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Joha's Nail

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jerusalem-western-wall32THE Qur’an says that Jesus Christ was not crucified1. The Gospel of Barnabus suggests that Judas Iscariot, who resembled Jesus, was placed on the cross instead. In the Islamic motif Jesus doesn’t die, but is taken ‘unto God’ where he will await the Final Days. In other words, a crucifixion did take place – but it wasn’t Jesus.

However, I hadn’t come to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to ambush anybody with theology. I’d visited it to explore an event that was extraordinarily real to millions of people.


I came from a multi-religious family – my father had been a curious agnostic, my mother an Anglican – so my ‘pilgrimage’ was as much for them as it was to satisfy my own curiosity. This was a life-long curiosity that had been excited by history.  


It was mid-morning, and I retreated to the Hashimi. Normally by this time crowds of pilgrims would be thronging in Jerusalem’s narrow streets. The intifadah had put paid to that, and Jerusalem’s curio shops were suffering for lack of customers. It made me a hopeful target for business.


Eventually, after having had more baubles, crucifixes, candlesticks and olive-wood rosaries thrust into my hands than I’ve had hot dinners, the merchants backed off with their persistent sales banter. As I finally disentangled myself from their wares, they started to chat.


“Hi, you America?” winked a shopkeeper, as he gave me his business card.


“No way,” I replied, “I’m South African!”


”Ah, how’s Mr. Mandela today?’ he queried with a chuckle, and so it went down the street.


Back at the hotel I discovered that we were scheduled to visit the ‘Wailing Wall’ later in the day. Such was the compact nature of the Old City. One could wake up, have breakfast, and then visit Al-Aqsa, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the ‘Wailing Wall’ all before lunch.


Yet this compactness belied the fact you’d visit three different worlds – historically inter-connected, but strangely distant. Caliph Umar had prayed outside the Holy Sepulchre (a mosque opposite it marked the spot) but I doubt whether Hagrid the Greek guarding the tomb of Christ had ever entered Al-Aqsa or Umar’s mosque.


Nor would the black-coated Haredic Jew scurrying past me with his prayer books and tallit have entered the portals of the Holy Sepulchre. And it was equally unlikely that the bescarved old Muslim man hobbling over his stick to pray at Al-Aqsa would ever visit the Wall.


The privileged in the Holy City were curious visitors like me, neutrals detached from the daily struggles and sectarian battles for its streets and monuments. Only we were able to cross the lines.


It was after midday as we queued up near the Maghribi Gate to enter the Ha-Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi, or Buraq wall plaza. Decreed by the Israeli Ministry of Religion as an Orthodox synagogue, men have to cover their heads and women have to be dressed modestly. I had a baseball cap, and so I didn’t have to wear a cardboard kepi.


After passing through security and the inevitable x-rays, I was glad that I was wearing sunglasses. The glare emanating from the polished limestone plaza was blinding. The plaza was where the Maghribi quarter, a community waqf trust established by the Ayyubids eight centuries previously, had been demolished in 1967 by the Israelis.


I was surprised there were no trees. But this former Muslim neighbourhood had become a marching space; a space where religion, Zionist nationalism and militarism merged. Israeli troops made their oaths of allegiance to the Zionist state here.


Before the 1967 occupation, the wall had been accessed by a narrow alley through the Maghribi quarter. 18 metres high and 67 metres in length, the wall consisted of forty-five stone courses. Twenty-eight are above ground and seventeen are below, which means that Herod’s original foundations are still buried 9 metres underground.


Resting on the bedrock at the Roman street level is one of the biggest stone blocks moved by man. Called the ‘Western Stone’, this giant ‘brick’ is 13 metres long, 3 metres thick and 3 metres high. It weighs over 500 tons.


As I stood before the wall – a screen dividing me from the worshippers – I could see that the Romans in 70 CE had not been able to demolish all of Herod’s handiwork. This wall was nearly 500 metres long, and was abutted by the Muslim quarter.


High above me huge weeds cascaded out of 7th century cracks. The Ummayads – influenced by Byzantine craftsmen – had been fine builders, but it was easy to discern where their renovations began and where Herod’s precise masonry ended.


Whilst Herod’s construction, commenced in 19 BCE is over 2, 000 years old, it’s difficult to know where the First Temple stood. No remains of it have ever been found. Solomon completed the First Temple sometime in the 10th century BCE, and it was destroyed by the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE.


The Second Temple was built in 516 BCE when the Israelites were allowed to return to Jerusalem, but demolished by Emperor Titus in 70 CE. In 135 CE Emperor Hadrian had banished Jews from the Holy City after the Bar Kochba revolt. In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine allowed them to visit the Temple ruins once a year.


The Sanctuary’s western wall is where Muhammad tied up Al-Buraq, his mystical steed after his Night Journey from Mecca in 620 CE. However, the wall’s narrative as the Judaic world’s centre of devotion is somewhat cloudy2. Jewish legend states that the western walls of the Temple would never be toppled as the presence of G-d had never left the wall.


Yet historically, the idea of it being localised in its current setting only emerges in the 16th century.   


Before then, the traditional locus of Jewish devotion had been the Mount of Olives. During the Fatimid era Jews had gathered on the Mount and at the Golden Gate3 to worship. Benjamin of Tudela mentions the western wall in the 12th century, but talks about worship at the Golden Gate. And Karen Armstrong in her book on Jerusalem writes that in Herod’s day the western wall area had been a market4.


The rising relevance of the Buraq wall in Jewish discourse was largely due, I believe, to Sulaiman the Magnificent. This Ottoman leader, a generous man who felt deeply about the sanctity of Jerusalem, rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls in the mid 1500’s after his conquest of the Mamluks.


It was Caliph Sulaiman who gave Jews the right to worship next to the Buraq wall at selected times, commissioning his royal architect, Mimar Sinan, to build a small oratory5. Sulaiman’s relationship with the Jews had been a cordial one, and many had sheltered in his capital, Istanbul, after the collapse of Ummayad Spain.


With Muslim power in the ascendancy, and political Zionism as yet unformulated, there was none of the mistrust of the modern era. Sulaiman’s gesture was from a position of strength – a world away from the situation of the current Mufti of Palestine, Shaikh Ikrima Sabri, and the Shaikhs of Al-Azhar.


Their juridicial opinions today, issued against the background of the 1967 occupation, are that the western Buraq wall is Muslim waqf stolen by the Zionists. As part of the Holy Sanctuary Trust, the wall belongs to the Muslims, not the Jews. Their view is supported by UN Security council document S/8427 (23 February 1968) that declares the western wall is Muslim property.


The cleric’s beef is not that Jewish worship takes place there, no, but rather the aggressive colonisation of the space by Zionism. The Islamic sanctity of the area has been violated by the architecture of political occupation, not by Jewish worship.


This is a subtle, but critical distinction that is too often ignored. And more’s the pity. Nazmi al-Jubeh, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University, says that British Mandate officials applied the Ottoman waqf firman on the wall: that due to its sanctity it would remain the property of the Muslims, but that Jews would be allowed to worship there.6


I’ve yet to meet a sensible Palestinian who wants to deny Jewish access to the wall, but unhappily, it is regarded as the ideological rallying point for a total Judaisation of Jerusalem. The subterranean tunnels dug under the Sanctuary from the western wall are seen as a breach of international law.  


The Israeli authorities may claim that what they’re doing is merely in the interests of archeology. But in a part of the world where archeology has direct political connotations, they should know better.


Their expropriation of the Buraq wall and its environs in violation of the protocols the 800 year-old waqf law, the British Mandate and UN decree, is nothing short of the Joha’s nail principle – a manufactured excuse to take over property that one doesn’t own.


Joha, the central figure in popular Arab humour, sells his house to a young married couple. But before leaving, he asks his buyers as a parting wish whether he can visit a nail in the corner of the house. This nail is his property and he’s greatly attached to it.


On the first day Joha knocks on the door. He sits in front of the nail for a few moments. On the second occasion Joha increases the time of his visit. He does the same on the third, the fourth and the fifth, moving in things such as chairs and tables.


After a while, Joha claims he has to sleep next to his precious nail. Eventually, the harried husband and wife become so exasperated that they are forced to flee their house in which Joha has made himself comfortable.


However, Zionist claims to increasing areas of Al-Aqsa – a la Joha’s nail – since the 20th century has not been met with the owners fleeing the house, but rather, angry resistance. The 1929 Al-Buraq uprising, in which over two-hundred people died, is the most salutary example – the very lightning rod of the occupation-centred conflict, as it were.   


The 1929 uprising arose from Palestinian disquiet that there was an ongoing colonisation of the wall space. Efforts by Sir Moses Montefiore and Baron Rothschild to purchase the wall had already set alarm bells ringing, as had Jewish efforts to bring more items – such as tables, chairs, scrolls and arks – into the oratory since World War I.


This was perceived by Palestinians as a surreptitious attempt to create a synagogue, something in violation of the 16th century Ottoman firman allowing worship at the wall.


It all started on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1928 when a screen was erected at the wall to divide men from women. This was observed by British officials visiting the offices of the Shari’ah Court. Responding to the indignation of the muftis, the officials ordered that the screen be removed.


Unfortunately, the British authorities removed the screen during the Yom Kippur prayers, causing huge resentment in the Jewish community.


What followed was a series of niggling provocations on either side, amongst them being the Muslims calling the adhan or conducting loud collective prayer meetings to drown out Jewish devotions, and Jews singing and blowing the shofar, the ram’s horn.


In 1929 the situation came to head. About one-hundred members of Joseph Klausner’s committee for the western wall, and Vladimir Jabotinsky’s right-wing Beitar Movement, marched on the Maghribi quarter shouting that the wall was theirs. Once at the wall they sang the Hatikvah, the Zionist anthem7.


To say that the march was provocative is its mildest interpretation. Hostilities quickly mounted. A young Jewish boy accidentally kicked a football into an Arab yard, and with feelings now boiling over into unbridled fury, was fatally stabbed. Angry demonstrations at his funeral caught the attention of the Palestinian community.


Palestine is a small country, and rumour travels fast. By the time news of what had happened in Jerusalem had spread beyond the city gates into the towns and villages, the story was of Al-Aqsa being under threat. 


Both the Shaw and Hope-Simpson Commissions appointed after the riots pointed to Palestinian fear and frustration8. The Shaw Commission fingered racial tensions caused by Palestinian political disappointment, and trepidation of economic domination by a moneyed group from Europe.


The Shaw Commission was followed by the Hopefield-Simpson Commission and by the White Paper of 1930, a document proposing to limit Jewish immigration and to increase the Palestinian franchise, but ultimately rejected by the Zionist and the Palestinian camps.


But it was now 60 years after the Shaw Commission and in the Mediterranean sun I wondered how the Jews could stand the heat. Some wore furry beaver hats, which together with their black coats must have been excruciatingly hot.


I watched people making their devotions. Some pushed prayer notes into the cracks of the wall. Technology allowed Jews to fax their prayers to the wall from around the world. They would be inserted by proxy, only removed by the religious authorities when space had to me made for more. The old notes, I was told, were buried according to Sacred Law.


I looked behind me and saw that a crowd had gathered around Isma’il. Forever the wheeler and dealer he was trying to purchase a broad-brimmed black hat from a shy, young side-curled Jew.


Isma’il was the kind of person who could sell matches to the devil, and so I was curious to see how far he’d get.


“I’ll give you twenty shekels, brother,” said Isma’il confidently.


The young man smiled.


“I’ll throw in this Bafana-Bafana cap I’m wearing, you can cover your head with something Mandela wore,” suggested Isma’il.


The young man smiled again.


“I’ll give you twenty-five shekels,” said Isma’il.


But the bemused young Jew wasn’t going to sell his hat to a pushy South African Muslim, and Isma’il had to concede defeat. “You know, Shafiq-bai, the problem is that the boy wasn’t Indian,” he muttered as we left the plaza.


1 Qur’an 4: 157

2 Tom Abowd, The Moroccan Quarter: A History of the Present, Jerusalem Quarterly File, Issue 7, 2000.

3 F.E. Peters, Jerusalem, p. 602, n. 16, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1985.

4 Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem, One City, Three Faiths, p.327, Harper-Perennial, London, 1996.

5 This space was about 5 meters wide and 28 metres long.

6 Nazmi al-Jubeh, Bab al-Magharibah: Jonah’s Nail in the Haram al-Sharif, Jerusalem Quarterly, Institute of Jerusalem Studies, 18 June 2003.

7 Joseph Klausner (1854-1958) was a former Lithuanian Jew who was a Revisionist in the mould of Vladimir Jabotinsky. He was a scholar of Jewish history and his analysis of civilisation (he felt that Judaism determined its morality, the Greeks its art and culture) are interesting reading. His writing on the life of Jesus is regarded as his seminal work. His personal library was said to contain some 25, 000 volumes. Karen Armstrong gives the most dispassionate of the accounts of 1929. See: A History of Jerusalem, One City, Three Faiths, p.380, Harper-Perennial, London, 1996. 


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