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I point out the name in my passport, which he now has. How much more Muslim can I be, I ask. He refuses to let me in. I insist, so he tells me to recite Al-Fatiha. I know Al-Fatiha.
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It might have gathered a little rust in some damp corner of my mind, but I can definitely remember enough of it to demonstrate my Muslamic credentials. The problem is that I cannot bring myself to recite it to him like a five-year-old in preschool, and once I have made that decision, it rises like electrified barbwire around my menaced sense of dignity. I tell him I have forgotten it. I object, halfheartedly. He is not interested. My words scatter over beautiful ancient stone blocks before they reach him.
I am not sure what to do, so I just stand there. A few minutes later, he turns and speaks to his colleague, in Arabic. I am now emboldened. I had removed the cap midway through the conversation because I thought it made me look American. First he was bored, now he is suspicious.
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He tells me to recite Al-Fatiha again, and I argue with him, excitedly now, until his superior — white Israeli — comes out. I say I cannot, that I have forgotten it. They look at each other, then the senior officer takes me aside. He asks me the same question, and I stick to my answer. He offers me a solution. He says that only Muslims are allowed to enter on this specific day, and so he needs to make sure I am one. To enter I will have to say the Shahada , the phrase that converts must pronounce to become Muslim.
I am in Al-Aqsa for the first time as an adult. I can see it, I can enter it.
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It is upon me — this majestic and terrible deposit of our defeat. I take a picture, and think of calling my mother. The sight of Al-Aqsa reigns my thoughts in for a few minutes, until I can no longer ignore what had just happened. I have been brought back to my religion, at the gates of Al-Aqsa, by an armed Israeli. I am not sure what to make of this. Should I feel sick? One must abide by the god that is law, not the one that is its subject.
This birthday is a bad one. I am troubled, all over the place. I walk briskly to hide the fact that I am without purpose. I am shuttling between pride and self-loathing quicker than a verse on Yeezus. I hate this city. It is hostile, tense. Hebron in the making, Nablus ten years from now.
Vile and obnoxious with its flags, towering with an unfolding history determined to erase us. How can they withstand all this intimidation and harassment, all the laws and taxes and writs explicitly drawn up to make them leave? How can you start a family here knowing that everything is designed to be against you and your children? What faith do you have? What courage? My phone rings and I reach for it, almost gasping. It is Asma, a fellow Palestinian I have corresponded with but have never met.
We are supposed to meet in a coffee shop outside the old city, and I am happy to leave. I walk about fifteen minutes to meet her. As far as I know, Asma could be anyone.
But she is beautiful, articulate, with a sparkle in her eye. She is angry, yet positive. She rages with a smile. Ten minutes later I am smitten. She has lived here for twelve years, she says. She loves Jerusalem, she says. I do not believe her, but I listen. We finish our coffees and she insists on going back into the old city. I walk alongside her until we get to Bab El Amoud, then I stay half a step behind, as she leads with her head, like a swan paddling through the muck. She tells me stories of eccentrics, heroics, and betrayals. She does not give a damn.
She is confident, stubborn, reticent, guiding me through this hellhole with a deliberate gait, as if each step that takes us deeper into the old city mattered, and is to be counted and remembered. She wants to show me the Moroccan gate, the top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Christian quarter. We walk quickly, and I feel like Jerusalem will no longer be here tomorrow morning. I wonder if her haste is fuelled by a similar concern. We turn a corner where two soldiers sit; they call after us and demand to see our IDs. My hand is already reaching for my wallet when I hear Asma object.
I freeze. I do not know what to do or say, so I stand there like a dumb elephant. They speak in English, then Asma switches to Hebrew. She is combative, sarcastic, angry. He struggles to answer her, he begins sentences and fails to finish them, his voice dropping like an arrow that has lost its momentum.
Meanwhile, her diction mimics a machine gun, consistent, energetic, firm. He raises his voice and Asma backs down a little, then, like someone changing gears on a long, uphill stretch of road, she switches to Arabic. She gives him hell. He speaks Arabic, too, but now he mumbles, he fails to answer, so he raises his voice again. I am deaf and dumb during this entire exchange and he says something to me, but Asma orders his attention back to her. Palestinians are gathering around us and the soldiers become nervous. The one who asked for our IDs is embarrassed, raises his voice again. Asma tells those who have gathered around us that everything is under control.
She has clearly done this before. She pushes and pushes, then pulls back at the last moment, then pushes again. Finally, having been made to look like a fool in three languages over the course of a few minutes, the soldier slides his finger into his machine gun, switches to Hebrew. We show him our IDs.