I was waiting at the airport gate for my flight back to New York when an elderly woman happened to sit in the empty seat next to me.
"Do you speak Arabic?" she asked, eyeing the words I was studying.
"Not really, but I'm learning." I answered. "Do you?" I couldn't determine her heritage based on her appearance alone. She was tan, blonde and didn't speak with a distinct Arabic accent.
"Yes, that's why I recognized what you were reading," she nodded, taking a closer look at my notebook.
"Where are you from?" I asked, intrigued.
"I'm from Jerusalem."
"Jerusalem?!" I cried incredulously. "No way! I'm thinking of visiting there soon!"
She smiled. "You certainly should. I'm a Christian, and I think every single person on Earth should visit the Holy Land. It is beautiful. The land is like gold. Even the soil there is rich and different. It is better than even Mecca or the Vatican in Italy."
I couldn't agree more. Jerusalem is sacred land for Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. Al-Aqsa Mosque, located in the Old City of Jerusalem, is the third holiest site in Islam after Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, both of which I visited last year. Muslims used to pray in its direction before divine revelation instructed them to face the Kaabah in Mecca. The Dome of the Rock, a shrine named after the shiny golden dome erected over the Foundation Stone, is also of significance. Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) ascended to heaven, along with Angel Gabriel, from the stone.
"When did you move to America?" I inquired, curious about her background.
"1966," she said. "I got married when I was 15. In those days, probably your grandmother's time, you did that. We said 'if God didn't want you to get married, you'd drop dead.' I didn't drop dead, so I got married."
I laughed and chatted with her a little longer about our families, her ancestry (she was part Armenian), and of course, Jerusalem. She revealed that she'd read the Quran in the past and thought it was beautiful.
"Arabic is the hardest language in the world, but it's the best language to learn," she stated matter-of-factly. "I'm trying to teach it to my grandkids."
I thought it was interesting how the generations, religion and cultures between us could not take away our love for the same language. As we parted ways a little while later, she wished me farewell and repeated the words she'd spoken earlier.
"You must visit Jerusalem."
I fully intend to, God willing. Funny how in life we are united with individuals who touch our hearts in unimaginable and meaningful ways. Our meeting was especially timely for me, since just earlier that day I was debating whether or not to venture to the Holy Land. I realized it was nothing less than fate for me, a young American Muslim, to have a chance encounter a few hours later with this encouraging, Christian woman from Jerusalem. Of that, I am sure.