Ramadan in Jerusalem
The month of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims, is half over. I returned to Jerusalem one week into this holy month. Because it follows the lunar calendar, Ramadan occurs at a different time each year. When I first began traveling to the Middle East 12 years ago, it was being observed in February; this year the fasting began on August 22. It is scheduled to end September 20th, at the sighting of the new moon. This is followed by Eid al-Fitr, three days of celebration ending the fast.
Ramadan is a time of prayer. In this part of the world, Muslims come to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque, on the Haram al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is also located here, on the site where Abraham was believed to have offered to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, and also the place from which the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. After Mecca and Medina, this is the third most holy place for the Muslim faith.
As I try to get into the rhythm of life during Ramadan, I am saddened by what I see. On a walk to Bethlehem earlier in the week, I noticed that a second barrier had been put up by Israel on the Bethlehem side of “the Wall.” I was told that this was to control the numbers of people coming into Jerusalem to pray. From what I could see, it just added to the confusion and congestion as taxis competed for the single opening that led to the Wall. For those of you who are not familiar with this, Bethlehem is already an “open-air prison,” surrounded on the Jerusalem side by a 26 foot high concrete wall. No one can leave or enter without a permit or, if an international, a passport. And now another barrier, this one also concrete but only 6 feet high, has been erected, just on the other side of where the taxis park, waiting to transport those who walk daily to and from the checkpoint. This will remain for the month and be removed at the end of Ramadan.
For those who are fortunate enough to get through the checkpoint, there are buses waiting on the other side to take them to Jerusalem. This is very near where I catch my bus each morning to go to work. Because of Ramadan, security is high and three times this week I’ve been on buses that have been stopped by Israeli police. These police, usually young men or women with their M-16s slung over the shoulders, board the bus, and make everyone show their permits or ID. West Bank ID’s are usually collected and taken to a waiting jeep while those on board the bus wait. Sometimes people are taken off the bus and questioned. The ID’s are checked to make sure all have permission to be in Jerusalem and then are handed back and the trip continues. These stops are what are called “flying checkpoints” and seem to happen more frequently during Ramadan.
That’s not the end, though, for these pilgrims. More security awaits them as they try to enter the Old City. Soldiers and police again check ID’s, keeping all men under the age of 45 from entering to pray.
Friday is the busiest day of Ramadan as people from all over Israel and the West Bank come to Jerusalem to pray. Last Friday I decided to walk through the Old City on my way to work. I got off my first bus at the Jaffa Gate and since it was only 9 a.m. I thought I would be early enough to avoid the rush. I was wrong. The closer I got to the Damascus Gate, the more crowded it became. I pushed my way forward, noticing that I was the only one heading out; all others were coming into the Old City. I stayed close to the shops on the outside of the street, maneuvering my way through the crowd until I finally reached the Damascus Gate. A lesson learned: Avoid the Old City on Fridays during Ramadan.
At work that afternoon, a Palestinian co-worker told me that his mother, who lives in Ramallah, had spent over 3 hours at the checkpoint trying to return to her home that day.
Ramadan: a holy month, but here in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the month only accentuates the oppression of Israeli occupation. How many more “Ramadans” will have to be lived under these conditions?
By: Tina Whitehead On 9/7/2009