Freedom News

The Cave

I woke up to the sun streaming through the window, as I could see the Dome of the Rock glistening on the horizon from my hotel bed. The dream was no longer a dream but a realisation; I had been fortunate enough to visit the third holiest site for Muslims. I felt like pinching myself to make sure the image didn’t disappear into a vapour of hallucination, even though it had been a few days of waking up to the same view. I grabbed my phone and googled the 10 top things to do in Jerusalem. One of the results was the Cave of the Patriarchs. So, in that instant, it was decided by Tripadvisor that I needed to go and visit the tomb of our forefather, and I jumped out of bed.

Jerusalem always was the jewel in the crown; as a child, I remembered listening to the adults around me lament its loss. It would be the perfect end to my summer wanderings in the region. I booked my return flight to the UK from Tel Aviv with a nonchalant naivety that I would get into Israel. Yes, I had heard the countless stories of people being turned away at the borders or interrogated for hours, but I was adamant that I would get through; why wouldn’t I? As I was leaving Jordan via the King Hussein Bridge, more than one official had told me not to speak Arabic. Well, it doesn’t bloody work like that when your name screams…Arab!

I was in the queue, and ahead of me was a Scottish guy carrying the same exact passport as me. The border guard chatted jovially to him and let him through in a couple of minutes, ‘Welcome to Israel and enjoy your stay!’ As the blonde Scot disappeared into the distance.

Easy, I thought, surely I’ll be ok.

He looked at me and smiled as I handed him my well-travelled burgundy passport. All was going well until he read my name and looked up.

‘Where are you from?’

‘The UK.’


‘I’m half Syrian, half Moroccan.’

‘Do you speak Arabic?


To cut this part short, I didn’t skip on through after a couple of minutes but was ushered to the side to where there were a whole load of other people that looked suspiciously like me, a ‘human animal’ apparently. I was given a form to fill out and put through the gauntlet of waiting and intermittent interrogations to make sure I had no Palestinian ancestry. After three hours and several nervous coffees, they let me through. I called my family.

‘I’m in! I’m going to Jerusalem!’

Google maps….how do I get to Hebron? Three buses later and just under two hours of travel, I found myself at an Israeli checkpoint manned by soldiers who seemed to be wishing their mandatory military service to be over sooner rather than later.

In my religiously vague floral dress and uncovered hair, I asked,

‘Is this the way up to the Cave of the Patriarchs?’

They mumbled something and waved me through towards the ascent. I climbed the stairs, and before reaching the entrance, I pulled out my black abaya and scarf and wrapped myself from head to ankle and thus, in an instant, became very visibly – a Muslim woman. I pushed open the door and instantly realised I was in the wrong section. The Jewish section. During the Six Day War of 1967, Israel captured the area, and what was previously only the Ibrahimi Mosque was then divided, making part of it a synagogue. I walked over to the woman’s side and stood behind a Jewish lady who was praying at the window overlooking the tomb of Prophet Jacob upon him be peace. I touched it and whispered my prayer silently alongside her; she didn’t notice me, surprisingly. I withdrew and walked back to the soldiers. They looked at my altered appearance in surprise as I asked them where the Muslim entrance was.

‘You’re Muslim?’


I couldn’t quite tell whether he looked annoyed or surprised.

‘I went into the wrong section. It was very beautiful, but could you please point me towards the Muslim side as I would like to pray?’

He hesitated for a moment as the two female soldiers looked at me and mumbled something in Hebrew.

They talked amongst each other as if deciding what to do with me, but then he escorted me to a side entrance that was clearly only for military personnel and, ushered me through it and out onto the street and pointed towards the mosque’s entrance.

‘Thank you,’ I said.

He nodded and then closed the metal gate behind him.

A Palestinian man at the entrance sat on a chair, looking at me in bemusement that I had just emerged from the military base.

‘I went through the wrong way; they thought I was Jewish.’

He smirked and told me to put on an extra-long skirt over my abaya to cover my bare feet. Fully covered, I made my way in.

Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Rebekah and Leah – upon them be peace.

I entered in awe at having reached such an important place. How in God’s name did I get here so easily? Doors were opened, rifles lowered, paths cleared. Here, against all odds, to pay my respects and leave my prayers behind in the hope that they would be heard. Just like thousands, if not millions, of other Jews, Christians and Muslims had done so before me. The enormity of it didn’t hit at that moment, but it would later.

After many years of being barren, Sarah suggested that Abraham take Hagar as a second wife. History refers to her as the concubine, the bondswoman, the slave girl or the princess – depending on which tradition you read. Nonetheless, Hagar became pregnant, and the tension between the two women grew along with the child she carried. She was eventually banished with her son Ishmael to the Hejaz, amongst the barren dunes. She asked Abraham…

‘For whom are you leaving us in this forsaken valley? Has God commanded you to do this?’

Abraham answered, ‘Yes’.

‘Then God will not cause us to be lost.’

Hence, the birth of the Ishmaelites or the Arabs.

Sarah eventually had Isaac, the forefather and continuation of the Jewish people, and for this reason, in Syria, we would always refer to the Jewish nation as our cousins.

I walked around the mosque, trying not to trip over the long skirt, making sure my toes didn’t peep through, from tomb to tomb, leaving Abraham to last. As beautiful as this place was, there was an ugliness that had left its marks upon the mihrab – bullet marks. Bullets that had sprayed the congregation of the 25th of February 1994. The attack by Baruch Goldstein had left 29 Muslim worshipers dead and 125 wounded. I pressed my finger into one of the niches a bullet had left behind as I listened to one of the guides, a survivor of the attack and a historian, talk us through the history of the place.

Opposite the mihrab, there was a covered grate that, if you bend down and look through it, you could see the opening to the cave, which was lit by candles, and it is down there that they lay in rest. I strained my eyes to look through the flickering candlelight into the dark as if I would be able to see them sat round in a circle deep in discussion. I wondered what they were thinking, how ashamed they were of us, their grandchildren, how we had let them down so irrevocably with all the partitions and walls, bullets and bombs, blood and more blood. Here, up above on the ground, where we all come to gather and pray in the hope that we may be forgiven for something or another or just selfishly asking God for more and more. Yet ignoring the fact that as vicegerents on this earth, we were destroying it and each other mercilessly. 

I walked over through to another section of the mosque, a small prayer hall that contained a walled off chamber that had a window with green bars going horizontally and vertically across, forming a square grid lattice, upon which at the bottom was additional mesh wiring. I rested my forehead against the bars; my eyes closed as my thoughts wafted over into the chamber that was the resting place of the Prophet Abraham. Upon him be peace. An imposing shrine covered in a green shroud embroidered in gold Arabic calligraphy which said, ‘This is the shrine of Abraham the beloved prophet of God upon him be peace’.

I kissed the bars and set about praying,

‘Please, God, as I’ve made it this far, please grant me this dua that I ask you every day. Please look after him for me ….’

But then I was cut short as I could feel someone’s gaze upon me, and from the periphery of my left eye across the chamber, there was another barred off window, and standing there was a Jewish lady praying from the section of the synagogue. But she had stopped and was looking at me, and I had stopped, and I was looking at her. And in that moment when two strangers’ eyes meet, and they hold each other’s gaze for longer than is socially acceptable, we had forgotten our prayers. We were separated by bars, but there was also this hideous glass stand in the middle of the chamber that stood between our two windows. And on the floor beneath it were scattered several pieces of paper containing the prayers, requests and hopes of the pious. Jewish papers and Muslim papers that had been tossed into one pile beyond the bars and beneath the glass partition and lay there on the floor defiantly together, unsegregated. I wanted so badly to know what she was thinking in that moment, whether it was the same as me, at how pointless all this hate was. For weren’t our prayers both drifting into the same chamber of the same prophet, our forefather? Two women, cousins – the descendants of Abraham – asking for probably very similar things.

As I left the mosque, I took off the long skirt and gave it back to the man at the door, removed my abaya and scarf and put them back into my bag. I smoothed my dress down and fluffed out my hair that, under the scarf and Hebron heat, had moistened against my neck. I wanted to visit the local museum and the famous glass blowers; the man pointed me towards a metal turnstile at the bottom of the road directly opposite another gated and Israeli manned exit. Exit from what? All these gates. You had to go through the turnstile to enter the souk, which was deadly quiet. Shops abandoned. One shopkeeper explained the owners had been fed up with the lack of tourists and had shut shop and left. I looked up, and there was chicken wire above, placed as protection from the harassment of the settlers and their constant throwing of rubbish on their Palestinian neighbours. I bought a coffee cup, so I didn’t leave the man’s shop empty handed. Under the Ottomans, Hebron had once been a vibrant stop off on the pilgrimage route to Mecca but was now fenced in from every perceivable direction, even from above. I felt caged in and increasingly uncomfortable in the apartheid that had an intensity to it that day that I was oblivious to. I would later learn that there had been a raid in July on the Al-Ajlouni family, during which Israeli soldiers had forced 5 women to strip naked.

There was widespread condemnation of the incident, and statements were made indicating reprisals, one being by the Popular Resistance Committees,

‘The crime of the occupation soldiers against five women in Hebron will not go unpunished, and the enemy will pay the price for its foolishness.’

Hebron was on edge and looking over its shoulders. I spent very little time in the souk, my coffee cup wrapped in a newspaper. I made a running pit stop at the glass blower and headed back to the metal turnstile. I found myself back at the Israeli checkpoint; again, my secular dress got me through the first point with little fuss. But then I came to the second, and before attempting to infiltrate it, I stopped at one of the Palestinian shops and was quickly vortexed into conversation with a group that was delighted to see a customer,

‘Where are you from?’

‘Syria’, I responded.

Palestinians love the Syrians! I found that out rather quickly and had been detained for many a conversation and their reminiscing of the time they had visited Damascus or Aleppo.

‘What’s the best way for me to return to Jerusalem?’

I had reached Hebron through tourist ignorance. Every time I tried to pay, I was told that I needed a RavKav, which I didn’t have, and every time, the drivers just rolled their eyes at me and allowed me to travel for free.

‘How and where do I buy this travel card from?’

They pointed to a café across the road on the Israeli side, and I had to get through another checkpoint. One of the men told me if I were unable to get one, then he would give me his, but before making my way over, he said,

‘Listen, don’t tell them you are Muslim. Tell them you are Christian.’


‘Trust me, don’t tell them.’


I’m an awful liar. I approached the two soldiers, a male and a female. The female stood in my face, full eye contact. I started waffling, telling her I was making my way back to Jerusalem, that I had just come from the Cave of Patriarchs, that I needed a travel card, and I needed to go to the café to buy one. All the time she was staring at me,

‘Where are you from?

‘Are you Christian or Muslim?’

I took longer to answer the second question, and words fail me here as I cannot quite describe the oppression that debilitated me in the moment I disguised my identity.

‘I’m Christian,’ my eyelids blinking away the lie.

She looked at me, she scrutinised. I was scared of her, scared of the two armed soldiers questioning me as to what religion I was, for I’m sure, if not their ancestors, but those of someone they know would have been asked a similar question in Nazi Europe. Are you Jewish or Christian? I felt angry. I wondered what the outcome would have been had I told them the truth. Would I have been mistreated? Would I have been in danger? One word determined how I was to be treated. I looked back at the Palestinian who had advised me correctly. I couldn’t get a travel card, so I had to go back, and again, she asked me what religion I was. She clearly didn’t believe me. Again, I lied, and the knot in my stomach tightened. I wanted to leave this place where it mattered so much what Abrahamic religion you belonged to.

I walked back to the Palestinian man and told him I couldn’t get a travel card. He pulled out his wallet and gave me his. I tried to give him some money in exchange, but he refused, as he wished me a safe journey back to Jerusalem.

Another checkpoint, more soldiers, more questions.

‘I am Christian.’

I sat at the deserted bus stop, opposite which was a group of soldiers and some Palestinian children playing in the distance. There were bullet marks in the shelter, and the shattering of the glass told me stories I tried to block out. I just wanted to leave. One of the soldiers who had let me through the last checkpoint walked towards me.

Oh God, they don’t believe me. They are coming to question me again. 

But he didn’t. He just stood between me and the partition as I looked down at his rifle that hung by his side, trying not to look at him. He stood there guarding me. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or angry as I wondered whether he would have guarded me had he known I was Muslim. I had absolutely no desire to find out.

Where is this damn bus? I want to get out of here.

It finally came, and my soldier nodded for me to get on. I thanked him, and he smiled and walked back towards his checkpoint.

In the space of that visit, on my entry, I had been mistaken for a Jew, had prayed as a Muslim and, on exiting, had pretended to be a Christian.

When God informed the angels of his intent to create Adam, they responded…

‘Just think when your Lord said to the angels: ‘Lo! I am about to place a vicegerent on earth,’ they said: ‘Will you place on it one who will spread mischief and shed blood while we celebrate Your glory and extol Your holiness?’ He said: ‘Surely I know what you do not know.” Quran 2: 30

I flew out of Tel Aviv a few weeks prior to the eruption of what is occurring now.

To this day, I don’t think we have come to entirely understand what God knows and we don’t, as vicegerents on this earth, we are not doing a particularly good job. Gaza finds itself under siege, heavy bombardment, and the threat of a full blown war looms over the Holy Land, and the world turns its back on an unfolding genocide of the Palestinians. In my dwindling faith in humanity, I remember holding those bars and seeing my fellow Jewish vicegerent hold the bars from her side, as we both sent blessings onto our forefather Abraham and prayed to the same one God. Of all I saw and experienced of those lands, the moment our eyes met is the one I am trying to focus on.

A moment entirely oblivious to the walls, bars and glass partition.

~ Farrah Akbik

Feature image: Radikale Venstre / CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed
In text image: Farrah Akbik

Discover more from Freedom News

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading