by Farid Abdel-Nour
Having lived most of my life in Europe and the United States, I am accustomed to being a foreigner, to taking pride in my marginal status, and to accepting wholeheartedly the notion that identities are fluid, multiple, always in the process of being constituted. As a result, I have come to deal with identity ironically, to mock the stereotypes and ossified images with which people around me speak of Arab and Palestinian identities, and to pity their naive essentialized understandings of their own Austrian, New York, Christian, or Western identities. Today, I still have no doubt that an ironic attitude towards identity is a healthy one to adopt, especially when one directs it at oneself. Nevertheless, my visit to my childhood home in Palestine after sixteen years of absence, taught me something important about the limits of this attitude.
My story is simple. After spending the good part of a Wednesday in Bethlehem visiting relatives, I was deposited in an unmarked illegal cab and the driver, despite my vocal protestations, was given strict orders by one of my relatives to drop me off by the Ramallah taxis at Bab il-Amood, and nowhere else. It was still early in the afternoon, and I had no intention of going back to Ramallah to be attended to and fussed over for the rest of the day by my wonderful hosts. After much cajoling, the cab driver reluctantly agreed to disregard my relative’s instructions and to honor my wish of being dropped off in West Jerusalem, a previously forbidden place to me (at least psychologically). I made my way to Bab il-Khalil on foot, passing by neighborhoods I had never visited before, and made up my mind to go to the Jewish quarter of the Old City. I was curious.
I had anticipated being stopped, questioned and harassed, so I kept my American passport within easy reach, assuming that I would need to rely on its authority frequently. As it turned out, to my shock, I blended in very well in West Jerusalem. Something about my appearance pegged me almost unambiguously as Jewish. I entered the square of the Western Wall unobtrusively and spent a while gawking greedily at the place and the worshipers.
Certainly, I had often been mistaken for a Jew before. However, whereas in the U.S. I could laugh at that, enjoy the irony of being mistaken for who I most certainly was not, in the Jewish quarter of the Old City the same error seemed to me devoid of irony. While I had long learned to examine the anti-Jewish feeling that I had grown up with, had long been accustomed to respecting, understanding, tolerating, sympathizing with, enjoying the company of, and looking forward to normal neighborly relations with Jews and Israelis, I was nevertheless deeply troubled by the idea of the Jew as self.
Why would such an idea have been so troubling to me? During my trip I was to return to the Jewish quarter several times. Partly in order to enjoy some moments of anonymity and inconspicuousness, but I could not bring myself to be comfortable in it. I could not like it — no matter how welcoming and accommodating it had been to me. I could not help but view it with a (perhaps maliciously) critical eye. I kept noticing how artificial, contrived, sterile, and museum-like it seemed when contrasted with the bustling Arab parts of the city, where people’s everyday activities lent to the shrines an air of being incidental. It gave me comfort to view the Jewish quarter in this way. On the one hand, I still cannot shake off this impression of that quarter as a shrine in which some people have the misfortune to live. On the other hand, a part of me recognizes a little too much pleasure, too much malice in this observation. It too conveniently serves the purpose of drawing a clear line between self and Jew.
The Haram: A Visceral Experience
After spending several hours in the Jewish quarter, I made my way to the Haram. A secular person through and through, I wanted to enter the Haram for the same reason I had wanted to enter the square of the Western Wall — to gawk. It was evening by then, almost sunset, and the same thing that had rendered me inconspicuous among Jews was making me stick out like a sore thumb among my fellow Palestinians. I was stopped at Bab il-Magharbeh and informed in English that during evening prayer time the Haram was closed to non-Arabs. When I responded with great indignation and in Palestinian-accented Arabic that I am an Arab; the guard became apologetic, asked me a few polite questions about where I was from and ushered me in.
I was not prepared for this way of experiencing the Haram. It was devoid of tourists. There were no less than three separate children’s soccer games. Small groups were huddled in corners having what sounded like ordinary conversations (that may or may not have had anything to do with religion). Families and groups of families were finishing up their picnics under the giant cypresses. Some individuals were sitting and reading; others were engaged in calm conversations. The Haram, I discovered in one glance, is literally a sanctuary where people come to engage in the more thoughtful, reflective and relaxed activities of their day. It seemed that, paradoxically, the Haram functions best as a public space when the public’s access to it is restricted.
Unlike public spaces like Vienna’s Stephansplatz, New Jersey’s malls, Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, or San Diego’s Balboa Park, the space of the Haram seemed to induce reflection and thoughtful interaction. We are drawn to public spaces by a complex set of desires and needs of which only variations on the desire to consume are fulfilled in commercial spaces, and of which only the impulse to indulge in self-absorption or competitive play are fulfilled in the recreational spaces of European and American parks. The Haram seemed to me at that moment to be more serious, more demanding, and to address the residual needs and desires left frustrated by malls and parks.
I left the Haram that evening knowing that I had never experienced an open space so fully, so viscerally, and that before I left the region I had to experience it in this way again, that is when it is being used, not visited. No longer interested in gawking, I wanted to be in the presence of a space that facilitates and encourages those ordinary human activities that are increasingly shut out by the world I know. I was of course being somewhat unreasonable. I myself was not using the space but visiting it. Nonetheless, I wanted it devoid of my kind. Determined to selfishly absorb more of the atmosphere of the Haram in use, I chose Friday for my next visit. Old Jerusalem’s streets on a Friday soon after the noon prayer are like gushing rivers of people. That day it was as if a faucet had been opened in the Haram and people were pouring out of it at a fast pace in all directions. The sheer numbers and speed of this human traffic as well as its singular source were astounding and immediately made clear to me that, during the many years that I had lived in Palestine, I must have never visited Jerusalem on a Friday. My life in Ramallah had been strictly segregated in a largely Christian neighborhood. In retrospect, it was clear that, although I went to school in Jerusalem, I had circulated in one small area of the Old City between Bab il-Amood, Haret Innasarah and Bab il-Jdid. In other words, not only did I blend in nicely in the Jewish quarter, but I had always been removed from the rhythms of life in most of Arab Jerusalem.
An Experience of a Different Kind
Entering the Haram on Friday was a little more complicated. The guard was not as easily convinced. Even the Arabic name and Arab city of birth embossed on my American passport seemed insufficient. I looked too suspicious. Yet, somehow he acceded and allowed me in. While at first I was pleased with the apparent friendliness with which I was received by the crowds of worshipers; that is, while I enjoyed the friendly taps on the back accompanied by “assalamu ‘alaykum,” it quickly transpired that I was the sole recipient of this effusive warmth by strangers. I was being tested. My “wa ‘alaykumussalam” was being examined for hints of foreignness. The degree to which my presence was conspicuous, however, only became clear to me when a man with whom I had had a short casual conversation on Wednesday came up to me and apologized for the trouble I had been given at the entrance. Apparently, the guard’s sudden willingness to let me in at Bab il-Sbat was triggered by a wireless conversation with this man who had assured him that, having talked to me two days before, I was so to speak “kosher.”
The Haram seemed very different on Friday. People seemed to be moving with far more determination towards the entrances to the mosques and many more were in a hurry to go back home after performing their religious duty than lingering to socialize. The Haram as a public space it turns out has a fragile, periodic existence. It only functions in that capacity for a few moments every weekday when the tourists are kept at bay and the worshipers pray at home.
In one of the most surprising moments of that day, the same man came back and this time, after the usual greetings and apologies, informed me that the sheikh and the head of the guards would be interested in meeting me. Of the thousands who walked in and out of the Haram that Friday I had been singled out, watched, discussed, and it had clearly been determined that I warranted closer examination and probing. At the center of this hoopla was the question of “who I am.”
One of Them?
I was led into a small room that forms part of the arcades and low walls that define the space around the Dome of the Rock and was introduced to the head of the guards, a small elderly man, wearing a hatta, whose no-nonsense manner was a little gruff. The sheikh, in his early middle age, was extremely tall and majestic looking; he was wearing a cream-colored tunic that accentuated his dignified demeanor. With the exception of an elderly man to my right, the ten to twelve other men who were in the room were young and stood informally. My interrogation ensued. Where was I from? For how long had I lived in America? What towns were my parents from? Where did they flee to in 1948? Where was I staying in Ramallah? Exactly which street? What did I do for a living? What was my highest degree of education? And, finally, getting closer to the heart of the matter, “Are you a Muslim?”
When I answered that, although I was born into a Muslim family, I myself was secular and not a practicing, the interrogation came to a sudden, effusive, and, to me, surprising end. Friendly slaps on my back, smiles, probing personal questions. Was I married? Why not? Should the sheikh take it upon himself to set me up with someone? Soon the room emptied. I who had been picked out of thousands was no longer special, but one of “us.” Only one person seemed still interested in me: the elderly man to my right. Since I was a “big doctor” in America, perhaps I could help him. His son is in an American prison. Would he receive justice in America? He offered me a cup of coffee in his room. In his small, dark, damp room he climbed on the one chair to reach a box in which photographs and Arabic as well as English newspaper cuttings were piled. After listening sympathetically for a little while, glancing over some of the cuttings of his son’s arrest and trial, and explaining that there was little in my power I could do, that my expertise did not lie in the law, and after subjecting the poor man to some platitudes about maintaining hope in the face of adversity, I made my way out of the Haram.
The Indelible Marks of Identity
The question that continued to preoccupy me for a long time after is this: What was it that transformed me from a suspect to a confidant, from an intruder to a brother? Something in my understanding of religious identity was turned upside down by this experience. Was it not one of the great innovations of the three monotheistic religions to render birth irrelevant in the face of God? Was not the point that we each individually tend to our salvation in our faith and actions? Was not religion as a result a matter of individual responsibility? Does our rejection or neglect of our religion not determine all, no matter what our birth? Would not a secular, non-believer’s damnation be as certain whether he’s been born a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew?
Schooled in the Western cannon of political thought, I am accustomed to leaning on John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration in many matters pertaining to religion. Locke had managed to make a case for toleration, which is all I have wanted out of religion for a long time. After my Haram experience, however, I have come to recognize what a devious trick Locke had played by focusing on the question of salvation. He ignored and repressed much about religious identity that is not quite as salutary to religious toleration. Clearly that afternoon my salvation was not at issue. What was at issue was my birth. My interrogators at the Haram were certainly aware of the existence of Muslim believers and nonbelievers, Muslims who are deserving of punishment and hell and others of honors. Their reaction tells us that my interrogators knew that among the thousands of worshipers who came in and out of this holy sanctuary on any particular Friday some are destined to be saved and others burnt. They do not make it their concern to look into the heart of each. What mattered in my interrogation was not the status of my faith or the prospects for my salvation, but my birth. I may be saved or damned, but was I a brother?
Birth marks one, sullies one, making all of one’s differences from those who share the same birth differences within the family. This all seems very rigid and old-fashioned — to some even dangerous. But, can I laugh at it? Can I, brandishing Locke, dismiss my interrogators’ concerns? The answer is that I cannot. My experience at the Haram, just like my critical view of the Jewish quarter, uncovers the limits of my ironic attitude towards identity. What my interrogators seem to have needed was exactly what I offered them; an assurance that I was marked. But, why did it matter? If their concern were security-based, then certainly my word ought not to have sufficed. If their concern was protecting the sanctity of the place, then would not a secular Muslim’s presence defile the place as much as that of a non-Muslim? There is another possibility however. Whether consciously or not, they may have needed an assurance that, in their midst, not be one who can eye them with an outsider’s gaze.
My interrogators were not only protecting the space. Under the language of security, sanctity and ritual purity, buried in their mandate for protecting the place lies a mundane worry — namely, that of having in their midst, at times of prayer, persons who may be suppressing a snicker, a shake of their head, or ones who silently murmur in their hearts “Look at them! Look at these Muslims!” Perhaps my interrogators sought to guard their community against this awful form of disregard. Perhaps they needed the assurance that I would not manifest towards them the kind of malice which came so easily to me in the Jewish quarter. Muslim birth may not be necessary to protect against this gaze, but it is sufficient. There is a way, in other words, in which vulgar birth identity cuts to the bone — an upsetting revelation to be sure, but one that I can no longer shake off.