A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Temple Mount
I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but late last night, in the frightening darkness of my room in the holy city of Jerusalem, I felt I had had enough of being Jewish. How much, and how long, can a man be a light unto the nations?
And so, in the morning light I got up from bed, got dressed, ate my Last Breakfast, bid goodbye to the Bible and the Talmud on my iPad, walked out and hailed a taxi to Al-Aqsa. It was time to see what it was like to be a Muslim.
The cabbie tried speaking with me in Hebrew, thinking I was a Jew, but I let him know he couldn’t be any further from the truth. Immediately he switched to Arabic and asked if I want to get off at “the gate.” I had no clue what gate he had in mind, but I just said yes. Since I’m pretending to be an Occupied Palestinian, I should probably get used to saying yes to everything, I thought.
Within minutes we reached a road in East Jerusalem, and he told me that we had arrived. Where was the gate? Allah surely knew, but I didn’t. I walked up the road and found a gate, or something like it. Why did the cabbie drop me before the gate? I didn’t know. What I did know was this: At the gate there were cops, Israeli cops.
“Are you a Muslim?” one of them asked.
“I am!” I answered, without hesitation.
“Know the Quran?”
How in the world was I supposed to show him? And why should I? But he had a gun, and I didn’t. So I said, “Ashahdu al-la Allah illallah uAshahdu an Muhammad-ar rasulallah [I testify that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet]. This is a declaration of faith, and according to the Islamic law, if a man says this he becomes a Muslim — in case he isn’t yet.
This should have satisfied the gun holder, but the problem is that cops are no imams, and religious law is not their domain. “Say the Fatiha,” the cop barked at me.
It’s been a long time since I studied Islam, and I didn’t exactly remember, beyond the very beginning.
I tried nevertheless. I said, “Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim, al-hamdu lillahi rabil alameen” [“In the name of Allah, the compassionate and merciful, praise be to Allah, lord of the worlds’].
Should be good, I thought. But the cop said, “Continue!”
Who did he think he was? Why should I pray to him?
I didn’t, and he talked to his colleague, discussing why I was behaving so strangely. They talked and talked, and finally they decided: “You are Christian. No entry.”
But I wanted to pray, I said.
Well, they argued, if I wanted to pray that much, I should enter the mosque via the Jew and Christian entrance. But the Infidels’ entrance, I protested, was closing at 11:00 a.m., in 55 minutes. The cops were not impressed. The walk is only 29 minutes from here, one of them said, and he pointed at the road I should take.
I looked at the name of the road. Via Dolorosa. I was to walk the way of that old Jew, Jesus Christ. Not easy to be a true Muslim.
I walked and walked and walked. Soon 29 minutes had passed, and no infidels’ entry in sight.
I spotted another entrance, for Muslims only, several feet away. I swore my allegiance to the Prophet, loud enough for the Israeli prime minister in west Jerusalem to hear me, but the cop at the entrance was obviously deaf, yelling at me, “Fatiha!”
I tried once more, reciting the beginning of it quickly, the way some Hasidic Jews do in synagogues when they recite loudly just the beginning of prayers, only this new cop didn’t know from Hasidic Jews. He said, “Don’t stop, continue!”
I stared at him as if he had just offended my most precious religious feelings. He looked at me, not sure what kind of creature I was, and went to discuss the matter in Hebrew with his colleague.
They discussed between themselves who I could be, and decided: Half Muslim, half Christian.
They pointed for me the way. Via Dolorosa.
“But I am a Muslim, on both sides of the family!” I protested.
“Show me your passport,” the cop said, softening up.
I hadn’t brought a passport.
Having no choice, I continued the way of the old Jew until I reach the gate of the infidels, and finally I entered.
It’s beautiful inside my new Holy Shrine, an amazing square surrounded by trees and sands, like a spacious dream forest. I never knew there was so much empty real estate in the Old City.
I mingled with my new co-believers, and after every few steps I spotted a sign in Arabic: Spitting forbidden. I’m not sure why there is a need for so many signs forbidding the act of spitting.
After 11 a.m. passed, I successfully evaded the Israeli police, who by that time had cleared the area of all infidels.
I kept on walking, enjoying my new status, when suddenly an Arab guard caught up with me and yelled: “Out of here!”
This man did not even ask me for the Fatiha. He chased me out as if I were a Christian.
Once out, I stopped by a coffee shop packed with Muslim men. If I can’t pray like a Muslim, let me at least drink like a Muslim, I thought. I drank one cup of coffee after another, and in the end, nature called.
I asked the waiter for directions to the men’s room.
“Are you Muslim?” he asked.
“Yes, I am, by Allah!” I said. I seemed to be declaring my Islamic faith today more that the most devoted of Talibans in Afghanistan.
“Go to Al-Aqsa,” I was told.
I was there, I said, but the Jewish police thought that I was only half a Muslim and they got on my nerves.
“Show them your passport.”
“I don’t have it on me.”
“Then you have to go to the Jewish Wall.”
I had said I was a born-again Muslim, but still, apparently I had to urinate with the Jews. What a curse!
I walked out of the coffee house in the direction of the Jewish Wall, and I saw Arabic graffiti on a wall outside the coffee shop: “Soon Al-Quds will be free!”
“Al-Quds,” the holy, is Jerusalem. “Free” means free of Jews.
I wonder if they were talking about me.
Tuvia Tenenbom, founder of the Jewish Theater of New York, is the author of the best-selling book “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Germany.” He is currently in Israel where he is working on the follow-up, tentatively titled “Alone Among Jews.”