Friday, December 13, 2013

The Holy Land

Have you watched the movie 'Kingdom of Heaven'?

Despite Orlando Bloom being horribly miscast as Balian, it was still a good movie (one of my favourites) due to its great story line and brilliant script.

There's this scene where Balian asked Salahuddin Al-Ayubi, "What is Jerusalem worth?"

He shrugged in response, "Nothing".

But after walking a few steps away, he turned back and replied, "EVERYTHING".

That exchange encapsulates how many feel about the Holy Land of Jerusalem. All have claim to it. Another memorable scene from the movie was when Balian was trying to rouse the citizens to defend the city:

"What is Jerusalem? Your [The Christian] holy places lie over the Jewish temple that the Romans pulled down. The Muslim places of worship lie over yours. Which is more holy? The Wall? The Mosque? The Sepulchre? Who has claim? No one has claim. ALL have claim!"

Alhamdulillah, I just got back from visiting the Holy Land, or Al-Quds, as the Muslims call it. I entered the city via the King Hussein Bridge border and stayed there for 3 days and 2 nights. Another 4 days and 4 nights were spent in Jordan, visiting Petra & Amman.

But though Petra was amazing, Jerusalem was the highlight of the trip. I sincerely wished that the itinerary was inverted; that we had spent more time in Jerusalem than in Jordan.

It's hard to describe what makes Jerusalem so special. Maybe it has to do with the city's stunning topography. The plains rise and fall majestically, with old buildings spreading over the peaks, valleys and slopes. Maybe it's the historical and religious significance of the place.

Whatever it is, being there, you could almost understand why people have fought over it for more than 1000 years.

My most cherished memory of my stay was performing the Subuh prayer in the main mosque of Al-Aqsa. We left the hotel at 4.30 a.m. and walked for 20 minutes to reach the mosque. It was winter time and the temperature was around 10 degree Celsius. With hands in my coat pockets (I forgot to bring gloves), we navigated the labyrinthine lanes of the Old City  to reach Al-Aqsa. The cold wind was refreshing and the sight of the Dome of the Rock took my breath away. After Subuh, as we were walking back to the hotel, we could hear church bells ringing nearby. The whole experience was indescribably special.

Later that same morning, around 9 a.m., we returned to Al-Aqsa after visiting the Western Wall (The Wailing Wall). By that time, the compound was teeming with people. Besides tourists, Muslim men and women (I was not sure whether they were all Palestinians or of various nationalities) sat in small circles (halaqahs) reciting and learning the Quran. It was such a peaceful scene.

I left Jerusalem with a heavy heart. I wished I could have stayed longer to pray more rakaats in Al-Aqsa and to explore all the places of historical significance.

I recently bought this book entitled 'Nothing To Lose But Your Life' by Suad Amiry. I haven't started reading it but the book is prefaced by this quotation:

"As I see it, it is wrong to write about people without living through at least a little of what they are living through." (Ryszard Kapuscinski, Another Day of Life)

It's presumptuous to claim to have lived what the Palestinians are going through. But just witnessing some of the hardships (poverty, the denial of their rights to freedom of movement and self-determination, the illegal settlements encroaching further into their lands, the oppressive Separation Wall, etc) that the Palestinians face daily made me sleep less soundly at night. Thus I urge everyone to go and see for themselves what we only hear and read about so far. They are things that news cannot convey.

My tour guide said that it's easier to enter Israel now because the visa application can be done a month earlier. He said that prior to the new system, getting stuck at the immigration for 9 hours was not uncommon. Now, on average, you can get through immigration in 3 hours or so (one Malaysian group managed to do it in 45 minutes!).

My group wasn't so lucky. We were told to expect delay so I didn't bother to look at my watch. I thought we had taken 3 hours or so to pass immigration but after checking with my guide (who had actually timed the whole process), it was closer to 5 hours!

The whole process was maddening. There were 7 separate counters to do things that could have been lumped together. Thus, people had to queue multiple times and wait for interminable hours.

One person from my group was held up for arbitrary reasons. He wasn't interrogated or anything; He was just made to wait for 2 whole hours.

Despite the inefficient process designed to frustrate people, hundreds still flock to the border crossing in order to visit the Holy Land.

Do go and visit it yourselves because there are so many things to see, witness and learn from the experience.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Turkiye Trip

Six months ago (May 29 - June 5, 2013), I went to Turkey for a holiday to realise one of my long-held dreams: To see the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia & The Bosphorus.

Everyone has a list of places he/she would love to visit and Turkey was pretty high up on my list. Egypt & Iran are somewhere at the top of the list too.

I've been meaning to write about the trip but it was hard to distill the experience into paragraphs. In a few hours' time, I'm leaving for another trip. This time to Jordan & Jerusalem. So I'm attempting to write about the Turkey trip now in order to preserve the memories and to reevaluate why I travel in the first place.

I'm going to cheat here, by embedding the video below instead of recounting in detail the places that I've been. [The lucky winner's itinerary mirrored mine exactly, since we shared the same travel agency, POTO Travel & Tours.]

Oh, how I looked forward to the trip! After 5 months of work (Jan - May), I needed a break from my routine. I wanted to be immersed in a completely different environment, as the one I was in had me feeling constricted. So I was looking forward to experience and marvel at fresh/novel/foreign scenery, architecture, food, language & culture.

The trip fulfilled my expectations and more. I loved exploring the various UNESCO World Heritage Sites and experiencing new sights and sounds, so completely different from what I'm used to.

Thus, I completely agree with Pico Iyer when he said, "And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed."

So after 6 months, I'm ready to fall in love and be transformed again, this time by Petra, Masjid Al-Aqsa, Dome of the Rock, the Dead Sea and other places I have yet to see...

P.S. Please pray for our safe journey!