Navtej Sarna’s Indians at Herod’s Gate: A Jerusalem Tale is the story of Sheikh Nazir Ansari, a police inspector’s son from Saharanpur who went on to establish Indian Hospice in Jerusalem, a place where Baba Farid spent 40 days in prayer. Ansari’s family has looked after the hospice all these years, quietly. And in a city often divided by competing faiths, it has acted as a little adhesive.
Sarna gives us insightful asides on Adam, David/Daud, Haram Sharif, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives, and the like. Without any claims to academics, Sarna puts forward the importance of the little place succinctly when he writes, “Haram Sharif, Temple Mount, Mount Moriah — by whatever name it may be called, this must surely be one of the most controversial and bitterly fought-over patches of land in the world. And also the most revered. For the Jews, it is the site of their First and Second Temples, both long destroyed. For the Muslims, this is the third most holy place in the world, after Mecca and Medina, the site of the Prophet’s night journey to heaven. This, too, is the place that was personally cleansed by Caliph Omar when he uncovered the Rock after conquering Jerusalem for Islam, and give centuries later washed with rose water by Saladin to rid it of the sacrilege wreaked by the Crusaders.”
Sarna focuses not on the prophets but on Baba Farid, who was born on the first day of Ramzan in 1173 in Punjab in a family that traces its lineage to Caliph Omar.
At 16, under the tutelage of Bakhtiar Kaki, who advised him to discover the world and meet mystics, Baba Farid went to Baghdad, Mecca and Medina, before reaching Jerusalem.
Sarna uses the tools of a raconteur and the skills of a historian to weave together this story. In between come little anecdotes about the Ansaris, their wives, their children, the patriarch’s love for Urdu and the like; each going on to garnish a rich tale.