From Bangladesh to Palestine: A snapshot of the Holy Land

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A travelogue of visits to Jordan, Israel and Palestine
My husband and I had a longing to visit Jordan, Israel and Palestine for several years but the media reports on the sound and fury of the Arab – Israeli confrontations and the Syrian war kept deterring us. After the gruesome attack on Holey Artisan Bakery, which occurred on July 1, 2016, in Dhaka, and was very close to home both literally and figuratively, we decided we would go. It made us realise that there is no ”right time” to do anything and no ”right place” to be at. Life could be nasty, brutish, and short anywhere. My knowledge of politics in the Middle East was limited, and I had this Kiplingish vision that Jews are Jews, and Muslims are Muslims and never the twain shall meet, and therefore was quite apprehensive about visiting Israel and Palestine. The memories of having a passport that once stated “Valid for all countries except Israel” or something to that effect kept revolving in my mind, and I felt twinges of guilt.
We set out from Heathrow, London on December 21, 2016, and flew directly to Amman. On our first night in Jordan as we checked into a rather deserted hotel in downtown Amman, I felt depressed. The news that ten people, including a few tourists, were killed three days ago as gunmen stormed into Karak Castle did not help either — a grim reminder of the Holey Artisan attack.

Next morning we made our first excursion to Ajloun Castle, commissioned by Salauddin Ayyubi, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. He was a Kurdish Sunni Muslim, and played an active role against the Crusaders in Palestine. Having travelled extensively through Europe, it was interesting to visit a ”Muslim” castle-cum-fortress for a change. As we were on our way to the Greco-Roman ruins in Jerash, the gloominess soon dissipated. There were practically no other tourists to share these glorious sights with, such bright sunshine and a refreshing cool breeze. I could not believe we were an hour’s drive from the Syrian border: It was quiet and peaceful.

Though we felt excitement, there was none in the air. Only dejection. Tourism has been greatly affected since 2012 by the Syrian war and livelihoods were lost. People were stealing old coins and artefacts from museums in desperation for money, handing over heritage for cash. The Syrian war has not just created human casualties. One enters Jerash through Hadrian’s Gate, and walks around the ruins through to the Road to Damascus. As we stood on the Road contemplating, a young boy said, “Look at the road to Syria. It is so peaceful here. Why don’t people come? Why are the tourists staying away?” I had no answer.
One of the many available tour guides told me that Jordan was 5% Christian. He said he was a Christian and his Muslim friends always celebrated Christmas with him, just like his family celebrated Eid with their Muslim friends. Various communities in areas bordering Syria had lived in harmony with one another for years, so no one he knew could understand the Syrian war. I had hoped to gain some insight into the conflicts in Syria, but I certainly did not, even though I was less than 60 kilometres away from it. Incidentally I checked the CIA World Factbook and it stated Jordan is less than 3% Christian, the majority of whom are Greek Orthodox. Maybe the community he lived in was 5% Christian, maybe the statistics can be contested. Discussion and print do not necessarily reflect each other — I learned on this trip.

Later in the afternoon we visited the Citadel in Amman, a fascinating site with layers of the Bronze Age, and Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ummayad civilisations. I came away with a bit of trivia that Philadelphia was the name of an old Greek city in that location. Does that mean the Philly sandwich had evolved from the shwarma?
On the second day we visited Mount Nebo and a Greek Orthodox Church in Madaba. Mount Nebo was the site from where Hazrat Musa had seen the Promised Land. What spectacular views of the Jordan Valley from that location! It was an overwhelming experience, and yes I cried. That, and the sneaky pleasure of not having throngs of tourists, pushing and shoving their way around. Standing where Hazrat Musa had once stood, I was beginning to understand, ever so slightly, the politics of this region.
The third day Petra the Rose City was on the itinerary. As expected, it was beautiful, especially the colours of the rocks and there were more tourists here than I had seen elsewhere. Opposite the Treasury in Petra there was a little café where I spotted a few boxes with ”Holey” written on them. Our guide noticing my interest held the box up against the Treasury and asked me to take a picture. I did, but with a grimace. There was a man standing there, an unoccupied tour guide I think, and he asked me why I was interested in Holey biscuits. I explained the significance and briefly described the event in Dhaka. He expressed no surprise or shock. He asked me if people like him who were living near Syria had no interest in becoming entangled in the conflicts there, what did boys in faraway Bangladesh hope to achieve by involving themselves in such acts, killing foreigners? Once again, I had no answer.
The Road to Damascus in Jerash Fariha PH

The Road to Damascus in Jerash Fariha PH

On the fourth day we travelled from Petra to Little Petra to the Dead Sea via Wadi Rum. We spotted the tomb of Hazrat Haroon, the brother of Hazrat Musa, on top of a mountain, and saw the most beautiful rock formations. Wadi Rum is stunning! I walked around singing loudly and heard the sound echo three times over. I could understand why the Bedouins were inclined to sing poetry: Such breathtaking sights would inspire anyone! Seeing that I was ecstatic, our guide, a Bedouin himself, offered me boarding in his mother’s cave. Plan B. Plus first time Bedouin proposition.

Our fifth day was spent in a resort by the Dead Sea and on our last day in Jordan we visited Bethany beyond the Jordan or Al Maghtas. I did not understand the significance of the site until I got there. Our taxi driver, a Jordanian Muslim, told me I would be amazed by the little lake. The little lake turned out to be one of the holiest sites in Christianity. The water from the Jordan river flowed through a brook and into a little pond where Jesus Christ, according to Christianity, had been baptised, and therefore this place is considered the origin of Christianity. Muslims believe it is also the site where Hazrat Illias had ascended to Heaven. Overlooked by a Greek Orthodox Church, a brook was the border between Jordan and Israel, separated by just a few feet of water, the Israeli side being a baptism site for the Jews. Some however believe that Hazrat Isa’s baptism site was on the Israeli side. To me it did not matter. It was more than fascinating observing Christians and Muslims collecting the Holy Water in containers and immersing themselves in the brook on the Christian side, and Jews doing the same on the Jewish side. The three Abrahamic faiths engaging in identical rituals in one place; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam intertwined. And we still cannot get along!

From Bethany as we drove to Allenby or King Hussein Bridge our Jordanian Muslim driver asked us how long we were going to Israel for. I answered rather hesitatingly, bracing myself for the hyperventilation and the accusatory tone of daring to visit the enemy state. Instead, I was told in a matter of fact manner that we ought to have gone to Israel first and come to Jordan later through Aqaba. Apparently Aqaba is a more picturesque crossing used by Israelis as well. It transpired that our driver was a Palestinian, a second- generation Jordanian national. He himself had wanted to visit Israel but was denied a visa, however his wife was a Palestinian national and she could come and go whenever she wished.
Customs and immigration at King Hussein on the Jordanian side were nothing complicated. A short five-minute drive and we reached the Israeli side. To my surprise the border patrol guards at the Israeli checkpoint were young, extremely attractive women! Customs and immigration at Allenby were not complicated either. Our driver on the Israeli side was delayed and we were offered coffee as we waited. I noticed the drivers holding up signs with Muslim names and I learned that Israelis do not use the Allenby bridge. The drive from Allenby to Jerusalem is an hour long and as we entered the city, the Mt Scopus campus of the famous Hebrew University was on the right. The hotel check-in was smooth, and I noticed both Muslims and Jews were working there.

O Jerusalem! It is very difficult to describe this city, and Old Jerusalem more so. Over five thousand years of civilisations layer upon layer in one square kilometre. From the top of Mount of Olives the building that stands out is undoubtedly the Dome of the Rock. The Sacred Rock where Abraham had sacrificed his son, and from where Prophet Hazrat Muhammad had ascended to Heaven, encased under the beautiful Dome. It is no wonder that mountains and rocks and water are of such great significance in the religious texts, as they make up the terrain. The Dome and the Masjid Al-Aqsa, which lies atop the Cradle of Jesus, are lovely spots away from the hustle and bustle of the Haram esh Sharif (Muslims control the entry into the Dome and Al Aqsa and people from all other faiths are allowed to roam the area freely, while Israeli guards oversee the security. The Western Wall is accessible to everyone as is the Church of Holy Sepulchre, which houses the tomb of Hazrat Isa (or Jesus Christ), and since 1187 a Muslim family has held the keys to the Church! It is very reductive to state simply that Old Jerusalem is a Holy City for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. It is more than that. It is concurrently the point of their confluence and their divergence.

Finally, Palestine: The cities of Bethlehem, Ramalla, and Jericho in the West Bank. All in Area A, controlled by Palestinian authorities, and off-limits to Israelis. The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem is the site where Hazrat Isa was born, therefore it is a busy tourist area with shops and restaurants. Our guide there was ironically a Muslim named Mohammad, holding a Russian passport and fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and Russian. Ramalla was a different story. At the infamous Qalandiya Crossing it was the first time in my life I saw the vision of dystopia. Battered cars one on top of another, graffiti, and the sight of Palestinians streaming out one by one through the exit barriers. The only sounds were of the movement of cars and people. There was a lot of traffic in Ramalla but I saw a few people. As we walked around a shopkeeper asked us where we were from. I responded by saying, “I’m a Bangladeshi, living in the UK.” He said he had met two British Bangladeshi men once and he was surprised how disrespectful they were about the Jewish faith. He said their talk had made him feel uncomfortable. I spoke to another Palestinian who was soon to marry an ex-nun from Romania.

The tomb of Yasser Arafat and the Museum are beside the administrative offices of the Palestinian authorities in Ramalla. It was the morning when the news headlines were dominated by Kerry’s two-state solution, but there was no flurry of activity, no men in suits carrying files in and out of the buildings, no congregation of cars, just sunshine and quiet. Jericho was different from Bethlehem and Ramalla. There were more tourists than in Ramalla, but more empty houses as well. People bought property there as investment due to its proximity to King Hussein/Allenby.
Traversing parts of the West Bank over three days I met many people who told me that “Ahmadiyyas have chosen to live in Israel for its religious tolerance,” that the Druze are not really considered Muslims, that “Shias too live in Israel and Palestine,” that there “is a group called the Arabs of 48 who can serve in the Israeli army,” that many Jerusalemites “hold Jordanian passports,” that the Knesset “is on land belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church,” that churches “own prime land in Jerusalem,” that the Palestinian standard of education “is lower than that of the Israeli one but there is an option of a conversion course,” that a degree from Hebrew University “opens up opportunities for the Palestinians to work in Israel,” that “Palestinians not only speak Arabic, but also Hebrew and other languages,” that the settlements, checkpoints, and the presence of Israeli army on Palestinian land “provoke unimaginable indignation and rage.”

I cannot verify the accuracy of all that I was told, and I cannot draw any conclusions other than that the Arab-Israeli conflicts are much more nuanced than I could imagine, and the Syrian war too. We did not witness any violent or noisy confrontations of any kind, rather all the Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians we met were polite, progressive, and peace-loving.

We would love to revisit these countries as the saying goes, “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us”.

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