Holy Night

Published in the book Inshallah first edition 2001

By Donald Boström

“whatever you do, said Hadja, “don’t say a word.”  That was her condition for accompanying me to Haram-al-Sharif, the al-Aqsa precinct where the famous shrines, the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock are situated, the area that the Jews venerate as Temple Mount. Hadja, the old woman who has knelt a thousand times in prayer outside the al Aqsa Mosque, was worried about my safety. She was now going to try to smuggle me into the precinct, Islam’s third holiest place, accompanied by one of the officials of the al-Waqf authority and some of the guards, on the holiest night of the Muslim Calendar - the Night of Power.

One of the highest officials of al-Waqf authority, which administers Islam’s properties in Jerusalem, gave me his blessing on my undertaking.  The problem was that as an outsider, I could be seen as a provocateur.

More than once the Israelis have entered the area and provoked the praying Muslims. One of the most well known occasions is the so called Haram-al-Sharif massacres in 1990 when 39 Palestinians were killed and 150 wounded. The latest incident was in September 2000 when Ariel Sharon, the then Likud leader, who subsequently became Prime Minister, forced himself into the precinct with his guards and unleashed the worst unrest for many years.

For this reason no Muslim can go to pray there in tranquillity and security. Instead, everyone is tense, as if waiting for some unknown event which, in an instant, could lead to their death. It would be quite understandable if some of the thousands of visitors to the mosque were to try to forestall such an eventuality by stopping provocateurs before they were able to do any damage.
This was a unique opportunity. No outsider with a camera had previously been able to get near to the holy al-Aqsa precinct on the twenty-seventh night of Ramadan, the Holy Night, ‘Laylat il-qadri khayron minn alfi  sha-hr’ (the Night of Destiny is worth more than a thousand months), as it is described in the ninety-seventh sura of the Koran.  The project therefore seemed impossible. Many had tried before without success and the al-Waqf official was not only sceptical he was also deeply uneasy. “You will be killed,” he said. “Don’t dress as a Palestinian. That would be even more risky.” We stood in his office several metres from the al Aqsa Mosque and tried to solve the problem. When I left his office the drops of sweat shone visible on his forehead.
Later that evening the chief guard rang and said calmly, “Bring an elderly woman with you and come to the Lion Gate at nine o’clock.” 

Hadja was more than pleased to volunteer. Her husband had been in an Israeli prison for seven years as a political prisoner and he still suffered from the after effects. “The torture has made him crazy”, said Hadja. “He hasn’t been outside the door for several years and he hardly ever speaks. I just can’t stand this life.  If I have any reason to get out of the house I never refuse.”
A little while later Hadja and I, along with tens of thousands of observant Muslims, wandered along the outside of the old walk that faces towards Gethsemane and continued down towards the Lion Gate along the road that entered the holy place. I drifted along with the stream of people and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible so as not to draw attention to myself. Hadja spoke Arabic in a sort of pretend conversation so that we would seem just like all the other couples. At regular intervals I would make suitable noises as if in reply as we were pushed further towards our goal in the midst of the throng.

I had two cameras under my jacket and Hadja had my tripod hidden under her shawl. She whispered to me, “Your name is Ali and you are my brother - just so that you know.” “Mm” I replied.

“If the weather is good tonight there could be several hundred thousand people”, guessed Hadja. At best the area which was built at the end of the 7th century had room for half a million praying Muslims in the open air. But at the moment it looked like rain.

It was on this night 1,400 years ago as Mohammed sat and meditated in the Hera cave situated in the mountain of the same name north east of Mecca before returning home to his wife Khadija, that the Arch-angel Gabriel appeared to him for the first time.  Consequently it was on that night - called the Night of Destiny - that Mohammed became a great prophet with the task of taking down his apparitions as the basis of Islam; the youngest of the three religions of the Book. Certainly the Muslims would worship the same God that the Jews and Christians already worshipped, even the great prophets were the same for all three religions. Even Islam’s version of Mary’s annunciation coincides with the Christian belief. The Koran also states that Mary’s pregnancy was definitely the work of the Holy Spirit but, unlike the Christians, the Muslims do not believe that the child Jesus was in fact the Son of God in the same way that the Christians believe it.

Outside the entrance to the sacred precinct stood a handful of guards and I immediately knew what to expect.  For the last fifty metres every step was watched by one of the hawk-eyed guards. He was almost smiling as if to say. “Do you think I am stupid?” as he drew me to one side. As the sacred precinct is divided according to the colour of the identity card the first of his orders was that I should show my id card.  However I kept my promise to Hadja and did not say a word. Hadja interrupted the conversation to save the situation.

“He is my brother Ali; he was adopted when he was little and grew up in the United States. Now he has at last come back. Isn’t that fantastic?” “Of course he can’t speak the language nor had time to get an id card, he has just arrived from America”, she continued.
“He is a Christian”, said the guard coldly.

After that Hadja swore on her mother’s grave that I was a Muslim, and I was indeed her brother.
“Let me see your id card instead”, said the guard finally.

Hadja was in a panic. She turned her bag and her pockets inside out, looked in all her clothes, but nothing helped. Her id card had disappeared. Hadja could be arrested at any time by the Israeli police without her id  card. The crisis came to a head when the tripod, that looked like a weapon poked out from under her shawl in the tumult. When they afterwards opened my jacket and found two cameras they called for reinforcements. The uproar could be heard inside the precincts of the mosque and our friends among the guards inside could therefore come to our rescue. 

The head of the guards had let three of the regular guards in the precinct in on our plan. Everyone knew them well which was one of the preconditions that would ensure that the whole plan could be carried out. It was very tense but we were allowed in. We went carefully forwards among the suspicious looks, up towards the al Aqsa mosque which, with its magnificent golden dome and its beautiful mosaics, sat enthroned majestically in the light of the search light. Barely a thousand years ago had the European Crusaders taken over the precinct, and thereafter there are very few Arab conquerors that have not polished the dome of the al Aqsa mosque. The precinct has been annexed by Israel since 1967.

The story of Mohammed’s night journey – Mi-iradj, to see Allah’s great wonders started from the rock with Mohammed’s footprint around which the Dome of the Rock is built. According to the Koran, Mohammed was taken by a horse, Buraq, to Jerusalem where he met the great prophets of Allah and Islam, among them Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and led the prayers in the presence of the prophets.

After the meeting Mohammed went over to the rock to undertake his night journey, Israa. This should not be confused with the sacred night when he had his first apparition.

The women began to gather around the Dome of the Rock. The guards and I left Hadja to go further down towards the al Aqsa mosque and the men’s area.  Haram-al-Sharif also includes a third, smaller mosque which is called ‘the old al-Aqsa mosque’.  It was there that Mohammed had his meeting with the great prophets. The Muslims consider the entire al Aqsa precinct a mosque both inside and outside.

“When I give you the camera you have a few seconds to take a picture, then I’ll take the camera back before we have people all over us,” said Majed, one of the guards. The first hour was nerve wracking. People came rushing forwards to find out what I, as an outsider, thought of the situation.  On a couple of occasions there were real difficulties for the guards accompanying me to cope with the tumult.

And so the wandering continued with quick pictures here and there that I took as the guards and I held our breath.

The finale of the photography was almost funny. In order to take a panoramic view I was helped up into a sort of watchtower in front of the al Aqsa mosque. Majed climbed up first and put the tripod in place.  Just as I had got the camera up and got myself into position, the many thousands of praying Muslims stood up after their prostrations. Our glances met. There I stood in front of thousands who froze and stared at the idiot in the watch tower. In the first row stood Jerusalem’s Pale-stinian leader, Faisal Husseini who I had interviewed the same afternoon. I was probably already recognised after wandering around with the guards all evening.

“Unbelievable,” said Khaled and Majed. “This has never happened before. The first time in Islamic history.”

On the way out some of the worshippers started to look up towards the sky. “Have you seen the moon?” wondered little Said. The question was heard again and again. At the end of the Ramadan fast people’s eyes are often fixed on the dark evening sky.

The new moon means that the lunar month-long fast is ended and “Eid al-Fitr”, the great feast, can begin. For three days relatives and friends cross the country visit each other, eat and exchange presents.  Many people were now longing for it. But tonight was still the twenty-seventh of Ramadan.
The Holy Night of Destiny.