“First we go to the Dome,” announces Ibrahim. “It is very important for you as a Muslim, for us as Muslims, to understand this place. Very important.” I was taken aback by the intensity in my guide’s voice.
“It is from here that we believe the Holy Prophet Mohammed (SAW) made the Night Journey around 621. Later, the Dome of the Rock was built here, from 685 to 691 AD. The Dome was meant to be a shrine to commemorate this sacred place. The Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik Ibn Marwan ordered its construction. Other than the Ka’aba in Mecca, the Dome is the oldest surviving structure in Islam.”
Somehow, this miracle had escaped me during my childhood education in Islam. It wouldn’t be until a certain unknown Chicagoan was running for Presidential nomination that I had first heard about the mythic journey.
Over dinner in Charleston, South Carolina I had casually asked about the origins of the young candidate’s name, startling my friend the late Rabbi Avner Bergman. Just what was the meaning of Barak, I had asked him.
Incredulous that I didn’t know, Rabbi explained Barak meant ‘lightning’ and was also the name of the winged steed that carried the Prophet Mohammed on his Night Journey. Later, I would learn this was a journey Muslims believe to be both physical and spiritual, but at the time, I didn’t know which was more incredible – the miraculous journey, or my astonishing Rabbi, who knew more about Islam than I.
The miracle is recorded in the Quran in Surah Al-Isra. The Prophet, arriving on Barak, the winged horse, accompanied by the Angel Gabriel, flew from the Masjid Al Haram in Mecca to the farthest Mosque Masjid Al Aqsa, believed to be in Jerusalem. From there, the Prophet and his winged mount traveled onto heaven.
As the Prophet Mohammed rose in flight from this same place we were now approaching, some say the Angel Gabriel himself had strained to hold down the rock, preventing it from rising with the heaven-bound steed. Once in heaven, the Prophet would meet with all the great Prophets- Abraham, Moses, Jesus, as well as Joseph, son of Jacob, Aaronbrother of Moses- and John the Baptist. Later, the Prophet Mohammed alone would conference with his Maker.
Other reports claim the Rock itself around which the Dome was constructed was the original fragment upon which Adam himself was hurled into exile to earth from heaven. Whatever one believes, that this was an ancient and revered place was without doubt.
As we approached the epicenter of the ever-moving Old City, Jerusalem was quiet. Lazy crows cawed to no one in particular. Few people were to be seen. Mine was the only camera in sight.
A few more steps and we were facing the stunning blue tiled sanctuary. Towering over us was the golden dome that, to all, symbolizes Jerusalem in this world and doubtless, in the world to come. The forecourt was deserted. Playful gusts of the sharav wind scattered my thoughts somewhere South East from here.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Once again, I found myself walking in the footfall of the Prophet Mohammed, this time here in Israel. Years earlier I had followed his steps in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Kingdom was entire universes from here. Sadly, for most, today, the distance between Israel and Saudi Arabia is as insurmountable as the journey a Messenger of God once made from here. As my small steps traced a quiet miracle of my own, ever-revolving Mecca felt far, far from here.
Approaching the entrance, I pulled my scarf closer to my throat. The Syrian wool scratched as I tucked every unruly strand of my hair under the cloth. Covered from head to toe, concealed behind oversized shades, only my periodic smile remained visible. I felt exposed.
Returning to a legislated Muslim public space, my long-buried anxieties derived from living in Saudi Arabia erupted. Veiling triggers within me a paradoxical sense of exposure, the unpleasant feeling of being subject to scrutiny. But there was no time to investigate the currents of my private distress. A bearded Muslim man at the entrance to the Dome was already appraising me. Sensing my apprehension, Ibrahim, my gentleman guide, addressed the man first. Following his signal, I handed Ibrahim my passport.
“She is Muslim,” announced Ibrahim.
The man, wearing a shirt but no tie (in the anti–secular fashion beloved of Islamists) remained unimpressed. Slouching in a plastic chair, unsmiling, he looked at my passport. My four Muslim names, my countless stamps from the Muslim world- including several to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar- and my evident ethnicity did nothing to reassure him of my Islamic pedigree. Shifting his significant weight from one laboring buttock to the other, he snapped,
Impassive, he waited for me to speak.
The first prayer a Muslim learns, the Surah Fateha, is the equivalent of the Shema or the Lord’s Prayer – prayers every Jewish or Christian child memorize at the tiniest ages. I was incensed -yet another Muslim the arbiter of my faith! I spat out the verses I had first committed to memory while still cutting milk teeth. Only later did it occur to me this delivery may have been the height of disrespect to my own religion but the bearded sentry — the first, and ultimately only, person to question my religious identity in Israel — had struck a nerve.
For a moment, veiling aside, in my anger, our gazes collided. We stared at one another, both he wielded the power to bar me entry.
Fortunately, my insolent recitation had been sufficiently fluent to convince him of my authenticity. Surprised, I stepped forward toward the door. Again he held up his hand, this time gesturing to his right. Nearby, my guide proffered a laundry basket. Obediently, I reached in pulling out what at first I thought was a machine-made headdress in the style of a hijab for an ‘Ihram’ (the special covering to visit Mecca during pilgrimages). Instead, the cloth I found had no ties, no elastic, no armholes. Stumped, I wondered what to do with a tablecloth.
In a bizarre charade, both the sentry — assured now that I was a Muslim lady and thereby suddenly gallant — and my gentleman guide simultaneously demonstrated a universal sign language. I was to take the cloth and tie it around my waist to obscure my trousered legs. Looking more ridiculous than I felt, my anger abruptly washed away by relief, I promptly complied, and, slipping out of my shoes, I entered the Dome.