Sunday, January 04, 2004

Today I went up on the Temple Mount (called by Muslims the Haram al-Sharif), which has been opened for brief visits by tourists in the last few months. It used to be possible to enter the Al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, as well as the Islamic Museum, by buying a ticket for all three sites, but the Wakf (Islamic trust) is not permitting non-Muslims into the mosques now. A fairly long line of people waited at the bottom of the ramp leading up to the Maghrebi Gate, until at 12:30 p.m. the Israeli police permitted us to go up (after going through a metal detector and opening our bags to the guards). I wandered around the vast plaza by myself -- first going over to the Al-Aksa Mosque and trying to look inside through the open door, but people were coming out after prayers and it was impossible to see anything. Then I went up the steps to the plaza that surrounds the Dome of the Rock and walked around and looked at the beautiful tiles on the outside of the building. There were not very many people around -- mostly women with children, or children playing (several boys kicking around balls). In addition to the mosques, wide stairs, and smaller buildings whose names I didn't know, there are also parklike areas with trees on the plaza, where small groups of people gathered.

I encountered a pair of girls who, as I was leaning against the wall looking at the Dome of the Rock, looked at me shyly. We started to talk, but very haltingly, since my Arabic is minimal, as was their English. One of them seemed to disapprove of our conversation, and left her friend (she pointed to the Dome of the Rock and "that's ours -- it belongs to the Arabs"). Nadine and I tried to talk for a few minutes. She said she was in 7th grade, and was studying some English. I told her I knew English and Hebrew. She wanted to know where I was staying -- I tried to say "West Jerusalem" in Arabic but I don't think she understood me (I was probably saying it wrong). She smiled a lot and seemed to be enjoying talking to me. I was too, but I was also nervous, so I eventually ended the conversation and continued wandering around the plaza. I left the Mount by a different gate (the gate of the Chain) and then made my way back to the Western Wall plaza.

I had conflicting feelings about going up to the Temple Mount. On the one hand, I felt sad that there was no sign of the Temple that had once stood there (destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.), and that it's not possible to pray there as a Jew. It felt like a place to which Jews were not welcome. On the other hand, it felt like a place of safety for the Muslims who were there -- a place where women and children could gather without being disturbed. In some ways, it felt like the Western Wall -- people could enter and linger with the secure feeling that this holy place was theirs, and that this was the place to go to speak to God. I wish that it were not the locus of so much conflict, and that anyone who wished could go there to pray or speak with God without creating an international incident.

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