Today was the day. For months I’ve been trying to make it up to the Temple Mount with little success, but I hoped it would go more smoothly this time.
Last time I tried going up, I prepared some things to say up there. Some quotes from both the Quran and the Tanakh about Moses and respecting holy places. This time, though, as I walked towards the Old City, I just tried mentally preparing myself.
Was this a political visit? A religious visit? Where should my thoughts be? My thoughts kept going to God prohibiting David from building the Temple because of the blood on his hands. Should that be on my mind? Should I identify as a Jew? American? Israeli?
I passed through the Western Wall plaza to get to the entrance of the Temple Mount and I heard singing above me coming from the Mughrabi Bridge that leads up to the Temple Mount. They were singing songs of rebuilding the Jewish Temple. I got nervous. I wanted to experience this alone and didn’t want my personal trip to be ruined by being angry at a group of people who wanted to destroy the compound of which we were about to walk.
I got to the line and passed through with ease giving them my American driver’s license and speaking English.
At the top of Mughrabi Bridge, that singing group of religious Jews was about to embark surrounded by armed guards.
I was at the entrance of the compound and I was in awe. I couldn’t believe I could just step in. I didn’t believe it. I turned to the guard and asked him “what now? I just walk in?” He laughed at me.
The guards surrounding the religious Jews beckoned me to join them thinking I was part of their group, but the guard I just asked yelled in Hebrew “no! He’s a tourist!”. I turned to him questioningly and he says “you can go wherever you want”.
I stepped in.
Five feet from the entrance of the compound, I saw a group of tourists. I went over to ask them what things are and where we’re allowed to go. They looked at me like I was crazy and, honestly, I felt a bit crazed.
I was terrified of every step I took. I basically hugged the outer walls of the compound afraid to get too close to the Dome of the Rock. I felt the historic and religious awesomeness each and every time I put one leg in front of the other.
I was surprised by my reaction to being there. Guards came over to me multiple times and asked who I was and every single time all I could get out my mouth was “wow this place is amazing”. Any time I asked strangers to take my picture, I couldn’t help but say to them “isn’t this place beautiful?”. Again, they looked at me like I was crazy.
I dared get close to the dome once for a picture, but couldn’t bring myself to go onto the top step and be at level with it. After the picture, I just stood on the last step staring at it. A group of Muslim men were walking out as I was staring.
As they passed I offered them a “good morning”. They introduced themselves. One introduces the other as a sheikh who is a teacher and the sheikh abashedly says “well he has a masters in history!”
They ask where I’m from (New York), and asked if I knew the history of the place.
I answer that I didn’t, but would love to learn about it.
The sheikh tells me about Muhammad’s ascension to heaven, his trip from Mecca, Abraham, Isaac, Adam, and more. I asked him what years the Jewish temples were here. He told me there were two Jewish temples here that were destroyed and he quotes the Quran to back that up, but when Muhammad came here Titus had already destroyed it all.
He introduced me to a younger guy and said “you’re both from New York!”, then the sheikh left on his way.
Maoud was from Jamaica, New York. He was wearing a keffiyeh around his neck, a big skull cap, and a bigger beard. I lied to him saying I was studying computer science at Queens College. He said he studied there too. Uh oh.
I mentioned how I was terrified of going too close to the Dome. “it won’t bite, I promise”. I laughed and told him it’s from my Jewish upbringing that I feel I can’t get too close.
He laughed and said that he’s not pressuring, just joking.
We spoke about religion. He told me that all three Abrahamic religions serve the same God, just differently. He told me “It doesn’t matter if you pray five times a day, three, or zero, as long as you’re a good person”.
He told me has an MBA and is now studying Islamic finance. I asked what that meant and he explained that just like Jews don’t charge interest, there are also rules for Muslims. But Jews can charge interest to non-Jews, right? Muslims can’t charge interest to anybody regardless of religion.
As I walked with him, we conversed about religion, universalism, and treating other nations and religions differently.
We walked together out of the compound and out of the Old City. Before we parted ways outside the gate, though, I had to come clean to him. I told him I lived in Israel but wanted to keep that that hush-hush on the Temple Mount. He laughed, we swapped numbers, I gratefully declined an invitation for tea, and we parted ways.
The time was 8:30 in the morning.
As I was walking past the Israeli guards at the gate of the Old City, I see an Arab kid walking in the opposite direction as me. He looks around 15, school bag on his back. He looks like any other kid walking to school.
“Walad!” one of the soldiers at the gate yells at him, “kid! Come”. The kid doesn’t say a word. He lifts up his hands questioningly, then walks towards the soldiers keeping his arms raised.
Three soldiers surround him, turn him around, open his backpack and inspect the contents. The kid stood their with his arms up, head down, and bag on his back.
I stood and watched the scene feeling my blood pressure rising.
The soldiers found nothing and sent the kid to continue on his way to school.
I tried collecting my thoughts on this past hour as I walked to a cafe to eat and write.