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Americans Have Cuba, but for One Pakistani Woman, Israel Is the Forbidden Destination

Thanks to the Internet, Jerusalem seems closer than ever—but thanks to her government’s policy, remains out of reach

Mina Sohail
December 10, 2013
The author’s passport.(Courtesy of the author)
The author’s passport.(Courtesy of the author)

It is human nature to crave the unattainable, so even though the holiest land for Muslims is Mecca, I have long had a stronger yearning to see Israel—a fascination partly fostered by the Pakistani passport that prohibits me from visiting it.

Growing up in Lahore, I imagined Israel as a cryptic land of traditional Jewish relics, art, and architecture. But when I was a student in New York, a conversation with a friend suggested an Israel I never heard about as a kid. I was completely taken in by his description of the vibrant, metropolitan city that is Tel Aviv, with its sunny beaches and crowded cafés. I found it endearing when he said, “Tel Aviv felt like a paradise.”

The more I heard and read about Israel, the more captivated I became and the more I felt shackled by the stark reality of the words in my Pakistani passport that prevented me from exploring this land that sparked such curiosity in me: “This passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel.”

Pakistan has, of course, never established any diplomatic relations with Israel since the Jewish state was created in 1948. In the past decade, political moderates have tried to lobby for establishing relations. In 2005, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri said in an interview with Ha’aretz that it was time for a reset. “Israel is a fait accompli,” he told his interviewer. “Pakistan also needs to keep readjusting its diplomatic stand toward Israel based on the mere fact that it exists and is not going away.”

Yet extremist and religious elements fanatically opposed to establishing any contact with the Jewish state have succeeded in suppressing those voices. Meanwhile, the government is currently so absorbed by more pressing problems—the persistence of cross-border terrorism, combating the influence of the Taliban, and solving the ongoing economic crisis—that it is in no position to take on the politically delicate issue of initiating diplomatic ties with Israel.

So, nothing seems likely to change anytime soon—which leaves me in the same position as Americans who wish to travel legally to Cuba. When a friend from New York who now lives in Tel Aviv recently suggested meeting in Turkey, a middle ground for both of us, she ended the note with, “Love knowing we are sort of in the same region of the world!” Which is sort of true, but also not. In a world where boundaries seem increasingly irrelevant—in which I can see Israel on my computer screen in Lahore any time I want—my goal feels both closer than ever before, yet also farther away.

There are of course Pakistanis who can visit Israel—those who have second passports. A friend’s fiancé, a Pakistani management consultant based in Dubai, told me he had always dreamt of going to Jerusalem, which is of course one of Islam’s holy places. Just like me, he had seen pictures and read about Israel’s history and wanted to go find out what the fuss was all about. As the holder of both British and American passports, he was able to make the trip and described how charming he found the ancient walled city, crowded markets, and even the soldiers walking around in helmets. “There is no other city in the world like it,” he told me. “None!”

He conceded that he may have enjoyed it more because it was so hard for him to get there, but he—a Muslim who had already performed the holy pilgrimage to Mecca—nevertheless found himself awestruck when he finally gazed on the Dome of the Rock. “When I went to the roof of the hotel and looked across at the dome at night, I got goose bumps,” he told me. “It was like a dream come true.” That statement struck a chord with me. I pictured myself standing silently overlooking the ethereal image of the dome and feeling a spiritual energy engulf me in a land that reeks of history.

Of course, others who have visited have come back less enchanted. One friend who has a British passport told me she never thought of visiting Israel while growing up in Pakistan but recently accompanied her father on a business trip. She described being pulled aside for questioning about plans to visit the West Bank or Gaza and sensed suspicion in Jerusalem because of her brown skin. But she said her visits to the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were delightful, and she told me about reciting the Sura Fatiha at the entrance of the Dome. She also enjoyed the beaches and nightlife of Tel Aviv, which she thought could be compared to any European city.

Nevertheless, she said, after she returned she did not talk about the visit with many of her Muslim friends, out of fear that her trip would be seen as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause—an issue that for some Muslims serves as the main “connection” to Israel, rather than its place in the spiritual landscape of Islam. But for me it is not a Muslim conflict or an Arab conflict, but a human conflict—and Pakistan, as a country created as a home for Muslims, should be playing a liaison role between Israel and the Arab world rather than functioning more as a silent spectator by barring its citizens from traveling.

For the state to bar me from visiting a land deemed holy to the faith of its people curtails my religious observance and, because I am a citizen of the modern world, feels to me like an infringement of my fundamental right as an individual to travel and see the world. But until anything changes, the Al Aqsa Mosque, the enchanting views of the Dome, and even the splendor of the Baha’i hanging gardens in Haifa will simply be dream entries on my bucket list. But I hope to make the pilgrimage to both the modern hotspots of Tel Aviv and the ancient glories of Jerusalem within my lifetime.


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Mina Sohail is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Her Twitter feed is @MinaSohail.

Mina Sohail is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Her Twitter feed is @MinaSohail.