Letter #2 to the Prophet

I was inspired to write this letter in light of the Letters to the Beloved initiative for the second time. I imagined what I might say if I were to meet the Prophet ﷺ and be asked “how are you”.

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Occupied Land, But Never Occupied Hearts

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I woke up to an unexpected text message earlier this week. It said, Don’t come into work today or tomorrow. Cancel all your classes. This is for security reasons, and to avoid clashes.

Well, I’d heard that the whole country was going under a brief strike, in protest to Trump’s announcement of recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and his plans to move the U.S. Embassy there. So the order to not come into work was not totally unexpected. But for security reasons? What was dangerous in the situation?

A lot more than I realized. Here is my hastily-written experience, as a Canadian Palestinian presently and recently been living in Hebron for the time being.
Hanging Icicles

I’ve stayed home from work in Canada before, during a dangerous ice storm situation. But this, this was different. It had never been because my life – and more so, my teenage students’ lives – depended on it. I’d never been told to skip a day of normality as a response to petty words said by a pompous, destructive man in charge of another country across the world.

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But this is Palestine we’re talking about. I am no longer in more-predictably-safer Canada.

If I were in Canada, hearing the announcement, and watching the news of the sudden surge of unrest that it created, I’d be raving in rage at such an absurd announcement from someone who mistakenly thinks his opinion represents reality and justice. This announcement is not unique of its kind; time and time again, former American presidents have said it also. (And frankly, I couldn’t care less where the U.S. Embassy is located, just so long as it doesn’t have to demolish Palestinian native land in order to do so. Like the occupiers of the illegal settlements do all the time.)

Why aren’t I bursting with anger at the riots and killings that have ensued after the announcement? Because I’m here… in Palestine. And as a result, I see things differently, or at least I understand things differently. I see how “normal” and ordinary colonial violence is to the people here. If anything, I feel more sadness than anger. Is this what the world (especially the cowardly Arab world leaders who turn a blind eye) has decided is a fit state that Palestinians deserve to live in? In a state of constant fear, so much so that from a young age,  deadly fear is merely replaced with just matter-of-fact apprehension?

Here’s a really simple example to illustrate what I mean.

Today I set a date with one of my classes, a date to go outside as part of the curriculum to advocate for a classroom project campaign (healthy living). The original venue was supposed to be downtown, until a group of my male students advised me otherwise.

  • Miss, maybe we should do our advocacy somewhere more quiet, less crowded. I don’t want you to end up feeling bad if we go downtown, and then the Israeli military rounds us boys up.

My heart broke inside, knowing that over here, intelligent, compassionate and responsible 14-year old boys have to factor in ridiculous things when they go out, even when it’s a simple outing to distribute brochures and fruits to pedestrians. Having to factor things like, getting captured for no reason by soldiers, attacked by loosed military dogs, getting tangled in clashes on the way home. How is this allowed to happen? And why is it a normal part of their lives?

To make matters heavier, the boys speaking to me didn’t even seem frightened at the possibility of being taken away by the occupying force; they were more concerned about the guilt I’d feel if I brought them to a location that posed a threat (aka crowded with normal people) for this to happen. No teenager should live a life in which anticipated pain, separation from families, child imprisonment and silencing of peaceful protests is as normal as breathing.

howmany

Living through this with my homeland brothers and sisters, I would have thought my blood would be constantly boiling. Instead, I am just so tired of it all… and deeply saddened at the state of things that have been emptied of a once-bursting life.

Not too long ago, I visited the Old Town of Hebron. It is most well-known for the holy site called the Ibrahimi Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs), which has the tombs of the Prophets Ibrahim, Isaac, and Sara, among others. The Old Town is known to be full of checkpoints and settler activity, so I spent a few weeks asking around if it was “now safe” to go before me and my sister quietly went without informing anyone (knowing we’d be discouraged and avoid the area). So, off we went.

I was shocked when I went to the Old Town. The streets were eerily empty. Shop after shop was closed down on entire deserted market streets. Streets that used to bustle with love and life. With the deafening silence, I was painfully self-conscious of the loud sounds my slightly heeled shoes made upon hitting the ancient stone floor. It felt like a ghost time.

However, thankfully, it was safe”. We went into the Ibrahimi Mosque (as I frantically ignored the memory of how a shooting massacre had literally taken place by a Zionist in this room), quickly walked past a market tunnel on our way to find a taxi, and arrived home in one piece.

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That safety didn’t last. The day after we went, we heard how unrest spiralled up around the Ibrahimi Mosque. Shootings often happen around the area. And now, due to the latest string of events, I imagine it’s that much riskier to go. We haven’t visited again (which is unfortunate, since it’s less than a 10-minute drive away from where we live).

The Old Town has often been a hot site for danger due to violence imposed by settlers and shady checkpoints. The difficult situation for Palestinians living there doesn’t make it any more acceptable, but predictable, at least.

Now, because of some gibberish made from an orange-faced man, the whole country is in an uproar. From Bethlehem to Ramallah to Jerusalem to Hebron – you name it.

Some areas are hotter than others, but there are flames burning in hearts all over.

I wrote this post because a friend asked how I was feeling. And honestly? I don’t think it matters how I feel. All I know is… no child deserves to be born in a world where they can’t even get to school safely. Where going through checkpoints like a criminal is a daily occurrence. Where praying in a sacred mosque of historical significance is deemed unsafe, unsafe to prostrate your head to the ground…

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Such are some impacts of living in an occupied world. Occupied land, but never occupied minds and souls.

I’ll leave you, dear reader, to some powerful words written by Omar Suleiman which perfectly summarise my opinion on the whole thoughtless announcements:

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And God knows Best.

A.S.

Wordless Poetry

A Beautiful City

When you think of poetry, your mind drifts to paper

Paper with words artistically linked together by a writer…

But what if I were to declare that poetry can be wordless, too?

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Poetry is the wind’s sweet caresses on your cheeks through an open window

Poetry is allowing your inner positive energy to surge upwards and make you glow

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Poetry is the majestic standing of a white mosque’s pillars

Poetry is entering a new space and feeling like it’s somehow all familiar

《》

Poetry is the resilience-themed messages sprayed about with graffiti paint

Poetry is reading a soul-fulfilling book in a cozy coffeehouse so quaint

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Poetry is the quiet playing of Coldplay’s best songs against the backdrop of Ramallah’s streets

Poetry is you turning an empty canvas and acrylic paint into your own secret retreat

《》

Poetry is the plentiful “astaghfirullah” signs on orderly lined up palm trees

Poetry is the cheerful morning sounds of roosters and darling birdies

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Poetry is the waterfall-like effect of vines against rocky walls

Poetry is the sound waves of overlapping athan, or prayer calls…

《》

When you used to think of poetry, your mind once drifted to paper

Paper with words artistically linked together by a writer…

But now you know, based on the journeys you flew

That poetry can also be wordless, too.

Pretty Pink
God always knows Best.

Nov.19, 2017, on the way to Hebron from Ramallah

– A.S.

Have You Ever Found Soul, Heart & Mind Scattered?

Under the Lemon Tree

Have you ever found your soul’s song scattered about?

There you are

Seeking…

Searching…

Finding it…

Between bulky boulders and rocks

In quaint dessert cafés that barely sleep, no matter the clock

Among thorny plants and at the sight of a cactus

Under thick soft blankets that melt your coldness into bliss

During a simple olive-picking activity

Or when standing beneath the shade of a lemon tree —

Have you ever found your soul’s song scattered about?

Have you ever found your heart beats scattered about?

There you are

Seeking…

Searching…

Finding it…

In a yellow taxi cab playing classical Fayrouz

During a road trip car playing Oumayma Khalil tunes

In a stab of nostalgia, hearing Rihanna in a Hebron shopping mall

At the sight of a man proudly galloping in traffic, on a horse so tall

Against the backdrop of scents, spices and music in the open marketplace

With the rhythm of footsteps walking distances in the lit-up night space —

Have you ever found your heart’s beats scattered about?

Have you ever found your mind’s thoughts scattered about?

There you are

Seeking…

Searching…

Finding it…

In the eyes of kind, compassionate, down-to-earth people

As you acknowledge this land was walked on by prophets without equal

In the bubbling words of an enlightened, engaging conversation

Upon entering any shop that is casually playing Quranic recitation

In the sanctity of being in the Ibrahimi Mosque, or Cave of Patriarchs

In the old stone buildings, colourful fall vines, and structural archs — 

Have you ever found your mind’s thoughts scattered about?

Have you ever found your soul’s song, heart and mind

All

Debating, wondering, arguing,

persuading, agreeing, disagreeing,

musing, guessing, being certain,

being uncertain, pondering, reflecting —-

On what home means?

                          On where home is?

                                                    Who home is?

                                                                           Why home is?

Alas.

Have you ever found your soul’s song, heart and mind scattered about?

Pinecones Galore

And Allah knows Best.

-A.S.

-Written November 11, 2017

 

Why Palestine?

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Back in Canada, all I had to say to any friend was “I’m going to spend a few months living in Palestine,” and practically a round of applause sounded. Even my colleagues supported this decision, and that hyped me up some more. But for perplexing reasons (among them heavily affected from colonial experiences), many Palestinians living in Palestine do not share that same optimism. The moment anyone learns that I came from Canada to temporarily live in Palestine, I get the same reaction:

  • An incredulous face, along with a “My dear… what has brought you here?

Okay. I get it. Living under an illegal and dangerous occupation isn’t exactly a bliss. But this isn’t even the reason that people question my return.

What has brought me here? Why Palestine?

Well, for starters, regardless about my other career and family reasons… I’m Palestinian.

What’s up with native Palestinians not understanding why it’s perfectly legitimate for me to be here? I am a daughter of the land, after all. Once left, does it mean I would never want to come back? Here are just a few examples of things I can only really revel in Palestine:

  • Partying with aunts, uncles and cousins whom I haven’t seen in many years.
  • Listening to classical Arabic music in taxis, against the backdrop scenery of vast mountains and vineyards.
  • Being a car passenger alongside a galloping horse that is pulling a carriage of vegetables.
  • Driving through small villages and seeing donkeys, herd of sheep, and more horses alongside cars. Here, nature has the same space as technology.
  • Eating cups of corn on the go. Freshly squeezed mint lemonade. Date syrup. Grape syrup. The delight of discovering new cheesecake coffee shops here and there.
  • Speaking with the young people who have lived under occupation, yet still have such a zest and upbeat passion for life. It is not common for me to find bitter and angry teenagers here; rather, they have a hope and vision of the future, and want to be a part of building that better world.
  • When teaching an ESL class, and a Quran quote comes on screen, everyone becoming eager to recite it in perfect personalised melodies.
  • Olive trees, palm trees, and white lightbulbs gracing the streets.
  • Being pleasantly surprised how your heart can connect so easily to another’s, as though you grew up in the same house…

Palestine is an astonishing place, and it grows on you the longer you stay and give it a chance to. It has a beautiful culture, remarkable history of prophetic footsteps, a dizzying plurality of diverse people, and gorgeous landscapes. However, only those with beautiful hearts can truly appreciate the blessing of having a chance to walk on its soil.

So why Palestine? Because there’s nowhere else quite like it.

May God protect Palestine.

And He Knows Best.

A.S.

Between Worlds, Never to Belong

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“Under the Olive Tree” – Oil painting by Aya Salah (2017)

Perhaps it is fate, and perhaps it is destiny.
Perhaps it was always meant to be this way, and perhaps it simply never was. I don’t know. What I do know, is that for most of the time, I do not feel like I fully (physically) belong anywhere.
Belongingness is a complicated abstract concept. Do you belong with your heart, with your yearning, or with concrete memories that physically connect you to a place?
I can’t be the only one who hangs in midair, between worlds, always identifying with both yet never feeling completely embraced in either.
Being a Palestinian Canadian is a most intriguing experience, but it is difficult to describe to someone exactly what it’s like to be a Palestinian in Canada. Having grown up since babyhood and well into adulthood in the marvellous city of Montreal, I can hardly picture myself living anywhere else. Montreal is my home, the bounds of my childhood, the foundation of my character; it is where I feel safe, strengthened, and comfortable to grow.
And yet, I still don’t feel like I fully belong as a Canadian, or that I truly have a right to use this term since I am not originally a native of the land. No matter where I’ve planted my roots, the seeds first and foremost came from Palestinian soil. There is no way to ignore that.
Deep in my aching soul, I keep finding myself yearn for the land and people that had once been, and relentlessly continue to be, a part of me, even way before I was born. It is for this reason I find myself gravitating towards places and experiences in the West that satisfy my nostalgic emotions. I always felt as though a piece of me belonged in the Middle East, on another continent, and that perhaps if I spent more time in both worlds, then Canadian-me and Palestinian-me could comfortably coexist in satisfied harmony.
It was mostly for this reason that I took a great leap of faith, and decided to try living briefly in Palestine. Maybe, just maybe, I could find that missing part of me in new, strange yet vaguely familiar lands.
But alas, belongingness is a far more complicated concept than I ever thought it to be. If only it was simply a matter of physically connecting with a place. The truth (my truth, at least) is… this diaspora situation extends beyond the physical realm. It includes emotional, spiritual, and intellectual (dis)connections at times.
On the surface, I fit in Palestine in a lot of ways. The language, core cultural values of generosity, family, hospitality, and even my self-chosen dress code happen to align quite well with the society I am currently in. But every passing day reminds me how much I do not belong here. Maybe it’s the noticeably different dialect that flows from my lips; maybe it’s the uneasiness I feel at commonplace trashy (yet embraced) values, like cheating and bribery; maybe it’s my constant waves of shock as I learn of occupation and violence that I have obviously never needed to deal with in my own life, and never envisioned I would ever live through.
Fact is, the longer I stay in Palestine, the more I suspect that my heart really belongs in Canada. Yet when I go to Canada, my heart jumps right back across the fence. It’s like it thinks grass is greener on the other side – even when I have been on both sides, where the grass is the same shade of green!
So am I never to belong anywhere? Am I to remain suspended metaphysically between worlds, and realize that no place on Earth can actually ​fill my inner thirst for complete connection? Does anyone actually feel like they belong anywhere, or are we all equally lost, yet too timid to confront the void?
These are a lot of questions that come to mind when I daydream or drift off. Of course, I don’t expect that definite answers exist for them; but they are something to muse over.
Personally, I have no problem with not fully belonging to one single world. Perhaps who I am depends on the very fact I not get blindly attached to one particular worldview. I am a lifelong traveller, travelling between realms of cultures, ideas, controversial histories, intricate experiences and lifestyles.
Perhaps I am never to belong anywhere. 
This constant diaspora, manifested in multiple realms…
And you know what? I am at peace with that.
And God knows Best.
-A.S.
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A Ramadan Away from Home

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They keep asking me where I like Ramadan more: in Hebron or Montreal.

They ask as if they’re clueless, but their eager faces betray the fact that they’re sure Ramadan in the East is superior to Ramadan in the West. For many people, it is. For me, I thought it would be, too. But it’s a bit more complicated, as I’ve learned…

They keep asking me which country I enjoy Ramadan most in – Palestine or Canada. What a distressing question for me, if only they knew!

All my Ramadans before 2017 have taken place in sweet, sweet Montreal. In Canada, I am often in crowded rooms being the only one refraining from food and drink. But this has never been an obstacle to having a spiritually and socially enlightening month. In Montreal, I always celebrated Ramadan with my parents and siblings. Being in the company of my two youngest sisters Wisam and Rania during taraweeh is a fundamental part of the night prayer experience. Eating from homemade atayef mostly prepared by my sister Rwan is a delicious and traditional element of the Ramadan vibe. Listening to my brother Mohammed reading Qur’an with me to practice his tajweed is a refreshing pre-iftar routine I love. Driving to the masjid in my dad’s van at fajr time is a luxury I try to take advantage of when I am not too sleepy to stay awake a little while longer after suhoor.
But this year, I am spending Ramadan in a completely different setting. I am fasting and Ramadan-ing it up in my native homeland of Palestine.
It is wonderful here.
The streets are decorated for Ramadan.
The traditional seasonal sweets are sold at every corner.
Everyday you’re invited to an iftar feast.
The athan echoes throughout the day, adding beauty to the wind.
It’s almost perfect.
But where are my multicultural friends’ faces whom I always run into at taraweeh?
Where are those STM bus drivers whom I don’t realize are Muslim, but then loudly exclaim “Ramadan mubarak, salamu alaikum!”
Where is my usual stash of fair-trade 70%+ dark chocolate to break my fast on?
Where is my jar of thick rich honey to sweeten everything the light touches?
Most of all… where are some of my favourite people in the world to break their fasts with me at the exact same time?
See, half my family came with me to Palestine, but I miss the other half. Sorely. I miss my family left back in Canada. Two months have passed but it feels so much longer. As much as I love and adore my relatives and extended family in Hebron, nothing and no one can replace the fondness and nearness that Rwan, Wisam, Rania, Mohammed and my father occupy in my heart.
Half of my heart is literally stuck in Montreal, in an unknown location. Maybe you’ll find it in a smoked salmon bagel cafe like Hinnawi Brothers, in a sushi restaurant like Sushi St.Jean, in a chocolate-loaded place like Coco 70, or in a beehive loaded with honey somewhere…. My heart ironically yearns for the place where the streets are NOT decorated for Ramadan, where Arabic sweets are NOT the norm at every corner, and where the athan is NOT visible from your home but is only heard from the inside the mosques.
And yet, Ramadan in Montreal is absolutely perfect.
In Montreal, the atayef tastes just right. They even look more appetizing! (I have only enjoyed one actual atayef in Palestine this whole month. It just ain’t the same.) Maybe it’s because the hands that make them (Rwan’s) are full of a sacred care no one else can provide. Maybe it’s because the syrup that sweetens the atayef is made by my lovely mother. Maybe it’s because as a family, members of us gather around the Qur’an together and discuss it more frequently as a group than in other times of the year.
And maybe… probably… it’s just because the small group of people in Montreal I love, I love with a fierceness greater than my love combined for everything in Palestine.
atayef

Photo of Rwan’s masterpiece dessert.

Nothing can replace the bond of a sister or brother – so how to explain that as wonderful and gracious that everyone is in Hebron, nothing can replace four sibling bonds… even if those bonds are limited to social media right now with a 7-hour time zone difference. How could people even ask me such a question? It’s infuriating sometimes! Honestly, what a blessing Whatsapp, Messenger, Snapchat, and TextPlus have all turned out to be for me. Thank God!
I don’t mean to be harsh on people. They mean well, and I know it. When people ask me where do I enjoy Ramadan more, they usually assume that my definition of ultimate satisfaction is measured by the number of feasts I attend and number of people I greet. But how to explain that all the pecks, formalities, and kisses on cheeks over several months totalled up, do not amount to even one simple “yo” exchanged with my brother? Do not amount to just one bone-crushing hug with Wisam and Rania? Do not amount to one pre-bedtime rambling conversation with Rwan?
Between you and me, dear reader, here’s my personal truth: Ramadan in Palestine is really nice. But Ramadan in Montreal? It’s just perfect.
All praise to Allah for everything, alhamdulileh. I am blessed to be spending this holy month in a holy land. And thank You for the blessings of technology, which make it easy to keep in constant communication with those physically far, far away from me!
Until we hug again, my friends! Shout out to Mohammed, Rania, Wisam, Rwan and yaba for making me miss you so much. That speaks to how wonderful of human beings you must undoubtedly be.
And God plans Best.
-A.S.

[video] The Streets of Palestine

Dedicated to the birthday girl, Rania.

I know French and Palestinian culture don’t go together. However, a week before I left Canada to visit Palestine, I stumbled across the bilingual song “J’ai Cherché” by Amir, and now both this song and my trip to Palestine are, in my mind, helplessly intertwined with one another and seem perfectly compatible to me.

It was hard to doze off in any road trip or car ride because the streets and mountains along the road are a dazzle to see. Most of the footage I took with my cell phone camera… which obviously doesn’t do anything justice. Nonetheless, when I have nostalgia for Palestinian streets and mountains, I’ll just play this video which I just produced.

Presenting to you, “The Streets of Palestine”.

The Streets of Palestine from Aya Salah on Vimeo.

Masjid al-Aqsa: the Old & the New

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The title of this album should actually be “masajid” (plural of ‘masjid’) al-Aqsa… because this looks at the interiors of not only the Masjid al-Aqsa building that everyone visits, but also the ORIGINAL, old building that was first masjid al-Aqsa. It is noticeably older and not as sparkly inside as the newer building… but it still feels upon entering as the sacred holy site. It’s not hidden or secret… but it’s not well-known, either! So here, we look at both. What a blessing!

Masjid Al-Aqsa – First Sight
Masjid al-Aqsa - First Sight

Deep Breath

Deep Breath

Light Upon Light
Light Upon Light

Heading to the Old, Original Masjid al-Aqsa

Heading to the Old, Original Masjid Al-Aqsa

Removing Shoes
Removing Shoes

A Place of Prayer

A Place of Prayer

Oh, Books
Oh, Books

The Library Inside the Old Masjid al-Aqsa

The Library Inside the Old Masjid Al-Aqsa

Calligraphy Everywhere
Calligraphy Everywhere

“Keep Following Me!”

Keep Following Me!

Walking in an Empty Masjid
Walking in an Empty Masjid

Our Kind & Spontaneous Tour Guide

Our Kind & Spontaneous Tour Guide

Workship in the Old Masjid al-Aqsa

Worshipping in the Old Masjid Al-Aqsa

Where the Heads Fall Upon in Prostration

Where the Heads Falls Upon in Prostration

To see the rest of the photos in this album, click here.

All praise is due to Allah.

-A.S.

Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. May you be granted the chance to visit it, and pray in it, one day.

There was no way that the photos of both masajid al-Alqsa’s (the old and new buildings), and the golden Dome of the Rock, could fit into one album. This is simply Part 2 of 3 photography taken in Jerusalem a couple of months ago.

Staying Gold
Staying Gold

Dome of the Rock – First Sight Dome of the Rock - First Sight

Overwhelming
Overwhelming

Sacred Geometry Sacred Geometry

The Bodyguard Trees
The Bodyguard Trees

Ceiling; Because God Loves Beauty Ceiling; Because God Loves Beauty

Beyond Beauty
Beyond Beauty

Al-Sakhra Al-Sakhra

Dome of the Rock Chandeliers
Dome of the Rock Chandeliers

Gold Details Gold Details

Majestic
Majestic

Behold the Dome Behold the Dome