Heading to Mecca, Thinking of Jerusalem

April 19th, 2011

As I prepare for my family’s upcoming Umrah trip, my mind keeps going back to another journey—our last trip as a family to the holy city of Jerusalem. It was April, 2008, and the trip had its own unique set of challenges and circumstances.

As it becomes increasingly difficult for families like ours—with Palestinian roots—to visit Jerusalem, my memories of this trip take on even more significance. Below is something I wrote after I took that trip.


Due to the political conflict, my family had put off a trip to Jerusalem for years. At last, we decided to do it. I would return to the Old City, so magical and meaningful to me, and my husband would visit his family after nearly a decade. Our children (ages 12, 9 and 6 at the time) were excited to see their father’s country, but scared to visit this place so associated with conflict and violence.

They had a rough idea of our family history: their mother, a girl from Washington State, travelled to Palestine and snatched up their father, a boy from Bethlehem. They fell in love and were married in Jerusalem.

Two decades and three kids later, we flew from our home in Dubai to Amman, Jordan and drove to the dreaded border. Living in the Middle East and being half-Palestinian, our children had gleaned the view that Israel was The Enemy. We coached them on how to behave at the border. Stay quiet and keep your political opinions to yourselves.

A soldier questioned us at length but chatted with our children. My nine-year-old daughter asked me if he were Israeli. I told her that he was. Eventually the Israeli soldier allowed us to enter.

As we drove through the Palestinian countryside, my daughter announced, “Some Israelis are nice.” My husband rolled his eyes, but I was secretly glad their first encounter wasn’t scary.

After a tour of Bethlehem, my husband’s hometown, we were impatient to get to Jerusalem. The journey now required passage through a military checkpoint and the infamous Wall of Separation, dividing Israel from the West Bank. I had seen photos, but its vertical cement slabs were much uglier and more daunting in real life.

To cross, we passed through metal detectors and stood in tedious lines in caged corridors. Afterwards, the bus ride to Jerusalem was solemn. When the ancient stone ramparts of the Old City came into view, we all took in its beauty. A wall of a different sort, these ramparts enclose the Old City and its four quarters – Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian.

With the worn cobblestones beneath our feet, we walked amongst the extraordinary mix of people that make up Jerusalem: monks, nuns, orthodox Jews, Muslim and Christian residents, as well as tourists and pilgrims of three faiths.

Our own pilgrimage was to the Dome of the Rock. Covered in intricate blue tiles, it’s the third holiest mosque in Islam. Around it, the Temple Mount is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. We discussed the significance of the mosque. My husband and I reminded our children that the mosque was where we were married, a fact our youngest son wouldn’t accept. “No way!” he said.

Yes, way.

We took multiple trips around Jerusalem that week. We made it to all four quarters and ate kanafe pastry at Al Jaffar & Sons Pasty shop. We toured the Old City, as well as the New City.

Our oldest son, almost 13 at the time, had a bagel and lox at The Holy Bagel, allowing him a tiny taste of the other side of this conflicted country. While walking along Ben Yehuda Street, he asked me, “So, these are the Israelis?”

I told him yes and asked him what he thought.

He said, “They look like us.”

  1. Francine
    April 19th, 2011 at 09:59 | #1

    Great entry! I remember our trip there as well-memories of a lifetime.

  2. April 19th, 2011 at 18:48 | #2

    The last statement from your son – how simple, yet how profound and true.

  3. Maureen Kay
    April 19th, 2011 at 20:23 | #3


  4. April 19th, 2011 at 21:11 | #4

    Great entry, Holly! I love that last line.

  5. April 19th, 2011 at 23:44 | #5

    I love this post, Holly. Profound and revealing.

  6. Lainey
    April 20th, 2011 at 00:57 | #6

    Another touching post. Out of the mouth of babes. Good reminder that we are all more alike than different. I hope our children’s generation will forge peace among us.

  7. Deborah Mustafa
    April 20th, 2011 at 14:54 | #7

    Salaam Holly,

    I also loved this post and especially the last line. It is eerily true. I often think the same thing of Arabs from the Levant right here in Dubai. Having lived in a very Jewish centered area of Philadelphia, I think that they (the Levantine Arabs) look like them too! Anyway, Interfaith work here in the UAE would be a good way to dispel some of the myths that surround the mystery of the Jews in Israel, albiet the political and social issues. I haven’t commented yet, but wanted to tell you that your posts are heartwarming, and I can truly identify with them on many levels.
    I wish you a blessed Umrah, may Allah guide and protect you and your family and shower you all with his Barakah…Alfi Mobruk on another amazing journey. XO Deborah

  8. Barbara
    April 21st, 2011 at 05:39 | #8

    Beautiful Holly,
    It’s so true. Children see it best, as long as we let them be.
    I wish we were there to host you in Jeddah.
    Wishing you all a wonderful trip and the many blessings that go along with it.

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