The visit fulfilled an ambition I have harbored for almost a decade and a half – to visit the world’s holy cities. After fortune had led to make the Hajj to Mecca, I had finally reached Jerusalem .
I blinked for some time before I could properly see. Despite the brilliant Jerusalem sunshine outside, the Dome was weakly illuminated. Inside, the air was dank. I walked briskly across the wall-to-wall red and cream carpet rather the worse for the wear.
Ibrahim wasted no time, directing me immediately to the inner sanctum. I followed him down the narrow, uneven but carpeted stairs, finding myself inside a cave barely taller than my 5-foot frame.
Within, several women were seated on chairs, chatting between prayers. Too debilitated with arthritis and obesity to be able to pray standing, according to Islam, they were permitted to pray seated. Choosing a corner that wouldn’t disturb them, I informed Ibrahim I would be offering two brief ‘rakaats’ in prayer.
With the cramped quarters of the cave, my intrusion on the territory of women already settled here, and my recent humiliation on being challenged as an authentic Muslim still smarting to the roots of my hair, I already knew this was not a site I could feel at ease in.
Here too, as in Saudi Arabia, my spiritual reverie had been dispelled before it could ever take root, dispelled by other Muslims. I am long familiar with the unique disappointment that a Muslim woman encounters in the Islamic public space, particularly when she is western.
Last time I had been less lucky. Deemed in violation of ‘Muslim’ dress codes, my New York City ‘Lincoln-Park-After-Dark’ manicure had barred me from praying at the Tomb of the Prophet Mohammed in Medina. The disappointment was still keen – I had made the journey at breakneck speed from Jeddah –a round trip of over 700 km – in a precious day carved out of a demanding schedule but the black-gloved, fully niqab-ed adversary who awaited me was heartless. She blocked me from entering the enormous door with her short body. Roughly, grabbing my ungloved fingers in her black digits and crying out ‘Haram’ as she admonished my flagrant artifice. I was banished outside.
The anger of being denied worship when willingly offered stings like no other. While today I had again been humiliated at the hands of a Muslim, this time by a man invested with the authority of a stacking chair, ultimately in Jerusalem at least I wasn’t to be denied worship. I found myself grateful for small mercies. I could have been docked for nail polish.
Making a small space mine, I located the Qibla (the direction to Mecca). Raising my hands to my ears and, symbolically cutting myself off from my surroundings, I began to pray. Ibrahim remained aside. In the small cave, he was no more than 15 feet away, keeping patient vigil. Wishing not to intrude, in keeping with Muslim etiquette, he averted his gaze from me and the several other women who were praying, leaving us to our privacy.
Kneeling, the rock formations were easily palpable under the carpet. As I prostrated in my rituals, the acrid limestone infused my prayers with dampness of eons. The carpet, cool to my forehead, felt humid. While clean, it was distinctly clammy. A garish yellow light bestowed a gloomy air to the ancient grotto. Try as I might, I felt none of the awe or bewilderment of Mecca.
Perhaps I shouldn’t. The Dome was built purely as a means to preserve the cave as a shrine. The Ummayad Caliph had never intended it as a center of worship and in this sense, while the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa are revered by Muslims, they pale in comparison to Mecca and Medina.
Nonetheless, I was praying at the center of the third holiest site in Islam. Encircling me was the octagonal building, a deliberate resonance with the circumferential Grand Mosque, the Haram Sharif, built around the ancient Ka’aba in Mecca. Soon here too I would be walking anticlockwise around this shrine, if I ever finished my prayers. For now, I tried to concentrate on my lines, with my restless mind, attention in prayer has been a lifetime struggle.
My concentration was disrupted by an irritated exchange in Arabic. The voices were predominantly female and coming from the women around me. I hoped their criticism wasn’t aimed at me. My waist wrapped in the tablecloth, my scarf covering even my ear lobes I knew I wasn’t the focus of their irritation (unlike my first day at Hajj when women around me had angrily protested me praying dressed in trousers.
Finishing my supplication, which only my Maker knew how hastily I had offered, I turned to greet each recording angel on my shoulder with salaams, first my right, then my left. Now I could return to my surroundings. Ibrahim was still waiting patiently but now looking slightly more distressed. The heckling had been aimed at him.
“They were protesting, saying I should be praying, not just ‘waiting’ here. I told them I was meditating, in contemplative thought, as any Muslim can be,’ I nodded vigorously, “but they felt unless I was engaged in formal prayer, in salaat, I should leave,’
He didn’t seem too irritated, but perhaps he was accustomed to this criticism. Personally, I couldn’t wait to leave the cave. As in so many esteemed places in Islam, once again, modern Muslims had made it their business to police each other’s religious expression. Even here, a place to which we had travelled with pure intentions in an effort to reach the origins of our worship, at the very center to which the Prophet Mohammed himself paid homage and prayed until Mecca was consecrated by the new religion, we were not free. The petty complaints of my fellow worshippers, the bureaucratic inquisition of the Muslim in the chair, these form the lowest points in my visit to Israel.