Monday 7 July 2014

First visit to Al Aqsa Mosque

On Saturday 5th July, I visited the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. I was hoping to spend quite a while there and being the only Muslim in the group I would have to make the trip on my own. My friend Khaled, from Abu Dis, arranged for his friend, from Jerusalem,  to meet me in the Jerusalem bus station and show me  around the Old City and Al Aqsa mosque. I did not even know this person, nor did Khaled have to make such arrangements, yet it once again highlights the kind and generous nature of the people of Palestine. So Khaled accompanied me to the bus in Abu Dis and made sure I got on the bus and ready to go before he left. He was unable to come to Jerusalem as nobody in Abu Dis has the permits to enter the area. He constantly phoned me checking where I was and that all was well. So after about 20 minutes of waiting for passengers to fill the bus, I was on my way.
En route to Jerusalem, we passed a checkpoint, Alzayim I think it may have been called. The bus pulled over in the checkpoint and the majority of the people got off the bus and queued up to have their passes checked. One of the soldiers got on the bus and checked peoples passport, he said something to me I just shrugged and showed him my passport because I didn’t know what he said. I was watching the people in the queue and they were showing their passes to the soldier and they were passing fairly quickly. There was a Palestinian lady among them who showed her pass but did not look him in the eye because she just wanted to get back on the bus and go. The soldier stopped her and stared at her and her pass for a few long seconds, clearly making her feel uncomfortable then let her go. All passengers on our bus were able to continue the journey. The soldier was carrying someone’s green pass, it was a Palestinian mans who was standing near the soldiers looking helpless and fed up. They harass anybody they feel like based on their bogus set of rules.
I arrived at the Jerusalem bus station and saw Khaleds friend Muhammad waiting there for me with his friend. They walked me to the Damascus Gates and through the Old City markets. They looked lively and colourful, you get a sense of what it must have been like in the old times, like you see in the movies. There were soldiers stationed every 100 meters or so and generally in pairs and as we arrived at the Al Aqsa gate, I got some strange looks from the soldiers stationed there.
WOW! I entered the grounds of the Al Aqsa mosque and it was breathtaking. It was overwhelming. As a Muslim I cannot stress the significance and the actual feelings of being in such a sacred place, especially after reading deeper into the history and significance of the place in Islam. Muhammads friend left us and Muhammad showed me around. I learned that everything within the walls of the Al Aqsa region, so even the grounds outside of the Dome of the Rock ad Qibli mosque, are all part of the Al Aqsa mosque and people can pray anywhere here. I saw men, women, children and families everywhere. People were happy and the children were playing. I learned that the Dome of the Rock was for women to pray and Qibli was for men, although I am unsure whether it is just for the prayers in Ramadan or all year round. The view was amazing over the side walls. There are public wudh (ablution) areas and drinking fountains. It is easy for one to get lost in amazement here and forget about everything going on.
What I found particularly heart warming was how organisations set up iftars for the public and anyone can join them without having to pay. I would love to join them sometime but today Muhammad invited me to do iftar at his house. So I soaked in what I could of Al Aqsa and headed to his place for iftar. There, he introduced me to his older brother Omar who welcomed me with open arms and incredible hospitality. I was a complete stranger to these folks yet by the time we left I felt as though these people are my close friends. One thing I noticed and they told me was there is a loud bang, like a cannon, to signify the opening and closing of the fast. After we had eaten we prayed together and then left to go back to Al Aqsa mosque to perform the night prayer.
We met some of their friends on the way who were also headed to the mosque. We passed some soldiers who walked past us quite quickly with their helmets on. Omar told me the helmets being on signify they’re looking to arrest someone. We go to Al Aqsa and the prayer had started. There were thousands of people praying there, some inside and some outside. We joined the prayer, Muhammad accompanied me into the Qibli mosque as I wanted to pray inside it. It was a truly amazing experience to be able to pray there. After the prayers we went out and met some of Omar and Muhammads friends who were all very welcoming. As there was no buses running this late, Muhammad and his brother and friends drove me all the way back to my place in Abu Dis.
Upon looking back at the photographs I had taken at Al Aqsa, it feels almost like a dream. Having seen the place so much in pictures and then looking at mine made it feel almost too good to be true. When I got back Khaled said to me, “I will not ask you how it was, I know you will not be able to describe the feeling”. He was right.

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