I would like to preface this post by saying a few things. The first is that this story is taken from my fieldwork in Palestine and is solely my own point of view and experience. I’ve also changed people’s names so that they cannot be identified. Finally, I know this story can be seen as super privileged as so many Palestinians do not have the freedom of movement in the West Bank. Even in Bethlehem where I conducted my fieldwork, only 6 kilometers away from Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Palestinians in Bethlehem are unable to travel and visit these holy sites and city. Being able to go and see it with my American passport was such a privilege. The people I went with were Pakistani, Egyptian, and diasporic Palestinians who had passports that allowed them to travel to Jerusalem with me. This story is my experience and only my experience is taken as two excerpts from my fieldnotes.
After spending two months in Palestine I was so excited to finally see Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. After trying to go twice before and unsuccessfully getting past the Israeli soldiers, I was determined to see it this time. My friends and I all bought new hijabs in the same alleyway that we entered through that led up to the entrance. I loved mine. It was black and gold with tassels that came down and rested on my shoulders.While we were walking up as a group, the Israeli soldiers stopped us at the entrance again. After some negotiations we were able to go through. Then we got stopped by the next group of men at the entrance. They sent the two blondes in our group away and told them to leave. I never thought my dark hair and olive skin would work in my favor, but here we were. Esraa was able to go through as she recited the Quran perfectly in Arabic. Then came Nour’s turn and then Yasmine’s. As they went through Nour looked back and said to me “just tell them your name is Fatima,” since she knew I couldn’t recite the Quran in Arabic. The men looked at me next and I said the words, “there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.” They started laughing at me as I recited it in my Midwestern-American accent. They told me that it was such a shameful thing that I couldn’t recite in Arabic. But they still let me through upon the condition that I had to wait. So I sat there at the entrance to the most beautiful site I had ever seen in my life and I waited. As I sat there, I thought back to all the Quranic Arabic classes that were offered at my university that I never ended up taking. I thought about how just one semester of one of those courses would’ve kept me from waiting here at the entrance again. But after 15 minutes or so, they let me through. I looked for my friends and thought it wouldn’t be hard since Esraa was wearing a white hijab with a white dress, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. So I decided to take the time to explore. I made friends, I prayed, and I absorbed in the atmosphere and place that I had finally been able to see after my third attempt. Seeing so many people around who were so happy and relaxed was beautiful. I wanted to live in this courtyard forever and never leave. But, I had to leave at some point.
The final week of my fieldwork I went out with my friends for argileh (hookah). We spoke in Arabic and I asked them if they had any plans for Friday (the weekend in Palestine) so we could spend time together before I left. “Yeah, we’re going to go pray at Al-Aqsa, want to come?” “Sure!” I said. I was so excited to go one more time before leaving. Our conversations continued as Mahmoud and Ahmed made plans to go swimming the next day. “Wait. But I thought we were going to go pray at Al-Aqsa tomorrow,” I said. They looked at each other and then started laughing at me. “No, we were joking, being sarcastic,” Ahmed said while using the English word for sarcastic. I had no idea how every time Al-Aqsa came up people would laugh at me? It wasn’t enough that I couldn’t recite the Quran in Arabic but I also couldn’t understand sarcasm in Arabic either.
Lydia Zakel’s research focuses on Palestinian countermapping, tatreez (embroidery), and the feminist methodology of the intimate scale. She has conducted research in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, Palestine in 2019. She has an upcoming chapter, “Methods, Modes, and Mapping: The (Re)Construction of Palestinian Sites as an Act of Return,” that will be coming out in the edited volume, Decolonial Feminist Praxis: Centering knowledge & resistance at the margins.
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