How this online app gives gamers keys to Al-Aqsa

The new Protector of Al-Aqsa phone app seeks to familiarize younger generations with the role of this holy site in the Islamic heritage.

al-monitor Haris al-Aqsa (Protector of Al-Aqsa) was created by a West Bank-based civil society group. Posted March 2, 2019. Photo by Youtube/IlmFeed.

Mar 14, 2019

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Find it difficult to get into Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem? Try the educational game app called Haris al-Aqsa, or Protector of Al-Aqsa, by Burj Al-Luqluq Social Center Society, a West Bank-based civil society group that aims to introduce the holy site’s history and culture.

The game, available on IOS and Android devices since February, is in Arabic, although the organizers signal that English and Turkish versions are in the pipeline. The app, developed by a team of Palestinian engineers, was financed by Turkey’s Vakti Kiraat, an Istanbul-based association that focuses on Arabic culture and language.

Muntasir Idkeydik, chairman of the Burj Al-Luqluq Social Center Society and the game’s general supervisor, told Al-Monitor that the game’s main objective is to familiarize young generations with Al-Aqsa's importance in the Islamic heritage. “We are trying to instill the identity of the mosque, Jerusalem and its holy sites in the minds of young gamers through innovative and fun means, particularly at a time that Israel is trying to Judaize Jerusalem,” he said.

Al-Aqsa, whose name literally means “the furthest mosque,” is a large structure with a gold-plated dome inside a 35-acre compound located on the top of what Jews call Temple Mount and Muslims call Al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. The third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, Al-Haram al-Sharif has been the most contested piece of territory since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Earlier this week, Israeli forces closed the compound after a firebomb was thrown at a security post. Nineteen people were arrested after the incident as violent clashes erupted between Muslim worshipers and Israeli forces during the evacuation. The Waqf, the Islamic endowment body tasked with managing the holy site, said the compound was opened March 13 for dawn prayers and attended by worshipers without incident.

The launch of the Protector of Al-Aqsa app has also been covered in the regional media. The semi-official Anatolia News Agency has run an article on the game, saying that “it went viral among the Palestinian youth,” and most of the pro-government press highlighted the story. In Israel, Arutz Sheva called it a “Turkish incitement game,” quoting retired Gen. Baruch Yedid as saying that the game "trains [the players] to confront the Jerusalem police” and it was a sign that “under the guise of cultural and heritage activity, Turkish involvement is growing” in East Jerusalem.

The game consists of four levels: the Visitor, the Guard, the Servant and the Mentor. The players don a Palestinian keffiyeh and wear a different shirt color at each level — white, red, green and black, the colors of the Palestinian flag. As players wander inside and outside the mosque, they come across closed boxes that reveal multiple-choice questions on history and religion. If players reply correctly, they get 15 keys. A wrong answer costs 10 keys. Forty keys are required to progress to the next level. In the final level, players who become “mentors” receive the key to the Mughrabi Gate — the only gate through which Muslims can enter — and become “protectors” of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Mohammed Magreb, 13, from the northern West Bank city of Jenin, spends two hours a day on the app on his father’s Android phone — but he is far from thrilled about it.

The Palestinian teenager told Al-Monitor that it was his father who came up with the idea of the game. “We sometimes play it together so that I can learn about the historic, cultural and religious aspects of the mosque,” he said, adding he sometimes gets bored because the Al-Aqsa game lacks the action and thrill of his all-time favorite action game, PUBG.

Idkeydik said there are future plans to further develop the game to include more sites and Islamic landmarks, noting that the game has been downloaded by 50,000 Android users and more than 10,000 iPad users since it was launched.

In 2014, Burj Al-Luqluq Social Center Society launched an app called Live Jerusalem, also available on both Android and IOS devices, which introduces users to the historical, religious and cultural heritage sites in the city, presenting each monument by its Arabic name and giving the Palestinian narrative. The application also offers three main virtual tracks inside the Old City, starting from the Walls of Jerusalem and ending in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Mohammad Salah, the programmer of the Protector of Al-Aqsa app, told Al-Monitor that the current version of the application is still in beta mode to test the product among younger kids and some more details would be added in near future.

“We are working on launching the game with a female player to allow young girls to play it, too. We are also developing additional questions and adding some action to make it more appealing. There are also plans to expand the tour outside the mosque into the Old City of Jerusalem,” Salah said, noting that these improvements will be introduced in the coming weeks.

Salah explained, “In the final level of the game, the player receives the key to Mughrabi Gate.The game ends by opening the gate and liberating the mosque. The message is that through knowledge and science, the mosque can be liberated.”

“I believe nowadays games and social media are the best means to reach young people and try to educate them, especially since there are many people who cannot visit this historic heritage site,” Salah added.

He said the project cost $20,000, including programming, development and engineering, and was funded by the Vakti Kiraat association. The game is designed in high-quality and 3D graphics, showing the details of the ornaments adorning the mosque’s wall and the Marwani Prayer Hall.

Ihab al-Jallad, who wrote the multiple-choice questions, told Al-Monitor, “The game aims to introduce kids to the history and religion of Al-Aqsa and to try to keep them away from violent games such as PUBG. It also revolves around a national theme, as gamers should answer questions about history to pass to the next level. Players can share results, interact on social media and ask for assistance in answering questions.”

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