Katie's Hajj 1426/2006

Accepting My Own Unique Experience of Hajj, or

I Didn't Cry the First Time I Saw the Ka'aba -- I Just Thought It Looked Really Big

 

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(Translated by Rashed Chowdhury)

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Before heading out on our whirlwind pilgrimage on Thursday afternoon, January 5th, the "four girls from Montreal" had some time to finish preparations in Washington, D.C.  Noreen and I sat in our hotel room Wednesday night, musing over what we expected to gain from Hajj.  

Noreen had been trying to go for the past ten years, and this was the first time she could get a visa because she didn't have a male chaperone, or mahram, to accompany her, and this special program funded by the same government that made the mahram law, ironically, didn't require one.  She had had lots of time to accumulate expectations, but I think we were both looking for similar things.  At the time, in my journal, I broke these expectations down into three categories:  worship of God, self-purification or perfection, and historical significance.  Somehow, though, they are intertwined.

Back in Canada and recovering from "Hajj cough" and the international supergerm, my first instinct was to be jealous when my friend and Hajj roomate Adriana enthusiastically described her experience to listeners.  But Hajj gives you the inner patience to go beyond your first instincts sometimes.  As I let the time unfold that separates me from my Hajj, I discover my own connection with the experience, one that isn't the same as everyone else's.

Mostly I feel that God is a reality.  It is as though the intense spiritual work that I did or that was done to me during the pilgrimage opened up the connection to God in my heart and blessed me with the ability to quiet my self a little to feel my own closeness to God at any time.

I am reminded of a poem by Rumi that I came across when I was first discovering Islam.  It impressed me because it matched a thought vision I had had in personal meditation a short time before.

Open a window towards God
and begin to delight yourself
by gazing upon him through the opening.
The business of love is to make this window in the heart,
for the breast is illumined by the beauty of the Beloved.
Gaze incessantly on the face of the Beloved.
Listen, this is in your power, my friend.
(Mathnawi IV, 3095-3097)

Though the Hajj is over, I feel that I'm beginning again on a spiritual path.  A friendly wind has just given me a bit of a boost up the mountain some way, beyond the foggy lowlands.  But there is still a long journey ahead, full of rockslides and meadows, dewdrops and lightning storms, and me looking for shelter or striking out across the barren spots alone.

But wait, you probably still want to hear about the details of the physical Hajj itself, don't you?  Well, just know that often, caught up in the motions of the pilgrimage, I didn't always feel spiritual.  Often, I felt hot and tired and dehydrated and frustrated.  But I tried to keep patience and keep my focus on God, and, as I described, I believe this changed me somewhat, thank God.

Let's start at the beginning, or even before.

Sunday evening, January 1st, Rashed and I got home from the movies to find two interesting messages on our answering machine.  We were being considered for an all expenses paid Hajj trip sponsored by the King of Saudi Arabia and would we please call back?  I felt faint, but I said to Rashed, "this year means next year, right?"  He said, "no", it means in a few days.  A year or two ago, I didn't understand the draw of Hajj, but this year I had felt a growing desire to go on the pilgrimage.

After many phone calls, a quick application and a full day of waiting, I found out Monday night that I had been officially chosen.  Rashed couldn't go because he might have had problems flying to Washington, D.C., where the approximately 30 people from North America were meeting to fly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  However, my wonderful husband was never for a moment jealous or upset.  He was happy and excited for me and helped me to prepare all day Tuesday.  I can't imagine being so selfless.

Wednesday, Rabia, Noreen, Adriana, and I arrived in D.C.  Some of us still had to get meningitis and flu shots, because clinics had been full or closed in Montreal.  Adriana's husband, Jose, drove us around, and by late afternoon, we were settled in the hotel.

The next afternoon, we boarded the Saudi Arabian Airlines plane to New York and on to Jeddah, arriving Friday night.  Some of us boarded the plane in ihram, special clothes and a state of purity and intention to make 'Umrah and Hajj, the lesser and greater pilgrimages, and some changed on the plane.  In the Jeddah airport, we waited in separate men's and women's lounges for hours, introducing ourselves to the other women, who were suspicious of my interfaith work, not wanting weak Muslims to get lured away from their born faith.  Then we were transported to a palace in downtown Jeddah, where we ate dinner and languished on couches for many more hours before receiving ID cards and  being told that we would be bussed to Mecca.  

In Mecca, in the wee hours of the morning, we dropped our stuff off in the Sheraton, and the four Montreal girls, along with two men from our group, whom we soon lost sight of, went off to pray the dawn prayer and do tawaf, the circling of the Ka'aba seven times.  Trying unsuccessfully to get near the Black Stone, I almost got knocked over and Noreen almost fainted, but we completed the circling, prayed the traditional two rakats, or prayer cycles, somewhere in the mosque, and stopped to drink from faucets delivering water from the well of Zamzam before doing Sa'i, walking back and forth between the hill of Safa and Marwa seven times, then trimming our hair.  Finally, we returned to the hotel to eat breakfast and collapse...and maybe do a little shopping.  

Looking back, I think Noreen and I must have had heatstroke.  And I do wonder why, unlike other people who gasped and cried the first time they saw the great Ka'aba shrouded in black and circled by white looming in the center of the great marble mosque, why I just thought it looked really big and the air really clear, and that's about it.  When others felt content to die trying to kiss the Black Stone, I just wanted to get out, because getting killed trying to kiss the stone was unnecessary.  And I wondered it there was something deficient in my faith because of that.  

But I remember, I felt wonder in the birds!  There are many birds floating and diving and chirping so sweetly in and around and above the Holy Mosque.  There were moments on this trip that I felt God's presence upon the sight of an animal or a mountain, but maybe I was just displaying my contrary nature that when everyone else marveled at the sight of manmade structures, I found God in nature.

On Sunday, January 8th, we went to Mina, a valley of tents as far as the eye can see...and stayed in the palace, not a tent.  Here we rested, and I read the Qur'an a bit, preparing for the day of 'Arafat the next day, the day that resembles the Day of Resurrection, the day when people pray for forgiveness and for God to make them better.

At 'Arafat, Adriana and I broke out of our "gilded cage".  The guests of the king were staying in air-conditioned tents in a fenced and guarded compound, but we were eager to get outside.  We joined the crowds and made it to the Namira mosque, where some nice Somalian ladies gave us a place to sit, a mat to sit on, books to read, food, juice, and smiles.  We prayed the combined Dhuhr and 'Asr prayers there.  Then we went in search of Jabal Rahmah, the Mountain of Mercy, the one you see people praying on in documentaries about the Hajj.  The walk took over an hour.  Luckily, there were good Samaritans giving away free juice.  At the mountain, which is more of a hill, we climbed a couple of yards up and prayed for a few minutes.  Then we had to get back, because the group was leaving at sunset.  After another grueling walk, we reached the tents, where the guide told us we had been missing so long that they had called the police.  The police hadn't done a good job looking, because we had had a really hard time getting the guards to let us back into the compound!  After more prayer, the sun set, and it was time to leave.  

We spent the early part of the night in Muzdalifah, sitting on Oriental rugs spread over the stones in big rooms that were open to the stars.  In the morning, we stoned the first of the Jamarat, big stone walls, remembering the greatness of God and Abraham's struggle against the Devil's temptations when he was told to sacrifice his son.  This would be the only time I would personally stone the Jamarat.

After this, we were bussed to Mecca, where we did another tawaf and sa'i.  This time I did them on the third floor of the mosque, which is open to the air.  I could move freely there, feeling the cool breeze before dawn.  At last, I easily felt a sense of spirituality and closeness to God while performing a part of the Hajj.  Away from the biggest part of the crowd, I was free to contemplate this house and this ritual, which people had been performing to worship God for years and whose history stretched back to Abraham and even Adam.

Upon finishing my walk between the two hills, or rather, above the two hills, as I did it on the third floor, I heard someone calling my name.  Adriana ran up to me with one lens of her glasses missing.  She had kissed the Black Stone!  Again, I felt a little jealous, but not really.  We had both performed the ritual in ways that had made us feel close to God, even though they were different.  And if I had tried to kiss the Black Stone to be like her or she had stayed with me to do tawaf on the third floor, we wouldn't have been acting from our hearts as to how we could best worship God, and, even though we would have performed the same outward action, one of us might have gained more inside than the other.

I made it back to the Mecca Palace just as the haunting announcement was made from the minarets of the mosque for "As-Salat-ul-Eid!"  It was time for the Eid prayer!  Was it the 10th of Dhul Hijja (and of January), Eid-ul-Adha, one of the two holidays of the Islamic calendar?  Dazed, I prayed, then ate some breakfast in the palace.  On our arrival back in Mina, I slept from 10 am to 10 pm.

In the evening of the 11th, I got sick--just dizzy and nauseated.  But I had to ask someone to stone the Jamarat for me, this time all three stone walls: big, medium, and small.

I felt better the next day, Thursday the 12th, and hoped that I could stone the Jamarat myself this time.  I had been warned that later in the afternoon is the least dangerous time to throw the stones, but our group was leaving at 3:00 that day to return to Mecca (if you remain in Mina until sunset, you have to stay overnight and throw the stones again the following day), so we were told to go around noon, the most crowded time.  

There were six people in my group--one man and five women.  We walked close to the area where the Jamarat were and then stopped.  We waited in a crush of people, standing still and then shuffling forward, for more than an hour, though electronic signs above us said that we would have a half-hour wait.  The signs also told us, in many languages, to remain calm and spend our time in prayer and remembrance of God, and most people complied; there was little pushing.  After about an hour, people began to faint around us.  The man in our group, who spoke Arabic, told the groups with fainting people to get them out of the crowd, but they just stood there.  Guards were few and far between, but shortly, a guard made his way to where the man in our group was.  Soon, the man shouted back to us, "the guard says there are people falling ahead and we have to get out!"  So, we linked arms and snaked our way out to the side of the crowd, tripping over dirty towels and bags of things that people had dropped and that were invisible until your feet were tangled in them.  Out of the crowd, we stood contemplating what to do.  The mass of people we had just left weren't moving, and it was too hot and sunny to wait long.  We decided to go back to the palace.  The man would return later and throw stones for us when it was less crowded.  On our walk back, we saw a long line of guards standing with arms linked down the middle of a comparatively empty street.  The man in our group told them to go to where the crowd was, but they ignored him.  Then we saw guards with stretchers running in the direction we had come from.  And at the end of the street was a human chain of guards trying to keep more people from going towards the Jamarat, but they were breaking through anyway.  Did they think the guards were doing this for their own amusement rather than for reasons of safety?  

After returning to the palace, the man went back to throw stones for several of the women in our group, including me.  He returned quickly, saying it was now as easy as "a walk in the park".  Adriana asked the hotel staff if there was anyone she could go with to throw hers, since the rest of our group was leaving soon, and she ended up getting to throw stones escorted by the royal family of Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates.

After a long bus ride, in the waiting room of the Sheraton in Mecca, we saw on the news that over 300 people had died in the rush of people stoning the Jamarat.  My group figured we must have been behind them.  We all called our families.  I was so happy to talk to Rashed that evening.

Friday and Saturday, the 13th and 14th were days of rest and of buying presents to take home.  Saturday afternoon, I did the farewell tawaf alone on the third floor of the mosque, only catching sight of the Ka'aba once through the crowd.  But it was peaceful.  I filled up plastic bottles with Zamzam water to take home, stayed to pray Maghrib right after sunset, and headed back to the hotel.

Saturday night we stayed in the palace in Jeddah, and Sunday morning we flew to Madinah in a little airplane, complete with propellers and orange-carpeted interior, that looked like it was from the 60's or 70's and that the royal family uses for hunting trips.

After getting settled in the hotel in Madinah, my friends and I prayed in the relatively small women's corner of the enormous Prophet's Mosque.  That evening, we went back with the group to visit the Prophet's grave and, we thought, to have private access to the Rawdah, a space for prayer between the Prophet Muhammad's house and pulpit. Praying there is supposed to be like praying in Paradise.

I had been feeling dizzy and nauseated off and on for the past few days--it was okay when I was moving, but if I stood still, it felt like the room pitched around me--but at this point it got worse.  I had to sit down while praying at the grave.  Then, we learned that only the men were going to pray in the Rawdah that night, but women could get up early the next morning and fight their way through the crowd in one of the normal women's times.  I knew I would be too sick for that.

It turned out that I was too sick for two days, and spent most of my time sleeping, eating room service soup, and watching the movie channel, all in my bed next to our huge window with a view of the mosque.  What a luxurious way to be ill!

Tuesday afternoon I felt a bit better and wanted to get out in the fresh air.  I joined the group on their second visit to the site of the battle of 'Uhud.  It was surprisingly close to the the city; the area was complete with its own crowded market square in between the graves of the martyrs and the hill where the archers in the battle were positioned; and that hill, which we climbed, was disappointingly small.  But at least I was outside!  Following this visit, we went to the Quba mosque and prayed Maghrib there, trying to communicate with some Arab women after the prayer and buying plastic pearls from a child merchant outside the mosque.

That night, I prayed Isha in the crowded Prophet's Mosque, and before going to sleep, I prayed that either I would wake up at Fajr to go and pray in the Rawdah or I would dream that I was praying there.  In the end, both happened!  I dreamt that I was praying in a place that filled me with a sweet and peaceful feeling.  Then I awoke to the call to prayer.  It was dawn, and I headed to the mosque to wait with the crowds of women for them to open the floodgates for us to pour into the Rawdah.

Adriana went later that morning and said it was the most crowded and pushy day of them all.  It took about two hours for me to get onto the big carpeted space where the women guards, covered all in black, yelled into megaphones, "This is the Rawdah!  Pray two rakats!" over the din of women shoving their way to Heaven.  Fortunately, I got a prayer spot next to the base of a column on which was perched a friendly guard.  I prayed, feeling a sense of peace and clearness of heart, especially when my head touched the floor.  

When I finished, the guard told me to visit her English-speaking sister at Gate 26 of the mosque, and pointed me to the exit, about five yards away.  It took me 20 minutes to reach it.  The pushing accelerated just as I began to, well, push my way through the crowd, to the exit.  I was shoved forward instead of to the side, where I wanted to go.  I accidentally kicked a praying person in the head, and at one point was about to fall over on top of another one, but caught myself against a column.  I finally made it clear to the straining faces pushing me forward that I didn't want to take their prayer spaces, I just wanted to get out, and I think I squeezed behind another woman who was going my way.

Sweaty and dazed, I walked down the cool marble passage back to the entrance I had come through long before sunrise.  Gate 26 was closed, so I just picked up my shoes from the rack and walked out into the bright sunshine and across the street to hotel, rest, and breakfast.

After some final shopping and lunch, the group headed back to the airport, this time boarding a cargo plane filled with nets and pipes and gizmos, and flew back to Jeddah.  There we rested in the palace and ate dinner before driving to the airport in the middle of the night.  We spent an hour or two in the VIP lounge of the airport, where we were served Arabic coffee and given complementary Qur'ans.  Then, around 2 a.m., we got on the plane and soon began our 15-hour flight to New York.  Flying west created an almost perpetual night, as the sun patiently followed us, catching up somewhere over the Atlantic.  

You may think the journey ended there, but our adventures weren't over when we reached New York.  Adriana and I decided to bypass the flight to Washington, D.C. and go straight from New York to Montreal.  Easier said than done.  After battles with airline staff to not put our luggage in the plane going to D.C., we set off to find the Air Canada terminal in JFK...and found that we had to take a taxi to LaGuardia.  Just missing a morning flight, we got our tickets changed to leave at 3:45, and we arrived in Montreal about 40 minutes earlier than the girls who continued on to D.C.

Sick from so much flying, my head lolled on Rashed's shoulder in the back of Jose and Adriana's car while I listened to Adriana talk excitedly about our wonderful Hajj experience.  As I explained in the beginning, I didn't quite share her enthusiasm at that moment.  But I've felt a quiet inner enthusiasm in the days after our return.  My task now is to keep a path open to that spot where I feel the peace and clarity of the Rawdah, to not let my heart be cluttered with the old worries and diversions.  But if it does, I won't lose hope.  Along the way, I've learned some tools to polish my heart, like more constant prayer, seeking God's forgiveness, and even remembering how close I felt to God in the days after my return from Hajj.  God willing, if I continue to strive towards God, God will draw closer to me.  I know that this is possible.  And it is my hope that those of you reading my account will have faith that "this is in your power, my friend."

May God's peace, mercy, and blessings be with you.

Kathryn M.K. Chowdhury
Dhu 'l-Hijja 1426 / January 2006
Montreal