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.
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.”