We often learn about Palestine or Isreal through the news. The Isreali-Palestinian conflict is a controversial topic that many of us (me included) don’t know the full, true and unbiased story. Most importantly, we are unaware of how life is like for the locals. Sana, a George Washington photojournalist was given the opportunity to live in Jerusalem for 2 weeks. In Jerusalem, Sana experienced a range of emotions from joy, laughter, friendship to confusion, anger, and fear. I picked up bits and pieces of her experience from her Instagram posts to create this interview. (#SUPJerusalem for the detailed story). Here is her story.
Last Month’s story: Ammad on his trip to Mongolia.
Why visit Jerusalem?
In August 2016, I was accepted to a full-paid scholarship that took four students from the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design to Jerusalem to create photojournalistic stories on the broad topic of borders. We collaborated with four other art students from the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem that had visited Washington, D.C. prior to our visit.
Truthfully, hearing that the trip would require no expenses on my end, I was intrigued and applied. I have always wanted to see Jerusalem, though I always thought I would go one day with my family. I never imagined I’d go as a photojournalist on a project.
My knowledge of the political atmosphere was limited to Western media and still, I barely understood the extremity of it. Even still, two weeks is not enough to know exactly what is going on or to claim myself as an expert, but it’s enough to feel something and to form thoughts and opinions.
Photo credit: sanaullahphotography.com
My entrance into Israel was not a pleasant one. I knew I would get stopped and I warned everyone that it would happen, but the instructors insisted that with letters of approval by the Bezalel Academy, I would fly through security with ease. Security never looked at my letter.
Unlike my 3 other classmates, I didn’t get a simple wave of the hand or a “welcome to Israel.” Instead, I was asked “what is your father’s name?” and then “what is your father’s father’s name?” I do not know my paternal side very well, so not knowing the answer was enough for them to pull me aside. However, I doubt my lack of family-knowledge was the main reason because the holding room was filled with people who had Muslim names. Abdullah, Fatima, and Muhammad were just three out of the many people that were being held. One of them was already there for 8 hours.
I can’t remember how many security members I saw, but I was extremely lucky that my holding was only 2 and a half hours. My friends had sent in one of the girls who looked the “most American” out of all of us to hand me water and snacks. Luckily, they sent her in while I was in a room with a security guard asking me specific questions about myself that made me realize that they had looked me up and possibly came across my social media accounts and/or any recent pieces about my thesis project in the media. After the security that was “interviewing” me at the time saw my friend, he finally believed that I was in Jerusalem for a program and asked to see my letter. Soon after they let me go.
“Basically, I was saved by a white girl.”
Background on Jerusalem
Palestinians live in Jerusalem. They’ve lived in Jerusalem for many, many years and they will continue to live there. It is not as black and white as some imagine it to be.
During my visit, the only Israelis I’ve met in the West Bank were those in settlements.
There are physical and mental borders throughout the land. Some follow these borders conservatively, while others do not. I have seen Israelis and Palestinians work and break bread together and I have seen them completely ignore one another.
Tension is high and unbalanced. Palestinians, though given “territory” in some places, do not have the same rights as Israelis.
But as mentioned before, I am not an expert and I do not speak for either group. I am simply stating observations.
Our group was advised not to visit Mount Olives or many of the other neighborhoods near the Damascus gate of the Old City in Jerusalem. Not understanding the geography of Jerusalem prior to arriving, I never realized these warnings were entirely about visiting Palestinian neighborhoods. I also never knew that Bethlehem was considered the West Bank, so when that was also marked off by one of our instructors, I was extremely disappointed—especially after the Israelis within our group told me that as an American with an American passport, it was not illegal for me to cross borders and that I would be completely okay.
I ended up visiting all the places my instructor advised us not to go to. One other classmate wanted to tag along, so I was never alone, nor did I ever fear for my life when I was amongst Palestinians. In fact, I felt the most comfortable in the places I wasn’t allowed to see. The only place I didn’t get to go that I was planning to see was Ramallah.
It did cause a bit of friction towards the end of the program where I ended up getting berated inside of a coffee shop. I did bring my concerns to the instructors before I decided to break their rules, but their reaction made me uncomfortable and they got defensive when I was simply stating observations. That is why I decided I would make decisions on my own and do thorough research before traveling anywhere. I always had a contact with me and I was never alone.
Check out CNN’s article on things to know before visiting Israel and Palestine.
Highlighted Experiences in Jerusalem…
The guard at al Aqsa
As I was about to take my boots off and enter the masjid to pray Dhuhr, a security guard with a thick Arab accent quickly blocked me.
“What is your name?” he asked.
I had entered Aqsa easily the first night I visited, so my immediate reaction was confusion, but just as quickly I understood why security would be higher during public visiting hours. I smiled and calmly answered: “My name is Sana Ullah.”
“Subhanallah. What is your father’s name?”
“My father’s name is Mohammed Shafi Ullah,” I said.
Without hesitation, he then said, “now recite the shahadah.”
I laughed a little and said, “Ashhadu allah illaha illallah wa ashhadu anna muhammadur rasullullah.”
Still unsmiling at my attempt to be charming, he then asked: “How many times do Muslims pray?” And still smiling, I replied, “we pray five times a day.”
“Ok. Name them.”
At this point, he smirked because he saw he had caught me off guard, but I just smiled and continued to answer calmly.
“Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghreb, Isha,” I said.
Pleased with himself and feeling a bit more comfortable with me, he finally moved out of my way. I had passed his Is-She-Really-A-Muslim test, but maybe with a high B+ because before he completely let me go, he had one more request: “You may enter, but you must wear a skirt. Salam.”
It was time to pray.
Inside Al Aqsa
Photo credit: sanaullahphotography.com
The boy in the Old City
Later on, my friends and I decided to explore the Old City. A bit confused on where we were in the Old City, a boy—no older than 7—came by and offered to show us the exit. Charmed by his adorable face and constant “mam”-ing, I walked alongside him and started to ask him questions about himself. Some part of me could tell something was off about his directions, but the part of me that didn’t want to believe a child could lead us somewhere dangerous was getting the best of me. However, my friends were a lot more alert.
When we got to a small opening with several teenage boys hanging around and two dark corridors leading to God knows where I sadly and finally felt suspicion. At this point, my friends asked me to turn around. I could feel my face burning up with embarrassment, frustration, and pain. I really, really wished he wasn’t lying to us, so one more time I tried, but this time I asked: “If you’re taking us the right way, say wallah.” Immediately he blushed and avoided the question.
My friends possibly saved me from something dangerous beyond those halls because I failed to listen to my gut. Who knows where he was taking us, but I’m 100% sure it was not the exit. I’ll never be able to apologize enough for my misjudgment, but I’m forever grateful to them.
DISCLAIMER: this photo doesn’t represent the boy in the story.
Photo credit: sanaullahphotography.com
My best moment was actually captured by one of my classmates. It was the first time I heard the call to prayer inside of Jerusalem. When I first arrived, I was confused as to why I could never hear the adhaan. I imagined the adhaan being heard from wherever you were in Jerusalem—even outside of the Old City. When I learned that the government had limited the sound and where it can or cannot reach, I was disappointed and felt that I may never get the chance to hear it unless I caught prayer at the right time.
Thankfully, my new Palestinian friend took me to the roof of a hostel where I heard the adhaan all around me from several masjids within the Old City. It was the moment I realized I had made it to one of the holiest cities. It was all so surreal.
To top it off, the classmate who captured this moment told me that even though we had visited incredibly important churches and temples already, it was the adhaan that touched her heart more than anything.
That meant so much to me hearing her say that.
Photo credit: sanaullahphotography.com
Worst moment: Leaving Jerusalem
I had made sure to switch up a few of my belongings with one of the classmates. Then, I gave her my computer hard drives and any pictures or files I had in the West Bank. I made sure to delete them from my camera. Finally, I took the Qur’an someone had gifted her and put it in my suitcase. And I’m so happy we did that because just as we predicted, security stopped us.
However, I didn’t imagine it to go the way it did. Before our cab could enter the airport, IDF members pointed at me, tapped on my glass with their gun and asked the cab driver to pull to the side. They made us take all our luggage down and questioned us separately—starting with me. It was clear that I was the reason we were stopped, but my classmates were fully aware that it would happen and were prepared.
While I was in the room, one guard went through my camera while another checked my luggage and one stood next to me with his gun in my face, questioning my visit. He then yelled at me when I didn’t understand his question on whether I had visited any Palestinian sites. My gut told me not to lie, but also not to tell more than I needed to. He began to list a few places, but none of them were Bethlehem, so I just shook my head. I was cold and shaken and scared because I noticed they were letting the next checkpoint know what I look like and/or what I had said to them.
I asked the other girls what they had asked them. Only one of them was questioned; the other two were not. They were definitely keeping an eye on the Muslim girl.
And so I was extremely nervous and stressed and began to think back on whether I had shared or posted anything on social media. I never even texted or mentioned any of it to my family. Before leaving, I made sure to delete texts from my Palestinian connects and I purposely posted only touristy images. I called my sister because she was the only other person I knew that had trouble with security when she visited and she tried to calm me down.
Every checkpoint, they tried to stop me alone, but my friends had created a strategy. I would never be first to go or last to go. I would always be second or third so that someone else would always be with me.
Hours had gone by before we finally got to our gate. It wasn’t until I was on my way to the U.S. from Turkey when I was starting to feel less afraid. And because my body was finally calming down, I broke out in a high fever on our 10-hour flight and knocked out for 8 hours, waking up to a friend patting a towel on my head.
My nerves were all out of whack and I felt traumatized for months. So surprisingly, the scariest moment was not while I was in Jerusalem, but rather when I was leaving. Being held at gunpoint sounds terrifying to say and a bit dramatic, but that’s exactly what it was.
Photo credit: sanaullahphotography.com
Is it safe for Americans to travel to visit Jerusalem?
It is safe to travel in groups and to do thorough research on where you will stay, what you will see and what you will do. Know your embassy’s number and always have a contact with you. If you’re American with a Muslim name and/or you are visibly Muslim, prepare to be stopped at borders while entering and leaving.
Final words on Jerusalem
My experiences are my experiences alone and may or may not align with the experiences and memories of those that have visited before or after me. I fell in love with a people that though in pain, were full of love and I also fell in love with a city that though conflicted, shined with beauty. I will always appreciate what I’ve learned and hold dear to my heart the lessons that came from every moment I was there. I can only hope to visit again one day with my family, but I know that it cannot happen anytime soon. And I would recommend anyone and everyone to visit Jerusalem (Al quds), but to also do thorough research as well as travel with people you trust.
I hope you learned a thing or two from this post. To wrap up, I’ll leave you with this video of Conan’s journey to Jerusalem
Sana Ullah is a Photojournalist and the founder of the movement Places You’ll pray. She is currently exhibiting work at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center and at the U.S. Center of Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. You can find her work here. Also, follow Sana on Instagram to enjoy captivating images with compelling stories.
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What an empowering interview, Great job!
This was so inspiring. Thank you for sharing it.
What a captivating read! I wonder if the experience was worth all the harassment?
Such an inspiring and powerful story to read. This story was so grappling and I’ve read a lot about Jerusalem. ;)
A brave visit for a photojournalist, it is great to read some non media based information about the West Bank. Thanks for sharing
Wow, thank you to Sana for sharing your experiences. It sounds intense – being held by gunpoint? I appreciate your being so open so others can learn a bit what it’s like in your shoes – though most of us will never actually know what it’s like. I’m sorry she has to go through hoops like this, but am hopeful for a brighter future. We need more articles like this to be read.
What a riveting interview! Thank you for sharing her bravery and emotional experience in Jerusalem, it was very revealing. Her fellow students should be be commended for their protectiveness and bravery also.
This is such an eye-opening piece! Great job
Wow that’s a really remarkable interview and story you are sharing here! I remember my mother telling me about these crazy “security interviews” at the airport when she visited Israel many years ago. And she doesn’t even look Muslim at all! Sana is very brave, and she was lucky to have such protective people with her.
Your post is full of emotions and is very touching! It was so brave of you to visit the forbidden places. Being held at a gunpoint is a horrifying experience. You truly are a hero to face this with great courage. Thanks for sharing this candid post.
That’s a good story, but I’m a bit confused – you did do the interview? ;)
Israel is not easy – on so many levels:( I’m sorry your friend Sana had to go through all that, and at the same time I’m glad she got to see a lot and that she had her friends with her to feel safe.