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From Above the Gates: How I Found Clarity in Palestine

With my close friends and family, I’m an open book. Notoriously known for reporting every detail of my day-to-day activities, achievements, grievances, and random anecdotes. I hold the opinions of my loved ones at such high value that I don’t feel the need to be ultra-private about much, especially because their objective and well-intentioned advice has always powered me through the most trying of times.

However, despite my openness with my trusted inner circle, I’ve had my guards up with being a public “over sharer”. Going against my natural instincts, I think this story may be worth it. This night in particular, was simultaneously one of the most enlightening, somewhat liberating yet conflicting times I’ve experienced in my adult life.

I was lucky enough to spend all of last summer traveling. From Dubai to New York, my family home in New Jersey to the stunning Greek island of Mykonos, and from there to my native home, reuniting with my parents in Palestine. I had no intentions of staying more than ten days, as I had to return and attend to my grown-up responsibilities in Dubai. But, due to employment visa delays in the UAE, I accidentally spent a little less than a month in the motherland. In spite of the need to get back to a life with some structure, this hiccup turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

After several weeks of nonstop, priceless, quality family time, I suddenly hit a roadblock. One day in early August, I confronted a sudden wave of emotion that I’m sure each one of us has experienced at some point, where we felt like our life was at a crossroads; every question and concern around my past, present, and future unexpectedly hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t ready to leave the comfort and security that I find in my family and head back to my very separate, very independent, very new life I had already started to build in Dubai. After an afternoon of shopping in the Old City of Jerusalem with my mother, we decided to part ways for the remainder of the day.

I just needed to be alone.

Within seconds of separating, I heard someone shout, “Mai!”. Clearly, God did not think alone time was a good idea. Days prior, this young gentleman, his sister, and I spent the day with our mothers, who were childhood friends, in Haifa, one of the most beautiful cities in northern Palestine and a personal favorite of mine. Running into a familiar face was a sign, so I decided to join him and his friend for some fresh air and iced coffee.

As the late afternoon turned into evening, we spoke extensively about the current political situation and how the occupation continuously handicaps Palestinians, making their opportunities for career and education extremely limiting. We talked about the complications in receiving student and employment permits, just to work or attend school within the country. We discussed the controversy behind the involvement, or lack thereof, of the neighboring nations in the region. One of the most eye-opening matters we touched on was the absolute miserable process of visa applications and approval for travel and/or residency elsewhere, a privilege that I’m well aware I’ve taken for granted as an American citizen.

After the heavy and frustrating political talk (aka the normal, everyday life of a Palestinian), we moved on to roam the streets of the Old City. By this time, the crowds were diminishing, the chaos was quieting, and shops were closing business for the day. I’ve wandered these streets hundreds of times throughout my life, another privilege I’ve taken for granted.

Perhaps because I don’t live there, and because I know too many people who have never and maybe, will never be able to witness its authenticity, beauty, realness, and historical significance, I can’t help but feel mesmerized every time I’m in the midst of it all.

We explored every dim corner and empty alley, and then found ourselves climbing a very steep staircase that led to a maze-like walkway directly at Jaffa Gate (Bab el Khalil). This area of the Old City is at the border of the Armenian Quarter (to the right) and the Christian Quarter (to the left). Luckily, the gates at the top of the ancient walls were open and we were able to smoothly glide through the entryway. Usually, access to this is only available to tourist groups during the daytime. We decided to head north, along the wall that borders the Christian Quarter.

We continued to trek through the narrow stone ledges at the top of the inner walls, overlooking resident rooftops, courtyards, and gardens from above. It was a remarkably intimate sight of this fascinating city, almost making me forget the never-ending conflict behind it.                                                                            

We eventually stopped for a quick breather, now closer to The New Gate (Bab el Jadid) in the Christian Quarter and absorbed the birds eye view. From here, we witnessed a cluster of all three Abrahamic religions crowding the skyline.

Carrying on through more narrow and lengthy walkways and steep staircases, tired and breathless, we finally reached our destination at the very top of Damascus Gate (Bab el Amud), the landmark entryway into The Muslim Quarter of the Old City. It took me a few seconds to realize where I was standing, and a bit longer to spot Qubbat al-Sakhrah (Dome of the Rock) in the distance, one of Islam’s holiest sites. We stood in silence for several minutes.

From here, we witnessed a cluster of all three Abrahamic religions crowding the skyline.

The sound of the Athan (call to prayer) began to echo through the city. It was captivating and peaceful.

I think one of the things I appreciate about this place is that most people who live there are still stricken with awe by it, just as much as I am and just as much as any tourist is, especially when they take the time to observe its essence from a different perspective, like we did that evening. I was frantically trying to capture the whimsical scene with my iPhone, and failed. It was too dark and the live panoramic view was too precious to miss. I gave up and stood there a bit longer.

There is a reason why this place, that is less than one square kilometer, is one of most sacred and controversial in the world. 

There are people who live a few miles away, and can’t experience this vision firsthand. People who need special “permission” granted to pray here, shop here, and eat here. People who will never be able to see what I was seeing.

Earlier that day, and during this period overall, I was so consumed with fear and uncertainty around the next phase of my life. Although I had technically already been living across the world for months, leaving again this time around seemed more concrete. The year had already brought about more monumental changes than I thought I could handle.

It is these rare and spontaneous episodes that bring you the most clarity. At this moment, I felt silly for being anxious, stressed, and disappointed. From the top of one of the most renowned sites in the world, everything else that had occupied my energy seemed so trivial.

If I had left Palestine when I meant to earlier that summer, I don’t think I would have found the answers I was searching for. Sometimes, we give ourselves excuses to dwell on circumstances that are beyond our control. Sometimes, we make decisions that seem rash, but there’s always a good reason why we carried on with them. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to force getting answers we think we would be content with, the real answer is in not having one.

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