into a different city; a city that’s pretending to be Jerusalem. Gone now the houses growing out of each other, the soft-cornered Jerusalem stone, pinked and mellowed and glowing with age and life, the barber-shops, the bakeries with crooked doorways and trays of fresh pastries and sweets. Here were new buildings: towers, sharp- edged and bland, made of steel and concrete and clad with thin slivers of Jerusalem stone, stern carvings on their fronts declaring them gifts of patrons in North America and Europe for the Jewish Community. There were purpose-built walkways and observation points, there were Israeli cadets sitting on the ground being oriented and Israeli tour guides thumping out Palestinian rhythms on tablas. There was a large municipal billboard saying that this was the site of the First and Second Temples, that buildings on this site had been razed and rebuilt many times, and that it was the central hope of every Jew to build the Third Temple.

Israel uses Bible stories to destroy Palestinian lives.

In the southern corner of the plaza a caterpillar-like structure reared up on wooden scaffolding to attach itself to a high point on the Sanctuary wall. This was the entrance to Moroccan Gate. At its foot another checkpoint was admitting women in shorts and groups of men with settler slogans on their T-shirts. We stood in the line. Israeli soldiers went through our bags. A small silver cross someone was wearing had to be left on their counter because ‘the Muslims don’t like it’. Then we were allowed to climb into the ascending tunnel. Through chinks in the woodwork we could see the plaza below. From time to time we came upon stacks of riot shields. Eventually we stumbled out into a corner of the Sanctuary and into Israeli soldiers already harrying us – telling us to leave by the nearest gate, to walk by the walls, to hurry. But we struck out towards the centre, towards the broad steps, the welcoming arches, the canopied doorways of the Dome. When we were safely inside and away from settlers and soldiers my guests – I knew – would feel that expansion, that sense of space, of calm; the space would do its work, the mosaics, the lighting… But no, non-Mus- lims could not go into the Dome or the Southern Mosque or indeed any building. We were dressed modestly and had scarves over our hair but the Palestinian caretakers watched us suspiciously. Then one of them saw the tears spilling under my shades and was kind. Listen, he said, you’ve come through Moroccan Gate. That’s the gate the settlers come through with the soldiers. Trouble comes through that gate; don’t bring your guests through it.

In September 2000 when Ariel Sharon visited al-Aqsa with hundreds of Israeli troops and the second Intifada broke out, Israel was quick to interpret it to the world as Muslims objecting to non-Muslims coming into al-Aqsa. To protect Muslim sensibil- ities and non-Muslim safety, Israel would bar non-Muslims from entry. For the first time in its history, the Sanctuary was closed to non-Muslims. Three years later, Israel readmitted non-Muslims – but only through Moroccan Gate within Western Wall Plaza, not through any of the gates that open into the Old City. The vast majority of people admitted are Israeli settlers.

Settlers sometimes fight and sometimes kill and sometimes burn. And Israel cleans up after them. When Baruch Goldstein, a settler, went into the Ibrahimi Mosque in al-Khalil/Hebron on 25 February 1994 and killed twenty-nine Muslim men at prayer – then was himself killed by the congregation, Israel divided the mosque and made the larger half of it over to the settlers for Jewish prayers. A shrine for the ‘martyr’ Dr Goldstein was estab- lished near it, and Israel’s military presence in the heart of the city and around the mosque was permanently intensified.

one night, a long, long time ago, two years before the Hijra, the Angel Gabriel came to the Prophet Muhammad in Makkah. Muhammad had grown used to Gabriel visiting him with revela- tions from the Qur’an. But this time the angel brought him ‘al-Bu- raq’. The year was 620 ad and Muhammad was grieving; his two champions, his beloved wife Khadija and his uncle Abu Taleb, had died within weeks of each other. His enemies, the enemies of the new faith he preached, were preparing to strike. Here, now, was Gabriel, come with the fabled winged steed to carry him to holy Jerusalem.

In a wasteland at the south-east edge of the city, Jesus, Moses and all the Abrahamic prophets were waiting to receive the last of their line. Muhammad tethered al-Buraq to a ruined wall and led his seniors in prayer. From a rock nearby a golden ladder appeared, and from there Muhammad ascended to the Seventh Heaven and the presence of God. When he came back to earth he took his leave of the prophets, mounted al-Bu- raq and returned to Makkah, his miraculous Night Journey completed, his spirit soothed, his vision energised: ‘Exalted be He Who transported His servant by night from Makkah to the Furthest Place of Prayer’. The Qur’an gave the place its name: al-Masjid al-Aqsa.

The wall where Muhammad tethered his miraculous mount became known as ‘al-Buraq Wall’: 7a2it al-Buraq. b/r/q: to appear for an instant, bright and shining.

b/k/a: to weep.

After the fall of Granada in 1492 ad / 899 ah, and with the end of the world of al-Andalus, the hospitable Moroccan Quarter in Jerusalem became home to a great many Muslim and Jewish refugees from Christian Spain. With these new displaced arrivals there grew a practice of Jewish residents and visitors praying and mourning by al-Buraq Wall, and the wall took on the additional name of 7a2it al-Mabka: the Wall of Weeping.

Don’t bring your guests this way. And Israel closes the other doors. How do I bring them in then? How do I bring them into the Sanctuary, allow them to feel all that it is? Al-Aqsa makes of Jerusalem a model of the world as it should be: industrious, competitive, worldly, but gently easing you towards a space that is tranquil, contemplative, communal and free of worldly concerns. In the city, though you cannot see the Sanctuary you know that it’s there, never more than a few paces from you, its doors always open, its walls not borders to shut you out, but thresholds to mark your entry, to help your self shift as you pass through. University, cathedral, park, town hall, school, museum, library and playground. Free, accessible, inclusive; the centre of a world – now cut off from the world.


IN 1535 AD / 942 AH, FIFTEEN YEARS INTO HIS REIGN, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Lawmaker undertook a massive restoration of the walls of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa. When he learned that his Jewish subjects in Jerusalem came to pray at al-Buraq Wall, and that they lamented there because they believed it to be the remains of their temple which Titus destroyed in 70 AD, Suleiman had the wall cleaned for them and his architects elevated it as part of the restoration. Two centuries later, another Ottoman sultan, Osman II, reaffirmed the status quo on all holy sites in Jerusalem: al-Bu- raq Wall and the space in front of it belonged to the Sidi Abu Madyan Islamic Waqf in perpetuity, but the Jewish right to pray there was binding in law.

In 1967 ad / 1386 ah Israel’s bulldozers razed the Moroccan neighbourhood to the ground. They demolished the mosques of Sidi Abu Madyan and the offices, store-rooms and archives of the Trust Authority and on their ruins built Wailing Wall Plaza where only Jews could weep. b/k/a: to weep. We instead of you.

In 2010 we learned that it was possible to bring visitors into the Sanctuary properly if we arranged with the Waqf beforehand. At 9 a.m. we were at Lions’ Gate and a representative of the Waqf was there to meet us. He had a list of our names and pass- port numbers and he had brought an armload of white cotton over-skirts and headscarves. The two Israeli soldiers stood and watched as the women authors pulled the skirts on over their trousers and arranged the scarves over their hair. Then, as we moved towards the gate, they told us we could not go in: the Muslims don’t allow it. Again I was taken by surprise. But we’ve arranged it, with the Waqf, and their man is right here. Look! He’s got our names. Our friend from the Waqf said yes, you’re very welcome. He spoke to the soldiers. The soldiers said we could not go in. Lions’ Gate was wide open in front of us. But we could not go in. It was Moroccan Gate or not at all, and through Moroccan Gate trouble came.

The settlers who walk into al-Aqsa today don’t need to kill anyone. They just need to pray. Like the digging under the mosque, the construction on its southern flank, the plaza against its western wall, the act of praying in the Sanctuary is an act of appropriation. This, in Palestine, is i7lal. We instead of you.

sophronius, bishop of byzantine jerusalem, besieged by the young Muslim army in the fifteenth year of the new Muslim world, sent word that the city would surrender peaceably, but only to Omar in person. And so, in 15 ah / 637 ad, Omar ibn al-Khattab, Commander of the Faithful, and the second Caliph after Muhammad, entered Jerusalem, on foot, to receive the gift of the city.

The Bishop met him and – perhaps to show why he’d not wanted the city attacked – took him to see the spectacular Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Omar admired the church, but declined Sophronius’ invitation to pray there. With his young and vigorous armies encircling the city he signed al-3uhda al-Omariyyah, the pact that became the model for the treatment of cities vanquished in war: people had the right to leave the city or remain under the new rule. Everyone’s safety, possessions, churches and crosses were secure. No tax would be collected until after the harvest. For the first time since the Roman period Jews were once again allowed to live and worship freely in Jerusalem.

At the ruined wall where the Prophet had tethered al-Buraq seventeen years earlier, Muhammad’s friend and companion bent to clear a space and knelt in prayer. Al-Masjid al-Aqsa.

Between Western Wall Plaza and Jaffa Gate, the Temple Institute’s shop has grown into a huge emporium. There’s a viewing plat- form where you can look through a glass case with a model of the Third Temple in it and see the Temple obliterate the Dome of the Rock. A pick-up truck tours the streets with great boulders on its flatbed and a legend that says the foundation stones of the third temple. The virtual world carries tidings of the breed- ing of crimson worms and the engineering of red heifers and the attainment of Stations on the road to Armageddon.

Circling, circling al-Aqsa. Wheeling and dipping and swooping around it. Destroying neighbourhoods, digging tunnels, closing gates, killing people, street by street, house by house, moving in with laws, with taxes, with administrative orders, with settlers, with soldiers, with machineguns, with money, with barbed wire and flags and pig-fat-coated bullets and security and soldiers and guns and settlers.

Building the Third Temple, establishing Israeli hegemony ‘from the Nile to the Euphrates’ and fast-laning to Armageddon may be the goals of ideologically motivated settlers, but they would remain a hole-in-the-wall dream without financial backing. Settlers tempt persecuted, impoverished and increasingly aban- doned Palestinians with vast prices for their homes and land, wedge themselves into unwelcoming Palestinian communities and build high-rises there, devote themselves to harassing and terrorising Palestinians. It seems doubtful that the billionaires financing them are paying for prime seats at the End of Days; more likely they and the Israeli government are investing in the stage just before it. Theme Park City of David has hardly anything to show except tunnels and speculation. Theme Park Jerusalem, though, will have a temple and priests in crimson robes and crim- son curtains. A money-spinner.

r/b/t to tie. rabata nafsahu: to tie oneself to a place and a pledge. Study-circles multiply in the gardens and on the terraces of the Sanctuary. These are the murabitoun; people who have pledged themselves to protect al-Aqsa. They are civilians, self-organising and unarmed. Since Israel forbids men under the age of forty-five to enter al-Aqsa, the murabitoun circles are made up of elderly men, women and children. When Moroccan Gate is open they are on high alert.

At Lions’ Gate, standing between the soldiers with the guns

and the open gateway, our friend from the Waqf was helpless. We turned and hurried through the Old City, past the great gates, through the streets and through the Israeli checkpoint. We hurried over the ruins of the Moroccan Quarter hidden under the granite tiles of the plaza. In front of the metal detectors at the foot of the caterpillar we queued, but the soldiers at Lions’ Gate had called the soldiers at Moroccan Gate. They ushered settlers in past us until visiting hours were over and the door was closed.

Every day Israel kills at least one Palestinian. Every day it arrests and detains and interrogates and demolishes. Every day at Damascus Gate you see Israeli soldiers push young Palestinian men up against the walls to search them. Every day the settlers and soldiers stroll through Moroccan Gate into the Sanctuary. Every day the language of the authorities shades further into settler Third Temple language.

Sometimes a young Palestinian wakes up in the morning and takes a knife from her mother’s kitchen and goes out to mount a solitary, hopeless attack on Israeli soldiers. Sometimes Israeli soldiers kill a young Palestinian and toss a knife onto the ground next to him. The language of justice and decency is no longer relevant. The language of human rights is bitter. The language of red heifers and crimson worms and red heifers and cable cars and crimson worms and holy package tours is swelling. Here. Here in the heart of the world that will burst. Soon.

Written for This Is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature. Republished here with permission from Ahdaf Soueif.
Ahdaf Soueif is a novelist and cultural and political commentator. In 2008, she founded the Palestine Festival of Literature, PalFest.