On Pilgrimage to Jerusalem: Part II: The Conflict: Outskirts of Jerusalem by Jonathan Parkes Allen
This is the second in a three-part series documenting the author’s experiences in Jerusalem. Part I, “Islam: The Streets of the City,” can be found in our January/February 2019 issue. Part III, “Destination: The Holy Sepulchre,” can be found in our August/September 2019 issue—Ed.
I am standing a few miles north of the Holy City, on a rise of ground that slopes off to one side toward the Jordan River and on the other toward the Great Sea. Like every rise of ground in this angry and holy land, the wild, wine-colored sea of history has crashed against this hilltop, known as Nabi Samwil, time and again, receding only to rise once more.
When the Crusaders crested this hill, they could see the walls of Jerusalem before descending to lay siege to the city in 1099. They later erected a looming fortification upon the hill, traces of which are still visible. Nearly a thousand years later, in the late autumn of 1917, British troops under General Edmund Allenby, drawn from all corners of the Empire, clawed their way to the top of this hill and held it for days against bloody Ottoman counterattacks, before Ottoman resistance finally collapsed and General Allenby took control of the city. Today, from this vantage point of conquering armies, we can only see the ever-expanding sprawl of modern Jerusalem, rising and falling over hills where a few decades ago there were only olive trees, flocks of sheep, and goats and little villages.
But we are not looking out over the rolling hills that spill out, east and west, from along the invisible Green Line that divides—in theory, at least—Israeli and Palestinian territory. With transfixed anger my friend and I are watching a momentary act in the interminable modern drama that plays out on this hill and in so many other places in this land, day after day after day. As the sun sets over the great corrupting sea to the west, I find myself right in the thick of it, feeling emotions which I am not used to feeling and which terrify me even as they surge through me.
I clench my fists and fight back hot tears. I curse under my breath, tell my traveling companion M. that I am going back to the car, and hurry down the hill to the rental, parked precariously on an incline. He stays for a moment longer. I climb inside, grab the wheel, and weep. When M. makes his way back to the car, we drive off in bitter silence, attempting to process what we’ve seen and felt and how sadly unexceptional it actually was.
My friend and I had spent this particular day taking a break from the Old City, where we were both staying in an aging multistory house that dated back to at least the Mamluk times of the 13th century. The house looked out over the nearby Dome of the Rock as well as upon el-Wad Street, one of the main arteries of the city, with origins going back to the Roman era.
It is not just history that permeates the stones and streets of Jerusalem. Hanging in the air are all sorts of strains and stresses, trickling out from the presence of soldiers with their heavy weaponry on every corner, the constant watch of cameras on every other rooftop perched above the street, the loud confrontations on the settlers’ bristling rooftops, the signs over doorways proclaiming a house to have been the home of a martyr cut down in the conflict.
I could not then and cannot now imagine what it must be like to live here as a resident, to have this be your reality every day and night. As much as I loved many other aspects of Jerusalem and its weird and oftentimes marvelous streets (as discussed in Part I), after a week the darker side of the city was too much for me. During my stay I wondered more than once what I would do were I in the place of a Palestinian Jerusalemite or an Israeli settler. I don’t know, but I can speculate, and it’s not very pretty.
After picking up our rental car at an agency down the street from the King David Hotel of lore, we drove through the separation barrier into the West Bank, through another checkpoint, past a settlement, and wound down to Ein Prat Nature Reserve, our main destination for the day. Like almost everywhere else here, it goes by at least two names: in Arabic it’s Ayn Farar, which is close, but not quite the same, as the Hebrew.
Unlike most places around the city, Ein Prat is an island of calm and coexistence. Apart from a couple of Japanese tourists who arrived as we were leaving, we were the only foreigners that day. Israelis and Palestinians—more of the latter than the former, it seemed—were enjoying the cool waters of the springs and creek cutting through the desert, or were out hiking along the steep valleys (or wadis, as they are known), or enjoying a picnic in the eucalyptus groves planted during the British Mandate and now growing alongside the ruins of a Byzantine church, in the shadow of a still-functioning monastery inhabited by monks of Eastern European extraction.
There were no guns or uniforms or political slogans in sight. The settlements that cling to the ridgetops in this part of the West Bank were invisible, having receded behind the crags lining the wadis. We climbed into caves used by late antique hermits, trailed gazelles up a hill to a village site dating back—so they say—to the late Neolithic, and sank into the marvelous papyrus-reed jungles that hug the course of the stream. The conflict was far away, and here, at least, we felt as if there were possibilities open beyond merely tracing new permutations in the never-ending struggle.
We spent the rest of the day exploring. We went down to Jericho for lunch and, after getting lost, eventually ended up by the Jordan River, at a site said to be where Saint John baptized Jesus. On this day the area was dominated by a looming Israeli military instillation and mine-seeded zone, a parking lot full of tourist buses, and gaudy new churches across the holy river on the Jordanian side. It was a strange and vaguely disturbing scene, one that I weirdly felt like I’d seen in a dream.
Next we drove along the Dead Sea, past the Qumran Caves, then back up into the barren hills to Nabi Musa—in Islamic tradition, the resting place of the Prophet Moses. Some Bedouins were sipping tea and swatting flies in a café-like structure in front of the shrine, so we had some tea and swatted flies too. Then we wandered around. Most of the place was off-limits because of ongoing renovation. Before leaving we walked out through the sprawling cemetery into the barren Judean desert, which also felt like a dream.
From Nabi Musa we plotted our course back to Jerusalem, as the sun was already hanging low in the sky. Flipping through a brochure of Israeli national parks we had picked up earlier, looking for sites we might still visit, we noticed that a place called Nabi Samwil did not have a closing time or an admission fee. It was close to the city, so we decided to go there.
Turning back onto the motorway that rises from Jericho to Jerusalem—the very road that provided the setting for the story of the Good Samaritan—we looped north of the city, driving opposite the British advance of 1917, and turned off onto the hill of Nabi Samwil. Neither of us knew much of anything about this site at the time.
We were surprised, then, to find the parking lot, perched at a precarious angle on the hillside below the summit, nearly full, and a steady stream of visitors filing past a tangle of security people up to a cluster of structures and ruins. These visitors were almost all Hasidim; as it turned out, the shrine of the Prophet Samuel (in Arabic, Nabi Samwil) had in recent years become a major locus of devotion for Hasidic Jews in the area.
Rising above the hilltop that has been a town in antiquity, a Crusader castle, a Great War battlefield, and a Palestinian village, is a structure that has been built out, claimed, and modified by Western Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and that defies an exact classification now. The aboveground part of the structure is a functioning mosque, though when we made our way up a set of stairs to the roof, we discovered a group of Israeli soldiers who commanded us to go back the way we came.
Coming upon the eponymous Tomb of the Prophet Samuel, we entered the vestibule. It was newly renovated, shiny, hygienic, a marked contrast to most of the Muslim and Christian holy places I’d visited. As a matter of personal custom, I do not turn down the opportunity to be in the presence of the holy dead, so I made my way down the stairs to the tomb chamber itself. M., feeling a little nervous, stayed behind. The little room which contains Samuel’s cenotaph was crowded with Hasidic men and boys in the midst of their devotions. Some turned and looked at me—not in a particularly welcoming manner, it seemed—so I went back up the stairs to the surface.
We wandered around the castle remains where Crusade-era pilgrims once camped before entering Jerusalem, and where troops of the British 75th Division dodged machine-gun bullets and shrapnel while securing the shrine and village from equally tenacious Ottoman troops below. Today archeologists work intermittently on these remains. The villagers who once cultivated the still-visible fields just below the ruins had been driven off after the events of 1948.
We worked our way back to the parking lot. Walking past the little cluster of security personnel at the entrance of the site, we noticed that something seemed off. There was something going on with the young Palestinians who frequented the parking lot, pushing a fruit cart and leading a donkey that, I assume, they offered for rides and photographs. As we approached, the fruit cart was hurtling downhill and being chased by the teenager tending it.
We notice a gathering crowd of young Hasidic men, and we realize that the loose cart was not an accident. Some of the Israeli youth, a few of whom are speaking in New York–accented English, are harassing the Palestinian youth, kicking or trampling the fallen produce and trying to prevent the recovery of the cart. One young man has forcibly appropriated the little donkey, which he is whipping and yelling at. His friends half-jokingly tell him to stop—he’s hurting the little creature, which is cruel—while others in the crowd hurl insults at the Palestinian kids. A woman is filming the scene on her smartphone. The crowd is downright jovial; my stomach turns. The Palestinian teenagers try to recover their property and fend off the harassment. As they do so, I can’t help but notice a look I’ve seen a lot of during my stay in the Holy City: a mix of resignation, sadness, and a trace of defiance, but mostly defeat.
A couple of older Palestinian men show up—as we learn later, the mostly destroyed village of Nabi Samwil now sits out of view on the back of the hill, behind some telecommunication arrays. But I don’t stay to watch and see what plays out—maybe the security personnel broke things up. Maybe things escalated. I don’t know. I am afraid that if I stay any longer I will react in anger, and do something unwise and possibly bad for my health, possibly get myself arrested. I want to throw a stone, or at least scream. So I leave. The dreamland has veered into nightmare, and I am ready to wake up.
That evening I called my wife and our son using video chat, after having had some dinner and then a little vodka. I don’t actually care for hard liquor, and almost never drink it, but there were a couple bottles in the place and I needed something to take the edge off. I tried to tell the story of what had happened to my wife but ended up crying instead.
The incident haunted me for the rest of my stay, and I still think about it occasionally, over a year later. Did it fundamentally change my perspective? No—I was already, and had long been, a critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. A skeptic might claim that I was predisposed to see injustice on the Israelis’ part, or that I overlooked some other contingency, and so forth. Probably that’s true, but I am not sure how much it changes things.
What did change for me was the degree to which I felt immersed in this conflict, the degree to which my abstract political sentiments and academic knowledge now had visceral reactions and feelings coursing through them. I cannot claim to understand all the intricacies of the situation, but I now have a better idea of what it might feel like to stand in the face of cruel injustice, to taste the bitterness of occupation, and to experience powerlessness and defeat. I can see why someone might want to resort to violence, though I recoil at my own capacity for anger, for hatred, for retribution that I felt in those moments and in reflection afterwards. And even though I was really just a bystander—albeit an emotionally involved one—I’ve a better sense of just how hard it is to fulfill Christ’s command to love our enemies.
I don’t have any easy answers, plans of action, or political pronouncements. As I have spent more time in places of conflict, I have felt my capacity for making simple proclamations dwindle away. What I can offer is what I’ve seen and felt as a bystander in the long oceanic sweep of history, with all its violence and complexity and tragedy and hidden grace and promise—though, much of the time, it is faith that confirms the presence of the last two. I do not offer my reactions as models or exemplars, but as points of connection and understanding. Maybe one day, God willing, I can offer more.
Jonathan Parkes Allen is, among other things, a PhD candidate in the history of the Middle East at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he is completing a dissertation on the history of Islamic saints and sainthood in the early modern Ottoman Empire.
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