Yesterday, I had the opportunity to get to know a Muslim named Mohammad from the Old City of Jerusalem. He is the proprietor of a new hotel in Jericho who graciously gave me a ride back to Beit Hanina in Jerusalem.
The ride from Jericho to Jerusalem is one of my favorites. It is through the Judean wilderness – the desert. Every time I travel along that road the mountains of sand, rock, and stuble are different. Depending on the time of day, the light reflects different colors across the miles of wilderness. The desert of Judea is where John the Baptist preached and cried out “Make way for the Lord.” The mountains surrounding the city of Jericho are where Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. And somewhere along that same road is where the story of the Good Samaritan took place. What remarkable history.
As we were traveling, Mohammad and I started to talk about Jerusalem. He grew up in the Old City and told me stories of what things used to be like when he was young. He told me some stories that he had heard from his grandparents about the way things were during the early 20th century. More than a hundred years ago… Jerusalem used to be a city where Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived side by side in peace. Mohammad’s family lived in the Muslim quarter of the Old City. They had neighbors who were Arab Christians. When his great-grandfather was a baby, his mother was very close to her Christian neighbor who had a baby around the same time. Mohammad told me that the two little boys were brought up together. Their families were so close that the Muslim little boy was fed milk from the Christian mother’s breast. Just as the Christian little boy was fed by Mohammad’s great-great-grandmother. As Mohammad told me this story, I was a bit incredulous. When I asked if he was speaking literally, he affirmed that the story was true. Because both Mohammad’s great-grandfather and his Christian neighbor were raised in this way, taking milk from each other’s mother, they are brothers. Such was the way things used to be in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Similarly in regard to their Jewish neighbors… Mohammad’s grandmother had a Jewish neighbor with whom they were very close. So much so that his grandmother learned Yiddish (pronounced ee-dish in Arabic). Every week during Shabbat, the Jewish family could not light the oil for their lamps because it would be a violation of the Sabbath. Thus, Mohammad’s grandmother – week by week by week – had the role of bringing light to the Jewish family who were her neighbors. Such was the way things used to be in the Old City of Jerusalem.
As Mohammad was telling me these stories, I must confess, I was a bit enraptured. The images he created gave me a glimpse of what things might have been like generations ago in this Holy City. One of the final stories that I heard from Mohammad is a sort of fable… I am surprised that I had never heard it before. It is about the land:
There once was a man who lived in a village. He was Jewish. The Jewish man believed that the four corners of the land belonged to him. There was another man who lived in the same village who was an Arab. The Arab believed the same four corners of land belonged to him. Because the men were fighting over the land, they decided to bring a wise man to settle their dispute. The wise man could have been a sheik or a priest or a rabbi. The wise man came and met with the two men. The Arab man told the wise man, “This land belongs to me.” The Jewish man told the wise man, “No. This land belongs to me.” The wise man was very gifted. He could hear quiet whispers of truth and knew how to interpret the whispers of creation around him. The wise man told the two men – enough of your fighting about the land. Let us hear what the land has to say about all of this. The wise man then went to the center of the four corners of the land. He laid himself down on the earth and put his ear to the ground. He lay their quietly for a long period of time. The two men began to become impatient and they said, “Who does the land say it belongs to?” The wise man told them to be quiet… that he needed to hear the whispering of the land. After even more time had passed the wise man got up from the ground. The Jewish man said “Does the land say it belongs to me?” And the Arab man said “Does the land say it belongs to me?” The wise man responded… “No. The land says that you both belong to it.”
As I have lived here in the land for the past five or so months… I am starting to feel like I too belong to the land. The land is holy. Holy for Jews. Holy for Muslims. Holy for Christians.