Greetings and peace from Jerusalem! I arrived very early on Sunday (20th January) morning. I flew on KLM which was an airline that I had not flown on before. I was quite amazed at the level of security that took place in Amsterdan en route to Tel Aviv. However, it was pleasant and I felt quite comfortable with the approach that security officials showed.
I had a wonderful conversation with a man from Orkney who was on his way back home to Geneva. He worked for the European Broadcasting Union (something synonymous with the Eurovision Song Contest) and we chatted away about the Scottish and European culture, past and present. He told me that on his way to Orkney he had met a Jew who was on his way to discuss fishing and on his return he had met me, a Muslim, on his way to Israel to discuss peace and the family! God must surely have a way of making opposites meet in order to enhance our thoughts and actions. I also began to consider the way in which we meet strangers. If we meet a stranger, of faith or of no faith, on a pedestal then the dialogue will have an imbalance but we must always enter into a dialogue as an equal partner. Life and society may mislead us to believe that because we have an extra bit of paper than the other or some grand title bestowed upon we are either superior or inferior but this is infact problematic as we have closed the discussion even before it has began.
At Tel Aviv airport I was only stopped for questioning for around an hour! The security officials were kind and courteous. They checked my documents and I am now assuming that my details are now held on some file. I exchanged some money and then took the shared taxi (Sherut) to Jerusalem. I did want to sleep during this ride but I couldn’t as the driver was driving like a madman! Infact at one point he reversed so harshly that he banged into a pretty new Mercedes! After a few loud noises he drove on and I went back to resting my head against the window.
I arrived at the Mishkenot Shana’nim (MS) at around 5am. I think Wikipedia introduces MS better than I could. It says ‘Mishkenot Sha’ananim (Hebrew: משכנות שאננים) was the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, on a hill directly across from Mount Zion. Financed by Sir Moses Montifiore, the building was dedicated in 1861 and providing housing for 20 families.’ Today there is a conference centre and a guest house which is pretty exclusive and by invitation only. Every year I share with a friend from Bosnia who brings an interesting European Muslim perspective to the table.
I slept for a few hours and then went for breakfast. I then met up with a friend also from Glasgow University and we went for a coffee in very nice coffee shop. We then headed to the Old City where we first headed to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. As a Christian he had been unable to enter the Dome of the Rock to see the amazing architecture of the Mosque precinct. However, the security at the gates of the Mosque did not allow him to enter but after authenticating my Muslimness allowed me to enter. I was quite sad that I had to leave a friend behind. Inside the al-Aqsa Mosque you are hit with the grand golden dome of the rock. I was also quite surprised that inside there were a lot of tourists! It was quite a lovely sight to see so many people enjoying the architecture and gardens of this holy site. I managed to pray in the Mosque and then take some photographs. We then wandered around the streets of the Old City and managed to get some Arabic music cds and postcards.
It was then time to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is an amazing Church with so much history and traditions. As you enter you see the slab of stone where it is said that Jesus Christ’s body was prepared for Crucifixion. My Christian friend offered insights and commentary on the Church which I was not aware of and it was great to experience a religious building through the eyes of someone from that tradition. I felt quite moved to see the religious emotion and spirituality in the eyes and actions of my friend and it was also nice to hear him mention his reservations on some of the activities that take place which he categorized as quite superstitious. For example some Christians would place rosary and crosses at certain places in order to have them ‘blessed’. This reminded me of the practice of kissing and stroking a cabinet in the Dome of the Rock which is alleged to house relics associated with the prophet Muhammad. It is clearly a personal matter as to the way in which we experience such material culture of faith traditions but we must not forget is that they are a means to God.
In the evening we had our welcome reception and dinner. A nice moment to meet friends and chat about how life has treated us in the last year. The opening remarks of Professor/Rabbi David Hartman discussed the way in which the concept of family must be kept in the context of getting closer to God. I have a good feeling about this conference as we begin to explore some difficult subjects.