Today you begin the first day of Hajj. You are in the valley of Mina, the city of tents. This will be your home for the next five days. You are among three million pilgrims, in the largest congregation on earth, performing your once in a lifetime obligation as a Muslim. I wish I were with you. As I pray that your soul be immersed in spiritual fulfillment, I am reflecting on my pilgrimage years ago.
At First Sight
I remember the feeling when I had the first glimpse of the Kaaba. You were there yesterday, in Mecca, at the House of God, the house that Abraham built. I recall the feeling of anticipation as our bus pulled into the streets of Mecca, dotted with pilgrims, a haze of white, distinguished only by bare shoulders. Disembarking, Dad and I quickened our pace, entering the Grand Mosque from one of the 60 entrances. At the door, we removed our shoes, and put them in a bag. I did not want to leave my shoes in the shoe rack, lest they get mixed up, inadvertently. I surged ahead, and felt a tug. A female guard—veiled—pointed at my pocketbook, and in seconds, removed my nail-clipper. I rushed through the aisle. Pilgrims sat on either side, some reading the Quran, some praying, others chatting in whispers, some stretched out taking a nap. And then the Kaaba came into view. Speak to anyone and everyone who has been to the Kaaba, and they will tell you that when you first lay eyes on the Kaaba, it moves you to tears, and you feel the presence of God. This is the place that we face five times in prayer. Thank you ‘God for bringing me here. I stood rooted, relishing the moment, praying for all I could wish for. Son, is that how it was for you? Keep a journal, note down your feelings that are kindling in your beautiful heart. Memorialize this moment.
In the Footsteps of Abraham
I wanted to rush to the Kaaba and touch it. But I had been cautioned to move with the flow, to hold onto Dad’s hand, and be patient. I am sure you know by now that Hajj will teach anybody to be patient. I stepped onto the cool marble floor. I am told that they have cold water pipes running under the surface. And thus began our tawaaf, circumambulating the Kaaba seven times, just as Prophet Abraham, the father of all religions had done when he and Ishmael built the Kaaba. It was crowded and we were skin-to-skin.
People around me were crying, overcome with emotion; people kissing the black cloth draping the Kaaba and imploring God for forgiveness; a man held his elderly mother’s arm; a woman carried her infant; two men carried an infirm on a palanquin, someone pushed a disabled woman on a wheelchair, all moving in a circular motion, keeping pace with the crowd.
“Lets not attempt to kiss the Black Stone—it is just too crowded,” Dad told me. The stone, believed to date back to the time of Adam and Eve, was placed in the corner of the wall of the Kaaba by Prophet Muhammad, after which he kissed the stone. Pilgrims struggle to get to the stone and kiss it, while guards holding sticks, try to keep the crowd in line.
In Hagar’s Footsteps
When you were a child, I remember telling you the story of Hagar. She had been left alone in the desert with baby Ishmael. When the baby started crying of thirst, she went looking for water, running between the hills of Safa and Marwa, back and forth, back and forth, seven times, and then, Allah’s miracle. At the place where the baby was kicking in the sand, suddenly a spring of water gushed. So much water that she had to cry out ‘zam zam’ stop, stop. Soon a town grew around the spring, with Hagar controlling the water rights. We honor Hagar by running in her footsteps, seven times between the hills, just as she had done, commemorating a mother’s struggle. Think of it, three million people honoring a woman, year after year, century after century. I wondered if I ever had a Hagar moment in my mothering. The sleepless nights, perhaps. “Hagar walked barefoot on hot sand in the scorching sun; and I am exhausted walking in an air-conditioned hall,” I said, as we drank from the spring of Zamzam, now in taps. Son, don’t forget to bring back some Zamzam. You know that it has healing qualities.
Come to Prayer
The muezzin’s voice calling the Muslims to prayer at the Kaaba, is the most beautiful sound. When you are sitting under the open sky, with the Kaaba in front of you, the sky has changed color, the day is cooler, the minarets have lighted up against the sky, pigeons flying overhead, and the Muezzin’s calls, Allahu Akbar, the sound echoing off the surrounding hills, you feel the shivers. God is calling me to prayer. People stop moving. The sound permeates through the porticos of the mosque and through your entire being. In an instant, pilgrims fell into formation, shoulder to shoulder. There was no sergeant general calling out orders; the wisdom of crowd prevailed. People from 120 nations, of varying socioeconomic ranks, of every language, saying the same prayer, in the same language, in perfect unison. What an extraordinary demonstration of unity of purpose as they prostrate in submission to the Creator. Interestingly, women were not relegated to the back. The women, regardless of their culture or the place of origin, are not allowed to cover their face during the rituals of Hajj. During the congregational prayers, we ladies had our own space, in the front. Dad and I had agreed on a meeting point. As soon as the prayer was over, people resumed the Tawaaf. The Tawaaf never stops—never. Day or night, rain or shine, winter or summer, people are always circumabulating the Kaaba. As we stepped out of the mosque, I noticed that people who could not find a place in the mosque, had lined up to pray on the streets, their prayer rugs rolled out.
The City of Tents
A bus brought us to Mina. In the outskirts of Mecca, Mina was illuminated by the glow of white tents, rows of thousands of tents. The guard directed Dad to the men’s tent. Opening the flap, I entered the air-conditioned tent, and was greeted with a squeal. Girls will always be girls, long after they have become mothers. “Welcome!” five ladies rose, wobbling over the mattresses. “I have to rush to the Ladies Room.” One of the women escorted me, and pointed to a tent, “That’s the dining tent.” The toilets had no roof. I looked up, not sure if I was trying to spot a turbo plane with Peeping Toms.
Son, what is your tent like? I don’t mean to indulge you in trivia on this spiritual journey, but I hope you will be able to sleep comfortably, and I hope the facilities are adequate. Have you made friends with your tent-mates?
Tomorrow morning you leave for the plain of Arafat. Do make sure that you keep a water bottle on you and replenish your salt intake. Also, keep the umbrella to protect yourself from the blazing sun. Weather in Mount Arafat will reach a high of 108 F and dip to a low of 98 F. Stay hydrated, stay close to friends, and I pray that you find yourself close to God, your Protector. Mommy is praying for you.
With all my love