Families of Muslim pilgrims gather in Jerusalem for Ramadan prayers

‘Tens of thousands come to pray in the lead-domed al-Aqsa mosque, the world’s third holiest Islamic site’

 

Nablus Road is closed off with sections of blue metal fencing in preparation for the arrival of West Bank Ramadan pilgrims.

The bus station is empty. Buses from all across the West Bank drop visitors on the broad, now largely empty highway dividing Palestinian East Jerusalem from Israeli West Jerusalem. Armed Israeli soldiers in dull green uniforms and police in black are everywhere. Israeli military helicopters survey the scene. The West Bankers walk along the pavement from Jaffa Gate in family groupings, men carrying infants, women in headscarves and long dresses, some heavily embroidered, trailing small children, teenagers in T-shirts, ears plugged with mini-microphones linked with cords to mobiles in breast pockets.

On four Fridays during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, West Bankers come to town without Israeli permits. Walking, walking, walking along the Old City’s white and golden walls, rebuilt in 1535 by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman, known as the “magnificent”. They descend the broad steps to Bab al-Amud, Damascus Gate, enter the tightly packed streets of the Old City, and make their way to the mosque compound, Haram al-Sharif, located on Mount Moriah, the acropolis of the Old City, where, according to Jewish tradition, the Second Temple stood until its destruction by the Romans in 70AD. Shops, overflowing with goods, expect brisk business once the services conclude.

It is the second Friday in Ramadan. West Bankers have two more Fridays to come before being shut out of Jerusalem until next Ramadan. Women and men over 40 have to apply for difficult-to-obtain permits to come to pray on Fridays outside Ramadan. During Christmas and Easter Israel also more easily issues permits for Christians to come to Jerusalem.

By allowing young men and youths to enter the city, Israel makes it possible for entire families of several generations to visit the Holy City together, attend prayers, meet relatives, join Ramadan festivities and shop. The mosque committee says 300.000 flocked to Jerusalem on the first Friday in Ramadan, the Israeli police claim 100,000.

Tens of thousands come to pray in the lead-domed al-Aqsa mosque, the world’s third holiest Islamic site, built in 705 AD. Ghazi, a friend, says he could not enter the mosque but performed the noon prayers in the broad courtyard. He complains, “I became dark by staying in the sun. After the prayers it took me three hours to return to my home” on the nearby Mount of Olives.

At mid-afternoon, as the sun bears down on the throng, people begin to move en masse toward the bus station on Nablus Road, narrowed by umbrella-shaded shops put up for Ramadan. Plastic toys, kitchen utensils, clothing, and shoes compete with melons, grapes, and aubergines compete for custom.

Children stare in fascination at a man with a python slithering round his shoulders as their parents bargain with vendors. Men and women emerge shoulder-to-shoulder, overloaded with bulging plastic bags.

“I don’t understand,” observes George, a Christian bystander. “Everything is two or three times more expensive here than in Nablus, Jericho, or Bethlehem. The only thing we have here in Jerusalem that they don’t have is ka’ak,” a ring of sesame studded bread found only in the thrice Holy City. Perhaps they want something tangible from Jerusalem because it is holy, ancient and laden with history as well as out of bounds for many Palestinians living the West Bank and all but a few score in Gaza. Melons from Jerusalem – although grown in Israel and displayed in cartons with Hebrew lettering – are, perhaps, like Zamzam holy water from the spring in the Grand Mosque in Mecca carried home by pilgrims in large plastic containers.”

The bus station remains empty but buses, destinations identified by numbers or signs in front windows, come round the corner, one after the other, halt, collect passengers as hawkers call out the names of towns and villages.

Palestinians stand patiently, waiting, until their bus roars into place.

Israeli soldiers lounge against the stone walls of buildings along the street, some smoking, some sipping water from small plastic bottles. The throng thins gradually to a line of bedraggled people and is gone, leaving scraps of paper and plastic bags to drift in the afternoon breeze.

Israeli troops shift the blue fence segments to open the way for pedestrians. Crocodiles of Christian pilgrims led by nuns or guides brandishing tour company flags cross the road and proceed toward Damascus Gate. The Friday hub-hub is over for a week.

West Bankers reach home and consume iftar, Ramadan breakfast, on time or not, depending on how quickly bus loads of visitors pass through Israeli checkpoints. When the Ramadan cannon roars at 20 to 8 in the evening, announcing the moment those fasting may eat, East Jerusalem sighs, relaxes, its streets are empty.

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