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“The door to his hospice was never closed. Silver, food and blessings due to the kindness of the Almighty Creator – all were distributed from there to all corners. Yet no one came to the sheikh for material assistance since he himself possessed nothing. What a marvellous power! What a splendid life! To none of the sons of Adam had such grace been available.”
The words Nizamuddin Auliya wrote of his spiritual master Baba Farid would probably ring true for the generations of the Ansari family – the family that has looked after the Indian hospice of Jerusalem for close to a century.
Wandering through the streets of Jerusalem, Navtej Sarna walks through Herod’s Gate to stumble upon the ‘Zawiya al-Hindiya’ – a solitary Indian presence in the middle of the holy city. This is their story, for what starts off as a personal conversation out of curiosity then develops into a historical narrative of not just the family but modern-day Jerusalem as well.
Written as a rather light yet well-researched account of the Ansari family, Sarna’s mesmerising prose is what allows the reader to glide through the book at an unhurried pace. One watches Sheikh Nazir Hasan Ansari arrive on the instructions of the Muslim leaders of the Khilafat Movement, leaving behind his family in Saharanpur, then proceeding to turn the ‘pile of stones’ into a haven for soldiers and pilgrims alike during the turbulent times of the British Mandate and the Second World War. His eldest son Munir is poised to take over, only to find he has a fight on his hands to lay his rightful claim to becoming the next sheikh of the hospice, amid the trials and travails he’s faced over the years. As the years roll by, Sarna dips into the personal lives of the Ansaris while giving valuable insights into the legacy of the Indian hospice since the times of Baba Farid.
‘Indians at Herod’s Gate: A Jerusalem Tale‘, according to the author himself, is a story that insisted to be told and one cannot agree more with that. Recommended for anyone who wishes to take a short literary journey into the melange of culture and history that the Holy City embodies in its heart and soul.
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