This year Jerusalem was chosen as the Unesco Arab capital of culture. What Unesco doesn’t understand is that Arabs only honour Jerusalem in their minds and with their rhetoric, and that there is no real support for the Holy City.
Recently the Egyptian minister of religious endowments, Mohammed Hamdi Zaqzouq, called upon Arabs and Muslims to visit Jerusalem, that mythical place that exists in the minds of hundreds of millions of my people. I say mythical because as far as we in the region are concerned, it exists only on television and from stories we hear from travelers and visitors. In our minds Jerusalem is no different from El Dorado, Shangri La or Atlantis. In the last few decades there has been an encroachment by Jewish Israeli settlers around the city’s Arab districts. Jerusalem is losing its identity as an Arab and Islamic capital. We must finally admit that a large part of the blame rests on our shoulders.
For how can Arabs have an affinity for a place that they have never visited or seen for themselves? This ancient city is second only to Mecca in terms of its religious significance to Muslims. For it was the Muslims first Qibla (direction of prayer) during the early years of Islam until the Prophet was directed to face Mecca during prayers.
Is it possible for Arabs to visit Jerusalem? Yes it is. Fly to Amman and take a taxi to the Israeli border, put up with the Israeli check points and hassle – and if you have been to the US recently it shouldn’t be too different – and ask them to stamp outside your passport. On the other side call Gilo Taxis, wholly owned by an Arab, and then head to Jerusalem. In the Holy City stay in The Golden Walls Hotel, also Arab-owned and located just outside the city walls next to the Damascus Gate. After checking in walk to Pasha’s Restaurant, one of the many Arab and Muslim owned eateries and visit the Al Wasiti Art Gallery nearby to buy one of the paintings drawn by Arabs. Walk through the bustling Arab souq, admire the history that the Arabs – among other cultures – have imprinted on the city’s limestone houses, mosques and churches and on every street corner. Finally, if you are Muslim then pray in the Al Aqsa mosque and visit the Haram Esh Sharif – the Noble Compound.
If you are a Christian Arab then make your way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, arguably the holiest Christian site in the world, found inside the walled Old City of Jerusalem.
I have previously written about the importance of supporting our brethren inside Israel – the descendants of the brave 120,000 Palestinians who stayed behind when Israel was created in 1948 and now make up over one million people. They have marched and died for our causes and yet we abandon them. We are indeed the worst of friends, for with friends like us who needs enemies?
We claim it is holy and yet the Coptic Pope Shenouda III and the Grand Sheikh of al Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, both refused calls to visit Jerusalem while it is under occupation. But in the same breath they say it will “always remain Arab”. This logic escapes me. Thanks to this narrow policy only a few tens of thousands of Arabs were able to visit the city in the past few decades while millions of Jews and non-Arab Christians are able to do so annually. How then can it “always remain Arab”?
If your brother is imprisoned unjustly for many years by a foreigner and you clearly cannot free him physically, do you abandon him under the pretext that visiting him will legitimise his imprisonment? Or will you instead visit him over and over again? By doing so, you show support within your family and you show how important your brother is to you, your family and to the rest of the world. Or do you wait until he is free to visit?
Don’t heed the calls of the generation that had Jerusalem, then lost it and now wants to keep us away from visiting it. Go and visit your Arab brethren. Stay in their hotels or homes. Eat in their restaurants and cafes. Shop in their stores and galleries. Bring them souvenirs from your home country. Speak to them in your native Arabic accent. Teach them your local words and customs. Extend an arm of friendship and support.
Ultimately, put yourself in their shoes. Wouldn’t you want the support of your Arab brethren if your city was occupied?
Don’t abandon them any longer. We have done enough damage already. You claim Jerusalem is the number one Arab cause. Prove it.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on May 10, 2009.