“Just landed,” a text from my son, as we got off the exit for Kennedy Airport. Alhamdulillah! I clutched the bouquet of flowers—a far cry from the garlands of roses that every one of the twenty-plus relatives drapes around a Hajji walking off the plane at airports in Pakistan. I had hurriedly picked up the bouquet from the corner deli in Manhattan as I rushed to pick up the Zip car. I was making an effort to make his coming home as close to the ceremonial welcome I remembered as a child. You know what it is like when you are waiting against the railing at the Arrivals hall of the airport. And then he emerged, smiling. For a second I didn’t recognize him with his shiny, bald head. Funny how the shape of the head emerges with all that curly tuft gone. Aaaah that hug! Mommie tippy toe-ing to reach up to the child she once carried, taking in his spiritual energy, and relishing that glow on his face.
One hour isn’t enough to get all the Hajj details as we drove him home from the airport. “So, tell us. How was it?” What a hollow question to ask a Hajji? It would take hours and deep reflection for a hajji to answer this question. And only someone who has done the hajj can appreciate that there is no one-liner response to this question, as in, ‘great’, ‘wonderful’. And you never say, ‘It was so much fun’. How does one explain a spiritual experience? Perhaps it will be doled out piece-meal at opportune moments, or maybe never. In all likelihood, it will remain internalized, manifesting itself in subtle changes in attitude, behavior and relationships. So how does a hajji answer this question? They resort to relating travel anecdotes. Recognizing that, I shifted the focus of my question.
“Tell me about Muzdalifa.” This is the camping ground where pilgrims spend the night in the open.
“It wasn’t how you described it.”
How had I described it. A serene night under the stars, so quiet and dark that the only sight was the silhouettes of people stooping to gather pebbles, and the only sound that of the pebbles, ‘tick, tick, tick’. The most sublime of nights, when all one does is take in the quiet night and commune with God.
“How so?” I asked.
Their bus had dropped them at a fenced-in lot. They had to stay within the confines of the fence. The sounds they heard was that of buses pulling up—making the sounds buses make—one after the other, all night, throughout the night, bus after bus, dropping off pilgrims, who wandered noisily, calling out to their compatriots, trying to locate their fenced in lot. Close to dawn, an hour before they were to depart, he decided to use the facilities—it was going to be a long drive to nearby Mina.
Before I continue with the incident at the facilities, let me switch into another bathroom story. On his one hour plus trek from Mecca to Mina—they had decided to walk rather than take the bus and sit in traffic for six hours—people were fainting on the roadside. As he and his friends formed a human shield around the fainted to give them air, they learned that these people who were severely dehydrated and depleted of energy, had opted not to drink fluids or eat, so that they wouldn’t have to deal with bathrooms. It was a scorching 100 degrees F under a blazing sun.
Back to the facilities in Muzdalifa. He waited in line for 45 minutes. At that point, people started getting impatient, some tried to cut the line angering the others, a few did get angry, and there were moments when it seemed it would get worse. He found himself wondering, ‘what is the point of this?’, as in what is the point of staying out in the open in Muzdalifa? And then it clicked: This is exactly the point. You have just come from Arafat, where you stood before God, raised your hands, asked for forgiveness and promised to overcome your shortcomings and be a better person. And now you are being put to the test. Muzdalifa is a testing ground. See how soon, within hours, you have gone back to your old ways—impatience, anger, fighting. That’s the point of it.