Wednesday 23 April 2014


My favourite place in Palestine is Al-Aqsa. I visited it for the first time on my second day in Palestine and have been going back every Thursday after my morning Arabic class at the Centre for Jerusalem Studies in the Old City (Al-Quds).  I pray, sit and read Quran, and use the time to give my mind some peace when it is often buzzing from all the difficulties I witness every day around me here.

Al-Aqsa Mosque is the second oldest mosque in Islam after the Ka'ba in Mecca. It is third in holiness and importance after the mosques in Mecca and Medina.

Ten years after the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) received his first revelation, he was taken to Jerusalem on what is famously known as ‘The Night Journey’. When he arrived in Jerusalem at the site of the Al-Aqsa he led many of Islam’s Prophets in prayer before ascending to heaven. It was while he was in heaven that the five daily prayers became prescribed by God for Muslims.

Jerusalem therefore became the direction of prayer for Muslims for about 17 months after this event and but was later changed to the Ka’ba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia after a revelation from God.

The Dome of the Rock is situated on the site of Al-Aqsa and is well-known for its amazing golden dome and deep blue tiled outer walls. The structure covers the rock where Muslims believe the Prophet (pbuh) led the other Prophets in prayer. Inside, Muslims can pray as normal in the main area, but also have the chance to pray under the rock which is a lit up cave in the centre of the mosque.

Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa is not just the buildings of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, it is an area filled with fountains, stunning archways and gardens. It is a beautifully tranquil place where Muslims can sit and relax – you will often catch someone laying having a doze under a tree!

In the grounds there are many places where Muslims can make Wudhu (ritual purification/washing before prayer) but the most famous is ‘Al-Kas’ (The Cup). It is the oldest fountain on the Mosque grounds and allows people who have come to pray to wash from the fountain as the water flows                                                                              down towards the stone seats placed around it.

It makes me so sad that many people living in the West Bank cannot freely come to visit this amazing place. You can see the glittering gold dome from Abu Dis because it is so close to the town, and yet the Wall cuts people off from being able to go. Some people can apply for permission to visit – and during Ramadan, most women are allowed to go. But it is very difficult for people here and when I am in the schools the thing the children speak of most is how they wish there was no wall so they could go to Al-Aqsa Mosque. And I can see why.

I don’t think I will ever get bored of going to Al-Aqsa – as soon as I enter the grounds, my mind is set free of any worries and I enter a state of peace and relaxation that it is hard to get anywhere else. It is a place for reflection, worship, gratitude and remembrance and I hope that one day, inshAllah, the people who live here will get to enjoy this holy site that means so much to them.

The Grounds of Palestine

There are cracks everywhere. Pebbles, stones and rocks all ranging in size, littering the streets of Palestine. Pavements with lengthy cracks and potholes you gotta jump over. The dirt, dust and sand play together in the warm breeze, attaching themselves to any object which crosses their path. Some areas manage to maintain a somewhat unadulterated pavement while others, particularly near what some locals comically refer to, as "The Great Wall of Palestine" where vehicles and pedestrians will mix freely. The ridges in the roads look as though cement was left to run and dry with no mention of an attempt to take off the excess, something which my OCD cannot handle. These are the inconsistent but lovable streets of Abu Dees, a small village-town in East Jerusalem.

I’ve never in my life paid so much attention to the ground I walk upon. However, when I’m faced with living in a Muslim a country, a place which takes me so easily and gracefully back to my default setting, my head seems somewhat unable to raise itself up to pass the gaze of those I'm surrounded by. I like to imagine that I’m invisible, what I used to do as a young Muslim in England. But people here, men in particular like to make it painfully clear that I’m far from invisible. It's understandable that people can see that I'm not a local; this is a small place and unfamiliar faces tend to stand out, especially when they make little attempt to fit in to the surroundings.

When I intend to take a peaceful walk, I end up engaging in a game of dodge the stares, weaving around groups of men who remain silent and walking at speed to avoid any unwanted approaches. When I think about it, England isn't a whole lot different. However, here it is more concentrated and understandably so, wherever the forbidden fruit factor is in play. What baffles me most is even with all of that; I feel safer here, I feel at home here. There is an element of potential danger where the occupation is concerned, but for me; I find it to be a magnified mirror image of how I felt when I was growing up. Here, I am faced with the same emotions I ignored as a child and can now see where I fit in… I don't really fit in but I've also come to realise that it isn't really a problem. Not fitting in or conforming is something I've come to do well, even when all I once wanted was to be like everybody else.

When we landed in Tel-Aviv, the pit of my stomach tightened. I knew going through passport control would be a hassle, I just didn't know how much hassle or if being honest with them about the purpose of my trip, would cause more harm than good. We, an Englishman and a Pakistani woman, were addressed by the man in the booth, let's call him Dave. Dave asked the Englishman if he was here on a religious trip, practically giving him the answer required, to which he replied that he was here to see the sights. The Englishman's visa was issued in under 2 minutes and he was free to leave the airport. Maybe this was going to be easier than I had thought. Dave then proceeded to ask me, a British-Pakistani woman, where my parents were born. No conversation about sightseeing or the hotspots of Tel-Aviv, just straight into collecting facts I have no control over. I told him they were born in Kashmir to which he replied, "Ah, disputed territory" with a knowing smile of the looming familiarity which was now present between us. I nodded and smiled and he proceeded to point to the waiting area where I was told to go. He kept my passport, knowing it is the only thing which could keep me. Thanks Dave.

The waiting room became something of a community in the 4 hours we ended up waiting. We spoke to a guy from the US and he told us how he goes through this every year when he comes to visit friends in Israel, "the best thing to do is be polite and comply, or they just make you wait longer." Mental note taken. I was interviewed by a young, athletic-looking, dark haired man. He was polite and calm and I felt less nervous when his first question was "how are you?" I gradually felt like I was talking to a friend, not being interrogated regarding my visit, which I made clear was pointed towards Palestine not Israel. Many people, including Palestinians, had told me to avoid telling them I was volunteering in Palestine, I told him anyway and he took it well. As I answered question after question regarding my background I noticed him watching me. I may as well have been on mute because he was staring directly into my eyes looking for any signs of a lie or abnormal behaviour. I noticed this and made a point of maintaining eye-contact to increase my chances of entry. For all I know my nothing-to-hide-here look may have done the trick.

2 hours later my visa was issued and I was free to leave the airport. An incredible weight had been lifted and I was finally free to actually be excited about my trip. In the 2 weeks from confirmation to my actual flight, I stayed firm in the very real possibility that I would be denied entry and possibly detained until the next flight home.

I am finally in Palestine.

I'm ready to learn, absorb and experience. I'm exactly where I'm meant to be, doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. Little did I know, I had just stepped into a time machine which would magnify every aspect of my childhood I had worked so hard to get away from; welcome to The Grounds of Palestine.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Dead sea visit

 Our visit to the dead sea was a very relaxed, fun and surreal experience. Rolling around on top of the oily ocean feels like nothing I've ever done before. We then had a clay bath and mud ball fight. This was a great way to bond with the new volunteers living with me and my skin feels vitalized from the salts infused in the water. 

From Nick - ariving in Palestine

I made it!!

My flight laded in Tel-Aviv airport around 4pm, upon arrival an uninterested security worker skimmed through my passport and granted me a visa. A friend I traveled with was scrutinized more vigorously. She holds a clean British passport but something about her name or appearance  was deemed suspicious, the security guard found out her parents originated from Kashmir and she was asked to step into a back room. 5 hours sludged by in a hard room occupied by frustrated boarder crossers, bored police and a Coca Cola vending machine. Once free We took a taxi to Jerusalem then met another volunteer. What would be a 20 minute walk, had there not been a monolithic barrier bisecting the city, took 45 minutes in a taxi. The wall meanders the Abu Dis landscape like old nails across a chalkboard. dislocating people from loved ones, livelihoods education and hospitals. This concrete curtain is an anti social big brother of a dilapidated ruin- routinely smudged by vandals, artists and the bullets of soldiers.

The next morning we strolled through the mountainous urban streets to cadfas Palestinian headquarters, Dar Assadaqa. We were greeted with a nourishing breakfast of fresh felafel hummus and salad whilst It was explained to me Palestinians live to eat- this was no lie. The typical generosity and openness of the people means I've been overwhelmed by all kinds of fresh and healthy foods, locally sourced and delicious.

The rest of the week entailed tours of various places of interest around Palestine. The strong sense of community here lead to people waiting in every location. Eager to guide us and explain their story's. My mind has been saturated with the harshness and complexity of the occupation. My attitude has been lifted by the peoples peacefulness, depth, light hearted nature and optimism.