Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Jerusalem syndrome

Rania Khallaf speaks to Mamdouh Sakr, the unique author of a unique travelogue

Jerusalem syndrome
Jerusalem syndrome
Al-Ahram Weekly

Published in English late last year by the Cairo-based Maqam House, Mamdouh Sakr’s 12-chapter From Cairo to Tel Aviv goes beyond a one-weak journey to the holy land to include history, politics and architecture. 

An architect by profession, Sakr was born in Glasgow in 1976, three years after the last major Arab-Israeli war, and he feels he belongs to a generation “on the margin” of the issue. As he says in the introductory “confession”, Sakr had always dreamt of visiting Palestine, to find about that thing “that makes me call Palestine my land and feel that the Palestinians are my people”. He is concerned to justify his decision to break the Arab boycott on visiting Israel, but he also gives an overview of Israel’s establishment. 

The first chapter features a long reflection on the Israeli authorities’ mistreatment of even a British citizen with an Arab name, who had travelled via Athens to minimise the hassle. “Why are you here?” officers at Ben Gurion Airport kept asking no matter how many times he told them he was only interested in travel. A sign welcomed him into Israel in Arabic (as well as English and Hebrew), which he found deeply unsettling. 

Sakr headed immediately for Jerusalem, recalling with a heavy heart that Palestinians had been killed everywhere he treaded, and repeating to himself the officers’ question: one of many that drive the narrative; what separates “Jewish” from “Zionist” from “Israeli”, for example. The author’s engaging style incorporates stream of consciousness, description and dialogue. He interviews young and old, Israelis and Armenian as well as Arab Palestinians. 

Perhaps to justify his presence, he always asks the Palestinians’ opinion of people visiting Jerusalem, and everyone says they want to see more Arabs, Muslim and Christian, but this recurs again and again – to the point of monotony. On his visit to East Jerusalem and Al Aqsa Mosque, he gives a lively account of diving “into the contemporary Palestinian streetscape”. There are also chapters entitled “Al Khalil”, “Bethlehem” and “Jaffa”. 

In “Museums”, he presents and discusses how Israel presents its history to people from all over the world at the LA Mayer Museum for Islamic Arts – located in the neighbourhood of Mamilla in West Jerusaelem, and the Museum of Israel. “I was eager to know how they would wipe 1,400 years of Islamic Palestine? I wondered how Israeli art historians would impose Israel on history, and how their claims and lies would be boldly presented in museum halls.” As it turns out the exhibits represented a vast geographic stretch, from Spain to India – “but nothing from Palestine. It seemed that such political games were not too big for a small museum after all”.

Here as elsewhere the style is so engaging the reader will feel they are actually there in Sakr’s company; at least that was my experience. Sakr, a master of the genre, had already written Did you try Qat? (2012) and Spaghetti in Harar (2014) – both published in Cairo, by Saray and Kotobkhan, respectively – which cover journeys to Yemen, Ethiopia, Malaysia, India and Jordan as well as Italy and Germany. But what could have inspired an architect to embark on a travel writing career? 

“I received my MA from AUC on Islamic art and architecture, and my research entailed a lot of travelling. And since 2010, I have been working on my PhD. It is all about my passion towards art and architecture and travel. They are all connected: I mean my passion towards travel, architecture and writing. I had planned to write a novel, but I was intimidated by creative writing, And I thought why not write about my travels? At least I know the whole story. 

“Now, I found in travel writing my desired land. It actually started in 2010 when I came back from Sri Lanka, where I was attending a seminar, and I got the most negative and snobbish comments from my friends, who knew nothing about it. So, I decided to write about the country to show people how beautiful it is even though I didn’t have the confidence. But I was hugely encouraged by my writing tutor, who taught me the principles of creative writing just a few months before that first journey...” 

In From Cairo to Tel Aviv the date of the journey is not given; the reader can guess from the 64th anniversary of Israel’s so called Independence Day – a term he criticises in the context of Israel being an occupier. “I wanted to visit Jerusalem specifically on that date to examine the political and social atmosphere,” he said, “so I started the visit in 2013 and only stayed for a week. It was kind of sadistic. Going to Palestine was a very old dream, but I had always been hesitant. I was simply afraid, there was a risk in every step. But the passion and curiosity drove me to my life-time journey,” he smiled. 

The 200-page book includes a map of Palestine, which features the track of his visits: from Jerusalem to Al Khalil, Bethlehem and back to Jerusalem, then Jaffa, Haifa, Acre. It is also supported by interesting pictures showing the most popular places, cafes, mosques, churches, the different types of shekel notes, soldiers praying at the Wailing Wall and views of Tel Aviv from Jaffa. How did Sakr go about collecting his material?

“For this book, I did not take any notes. I depended solely on my memory, knowing that significant conversations will stick in my mind. On my way back from Ben Gurion Airport to Athens, I chose a modest restaurant at the airport in Athens and started to lay out the plan for the book and write notes on the most important characters I met during the journey, like Abu Mohammed in Al Khalil and Abu Iyad in Jaffa. However, I took a lot of photographs as a reminder.”

This might explain the spontaneity of the book: the details, descriptions, conversations. But did Sakr find any answers to his myriad questions? “I went there with just typical childish questions like why and what if. However, when I saw how Palestinians cling onto faint hope every day, sending their kids to schools, when they know there is no future, and they are really stuck in a very limited space, I started to wonder more about the whole situation and about our role as Arabs in supporting their cause. The most amazing thing I appreciated during the visit is the Palestinians’ resilience and optimism despite their miserable situation.”

In a chapter entitled “Al Aqsa Again”, despondent, the writer wonders on his way to the mosque to perform his prayers for how long the Palestinians can go on resisting and why it’s their responsibility alone. He calls on Arabs and Muslims to establish a strong presence in Jerusalem and to think and act effectively, pragmatically. But will they?

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