I am asked if I have ever been, and I must take a moment to remember. I take a moment to consider, what does it matter if I have ever been if I can never go back? This pause takes longer than expected, because the instant I hear "Jerusalem," confusion jolts through my veins. The instant I hear "Jerusalem," my mind returns, robotically, "I'll never go back." My heart whispers, "I'm always there." My throat begins to burn as the two go to war inside of me. The voice in my heart escalates but no matter how loudly it screams my mind does not accept and it still repeats -- "I'll never go back." I come to the end of this short pause, emotions nearly exploding off my tongue.
I then only meekly reply, "Yes, I went when I was a child."
... But I can never go back.
Yes, I have memories of Jerusalem. Memories that will forever remain broken. Glimpses and snapshots that exist only as unfinished stories. All because I'm Palestinian, because I'm from Gaza.
I remember sitting on the bright red carpet in the Dome of the Rock, watching others bow their heads down to its golden patterns. I gazed up to the open expanse inside. Even the molecules in the air seemed to be saturated with divinity. I remember touching the great stone that the Prophet Muhammad is said to have stood on. I recall Jerusalem's buzzing markets, piled with children's clothes, lanterns, and souvenirs. Stray cats running around the courtyards, and kids chasing along after. These faded pictures I have, part of a painting I can never complete. Yet, the moment I left Jerusalem as a child, I engrained the city in my heart.
On Sept. 28, 2000, I heard news about violence just outside of the great mosque, whose carpet I laid on only weeks before. I clearly visualized it all again, and as a child, I thought about was the idea of its beautiful red and gold patterns being tarnished and destroyed. I cried. Understandably, my parents did not go into much more detail about what happened. Later I learned that this had been the beginning of the Second Intifada, but despite its origins in Jerusalem, most of the violence ended up occurring elsewhere. My fear for Jerusalem subsided, and for the next several years, my concerns would be occupied by atrocities elsewhere in Palestine.
Thus, as I grew up, one thing was always sure to me: despite the chaos in the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem was a sphere of Palestine that could not be penetrated by much of the chaos surrounding it. My mind was mainly consumed by the Gaza Strip most of the time, where I have the most family. I saw their suffering. I experienced the destruction and blockade of Gaza for myself. No matter how many more drones I saw over Gaza, though, or how many more Israeli settlements I heard of in the West Bank, a part of me always remained at peace knowing that Jerusalem was safe.
Well, as safe as an illegally occupied territory could be. Maybe I was not paying enough attention, or I was too young to see it. Maybe because the reports I did hear out of Jerusalem, while shocking to those privileged with life in the West, seemed routine to the Palestinian struggle. Whatever the reason, I was in no way prepared for what plummeted through Jerusalem's once impenetrable dome during the year 2014. Nor was any other Palestinian I knew.
I sat before my laptop in the summer of 2014, questioning my eyes for what they told me was written on the screen. I spent hours glued to social media, simultaneously checking live news updates from Jerusalem, and scrambling to contact all those I knew with family there. My mind could not escape this beloved city from 14 years earlier, and each day, I became more and more aware of something leaving my heart forever. The security by which I was once sustained collapsed underneath me, and with it I felt the weight of twelve million sunken Palestinian hearts crashing onto my back. Jerusalem, a city that, no matter where we all come from, holds our deepest roots of love and hope, was, too, infiltrated with wickedness. "Even worse than 1967," many said, "the worst I've ever seen it."
This is my story with Jerusalem -- once only unsure of my fate to return to the city, now unsure of the fate of the city, itself, as one to return to.
How is it that I am so concerned about a city that I can hardly even remember?
Jerusalem, your air is filled with the prayers of countless languages. Your soil is imprinted by the footsteps of many empires, and the world's heritages intersect to compose your history. Jerusalem, your place in my heart transcends sight and experience. Abraham walked on your ground. Jesus ministered to your people. Muhammad ascended into your skies.
Why do the walls that were once built to protect Jerusalem's majesty, now stand to destroy? Is it not a home to us all? Do we each not have our story? So why are we being persecuted based on religion, ethnicity, and nationality? Why does our children's blood stain the streets where peace was once preached?
If this grand city is so much a part of me, what is this authority that prevents me from being a part of it? If my people, too, can trace our ancestry through the roots of its olive trees, why then, can we not return?