We walk with purpose. At my side, my Muslim guide, Ibrahim Ghazzawi, walks at a respectful distance. Underfoot, uneven cobblestones are worn smooth. Wearing low-heeled shoes, I glide along in the centuries-old footfall of pedestrians who have come before me.

I am in the Old City.  Realizing an ambition I have harbored for almost a decade and a half – to visit the world’s holy cities – I am finally in Jerusalem. At the turn of the millennium, fate had thrust me into Hajj, tumbling me into Mecca. Soon after, I resolved to see Vatican City. Privately, when I allowed myself to hope, if I could be truly fortunate, Jerusalem would one day be in my future.

Visiting Medina two winters ago had reawakened my desire to see this place. Jerusalem had then still awaited. And then, one spring, everything fell into place. Finally, the future was here.

Ibrahim was leading me to the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque – the third holiest site in Islam – both were waiting for me on this Monday afternoon. It was just after noon and I was almost there. As I hurried along, the Muslim Quarter was surprisingly empty.

The Dome from afar

The Dome from afar (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

The warren of streets captured me ever inwards. To my left and right, beyond the narrow walled street, snatched glimpses revealed fragments of lives lived beyond my view. Now and again, an occasional doorway beckoned ajar. Small courtyards made suntraps overflowed with the high Israeli sun. Memories of forgotten piazzas in Cordoba take me by surprise. I am twelve again, as I revisit the Spain I shared with my father over a generation earlier. In a pool of noon sunlight, a tricycle lies tumbled on its side – the youngest Jerusalemites are still in school.

On the way to the Dome. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

On the way to the Dome. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

We stop. Ibrahim takes out a key and unlocks the door to his childhood home. His parents still live here. Oh, to live in the city where one is born; our family hasn’t enjoyed such stability in three generations. As he steps inside to check the mail, I peer into the surprisingly large home. It is at least three stories high. Soon Ibrahim stoops, reemerging into the street. Too tall for the doorway, these entrances were intended for ancient citizens so much shorter than we.

Jerusalem perserveres. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Jerusalem perseveres (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

We are approaching Herod’s Gate. The walls of the city ensconce me, their gorgeous Jerusalem stone burnished with the patina of ages. Even swirling networks of drainpipes and cables cannot obscure Jerusalem’s sacred beauty etched deep, centuries earlier, by the loving stonemason authors of this noble City.

Today, the stonework is pockmarked with graffiti, stained with spilled paint. Peeling posters are plastered over layers of older notices, a turf war of another kind. Jerusalem is a living canvas. People, politics and powers may come and go, but underneath, Jerusalem perseveres. Careworn and battle-scarred, she is eternal.

It’s warm. Dressed for the mosque, I am over-dressed for the climate. Long sleeves reach beyond my wrists. A fine woolen scarf swirls at my neck, ready for when I pray. Now and again I sip some water. Narrow streets afford little shade. Nearby, a tiny kitten shares my thirst. Perched on the gratings of a drain, she is parched, desperately licking at evaporating drops of water. No one notices the sunken-eyed tabby. She is so tiny; I fear she might fall through. Sadly, already prisoner to my fascination with Jerusalem, I don’t think to stop and share with her my water. I am to live with this regret far longer than I could have guessed.

I am over dressed for the climate.

Over dressed for the climate (photo: courtesy Qanta Ahmed)

We walk downhill. Soon we have entered a darkened street. At the far end, a steel door admits a bright rectangle of sunshine. Through the aperture, the noon light rushes to assault us. A folding table anchors two Israeli soldiers. Rosy cheeked, their cumulative ages barely amount to mine. Complexions heated from the dusty day, their dark green uniforms are little respite from the ascendant heat of the late Israeli spring.

One of them rises. Instinctively, I reach for my passport. Without speaking, the soldier opens the document. He turns, not to the Israeli visa (which is tucked away on a piece of paper unsecured to my passport) but to the page proving my date and location of birth. Seeing my Muslim names, and speaking to Ibrahim in Hebrew to confirm I am Muslim, he waves he through. In a moment he is returned to his boredom. They don’t question my guide. It appears they know Ibrahim by name.

We fall into rank. Stepping over the threshold, I am in the seventh century. Either side, I am flanked by olive groves. We have entered a forgotten garden. Ahead, vacant madrassahs reflect the keen light. The trees are just a little taller than us. Defying the terracotta terrain, tiny-leaved and dusty, theirs is a full-tilt, pitched battle for survival. Blanching under the relentless O’Keefe sun, they afford little shade. Around them, the untended earth lies scorched.

The olive grove beside the Dome. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

The olive grove beside the Dome. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Ahead, a Muslim woman carries a basket of Arabic tea. Behind her trails the scent of cardamom. Despite her cumbersome abbayyah, she hurries, oblivious to the engulfing sadness. The trees, like the kitten, are starved for water, the ground, while free of litter, is hardly beautified. Missing from this mosque, unlike so many others I have visited, the sound of running water. Al Aqsa is far indeed.

(photo: Qanta Ahmed)

(photo: Qanta Ahmed)

The silent groves look on, as we too, like many, who must surely approach the Dome of the Rock from this stark vantage, walk by. No one lingers where there is no view. I am in a place where political conflict grows faster than grass, where outrage and agony are cultivated with more passion than vines, where brigades bloom in place of blossom.  I am in a place where Muslims have neither nurtured themselves, nor the hallowed ground towards which, in the lifetime of the Prophet, our forefathers once prayed. I feel enormously sad.

This is the first installment of a four-part series, click to read the second post