Finding India in the heart of the Middle East

A hospice keeps the Indian spirit alive in East Jerusalem.

WrittenBy:Anchal Vohra
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It is Friday evening and the Muslim residents of East Jerusalem are returning home after prayers. Shabbat, the weekly resting period of the Jews, is about to begin.

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Tucked away in the lanes of the city holy to the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is an Indian hospice.

Nazeer Ansari’s family has been taking care of the ‘Indian corner’ for generations. He has brought out the Indian flags and is hoisting them at the gates, preparing to welcome the guests expected to visit days before Prime Minister Modi’s arrival.

Some 800 years ago, Hazrat Fariduddin Ganjshakar, better known as Baba Farid of the Chishti order of Sufis, landed in Jerusalem to meditate. The spot he meditated at pulled the Indian pilgrims keen to pay respects at the Al Aqsa mosque and since then, this piece of land has been a place for Indians to rest.

Members of the Indian press get a history lesson from Ansari as he explains the map of the old city with Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters.

He says, “My father’s birth certificate shows his birth year as 1928 and the place as Jerusalem in Palestine. My birth certificate says I was born in 1959 in Jerusalem, in the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan and my son’s birth certificate in 2002 shows Jerusalem in Israel.”

The Ansari family has witnessed the upheaval and the various stages of chaos in Palestine and Israel upfront.

The family was called in to look after the guest house in 1928, right after World War I had changed the map of the Middle East by challenging the Ottoman Empire’s control over the Islamic lands and splitting it into many parts. The end of World War II saw the creation of an Israeli state, on land mostly inhabited by Palestinian Muslims. In the six-day 1967 war, Israel captured East Jerusalem which was

then under Jordanian control. On the seventh day, the Jews offered prayers at the Western Wall, a remnant of the old temple. The international community considers the areas captured in 1967 illegally occupied by the Israelis.

“13 members of my family were injured and 3 killed in 1967. I was 7 or 8 years old and I recall vividly how we hid in the basement to protect ourselves,” Ansari remembers.

Even though the Indian family tries hard to stay away from the politics, it is hard to escape it if you are living a stone’s throw from the revered Al Aqsa mosque or the Temple Mount as the Jews call it. From the rooftop of the hospice, you can view the Dome of the Rock. Skirmishes between the two communities are often reported as the Jews assert their claim and try to offer prayers. It started in 2000 when Ariel Sharon, the former Prime Minister of Israel, in a  provocative move visited the mosque and called the Jews to come along and pray.

The hospice and the mosque lie in the Muslim Quarters, a part of the old city which was entirely inhabited by the Muslims pre-1967 but after the war, Israeli settlers moved in.

There are at least three Jewish homes around the Indian corner which are easy to identify. Israeli flags are hoisted at the thick iron gates, often manned by Israeli security personnel.

Rafiq Kahatib works at the local municipality and says that one day the Muslims living in the house next door vanished and it was taken over by the Jews, who claimed to have paid good money for the house.

“The Jews have approached me too with a blank cheque to buy my house, but we Muslims consider it a sin to sell our homes to a non-Muslim because their larger goal here is to throw us out and control the land,”  Kahatib says.

Khalid, a 20-year-old Muslim man, shows us another building where the Jews live. He complains, “With money and force the Haredi orthodox Jews are intending to take over all of East Jerusalem, we won’t let that happen.”

According to a recent investigation by an Israeli daily Haaretz, the settlements have grown exponentially: from 250 settlers in the West Bank in 1968, the number has climbed to 3,80,000 in 2015.

The boom in the settlements is attributed to a systemic approach employed by the State which makes it beneficial for the Israelis to settle in Palestinian areas. The settlements are provided with army protection, are cut off from the Palestinians by a thick cement wall, stand well connected to the economic centres of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv through arterial roads and are relatively much cheaper to rent while offering a high standard of living. But another reason for the ever-increasing settlements is the religious belief of the ultra-orthodox Jews who move in for religious reasons. They are present in the old city to claim the Temple Mount and in Hebron, because of the presence of the Cave of the Patriarchs – a historic structure with the tombs of Abraham and his family.

The Ansari family is bound with the Palestinians by blood. Nazeer, his father and grandfather all opted for Palestinian wives. Despite the familial ties, Nazeer Ansari says the Indian hospice maintains a cordial relationship with both Israelis and the Palestinians but with changing times and ruling dispensations, the nature of the relationship is changing too.

“With Gandhi’s stand on Palestine, Nehru’s support and Indira and Yasser to now, of course, there is a change. But both the Israelis and the Palestinians love Indians, India is very lucky and I think India has a balanced policy,” says Ansari.

There are barely any Indian pilgrims stopping by at the hospice to rest, most guests are now of the diplomatic community but the hospice stands as a representative of India in the heart of the Middle East, with the Indian flag flying high.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @anchalvohra.


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