a guest post by Dia H.
Before I left for Saudi Arabia, I read up on everything I could get my hands on, I listened to audio lectures, I streamed endless Youtube videos, I even exhausted a friend who had recently completed the pilgrimage with an endless barrage of questions and also panicked phone calls about Asian toilets (think squat, not sit down, and you’ll understand my freakout). But really nothing could have prepared me for the actual experience of Hajj.
Our International flight touches down in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E- Saudi Arabia’s more cosmopolitan neighbor, and my first impression is, “ah, so this is where all the oil revenue goes.” A massive city within a city, the stores and amenities reflect the sophisticated, International clientele that regularly traverse the terminals – Burberry, Armani, Fendi, Rolex, high end spas, dining, etc. I feel a little bit of pressure to buy something, anything, because to go from one terminal to the next, we have to pass through inside the stores and by the Walking Dead horde-like salespeople. I politely pick up the cheapest looking item I can find and quickly calculate the going rate for my kidney. The horde perks up. Nope. I make my exit at an awkward run-shuffle because “Smooth” is my middle name. The horde is disappointed. Also, this was the last place I confidently spoke English, because who doesn’t speak the universal language, duh? (Answer: Apparently Saudi Arabia, the whole *gestures widely* country).
The Hajjis (aka pilgrims) all converge on one end of the Terminal 3, we have traded in our normal clothes for the white garment of Ihram. There is a feeling of insulation from the rest of the travelers as it is starting to hit us that Hajj has just started. The plane ride to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia is solemn. Everyone on the plane is in Ihram, the king and the pauper indistinguishable A few begin to chant the Hajj prayer out loud, slowly the whole plane takes it up. My mom cries.
I’m gonna skip over Jeddah airport because… well, let’s just say we were the livestock and the airport officials were the ranchers. Mooooooooooooo. End Scene.
The heat is a physical thing. It feels like it has mass, akin to walking underwater through a heated swimming pool, except the pool is on fire, the water is on fire, and we are on fire. It touches everything at around 120 degrees and I wonder if part of the religious experience of Hajj is to make you infinitely more cognizant of Hell. We board our air conditioned bus for Mecca and make our escape.
Mecca is a marriage of life and death, of utopia and the apocalypse, of civilization and the wasteland. At the outskirts of the city, a lone Bedouin on a camel patrols the line of electric transmission towers converging in on the city. The only signs of life in the barren desert are a few open open-air camps frequented by the Nomads and skeletons of a building or two long since abandoned.
There are many different faces and facets of Mecca. There is Mecca the sacred, the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad, built with domes, and minarets, and vaulting arches leading to the Kaabah. As we enter the city, I feel as if I’ve been immersed in the lives of others, in stories that stretch back thousands of years. It holds the breath of Abraham, the whispers of Ishmael, the tears of Hagar. Of caliphs, and sultans, and companions long since passed. I am treading the path they trod, walking in the footsteps of these people I have read about in the history books; my bus joining the long tradition of caravans that found safe passage into the city.
Then there is the Mecca of small roads and dusty bricked buildings. The Mecca that is always trying to catch up to what it’s becoming; the Old world defying the tug and pull of the modern. Mecca of hilltops flattened to make way for five star hotels and Mecca of the decaying structures reclaimed by the mountains. Mecca of street side stalls and open-air bazaars and Mecca of four story shopping centers where they take Mastercard and Visa. The Mecca with traffic bulging at the seams and Mecca where only camels roam. Mecca is constantly drifting between two extremes, always on the precipice of one or the other.
And my goodness, is it loud and busy. The streets are marked for three lanes of traffic, while six lanes of cars vie for the spots. I make my peace with death every time our bus driver tries to merge into traffic. Five times a day the call of prayer reverberates from the minarets and five times a day the city closes down as everyone goes to pray. And the crush, the massive wall of humanity that converges around the Kaabah so fluidly is something to behold. They say it was “only” 1.8 million people, but others estimate it’s closer to 3 million. I hear a thousand different languages in the daylight, and then I hear another different thousand when the sun goes down.
And the kindness and solidarity of random people, of workers, of janitors, of military, it’s weird to say but it doesn’t make sense out in the “real world”. We walk past a couple members of the military that are strictly guarding a gate, they see my mom limping and drop everything to carry our bags for us all the way. Police are there doing crowd control but mainly walking around holding up fans to individual Hajjis (which is kind of awkward for me, seeing I’m not used to having a policeman walking around fanning me). Everywhere we go, normal people are passing out truckloads of food and water to almost every single person walking to and from. People who don’t even speak my language get up to get a drink of water and then bring me back some simply because I’m sitting next to them. I mean, this is not mind-bogglingly unique but the extraordinary thing is, it is true of every single person I meet for my whole time there. I think that’s what I meant when I told you it was an amazing experience. I carry that with me.
There are a couple of days where we are roughing it by staying in the middle of the desert in tents. Actually it’s a city of tents called Mina.
Also by roughing it I mean my “tent” has air conditioning, wifi, fully tiled bathroom with attendants (also NOT squatting toilets, but actual American ones, yay!), and catered breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But there is also immense squalor. There are thousands upon thousands of people who cannot afford tents or who have been duped by crooked travel agents and dumped outside. They stay out in the open, in the heat, some with little children and babies. This is the worst feeling. I want to help every single person out there, share what I have, but I don’t have the resources. I give what food and money I can, but it’s not even close to being enough. They are all there to complete this step of Hajj and so they are staying put. I just hope the kindness people showed me extends to them as well.
After all the rites of Hajj is complete, and we have now officially become Hajjis, we travel for some leisure to the historic city of Medina. If Mecca is the turbulent whitewaters of a river, then Medina is a koi pond. There are lanes upon lanes of roads, but just a handful of cars make up the traffic. Everyone walks slower to and from, there is no rush. The crowds are spread out, everyone keeps to themselves, I miss the camaraderie of Hajj. And there is no noise. Everyone talks in a whisper inside the mosque. There is just a calm here that permeates. Everything is orderly, uniform. Inside the mosque, the columns and pillars look like they go on for miles. Outside, every morning the giant umbrellas open, shading the people from the harsh light of the sun. At night, they close in on themselves, sentinels reaching for the sky. It is beautiful and serene and just what our tired bodies need after the breakneck speed of Hajj.
I miss it all and hope to go back one day.
Hajj – a mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca that is required at least once in a lifetime of a healthy, financially able Muslim.
Kaabah – The black cloth covered, cube shaped building, all Muslims orient themselves to all over the world for daily prayers, considered by Muslims as House of God.
Mecca – The city where the Kaabah resides
Medina – Another city, home and burial place of the Prophet Muhammad.