“May God increase those like you,” I said to my young taxi driver, as I alighted. It wasn’t his fault that I couldn’t arrive at my destination. A wall of black-suited riot police blocked the rode. The day’s intense sunlight reflected off their shields and helmets.
The street was extraordinarily empty for a post-prayer Friday afternoon in East Jerusalem. I looked around somewhat frantically for the cause of this intimidating police force and extraordinary emptiness.
It wasn’t long before I spotted a crowd of people marching up Salah al-Din street near the Damascus Gate. ‘It must be connected to the serious economy riots in the West Bank,’ I thought. But as the crowd neared, it was clear the protest’s nature was not economically motivated. The flapping of the black flag of the Islamist movement, Rayaet al-Islam, signaled that this was either religiously or politically motivated.
I approached a group of teenagers resting under a tree near the Old City walls.
“What’s this protest about?” I asked no boy in specific.
There was a quick stumble over English before one of the boys answered,”It’s a movie about Mohammad.”
Another boy quickly kicked up,smacked his friend on the shoulder,and passionately corrected him: “No! It’s a protest against the movie about Mohammad.”
‘Not here, too,’ I thought. I would’ve much preferred economic protests. Somehow, to everyone one but these Muslim protestors, these riots are self-evidently ludicrous.
A minute later, I was in the middle of the crowd, baffled and bewildered by everything I see.Unfortunately, the peaceful though misguided protest was the least baffling. Around 150-200 people, young and old, jeans and niqab, carried signs about their love and dedication to Mohammad’s character and path. I looked to see if a larger crowd was on its way. Nothing. Just this small motley crew. It seemed I had missed the day’s primary action.
What really bewildered me was the plentiful and diverse group of journalist crews, speaking Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, and Japanese. The journalists alone may have outnumbered the protestors, like large packs of little feeding fish surrounding a small shark. I could sense their disappointment. ‘Where the hell was the violence. Can’t one of these policemen just hit a protester already so we can go home.’ I know I can’t blame the journalists. They can’t know where or when news will strike. But I just couldn’t help feeling that much larger rallies in Pakistan weren’t getting the same attention.
In the middle of the large roundabout opposite the Damascus Gate–the most westward tip of East Jerusalem–nearly 40 riot police stood in formation, ready to pounce at any sign of trouble. A mix of Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, Ethiopian, men and women, created a strangely hopeful diversity to the rows of imposing black-shrouded guards.I was one among many snapping pictures with my camera-phone.
Next to me was a group of taxi drivers. Standing by their empty vehicles, calmly watching the surreal spectacle through sunglasses. The youngest of them, tall, gangly and spiky-haired, approached me.
“Where you from?” he abruptly asked in English. He doesn’t give me a chance to reply before adding, “You’re American?”
I didn’t register the enmity in his voice and responded politely, in Arabic, “Yes. I’m from South Florida. Have you ever been there?”
“From America?!” he responded, his voice raising in volume and pitch
’Uh oh’ I thought. ’Here it comes.’
“Ruuh min hon!” he snorted.
‘Does he want me to leave because he’s worried about my safety or because he hates George Bush?’ I wondered.
“Why should I leave?” I asked him, with my own high pitched volume.
“From America. Fuck you America,ya zalameh (man),” he said, making his hate for me clear.
“What did I do?” I asked,” hoping for an actual answer.
“Fuck you America, ya zalameh!” he repeated lowly but sharply, and turned away.
One of the older taxi drivers standing in earshot gave the young taxi driver a look of disapproval, and then smiled at me. “Go and takes pictures,” he said.
The younger man snickered and walked away, and then so did the older disapproving gentlemen.
I’ve lived and worked for over a third of a year in East Jerusalem and the surrounding Arab villages, and have never heard “ruuh min hon,” for revealing I was Jewish. No, the first time I was told to leave this land was because I’m American.
Obviously the protest I witnessed on the 14th of September was just the beginning of the Palestinian’s own rage against the film. Since then, we’ve seen massive protests in Jerusalem and in the Galilee. Some thirty people world-wide have died, and hundreds of others have been injured. And these protests, seemingly absurd to any Westerner, have large public support.
There is clearly a large gap of understanding between between the Muslim world and the West. At least one side is totally unaware of the deeper nature of the other.