Seven Years of Islam, Part III

Part I can be read here

Part II can be read here

My intention to see the Holy Land began when I was seven.  A missionary from South America spent an afternoon at our church telling stories and showing pictures. Sunday after Sunday I heard tales of people from another land and time far from my own. One ocean and half a world away lay the ancient and blood-soaked soil belonging to the Children of Abraham.

I’d spent the day exploring Istanbul’s mosques and markets. That was the first time I’d heard the Adhan – Islamic call to prayer – in public. I was crossing a bridge that connected the European and Asian continents when the call, echoing from a dozen different minarets, flooded the air.

Shortly after checking in to my flight to Tel Aviv at the Ataturk International Airport, I was asked to follow two men. They led me to a small room with a table. They had me sit on the opposite side from them and asked, “What is your business in Israel?” For the next half-hour they asked me about the entirety of my trip:  Why was I going? Where was I staying?  How much money did I have?  Did I know anyone there? I was cooperative and respectful, yet I interpreted them as dismissive and rude. The Children of Abraham have been locked in a brutal feud for the past 1400 years, at least, and real estate is at the heart of it. Their paranoia was understandable. Yasir Arafat, leader of the PLO, had just died, and the second Palestinian intifada was raging.

The flight landed around 10:30pm. As I exited the plane I was intercepted by two more men and led to another small room. I was questioned by several groups of people, with large gaps of time between questionings, before being given my bag and permission to leave the airport at 2:00am. I got into a small shuttle that was headed to Jerusalem. I sat next to a younger guy and said, “I didn’t think they were going to let me out of there.” He jumped in his seat, “ME TOO, I’ve been here for a day!”

I don’t recall his name, but he was a young Palestinian from New Jersey. He was traveling to visit his girlfriend in Ramallah; he was planning to go to Yasir Arafat’s funeral. The night was cold, quiet, and I was mesmerized with being in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City. This city has been at war for centuries. I saw the Dome of the Rock, the remains of the second temple, and the first photographed face of a young man with a Q’uran and a Kalashnikov.

The young Palestinian from New Jersey offered to let me share a room with him at a hostel in Jerusalem. He said he wasn’t sure they’d let me in, because he said I looked like a Jew. We arrived at the hostel around 3:00am. He was gone for a while, talking to the owner about letting me stay there. He agreed, charged me twice the rate, and said I had to be gone by 8:30am.

After spending three weeks in the region and having been detained for about twenty hours in total, I wasn’t surprised by the paranoia. The Jordanians spent four hours holding me so that clerics could ensure my Q’uran was acceptable. When first looking at it, they were alarmed that there was a Library of Congress stamp behind the first page. I was in a room with a dozen soldiers and a cleric in a long white robe. The cleric read through several verses in my Q’uran while the others followed along in theirs. He would ask if the versions matched and all said yes. He handed the Q’uran back to me and said, “Thank you for understanding, we are just trying to protect our country.” All other detentions were by the Israelis. I was strip-searched (down to underwear) on three occasions. I had all of the contents of my bag dumped on the floor in front of me twice, and they were gracious enough to let me repack my bag under their watchful eye. At each border crossing I was pulled aside and questioned at length.

The young man and I ate a few hours later. He was headed to Ramallah and told me I should go there during my travels. He left, and I picked up my bag and headed to the Stations of the Cross. Twenty years earlier I intended to see the Holy Land, and on this morning I followed the path Jesus walked on the day of his execution. In Islam, Jesus is called Isa (عليه السلام). In the Q’uran, the Jews were not able to kill Isa, only to nail him to a tree and attempt to crucify him. Upon nearing death, Allah pulled Isa to heaven. He is a great prophet in Islam, but he is not a God. Isa is a man, a perfect man, but still a man.

William Winters III