Are there toilets on the Temple Mount? I needed to find out. You see, a main character in a novel I was writing, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist,” is a toilet cleaner on the Temple Mount. Naturally, I wanted to know what the bathroom area looked like. As much as possible, I wanted the details of my novel to reflect reality.
I myself had never been up there. I’m an Orthodox Jew. Most rabbinic authorities forbid me to enter those catacombs. (A sign posted just outside the Mugrabe Gate reminds you.) Also, I live far away, in Passaic, N.J. So I had to rely on other sources of information.
I asked all the Muslim Arabs I knew if they could describe the bathrooms on the Temple Mount, or the Noble Sanctuary, as they call it. I spoke with my computer guy, Ali. My ob-gyn, Yusef. My mother’s Arab friends. (She’s originally from Casablanca.) I don’t remember exactly what they said but I didn’t get any clear answers. Maybe they were embarrassed to admit they’d never been there.
And then I remembered Waleed. He was my son’s barber. Many Orthodox Jewish men from the Passaic area went to him, including my husband. Waleed’s barber shop was a stone’s throw from the Kosher Konnection grocery and Bagel Munch. In the late afternoon, all work came to a halt when Waleed took out his prayer mat and recited the Asr prayer. Every time I went to his shop I saw pictures of the Temple Mount flashing on his computer screen, a veritable Noble Sanctuary slide show. Waleed would give me details.
And my son needed a haircut.
Waleed knew all the Jewish laws related to hair, and he had memorized the haircutting and no-haircutting dates interspersed throughout the calendar. He was as conversant as any observant Jew. And helpful. Once I wanted to get my hair dyed but for modesty reasons, I didn’t want any men to see my hair. He sectioned off his barbershop with a plastic sheet and had a young woman do the job. I was touched. I couldn’t help thinking, in another part of the world, we would not have interacted like this, without a trace of friction. In Israel, with my head scarf and long, flowing skirts, I could have easily been mistaken for a West Bank settler. It turns out life in Passaic has its occasional blessings.
“Have you been to the Temple Mount?” I asked him one afternoon while he snapped the barber apron around my son’s neck.
“Oh ho. Of course I’ve been. My father lives in Al-Quds.” He showed me a picture of his father, an old man in a kaffiyeh and long beard. “I was born in Balestine,” he said, mixing up the p and b like many Israeli Arabs do.
I hadn’t known this. I thought he hailed from Jordan. “You must miss Jerusalem,” I said. I know I did. I moved there when I was 17 and stayed 10 years. My family followed me to Israel and still lives there, even after I returned.
He nodded heavily as he expertly moved his electric razor over my son’s head. His eyes grew wistful as he spoke of the gorgeous smell on the Noble Sanctuary, a scent of the hereafter. Meanwhile, tufts of my son’s dark hair fell like sheep’s wool onto the linoleum.
I felt a certain tension between us then, a kind of tribal static. It was clear we both loved the same city, and I’m not talking about Passaic. I still remembered my last day in Jerusalem — after 10 years of dating in the Holy City, it was time to seek my bashert, and a writing degree, in the United States. I’d wept as if someone had ripped out my womb. And what about Waleed? I sensed his pilgrimage visits to Jerusalem were the highlight of his life.
Suddenly I had the uncomfortable feeling that we were two wives devoted to the same husband. What? You love him as much as I do? You make his favorite dishes, iron his shirts, and darn his socks? He gave you the family jewels? But he promised me I was the special one, the real wife, and you were the mere concubine!
I pushed those unhelpful feelings aside, and told him I was working on a novel about a mystical friendship between a rabbi and a devout Arab Muslim. He smiled blankly as though I’d mentioned I’d just picked up my dry cleaning down the block.
“This may sound like a strange question,” I said to Waleed, “but could you tell me about the bathrooms on the Temple Mount?” I explained how my main character cleaned toilets.
“Bathrooms?” he shook his head. “There aren’t any.”
That sounded preposterous. How could there not be?
“Are you sure?” I asked, imagining legions of barefoot men kneeling and praying with bursting bladders.
“Absolutely sure,” he said. A place that holy, that sacred, would be defiled by a bathroom.
This was not good. If there were no bathrooms, I’d practically have to reimagine the book. I think it was the novelist John Gardner who once said that to change a character’s name midway is to make the very fictional ground shudder underneath the character’s feet. Well, this little “detail” would provoke an outright volcano!
Waleed had to be wrong. Maybe — the crazy thought flung through my head — Waleed suspected I had ulterior motives. Maybe he thought I wanted to wreak havoc on the Temple Mount and was searching for the best place, like the deranged Australian Christian who attempted to set fire to the Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969. But I dismissed that fear. Too paranoid.
I consulted with various guide books and websites devoted to the Temple Mount or the Noble Sanctuary or Haram Al-sharif, not caring which name it went by. None of them — not a single damn one — bothered to mention bathrooms on the Temple Mount.
I called up friends in Israel to see if they had any ideas. One of them connected tme to a Jewish policeman who guarded the entrance to the Temple Mount.
“Is there a bathroom up there? I don’t think so. Wait, now that you mention it,” he said in a thinking-out-loud voice over the phone, “whenever I’ve had to go, I would cross all the way to the other side, really far.” I tried to pin down where that “other side” really was, but the connection was bad and the line fell flat.
I didn’t care. The bathroom existed. Whew.
Next time my son’s hair needed cutting, I said slyly to Waleed, “Are you sure there’s no bathroom up there? I heard there was.”
Waleed stopped, his electric shaver poised over my son’s neck, and threw me a look, as if to say: Do you think I lied to you?
I felt his half-angry, half-wounded look in my rib cage. It felt personal.
“No bathroom,” he repeated with a faintly aggrieved air, and went back to finishing my son’s neckline. He had a lot of business that day. It was before Passover and many Jews from my community were getting pre-holiday haircuts.
For the life of me I didn’t get it. But where do they… go? He was so sure, so resolute. I could almost believe him for his earnestness. But I saw by the set of his mouth that further discussion was not possible. The toilet issue had reached the realm of religious conviction.
I was unnerved. I made more calls. I heard so many opposing convictions, it rattled my brain. The pro-bathroom side, the anti-bathroom side. The problem was, it was easy to adopt an anti-bathroom position. You didn’t have to prove anything. The pro-bathroom side had to back itself up with pesky specifics, and all I got were vague statements like what the policeman had said: “something on the other side.”
Along the way, Muslim worshippers told me about some other Haram al-Sharif rules. Like, no dogs are allowed up there, due to the sacredness. And yet school boys play soccer with gusto yards away from their holiest site. Soccer, yes; dogs, no. Then I figured, wherever there are boys playing soccer, there had to be boys who needed to go.
But still there was no bathroom consensus. Was I surprised? No. When it comes to the Middle East, no one can agree on anything, even the existence of a bathroom.
On the face of it, who cares? Yes bathroom, no bathroom. It’s fiction! And yet I wanted the novel to be a meditation on objects that are filtered through personality, culture and religion. Whatever. I was obsessed.
Finally someone gave me the number of a young Arab couple living in Passaic. I spoke with the husband. At first I circled around the topic. He named the trees and bushes growing on the Temple Mount, the food courts up there, and what was popular — knafeh and katayef, although the latter is only eaten during Ramadan. He’d grown up in Israel; his family had lived in various villages. My Arab character also had grown up in a village and I wanted as many authenticating details as I could find, from living, breathing people. “How many kids sleep in a bedroom?” I asked, expecting to hear that nine children were crammed into a single room on a torn mattress.
He said, “Maybe one or two.”
“That’s all?” I said, feeling stupidly disappointed. The character in my novel, Mustafa, came from a poor village and experienced terrible hardship. He laughed. “They have a nice, big house. They do very well.”
“Okay, but what about your other uncles and aunts. I’m sure they must live in cramped quarters.”
Again he chuckled. “They all do very nicely, make excellent livings. They also don’t have to pay taxes like the Israelis.” He gently poked fun of me. “You’re like all the others who think Arabs live terrible lives in Israel. It’s a fantastic country. I can’t wait to go back.”
Finally, I asked about the bathroom.
“Sure,” he said. “There are definitely bathrooms.”
No hesitation. I was stunned by this simple declaration. “Really?” I was so excited. Bathrooms — in plural. “What do they look like?”
“Twelve at a bunch. Finished toilets, pretty, some white, some blue. Some marble floors.” The details came spewing forth. Such a man I believed. I whooped. I wished I could hug my bathroom verifier. I went back to writing my novel and Mustafa went back to mopping bathrooms.
Now all these years and revisions later, my son doesn’t get his haircuts at Waleed’s anymore. My husband bought a kit and cuts our child’s hair himself. Waleed’s barber shop is still right next to my husband’s office on Main Street. I am tempted to walk in and tell him, “Pssst. Waleed, there is a bathroom up there. There really is.”
I still wonder why there was so much confusion and dissension about the bathroom’s existence. Perhaps my question touched a nerve. We have our lower halves — the parts that go to the bathroom, and upper halves — the parts that pray. And never the twain shall meet? Maybe I’ll find out the most definitive answer once I start going on my book tour.
Sometimes I catch a glimpse of Waleed through the window of his shop, LA. Hair Design, cutting the hair of the little Orthodox boys of Passaic and making sure not to shave the sideburns, according to Jewish law. He is devoted. Really, I think. Why say anything?
Ruchama King Feuerman’s new novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist,” was published as an e-book last month by the New York Review of Books.