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My Day in Hebron

2012 Travel Writing Competition Entry 

Many Questions, One Answer - My Day in Hebron
by Leena Malik, Canada

Who are you? Christian, Muslim or Jew? Consider your answer carefully, because what happens to you at the next checkpoint might be determined by your response. This is how I remember my day in Hebron. 

As a Canadian of Muslim Palestinian heritage, I dreamed of touring my mother’s homeland. I wanted an experience, not a vacation, so I selected a ten-day immersion tour to the West Bank in September 2011. I was paired with a roommate, Irene, who came from England of Jewish Eastern European descent. 

Over to Hebron...

Hebron is an ancient city, considered holy by both Jews and Muslims. Its architecture dates back to the Mameluk and the Ottoman periods identified by stone structures, arched roofs and cobbled streets with arch intersections. Divided into two zones, “H1” is overseen by Palestinian Police Forces and “H2” by Israeli Defense Forces. 

We enter into the 3000-year old underground bazaar where the smell of spices, the colour of carpets and many treasures capture our attention. After touring the market, we walk through an exit as someone shouts “tell them you’re Christian, tell them you’re Christian.” “What’s that about?” I wonder.

We proceed through a checkpoint leading to the 1000-year old Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi. The Sanctuary of Abraham or Tomb of the Patriarchs is a mosque that enshrines the tombs of prophets Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives. Both Muslims and Jews used to share the sanctuary until 1994 when tragically, a Jewish extremist massacred Muslim worshippers. Worshippers are now segregated into two side-by-side structures.

At the entrance, I'm surprised to find that it looks like an airport, blocked off with revolving iron doors, armed guards, and metal detectors. “Isn’t this a place of worship?” I ask myself. All of a sudden, a fierce looking soldier surveys our group and shouts “ARE THERE ANY JEWS HERE?” I’m right in front of him. I freeze, thinking about Irene…and then I shake my head from one ear to the other indicating a firm NO. She makes it through!

As we explore the mosque, the spiritual energy is palpable and I am left speechless by its antiquity while in the presence of the prophets who lie within. 

At the synagogue, another checkpoint greets us. More barricades, security measures and armed soldiers...my heart starts to pump wildly. I’m about to enter when a burly guard asks “ARE THERE ANY MUSLIMS HERE?” I freeze again and say nothing as “tell them, you're Christian” pops into my head. In quick response, Irene, who’s inside, points to the line-up behind me and says, “Oh, I’m just looking for my friend”. The guards look elsewhere instead of at me and I head on through!

I am in wonder as we explore this elaborately decorated place of worship. It’s my first time in a synagogue and I’m curious to learn about the many books and the gold Hebrew writing on the walls. 

I hear the Muezzin start the call to prayer on the mosque’s loudspeaker. The Rabbi responds by reciting verses from the Torah into a microphone. Next Muezzin, then Rabbi, Rabbi, then Muezzin. It’s like they’re arguing, each shouting more loudly to drown out the other. I feel sad that even in the sacredness of prayer it seems like conflict.

In the bus, I ask Irene “how did you feel there?” “Scared. How about you?” Disbelief, anger and anxiety wash over me as I feel what it’s like to be a target in a conflict zone. “Same”, I say. She adds, “I thought you might be, so I tried to distract the guards”. I share my thanks with a hug. Later, I consider how we (after knowing each other only three days) each made a conscious choice to help the other.

Looking back, I remain in amazement around how the Universe conspired to pair two souls together for a tour of the West Bank: one Muslim/Palestinian and the other Jewish. As we explored Palestinian life, we also learned about each other’s heritage and beliefs, and, we parted as kindred spirits.

My day in Hebron also allowed me to experience a microcosm of the situation that presently exists in the region. Who are you? Christian, Muslim or Jew? Israeli or Palestinian? That day, I realized that I do not wish to enter along these dividing lines with respect to this conflict for I am a citizen of peace and that is my answer. What happens next is that I can pray – and I still pray (loudly) for long-lasting and unified peace.