SIPA Magazine

Next Time in Jerusalem

By Mohammad Salhut MIA ’22
Posted Oct 13 2022
Mohammad Salhut MIA ’22
Photo courtesy of Mohammad Salhut MIA ’22

Allow me to rewind the clock to four years ago, the spring of 2018. My late father had been diagnosed with a terminal disease, glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer in adults. His final days had a ruthless rhythm: I spent my days running the Bronx-based small business he built and my nights zipping through New York City to sit by his bedside, hoping to catch him before he fell asleep. One of those late nights with my dad was tougher than them all: when we had our first and last conversation about death.

Ya ibni, sahalt al mawt alayi. (My son, you have made dying easier for me.)”

Yaba tihkeesh hayk, atrajak. (Dad, don’t talk like this, please.)”

Ba’araf fi ghiyabi, fi warai zalame, hatha altayeb; tinsash tarawihni ‘ind immi fil-Quds. (I know in my absence there is a man, this fine one next to me; don’t forget to return me to my mother in Jerusalem.)”

So came the tears, rolling down his cheeks and mine. It was only when the man I grew up thinking was invincible acknowledged the inevitable that the reality seemed to hit us both. Two weeks later, at the end of May, my father passed. He spent his last breaths asking me to promise him that I would continue my education and marry a nice Palestinian girl.

My sister and I took our father’s remains back to our homeland, present-day Israel. For reasons that I will chalk up to old-fashioned luck, the border control at Ben Gurion Airport spared us the usual humiliation of being hustled into a room reserved for Palestinian or Muslim travelers for “security screening.” Shortly after landing in Tel Aviv, I was in the back seat of a van speeding toward the city of my fathers, Jerusalem.

At my father’s janazah (Islamic funeral) at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one stranger after another commented how beloved by Providence my father must have been— why else would his time have come during Ramadan, the holiest month of the year?

After the funeral came the period of mourning at my grandfather’s home, akin to a shiva in Judaism. I sat in my family’s diwan (court) clenching my fists until they were white, some- how finding the emotional capacity to reminisce on my time with my dad as Quranic verses were audible from a nearby minaret.

Evidently, the most salient memory my mind kept replaying was a time my dad and I were sit- ting in a mosque together, stateside, when I was a boy. The imam, as he did after every Friday prayer, was calling for donations. One Muslim gentleman after another, partaking in a seemingly wondrous but unannounced competition in piety, raised their hands to donate $50, $100, and sometimes $500. My father told me to put my hand up; the imam called on me immediately. Frozen but somehow still moving, I stood up.

“Young man, how much can you contribute to help our brothers and sisters in need during this month of Ramadan?” the imam asked.

Intimidated and bewildered, I looked to my dad for guidance; he laughed. I had a few dollars in my pocket but nothing that would compare to the $50 and $100 bills that others were giving. A deer in the headlights, I said the highest number I could imagine when I was a kid: $1,000.

Alfain (Two thousand),” my dad whispered to me.

“Two thousand!” I yelled to the imam, who followed by saying, “Praise to Allah for this gen- erosity, young brother!”

As if a slap in the face, it hit me in one mo- ment all too many years later that my dad’s in- tent was as philanthropic as it was educational. Knowing him, of course it was. While teaching me about the substance religion can add to one’s life at a Friday prayer (coincidentally also during Ramadan), with one action he showed me the value of personal humility by donating without seeking acknowledgment, of loving charity in extending a hand in aid to people with whom we were not acquainted, and of the power of leading by example. Indeed, as I put the $2,000 my father hurriedly stuffed in my pocket into a lockbox passed down to me, I overheard the imam thanking another man for matching my father’s donation, the highest sum of the day.

Just as the emotion of my dad’s thoughtfulness overwhelmed me, a tap on the shoulder by one of the elder members of our Bedouin tribe brought me back to reality. He greeted me with traditional Arabic condolences and said a single word as he looked me sharply in the eyes: “Dawrak (Your turn).”

Over the next few days, I received several requests from Jewish friends of my dad (and some of my own) who lived in West Jerusalem and wished to visit my ancestral village in the city’s East, Jabal al-Mukaber, to pay their respects. The idea was summarily rejected by my relatives, who viewed such an exchange, however amicable, as treacherous.

Fast-forward four years later to the present. A few documents sit on my desk: an itinerary to Tel Aviv, my application for official graduation from SIPA, and a formal offer letter from a world-class financial institution.

As I prepare for my next trip to Jerusalem, the burden I feel is just as heavy as when I carried my dad’s casket on my shoulders at Al-Aqsa. The education I’ve been privileged to receive at Columbia inspires in me a distinct moral obligation to move the world in a direction where Jews from the city’s West and Palestinians from its East welcome one another and where, by remaining intellectually mindful of the need to lead by example, the paradigms of division that have long defined my homeland are supplanted by bonds of brotherhood.

Next time in Jerusalem, when I visit the cemetery where my dad is at rest,

I will tell him as I was once told: “It’s my turn.”

About The Raphael Smith Memorial Prize

The Raphael Smith Memorial Prize is given in memory of Raphael Smith, a member of the Class of 1994 who died in a motorcycle accident while retracing his stepfather’s adventure of motorcycling from Paris to Tokyo. The prize, established by his family and friends, is awarded annually to two second-year SIPA students for travel articles that exemplify the adventurism and spirit of SIPA. The winners of this year’s contest are Nathaniel Maekawa MPA-DP ’22 and Mohammad Salhut MIA ’22.