Unexpected guests

Judging by reactions from British-Muslim participants in a recent multi-faith tour of the country, there could be a potential market.

muslim tourism 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
muslim tourism 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel's tourist industry is on the up again following the downturn from the second intifada, with Jews across the world packing bathing suits or Shabbat clothes, depending on their destination in the country. Far fewer people have been boarding planes with a copy of the Koran in their hand luggage, hoping to fulfill the dream of praying at Jerusalem's al-Aksa Mosque. But among those few were the 20-plus Muslims who recently traveled to the Holy Land for a busy one-week pilgrimage, organized by the East London chapter of the Three Faiths Forum - a UK-based initiative that encourages friendship and dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Compared to the other two Abrahamic faiths, Muslim tourism to Israel is slim to none, even from Western countries with friendly diplomatic relations (see side bar). Many Muslims are deterred by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, negative perceptions of the Jewish state or fear that an entry visa from Ben-Gurion Airport will deny them access to Islamic countries. Despite some doubts about safety, however, Muslims were keen to sign up for the Three Faiths Forum tour, and many are already planning on making a return trip. Zohra Shaikh acknowledges that some people, including herself, were apprehensive before the trip, citing security concerns. "Some people were saying, 'Do you think we'll be all right?' and 'Should we take our scarves off?'" says Shaikh, a nurse who grew up in Kenya with her Indian parents. But any fears about their personal safety soon evaporated once they landed at Ben-Gurion. "Compared to what you see on television, coming here and seeing the reality is completely different," she says. "On the television, it's just bad news and sensationalism. You have to come to see for yourself in order to understand," adds Ibrahim Sala'am, another participant. Egyptian-born Dr. Muhammad Fahim, a chartered engineer and imam of South Woodford Mosque, observes that "if you walk through Piccadilly Circus [in central London] at night or on the Underground, the rates of crime are very high. But if you're scared, then you will sit at home all of your life." While the Forum's events in Britain are typically attended by equal numbers from each religion, the tour attracted an unusually high number of Muslims, who jumped at the opportunity to make their first visit to the Holy Land. Rabbi David Hulbert, who leads Beit Tikva, a synagogue affiliated with the Liberal Judaism movement, was the only person representing Judaism. He was joined by two local Christian leaders, including Father Francis Coveney, an Anglican teacher and Catholic priest, who led the tour along with Hulbert and Fahim. "We had a meeting about Jerusalem at a mosque, and the Muslims said that they have done the Haj and been to Mecca, but have never been to al-Quds [Jerusalem]," says Hulbert. Destinations on the hectic itinerary included the Judean Desert and Masada; Christian sites in the Galilee such as Nazareth and the ancient synagogue of Capernaum (Kfar Nahum), where Jesus began his ministry; and the 18th-century Jazzar Pasha Mosque in Acre. Shaikh, who works in the British National Health Service, says she was particularly impressed by the Poriya Hospital in Tiberias, which serves a mix of Arab and Jewish patients. "The dedication of the staff at the hospital was wonderful," she says. "They have some technology that we don't even have in England, like monitoring units for babies and mothers in labor. Israel should be proud." Jerusalem is home to several Muslim holy places, particularly the al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. According to Islamic tradition, the rock at the heart of the sixth-century dome is the place where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. In Judaism, it is the foundation stone upon which the world was created and where the Binding of Isaac took place. "Allah," says Fahim, as he walks up the hill leading to the Tower of David and the ancient walls surrounding Jerusalem's Old City, illuminated in Technicolor in the darkness. "We say 'Allah,' the name of God, when we see something beautiful. It's so beautiful here." "In Islam, we have to go to Mecca and Medina, but it is also mentioned in the Koran that we should visit al-Aksa," says Hussein Zmanay, a retired postman whose travels around the world have already taken him to India, China, Dubai and Mauritius. "So as soon as I heard from people in the South Woodford Mosque that there was a trip, I wanted to go with them." For Abdul Khaliq Chughtai, coming to visit the Holy City had more than a religious meaning. "Seventy-two years ago, my father was here in Jerusalem, and now I have the chance to follow in his footsteps," he says. "He wrote a letter to my mother, saying that he was sitting at a window looking down at the Wailing Wall and watching Jewish people praying." Chughtai still has the letter that his father sent in the 1930s to his mother in India, which, like Palestine, was then ruled by the British. Chughtai couldn't find the exact window where his father sat, but he was able to witness Jews and Muslims worshiping at the very same places. The pilgrims made the ascent to the Temple Mount, known as Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) in Arabic, to pray at al-Aksa no fewer than four times. But visiting Islamic holy places was no less important than learning about Jewish and Christian sites in the country, making the group probably the only Muslims in Jerusalem to mingle with Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall after finishing Friday prayers at the al-Aksa Mosque. "I like to learn about other religious [groups]," says Shaikh, who was close with the Christian community in Kenya while she was growing up, and also visited synagogues after moving to Birmingham in central England. "That's how we know about Passover and the Sabbath." The group also enjoyed an afternoon in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, a short drive south of Jerusalem, visiting the Church of the Nativity with their Christian companions despite an unexpected hold-up on the way back at the army checkpoint. "I walked to Bethlehem from Jerusalem in the 'good old days,' passing through Beit Safafa and Gilo," remembers Hulbert. "Personally I feel uncomfortable about the [separation barrier] wall. It divides people. We should be building bridges, not walls," says Sala'am. Muslim tourism to Israel has remained a relatively untapped market to date, but if the British pilgrims are anything to go by, it could be a promising one. Following their return to London, all of the participants who spoke with Metro said they wanted to come back to Israel. "I am going to arrange a trip with a larger group, Inshallah [God willing]," says Fahim enthusiastically. "I'd like to buy a flat here, but maybe I'll wait until the prices go down." "Israel was a big eye-opener for me," Shaikh told Metro via telephone from her home in London. "I always wanted to come - not just from a religious point of view, but also because I wanted to see the other side of the coin. The media can be good and bad. Some people have the perspective that Jews are the enemies of Muslims, but you mustn't tar everyone with the same brush." Her main complaint was that the trip was too short. "I will be coming back again, even if the rabbi doesn't arrange it!" she said. "I'd like to spend more time in Tel Aviv. There's lots to see there... I'd also like to have lunch with a Jewish family and spend time with people in Israel." Chughtai's perception of Israel, meanwhile, remained unchanged. "I can't explain my feelings. Sometimes it was depressing and sometimes it was very nice," he said. Regarding reactions from other Muslims to his unusual choice of holiday destination, Chughtai asked, "Why should there be any animosity? On the plane I was sitting next to a rabbi. We believe in Ibrahim [Abraham], you [the Jews] believe in him, Christians believe in him, so where's the difference?"