A Muslim man's sacred job renting crosses in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — Tall, built and gangly, Mazen Kenan, a 46-year-old Palestinian, towers above everyone in just about any setting. But his height is particularly commanding in the tightly packed streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, where he maneuvers easily despite the five foot-long, 50-pound wooden cross he bears on his shoulder. His dexterity is not surprising because he’s been shuttling crosses through the city for nearly two decades.

Every day, Kenan walks the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, a route sacred for Christians around the world. With a smirk on his face and a cigarette in his free hand, he smoothly moves through the crowds of tourists and shop owners. But hauling the cross around Jerusalem in the path that Jesus walked is not a sign of devotion for him. The procession and the rental business are merely transactional trades for Kenan, whose family is Muslim. But despite his religious background, he’s the go-to guy pilgrims visiting Jerusalem rent their crosses from.

Mazen Kenan carrying a cross through Jerusalem. (Godland News / Vildana Hajric & Isobel van Hagen)

Christian pilgrims from around the world visit the Old City, a place rife with key historical Christian monuments and Biblical references. Israel reported a record number of visitors last year, with nearly 80 percent of the more than 3.6 million visitors stopping in Jerusalem. More than half of Israel’s tourists were Christian and 25 percent of those were visiting as pilgrims.

The Stations of the Cross, a circuitous path along the Via Dolorosa with 14 stops in total, is believed by many to be the route that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Tour groups of pilgrims large and small move from station to station, carrying with them hymn books, pamphlets with descriptions of each station, and, most importantly, a large cross.

On a recent Friday in March, one of the busiest times to walk the procession, Kenan followed a group as they started their tour. The group was made up of pilgrims from Los Angeles, New York or the Philippines, and was led by a man who identified himself as Pastor Joel from California. Kenan snapped pictures at every station, and when the priest took some time to reflect on the importance of the group’s trip, Kenan took a cigarette break instead.

The weeks before Easter are a particularly busy time for business, said Kenan, thanks to a combination of warm weather and the holiday season.

(Godland News / Vildana Hajric and Isobel van Hagen)

“It’s always been my dream to come here,” said Dulce Guzman, 50, who had traveled from Fresno, Ca. to make her way through the walk. “I wanted to experience how Jesus lived. We’re exploring his life and time. It’s a remarkable experience for us,” she added.

Yvonne Amantea, a pilgrim from Los Angeles, was in Jerusalem for the first time. She walked through the streets murmuring, “Our Father, hail Mary, glory be,” as she held part of the giant wooden cross over her head.   Between each stop on the route, at least six people walk with the cross, she explained, so everyone gets a chance to hold it.

Bob Vega, 72, a retired accountant from Fresno, had started his trip in Bethlehem, then traveled to Nazareth and now was in Jerusalem to complete not only the Stations of the Cross, but the entire path of the life of Jesus. This was his 10th time traveling to Jerusalem, and his favorite spot along the procession is the 11th station, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified. “While it’s important symbolically when I carry the cross on this walk,” he said, “the one Jesus carried was definitely much heavier.”

As Kenan followed the group making its way toward the ninth stop on the Via Dolorosa–called “Jesus falls a third time”–the midday sun beat down, and it was hard to hear Joel preaching over the Muslim call to prayer.

Kenan makes all of the crosses himself, mostly out of olive wood. He has around 50 and keeps the majority of them at his home in Jerusalem. Every day, however, he brings a few to the first station of the Way of the Cross and rents them out depending on daily demand. Though demand fluctuates throughout the year, the past couple of weeks have been particularly busy for him due to the Easter holiday. But when asked how many crosses he had rented out that day, he held up a single finger. “One.”

The business has been in the Kenan family for nearly seven decades. His father, who passed away about three months ago, started it back in 1951, according to Kenan. He took it over in 1999, helping to transform it into what it is today. Pilgrims can rent the cross for $50. To supplement his cross rental income, he takes pictures of tour groups and charges them about $3 per photo. If the group decides to use him as their photographer, the cross comes free.

Some, however, choose to avoid this rental cost and bring their own cross, hauling it in in pieces and assembling it right before the start of their tours. Shafik Elias, a Syrian Christian who came with a larger group, is one of those people. He brought his own handmade cross–carved of pale orange wood–in two pieces along with a screwdriver to assemble it. He even saved scraps of newspaper to help cover up the edges for protection during travel.

Pilgrims return their crosses in a courtyard located just behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The courtyard, raised above the city, is a quiet and secluded world of its own. Here, another group – this one of Greek Catholic pilgrims from Nazareth – took a photo with the cross they had rented from Kenan. As they finished their tour, the leader of the pilgrimage said Kenan told him to just leave the cross in the courtyard. He would grab it later.

The pilgrims left the lone cross leaning against the ancient stone wall of the courtyard.

As published in The Media Project


Virtual tourism: The next best thing to being there

NEW YORK & JERUSALEM — “You’re standing at the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Israel,” you hear a tour guide say. As that voice explains the significance of the place to people of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths, you can see the golden roof glistening in the sunlight. You imagine it’s a warm day in the Holy Land, but you can’t feel the sun on your skin. Perhaps Muslims are entering the Dome of the Rock, or the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque, to visit the site and pray, but you can’t see or hear them. You can move around the site in all directions, not by turning your head, but by using a computer mouse.

This is the virtual pilgrimage experience.

“For every person who goes to Israel physically, there are hundreds of people who can’t,” said Gary Crossland, the founder of the Octagon Project, a non-profit that produces live-action, virtual tours of Israel and posts them online.

The cost of travel, lack of mobility, and family obligations are just a few factors that might keep people from making the trip, said Crossland, a Texas native, who has traveled to Israel 30 times.

Gary Crossland preparing video for virtual tours at the Judean Desert in Israel. (The Octagon Project)

Virtual tourism is nothing new. Pilgrims have always brought back “holy water,” a chunk of earth or a relic to hold on to and share the experience of the journey. Once photography was perfected, tourists brought back pictures of the holy places they’d visited. The embrace of video cameras, gadgets and social media to help people feel closer to the Holy Land is more recent. For years, there has been a 24-hour stagnant live feed of The Western Wall, one of the most religious sites for Jewish people. A few sites accept prayers via tweet to place in the cracks of that wall, an old tradition. On YouTube, there are thousands of traditional video tours, some with photo montages and some narrated.

But with more high-tech devices comes a more immersive experience. Organizations like the Octagon Project use virtual reality to offer that, along with a free, all-access digital pass to Israel. With the help of 360-degree cameras, online tourists can “visit” churches, historical locations, and get a glimpse into the country without a passport, luggage or a plane ticket.

Twenty years ago, Terry Modica, who is Catholic, actually made the 15-plus hour journey from her home in Florida to Israel for a pilgrimage. She saw the Church of the Annunciation, one of the most sacred places of the Christian faith, the Nativity site, where Jesus is said to have been born, and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.

With a few clicks, you can experience Modica’s journey, too. Back then, she did not have the devices to create a high-tech experience like the Octagon Project, but the 1990s-era photos she collected during the trip are now on her website, Good News Ministries, in the form of a virtual tour. To see the inside of the church, click on the doors and after the webpage loads, you’re inside. Or click for a closer look at the loaves and fish mosaic at the Church of Multiplication, where Christians believe Jesus multiplied enough food to feed a large crowd of followers.

“People once looked at my low-resolution photos and thought ‘oh wow,’” Modica, 63, said. “Now I look at them and say ‘Oh crap.’”

Modica saves the notes from people who still appreciate the virtual journey.

“Although I am a born Catholic,” one virtual pilgrim wrote, “my knowledge of the places where all the miraculous and painful events took place were only imaginary…until now.”

Modica wants to return to the Holy Land to capture the trip for those behind a computer screen. This time, using virtual reality for a more immersive experience.

But some say a virtual trip to Israel won’t do.

“For me, I had to come back,” said Bonnie Bergman, a Boca Raton, Florida native who is Jewish.

On a warm Sunday in Jerusalem, she was back in the Holy Land for the first time in 40 years to meet long lost family members. Bergman stood on the outskirts of the Western Wall in awe.

"It’s emotional,” said Bergman, who is a retired teacher.

That type of meeting is something that can’t be done online. That, and walking into the crowds in the women’s section of the Western Wall to touch what’s believed to be the remains of the retaining wall of an ancient Jewish temple.

While Crossland’s virtual tour company also offers 10-day physical excursions to Israel, he does not think the emergence of the type of technology that may allow virtual travelers to engage other senses — like sight and smell — will have any impact on that business.

“We’re on the bleeding edge of that technology,” Crossland said. But there’s “nothing like being there.”

"When you can actually have boots on the ground and feel the heat on your skin, the packing, the anticipation — it’s a totally different feeling.”


Conflict on campus: Picking up where Jerusalem left off

NEW YORK — Back on Columbia’s campus after 10 days in Israel and Palestine, it feels different. Students are still dashing about to get to classes, but the masses of undergrads seem to slow down just a bit as they reach the center of campus walk, almost as if students are rubbernecking at an accident on the highway. And then I see the flags. The same ones I saw hanging proudly outside buildings and painted all over walls in Israel and Palestine.

The last week in March brings two conflicting events to Columbia: Hebrew Liberation Week and Israel Apartheid Week.

It seems like it’s the same old story from which I cannot escape: us vs. them. Oppressors vs. liberators. Zionists vs. anti-Zionists. As a journalist, I want to hear both sides. So that’s what I set out to do. On one side of campus, in front of Low Library, stand the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, Columbia University Apartheid Divest and the Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace in front of a makeshift Israeli West Bank Barrier, complete with iconic Bethlehem graffiti from British artist Banksy. On the other side stand the Columbia Students Supporting Israel, complete with flyers and keffiyeh scarves embroidered with the Star of David.

“[It’s] a week of celebration about the connection of Jews and the land of Israel and what Zionism is,” said president of the pro-Israel group, a Columbia junior named Dalia Zahger, 24.

A display of materials shared by the Students Supporting Israel during Hebrew Liberation Week at Columbia University. (Godland News / Steph Beckett)

She said the student group hosts a Hebrew Liberation Week every semester.

“I hope [people] come with an open mind to listen, to read and to learn and to hear from us,” she said. “Not to listen from other people about what Zionism means but to ask a Zionist what it means.”

After speaking with her, I feel even more confused about this term and its place in relation to the tensions that exist in Israel and Palestine. In Israel, our class visited the city of Acco to speak to Imam Samir Assi and Acco’s Chief Rabbi, Yosef Yashar. They were friends.

“Best friends,” Yashar said.

After speaking to us about their faiths and their unlikely friendship, I asked how they could be so different and how Yashar could be a Zionist and still be so close with Assi. He looked at me for a second before saying in Hebrew, “It’s about respect for each other.”

That respect is rare. It doesn’t exist in most corners of Israel and Palestine, so how could I expect to come back to New York City and find it here?

I spent some time over at the anti-Zionist corner of campus, staring at the fake Israeli West Bank Barrier. It reminded me of Bethlehem and I missed it. One day while standing at the fake barrier, I heard a couple of students remark in disgust at a puppy wearing an Israeli keffiyeh on the opposite side of the courtyard.

“Ew,” one student remarked.

“Why would you do that to a puppy?” The other agreed.

Zionism, in the dictionary means, “a movement for (originally) the reestablishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.” The movement was established in 1897 under Theodor Herzl. But it’s come to mean different things to different groups since the term was originally coined.

For Zahger, it’s a word that means a connection to her home. She grew up in southern Israel, where she served in the army before coming to study at Columbia.

But for other students it’s almost a trigger word.

I spoke with a student involved with the Columbia University Apartheid Divest and the Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace. She asked that I not use her name because of how political the topic has become. She became involved in the organizations during her freshman year after realizing there was something wrong about the way she viewed Palestine.

“I don’t see how it’s okay for one group of refugees to create another group of refugees,” she said. “I also don’t see how I can justify that as the continuation of a state to do anything in its power to maintain a white Jewish demographic.”


Sacred stone and the fault lines of conflict

JERUSALEM — Our journey through the Holy Land has finally brought us to the city holy to three faiths, Jerusalem. After two days immersed in the tension, trauma and faith of the West bank, we drove through the Bethlehem checkpoint and into Jerusalem’s Old City, where the fault lines of conflict are tangled in the sacred geography of the world’s major religions. We also got to see the city’s Jewish holy sites through the eyes of Professor Goldman.

We began our tour on a rooftop with a panoramic view of the Old City. Professor Yarden pointed out the tangle of holy sites and ethnic enclaves that spread in every direction. In the near distance, we looked past the Arab and Armenian quarters towards the Western Wall and the Haram al-Sharif. In the distance, Jewish tombs poured down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, feet pointed towards the former Temple.

Goldman told the group about his great-grandfather, who, like my great-grandfather, is buried on the Mount of Olives. These were Jews who traveled to what was then Palestine at the end of their lives to die in the Land. Yarden made the point that this ancient practice was consciously countered by the modern Zionist movement. The Zionists declared that they were not coming to Eretz Israel to die – they would come to live.

We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was built on the site where Jesus is traditionally believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Pilgrims flow through the church doors to fill relics with sacred energy and to have a moment of contact with a place that has touched the divine.

But while the site brings Christians together from across the world, it is also a place of division. The building itself is a patchwork of jurisdictions and boundaries between the six Christian denominations who oversee it. Where clergy from each denomination can pray, burn incense, hang relics or repair the church’s crumbling infrastructure has been prescribed by a complex series of agreements dating back to the 1800s.

Yarden said that while many like to emphasize the divisions within the church, it runs remarkably well, an elegant ballet of carefully choreographed coexistence. But the slightest deviation from the agreed-upon divisions – no matter how mundane – can reveal the spiritual fervor and tension just beneath the surface. On a hot day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its designated spot into the shade, setting off a brawl with Ethiopian Orthodox monks that sent 11 clergymen to the hospital.

In the cramped confines of the Old City, it’s not only co-religionists who share real estate. We visited David’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site, where tradition says the biblical King David is buried. Directly above David’s Tomb sits The Cenacle, believed by many Christians to be the site of the Last Supper.

The site is one ancient building with two floors of ecstatic worship performed in the traditions of two different faiths. These two layers of believers generally exist in different orbits, but it is a tentative coexistence. Yarden recalled seeing a group of ultra-Orthodox worshippers, upset that monks chanting above them would impede their prayers from reaching heaven, once attempted to drown out a Christian ceremony with blasts from their shofars. The police were called but could do nothing to settle the dispute. “Israel guarantees freedom of worship,” he explained.

From the roof above David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, one can look eastward across the Jewish Quarter and see the twin domes rising above the most significant piece of shared real estate in Jerusalem – and possibly the world. To Jews it is the Temple Mount: the site of the second temple and the source of all holiness in the world. For Muslims, it is the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary: the home of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the place from which the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven.

While the State of Israel controls the land surrounding the site, the Haram al-Sharif itself is controlled by the Waqf, an Islamic authority appointed by Jordan. Jews can get permission to access the site but Jewish prayer is strictly forbidden.

Unfettered access to the Temple Mount for Jews is limited to the plaza below its Western Wall, abutting the Jewish Quarter of the city. Many visitors press their foreheads against the stones, trying to be as close as possible to the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many slip written prayers in the cracks between the stones. For some, access to the Wall is a miracle of history and a place where they feel the presence of the divine. For others it is an unacceptable substitute until the day the Temple is rebuilt.

Even the slightest diversion from the status quo at this physical intersection of Judaism and Islam has the potential to send the region into chaos. Reverence for the site by both Jews and Muslims is both a cause and a reflection of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Goldman told the group that when he first came to Jerusalem after his bar mitzvah, the Western Wall was in the sector of the city controlled by Jordan, so the closest he could get was the Jaffa Gate. He was finally able to visit the Wall in his 20s, after Israel took control of the city in 1967. He recalled standing on the plaza in front of the Wall and overhearing a father tell his young son about the Temple, its destruction and its connection to 3,000 years of Jewish history. Goldman said he decided then that he would one day do the same with his children – a promise he fulfilled.

Over and over again, Jerusalem tests the idea that the same space can be sacred to different peoples at the same time for completely different reasons. Declaring something sacred is in some ways to declare ideological ownership of it, yet the city is a tangle of intertwined claims of both spiritual and physical ownership.

Yet, as intractable as these competing claims can seem, and while it’s true that a tenuous coexistence is enforced by armed soldiers and high-tech surveillance systems, Jerusalem also gives reasons for hope. Sitting within the walls of the Old City, we watched the intermixed processions of Muslims heading to the al-Aqsa for Friday Jumu’ah prayers, Orthodox Jews descending towards the Western Wall and Christian pilgrims following Franciscan friars along the Via Dolorosa. These competing currents squeezed, mixed and diverted through the ancient, narrow streets, as they do every Friday.

As the Christian pilgrims approach the final Stations of the Cross and enter the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they pass through the shadow of another piece of Jerusalem’s sacred geography, the Mosque of Omar. Yarden told us how the mosque was built to honor the Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem in 637. Omar met with the Patriarch Sophronius at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to accept his surrender and receive the keys to the city. When it was time for prayer, Omar’s assistants suggested he pray in the church. Yet Omar feared that later generations would learn that he prayed there and would attempt to build a mosque over the site of Jesus’s death. Out of deference to the Christian holy site, he prayed outside. The Mosque of Omar stands as evidence that Jerusalem’s sacred spaces can be the core of conflict, but, Yarden reminded us, these two houses of worship can also be monuments to dialogue and coexistence.

Photos from day 6:


The terrible dizziness of approaching the divine Al-Aqsa

JERUSALEM — When Ali Abu Al-Awar speaks of what Jews call the Temple Mount and what Muslims call al-Haram al-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”), reams of history spool out. Here memories from the distant past and the nearly present co-habituate cautiously, both possessing equal merit. There are memories of Israeli military forces from 1967 spreading out over the plaza and crying in exultation, “Har HaBayit BeYadeinu!” — “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” Very close by is Al-Ghazali, the 12th century Muslim theologian, leading a study group on the reconciliation of legalistic and mystical Islam and underneath an olive tree writing his Revival of the Religious Sciences. From Al-Awar’s mouth, the Haram comes alive, teeming both with the conflicts that have defined Jerusalem’s strife alongside the spiritual truths that make this city transcendent.

As we followed Al-Awar to the Haram, we passed a Muslim cemetery where the old Arabic stones crowd one another, vying for recognition when the final judgment comes. Across the Mount of Olives, we could see the adjacent Jewish cemetery, a reminder that the faiths which live in Jerusalem all believe in the resurrection of the body, an apocalyptical tradition centered around the Temple Mount as a site of ascension.

Throughout the Muslim cemetery are green coffins with the words sadaqa jarya or “the only things that stay are good works.” When a Muslim dies, coffins are used as a transport from the mosque to the burial site, but not put in the ground. The presence of them around the cemetery points to the Haram as an active Muslim site, while the Jewish cemetery across the way remains quiet.

As we entered the Lion’s Gate, we were greeted by yet another guide, Ahmad Abu-Hadid, who has been ushering tourists and dignitaries through the site for 30 years. Abu-Hadid quickly condensed into a few minutes some 1,300 years of the site’s Muslim history, from the construction of the Dome of the Rock under the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691 C.E. to the Jordanian government gaining access and control of the Haram in 1951. The Haram is a vast plaza, with minarets on three sides, the Dome of the Rock in the center, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the furthermost south, the third holiest mosque in Islam after Mecca and Medina. While the women of our group put on long loose skirts offered by the waqf, the Islamic religious trust in cooperation with the Jordanians who control access to the Haram, school children nearby played volleyball and old men sat under trees drinking tea.

The serenity of this Saturday morning proved to be deceptive as Al-Awar explained attempts by right-wing Jews to bomb the Dome of the Rock and the continued attempt by fundamentalist Jews to assert their presence on the Mount, and their dream of destroying the Muslims sites and building a third temple.

“There is a fear of violence, a constant fear of Muslims losing control here,” Al-Awar said as we meandered around the Dome and towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque. To counteract these provocations Muslim citizen groups called Murabitin (for men) and Murabitat (for women) were formed in 2010 to safeguard the Haram. From Sunday to Thursday, they sit in circles studying Islamic thought, on guard for those seeking to undermine the status quo, the latest governmental iteration of which says only Muslims can pray on the Haram but tourists of other faiths can visit.

Even in the midst of these tensions, the Haram acts as a great source of unity for those of the Islamic faith in their connection to their religion and their God. Muslims from all over the world flock to the site, seen as the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven, to meet the prophets and speak with God. The Dome glittered magnificently on this cloudless day, as the sun beat down and the devout recited late morning prayers.

As my classmates were ushered into the Dome of the Rock for a brief visit, I was unable to join them because I was overcome by a terrible dizziness. One could say it was dehydration or the overwhelming feeling of approaching the divine. At a place like this, no one ever really knows.

Photos from day 7: