This little book of travel writing with a difference shows how an author may seize an opportunity provided by fate to weave an extraordinary narrative on an unusual theme. As India’s ambassador to Israel, Sarna was well placed to listen. That Israel is full of tales waiting to be told is one of the world’s most well-kept secrets. A diplomatic dinner invariably ends up with unimaginable accounts of families destroyed, of fortunes lost, dramas of untold suffering but also redemption, of terrible loss and then return. Each narrative is unique and troubled, spanning continents and empires, traversing many geographies and histories. Looming over the quintessential family saga, periodically refreshed, is the eternal horror of the Holocaust.
Yet Sarna steers clear of these to bring to light the history of an obscure Muslim family from Saharanpur, custodians of an Indian hospice in the heart of Jerusalem. What galvanises the author and draws in the reader is that Baba Farid, mystic and inveterate traveller of the 11th century, had meditated for forty days in a small hole in the ground here. This information is inspiration for the meticulous piecing together of fragments that constitute the tale of how Zawiya al-Hindiya became the hospice for Indian pilgrims. In research collaboration with Sheikh Mohammed Munir Ansari’s family, the measured, paced-out, leisurely account seeks to capture Jerusalem’s mystical enchantment where “connections, more of the soul than anything else, seem entirely possible”.
With that great Ottoman Turkish traveller Evliya Celebi as guide, Sarna’s walks through the city read like an old-world travelogue. He is at his best when he takes detours, to tell, for example, about Jerusalem’s Nusseibeh family, whose ancestor was one of the companions of the second Caliph, Omar, when he took Jerusalem in 638 AD. The bishop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, overcome that his city had been spared, handed over the keys of the city and church to Omar. Even today, the Muslim Nusseibeh opens the church at 4 am. “He puts the footlong skeleton key into the keyhole of a small door which forms part of the huge door. A priest from inside then hands him a ladder which allows the Nusseibeh to reach the main keyhole and open the gate,” writes Sarna. Since the Holy Sepulchre houses various Christian denominations such as Franciscans, Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians, Greek Orthodox and Syrians, they often “have more to fear from each other than from anybody without”.
Despite such anecdotes, the hospice seems strangely isolated from the potent political whirl within which it is embedded. As the layers of time are peeled away, particular details about the history of this little Indian corner in Jerusalem come into focus. Yet, there is much the reader would like to know—about how it was perceived by Jerusalem’s inhabitants through the ages. What kinds of interactions did the hospice have with Jerusalemites? Perhaps that is the ethnography still waiting to be written.
(Jassal is professor of anthropology at the Middle East Technical University, Turkey, and has lived in Israel)