A leap of faith
Reviewed by
D. S. Cheema

Indians at Herod's Gate: A Jerusalem Tale
by Navtej Sarna
Rupa. Pages 182. Rs 500

The job of the Indian Foreign Service's officers often takes them to far-off places. It provides them with opportunities to travel and stay in different parts of the world and write about their unique travel experiences. The writer in Sarna, the diplomat, has fully utilised this opportunity and one of the outcomes is this historical-travel story of centuries-old connection between India and Jerusalem. This book is an intriguing history of an Indian hospice in Jerusalem. It also underlines the connection of India and Indians with this ancient and holy city.

It is the story of an Indian hospice in Jerusalem, spread over 7000 square meters, some other properties and that of their Indian caretaker, Sheikh Mohammad Munir Ansari, whose father moved from Saharanpur many years ago. Initially, there were many Indian hospitals and the present one, around which the story revolves, was built gradually with the help of many rich Indian pilgrims like the Nawabs of Rampur and Hyderabad. Herod's Gate (also known as Bab al-Zahira or the Gate of Flowers), which appears in the title of the book, is the place from where one can look right inside the compound of the Indian hospice. It was a witness to the visit of Sufi saint, Sheikh Farid, who fasted and meditated there for 40 days in a dark room more than 800 years ago. This Indian connection with Jerusalem, the city which is said to have 70 names, becomes all the more significant since the hospice is also known as Zawiya al-Faridiya, Zawiyat al-Hunud or Baba Farid's hospice.

Navtej Sarna
Navtej Sarna

Baba Farid's name remains alive in Sikh and Punjabi consciousness as many of his verses are included in the Guru Granth Sahib and his contribution to Punjabi poetry and literature is highly respected in this region. Another Indian connection is that some parts of the hospice that is the Delhi Wing and the Travancore Wing were built by Indian soldiers during the Second World War.

When the author set out on this mystic path in November 2008 on his wife's insistence, he knew it too well that the strange land was, "steeped in culture, religion, conflict". He traces the history of Chisti Silsila in India, the tradition of singing at Dargah in Ajmer where its founder, Moinuddin had settled down after living and preaching in Multan, and his well-known follower Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. Details of horrific six days of 1967, when shells fell on Indian hospice and Baba Farid's room, leaves one sad about the turn of events. Numerous domes, gates and arches in the old Jerusalem have breathtaking architecture. One of the famous domes, The Dome of the Rock, was described by the historian Celebi "as if it were one of the eight paradises".

Sarna quotes extensively from The Palestine Post, the diaries of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, Illan Pappe's A history of Modern Palestine, Evliya Celebi's travelogue Seyahatname and many other obscure documents to capture the appropriate mood and lend authenticity to the text.

Norman Cousins' statement , "The way a book is read, which is to say, the qualities a reader brings to a book, can have as much to do with its worth as anything the author puts in it," perfectly fits the case of this unique and absorbing story, brilliantly told by Sarna. Good authors provide leverage to readers to be able to enjoy every page of the book. The author could have listed important landmarks, which go by many different and unfamiliar names, and related these with the chronicle of time as the history unfolded over thousands of years.

An index at the end of the book to help the reader comprehend the text better would also have been very useful. Nevertheless, it is a unique book and every proud Indian interested in the past should know the story of Indian presence in the middle of old Jerusalem, the city of religious faiths of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Author's painstaking research makes the book a quality literary work, which will propel him higher on the list of celebrity authors.