I just remember the sheer excitement. A combination of nerves and heightened euphoria. I wasn’t sure how I would feel when I stood before the Ka’bah. Holding my husband’s arm tightly as waves of people overtook us; I was in complete amazement. Considering all the history in this same spot, the footsteps of so many that had travelled before by camel, foot and now, many air miles, I was filled with joy and a surreal sense of peace.
This was the centre of Islam, and the Ka’bah signified a place of unity for Muslims irrespective of background or race. I felt incredibly blessed to be among a fraction of the 1.5 billion Muslims who actually get to be here in person.
This was my first time in the Middle East and so the 44-degree heat was a new sensation to me. I was startled by the Muslim world before me. The incredible diversity of people journeying far and wide was a sight to behold. Many came with little other than unyielding determination and what clothes they had on. They walked for hours in the burning heat, some without shoes. The majority them were also much older than ourselves; our plane journey from Beirut was the first time some of them had ever been on a flight! I loved seeing the bright colours of the Malaysian ladies as they interlocked arms to stay together.
Our Hajj journey began at Mina – a neighbourhood in Mecca – where we stayed in huge white tents with massive Persian-style rugs on the floor. Each encampment was divided by country. I was sharing a space with 70 other ladies, a bit like a really massive sleepover, whilst camping in intense heat. There was a really nice atmosphere inside with everyone sharing stories and snacks, the worries from home felt so far away.
When walking through the camp area, I would see crowds of others, mainly from the subcontinent, lying completely exposed on the floor without apparent concern about UV umbrellas or sun cream. I was struck by how content these people were despite the challenging conditions they were in. I learned later that many of them came without a government or tour operator, they were part of a quota of the very poor. It was humbling to see how this pilgrimage was worth so much to them, the discomfort didn’t matter. The conditions we were in were tough but we all learnt to adapt and make the best of it.
The main day of Hajj is at the plains of Arafat, the place in which the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, gave his final sermon. He stressed the equality of all; to treat women well, that there was no superiority of race, only in good action and piety.
All around me I saw men and women deep in supplication, praying for betterment in the world and in themselves. Unfortunately, I became very sick during this time (it was a combination of the heat, too much liquid, and not eating enough). But I was grateful to my husband and family (as well as all the ladies in the tent) for the love and care I received. The journey of Hajj is a social one. Even if you are alone, someone will be there to offer a hand, a cold drink and a smile.
After recovering slightly with a quick cup of tea, we were bused to Muzdalifah, essentially an open location with dusty grounds. Millions (not hyperbole) of us slept on the floor until sunrise. I remember being fascinated by every country’s delegation, corresponding ID cards, flags and coloured bags to ensure no one got lost. It was funny that even throughout my Hajj journey, you could usually tell the British from the other pilgrims; great at queueing and always polite. Many people say they have a great sleep in Muzdalifah, I think it just made me more grateful for the comforts of home.
In the final days, we carried out the Jamaraat (the representation of the stoning of the devil in the story of Abraham). We walked there during the hottest time of the day, the sun was fierce. There was an elderly lady in a wheelchair with us who was clearly baking in the heat, but she remained calm and reserved. As a young person, I was struggling, so I don’t know how she and so many others in her position managed it.
When we first began the long trip to Saudi, my husband and I did not come with our group. We happened to bump into another Brit also on his way to Hajj who had been detained twice at the airport without any charges, lost his group, and missed his flight. Upset about the way he was treated, he spoke of wanting this part of the trip to be over, so, as was customary during Hajj, we took him in as a member of our mini group, comforted him, and gave him some tea.
During the Hajj journey there is such a beautiful sense of Islam in its truest form. Any semblance of hate is incompatible with what Muslims are striving for; collective betterment and the worship of one God. But at the same time, his ordeal brought to life this reality many Muslims face in the pursuit of spirituality.
For me, the journey of Hajj brought to life many home truths. I recall so many lectures before taking the trip on the nature of sacrifice and bearing the struggle with patience. What I did not anticipate was the manner in which these tests would manifest and how my already very comfortable self would regularly wake up to some uncomfortable realities. There are many tests in this life, but it is ultimately our attitudes and actions that will define how we handle them. For all the buzzwords used to describe Hajj, there really isn’t any single adjective that can do it justice. Hajj is hard, Hajj is powerful, Hajj is inspiring, but ultimately, Hajj is change.
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