Colombo Telegraph

Palestine, Ramallah & The Politics Of Sacred Space

By Hafeel Farisz

Hafeel Farisz

I met Isra on the bus. She said she was 15. Getting from Jerusalem to Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank is a short bus ride of a maximum of 45 minutes. The ride commences around the Damascus gates of the old city of Jerusalem. I found it difficult to know exactly where we were and she seemed to be the only one able to speak English. The rest, of the bus looked at me and smiled, empathetic but helpless – not knowing how to answer my questions.

She didn’t seem anything like 15. I assumed she was in her mid twenties, a mature woman. She was on the bus with her sister, who said she was 25. I am yet to get over the fact that she was 15. Curiosity got the better of me and during the ride, I asked her how she spoke English so well, and she smiled. “I am a tour guide”. “But you are 15, dont you go to school?” I aksed. She smiled back, the sort of smile which indicated that she has answered the same question a thousand times before.

“My father was in prison and by brother is still in prison, the uncle who took care of us was killed. There was no one to take care of the family and I had to earn money” she said. Non nonchalantly. My mind raced back to when I was 15. It also for a moment raced back to what the kids who are 15 in Sri Lanka would be doing. Some privileged to have an education, the rest facing the same plight Isra does. Education, although free, may be a distant dream for many in the distant villages around the country. May be. I wont know, because it isn’t something that struck me. The children of those killed in the bloodshed of 30 years, is not within the discourse of my circles, journalistic and otherwise. 

As we proceeded to Ramallah, Isra told me that we should get down and attempted to carry my bag. Her sister had a handful with 4 children, the oldest seemed around 6. I brushed her offer away and got down. Ramallah. Here I was. Finally. In Ramallah. It took a few minutes to realise that I infact was yet to get into Ramallah. This was Calandia- no mans land. Neither the Palestinians Authority nor the Israeli Government controls the area.

Throughout the years of my formal education, the Israel and Palestinian conflict has been at the center of discourse and debate. It has been an issue that compelled me to understand the larger dimensions of religion- its evolution and socio political influence on the world as we see it today. If not for the conflict, I doubt religion would have been a subject that I would have wanted to dvel into. I would’ve instead been happy going through the motions of ritual and defending the rituals with scripture.

The issue of Palestine was different. It brought to the fore, the need to understand religions inherent political component. How and why else would for over three millenia, Jerusalem be at the center of bloodshed, conflict and conquests, I asked myself?. What makes Jerusalem so important to all three Abrahmic religions? How and why does the politics of sacred space supersede empathy toward each other? I wondered.

A brief tracing of the politics of sacred space

The answers have been written and re written. The scholarships on these questions are far and wide, indepth and nuanced. David the father of Solomons re-positioning of the ‘Ark of Covenant’ to Jerusalem in around 1000BCE, after he united the Kingdoms of biblical Israel, Judah, of which inhabitants were Philistines and the Jebusites the people who inhabited Jerusalem, into a single Kingdom, remains the first instance in which religion was used to propagate power in this part of the world.

David, a Prophet of all Abrahmic religions was the first King of the United Kingdom of the people of Judah, Philistine and the Jebusites. He betrayed his former King, Saul, who ruled the people of Israel. Thereafter assuming power near the neighboring Philistines, in Hebron he took over the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem, in what was termed a ‘ military coup’- with no bloodshed. Following the death of King Saul, he was also invited to take over the territories ruled by Saul- after the son of Saul who assumed power failed in exercising it to the benefit of his people and was killed.

The ‘Ark of the Covenant’, represented everything sacred to the sons of Abraham. It was the throne, of their God Yahweh. The fascinating history of the politics of God are for a different day, but the transition of monotheism- of the sons of Abraham is indicative of many things, central of which is the cementing of authority. From El to Eliyon, to Yahweh to Al-ilah to Allah, the same sacred power, monotheists believe in evolved from generation to generation, an epistemology that is not even in discourse today among many. If it were, I assume, many of the rituals and abominations would dissolve without a second reading.

So in order to cement the power, David, as any ruler 3000 years ago would have, or any ruler now would, used the ‘Ark of the Covenant’- relocating it to Jerusalem from the neighboring valley. The decision was political. It provided credence to his rule, of a Kingdom which was inherently disunited and which was yet to welcome him as a King. He remained an outsider and betrayer in all three kingdoms: A betrayer to the Kingdom of Saul, and an outsider to the Philistines and the Jebusites. It gave the rule validity in the eyes of the population.’ After all if he could bring in the Ark- the most sacred symbol to the monotheists- then he must be Gods chosen ruler’. The ‘Ark of the Covenant’ was lost since, but scriptures revealed thereafter make central reference to it- The Throne.

History tells us that both David and his son Solomon who took over the rule became unpopular among the masses late in their reigns. The initial revolt against both- are initiated within the Royal court itself with the older sons of the two taking the helm.

‘The first Temple’ which houses the ‘Ark’- was an idea conceived by David carried out by his son- Solomon. The Temple was not built by David who is revered for having United the Kingdom. Construction of religious places, just like it were in Sri Lanka, were an integral component of authority. The fact that David was not the one to build it was incomprehensible to the later day chronicler, who reconciled it beautiful imagination. They chronicled that Davids rule came with bloodshed and God therefore did not will David to build the Temple. Instead he provided David with the plan, which was carried out by his son- Solomon who was considered a just ruler, except for his passion for building. The passion ultimately led to all the resources of the state being drawn to his building projects, leaving a poor and failed population.

The chroniclers go further in reconciling Davids inability to build the temple. They tell us that the reason David was not permitted to build the temple may have been because David had sinned. The sin was the ordering of a census during his rule. The ordering of a census was usually a prelude to severe taxation and forced labour on the population. As a result of this, we are told that God sent a severe plague that killed 70,000 people.

Thereafter conquests after conquests, over this area, shaped and continue to shape the world we live in today. The reason for such, was the belief in the sacredness of the space which was home to Prophets and Sages of all Abrahmic religions. We are also told that Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son around this area of around 150,000 Square Meters and also that the earth mound which created Adam the first man, was also chosen from here. It is in these precincts that Jesus uttered the words “Does not scripture say: my house will be called a house of prayer?. You have turned it into a robbers den” after the Temple was turned for unethical commercial trading and usury. The outburst led to the eventual crucifixion of Jesus a 5 minute walk away from the Haram al Sharif/ Al Aqsa/ Temple mount within the city of Jerusalem.

For Muslims, it remains one of the most holiest places, for it is believed that The Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to meet god, in a chariot named ‘ Burak’ from the very rock which is located in the Dome of the Rock. The entire area is known as the Haram Al Sharif to the Muslims. The area is central to the apocalypse- the end of the time. It is here that the judgment and Resurrection is said to take place according to all three monotheistic traditions- Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

As a part of a footnote it must be added that the worship of the sacred- many gods- which were devoted to many reasons- were a part and parcel of the sons of Abraham until the exile of the then sons of Abraham the Jews to Babylon, following the destruction and massacre by the invading army in and around the area of the Haram al Sharif in (597-539). The decision to worship one God alone seems again political in order to preserve the identity against an imposing Babylonian culture which served many different gods. After the destruction of the First Temple- the fact that God let it happen meant the end of the world- metaphorically to all adherents of Yahweh. It meant a defeat of the God they worshipped. They fled to areas of Babylonian domination which had conflicting cultures and gods. Ultimately this let down by the God was reconciled with the blaming of themselves- that they had angered the god and the destruction was therefore his will. The Second Temple built after the destruction of the first, therefore was a more sober one- sans the pomp and pageantry of the work of Solomon. It was believed that Yahweh may have not been pleased with such exuberance resulting in its destruction and expulsion by the invading forces.

As a mode of connecting to the sacred place following the exile- the sons of Abraham looked towards the direction of the Temple and worshipped. In order to distinguish themselves from the rest of the imposing Babylonians whose land they now found sanctuary in- they also initialized new practices such as taking ablution, not eating a certain kind of meat, circumcision, wearing a cap on the head etc. Muslims followed this tradition including the use of ‘Haram al Sharif’ being the first kiblah- the direction toward which the Muslims prayed.

Ramallah as I saw it first

The West Bank has three different areas, marked and coded by the Israeli government. Area “A” comes under the direct governance of the Palestinian authority. The Palestinian Police remain the dominant force. Palestinians are free to build and farm in the area, which comprises only 18% of the land. Area “B” is the second demarcation. The Palestinians do not have judicial authority over the area. Area “C” which comprises 61% of the land comes under direct Israeli control and the Palestinians have no control and aren’t free to build or farm in the lands owned by them. They have to obtain permission from the Occupier- the Israeli government.

The city of Ramallah however is bustling. It reminds me of a more organized Pettah. The market place is full of fruits and vegetables and the Coffee shops are a place at which the youth enjoy their evenings, smoking Shisha. However, it remains like Tel Aviv a very expensive city, even to a traveler from Europe or the United States.

Having been treated to an Arabic coffee and other such niceties I left Isra to the main city. That night was the night of the Champions league football final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. I never for once realized how important a sport could be to a population. Three of us, backpackers who just met at a hostel in Ramallah proceeded to a Shisha bar, after hearing the loud noise of cheers and disappointment. The place was packed. Palestinian youth in their numbers, replete with Real Madrid T shirts and flags were at the edge of their seats cheering and praying. The match was no disappointment, going into a penalty shoot out but the moment of victory was a sight to see. I have seldom experienced that kind of passion and emotion at such a closed space over a sporting victory, and here I am from Sri Lanka where sports mean more than just a game.

The area erupted. Everyone hugged each other and were on top of chairs the moment the Atletico player failed to find the net. As we walked down the youth had poured into the streets shouting and drumming celebratory tones. Hugging is kissing the three strangers they did not know only a moment ago.

They seemed to have forgotten, at least for a moment that they have been surrounded by a wall- which stretches 700 kilo meters. ” We can’t go to the beach. That is a small thing that I want for my son” one man was to tell me. Another lamented that he could not visit Al- Aqsa, just 45 minutes from where we were. ” I haven’t been there for 30 years, it is very difficult for us to go there. We have to get a permit and getting it is next to impossible” he lamented. Another woman was to show me her land, filled with Olive trees, on my way into the outskirts of Ramallah. ” This is the land my father gave me, but I cant build or take the produce of the Olives” she said. Why I asked naturally. ” You see those houses on that side and the houses on the other side?” she asked and I replied in the affirmative. ” Those are settlements, and we cant do anything in between that area” she said. Right at her doorstep, she lived in occupied land, by people she did not know.

Almost everyone I spoke to around here has a relative or friend lost, injured or incarcerated. “We are an educated people, today there are more girls in university than guys” Samina a 23 year old English graduate of Al- Quds told me.

Religion and nationalism

It was after I attended a wedding quite by chance, in a village in the outskirts of Ramallah that I felt compelled to ask the question. The Palestinian weddings are an exhibition of its own, a celebration that again seldom draws parallels. The wedding usually spans three days, filled with song, dance and laughter. The night before the wedding I am told is the biggest celebration. On the day of the wedding guests are served traditional Palestinian lunch, with meat, rice and a sort of yogurt poured in to the rice. There are two kinds of dishes; served at weddings I was told. Following the lunch the Groom is then taken in procession around the village, the men and women joining into sing and dance, traditional Arabic dances. The groom is then taken to the house of the wife and the newly wedded couple make their way to the house of the groom at which the celebration of the ladies continue.

The ‘coffee man’ was indeed a sight to see, dressed in a traditional costume pouring coffee to all who wish to drink it. So were the females dressed in traditional Palestinian ‘throbe’-. A rich garment which I was hand-woven in traditional Palestinian fabric. I was struck by the fact that in the land of Philistina- where Prophets and sages have set foot, one of the first conquests of the Caliphate- the cultural influence of the house of Saud ( Saudi Arabia) was nonexistent. ” There is no lady in a Nikab in this village, the other and the other” a man told me pointing left and right from where we were. Everyone I spoke to in the village was insightful- speaking fluent English, with a nuanced understanding of the world, and emotion against the occupation. Come to think of it I am yet to see anyone in a Nikab as I write this.

There was no ‘separation wall’ between the genders, nor was there an eerie feeling of imposition. The music was beautiful, with a beat strong enough to energize the young and old towards traditional dance. It was a celebration, an event in which all of them gathered to celebrate the union of the young, with open hearts and warmth I’ve seldom experienced.

” We are proud of our culture and although there may be political extremism against the occupier there is no religious extremism here” I was told, ” The battle is against the colonisation of our people. It’s about our land. So our resistance draws from that. It doesn’t go beyond to religious fanaticism” a woman who looked like she was her early forties told me.

On my way back, I could help but think of Isra though. 15, intelligent and confident. Yet struggling the economic struggle of a 40 year old, to keep the family alive. She told me that she could give me a guided tour, if I so wish. I am yet to make up my mind, the hazel brown eyes and the smile tells me that I should. Soon.

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