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Saturday, October 24, 2009

[ALOCHONA] A good Read: An American’s journey to Mecca (Hajj) By Farooq Ahmed

An American's journey to Mecca

By Farooq Ahmed

Published: October 24 2009 00:49

Financial Times


From the peak of Mount Arafat, the midday haze softened the Hijaz Mountains and revealed the severe beauty of the land surrounding Islam's holiest city. For the briefest moment, the thousands of ­pilgrims around me – who were praying, reading from the Koran and shielding themselves from the unyielding sun – receded. I could convince myself that I stood alone atop this squat, inelegant mountain where the prophet of Islam delivered his final sermon 1,400 years ago. Sweat stung my eyes. Its odour permeated the two white cloths wrapped around me. I blinked, and the moment passed.


Such private flashes were rare on a pilgrimage shared with more than three million people from around the world. Also, in this land where I most certainly was his keeper, I had lost my younger brother. Our father, waiting for us back at the tent, would not be pleased.


. . .


Muslims are required to travel to Mecca in the kingdom of Saudi ­Arabia to perform hajj at least once, if they reasonably can. The pilgrimage, which begins next month, is the single largest gathering on the planet.


On the spectrum of piety, I fall decidedly left of centre. And although I would never win a "World's Best Muslim" award – for what he did as a law student on behalf of Guantánamo inmates, my brother is a far better candidate – I joined him, our more devout parents and a beloved uncle to undertake what I had been assured would be a life-changing trip.


I grew up not far from the geographic centre of the continental US, and performing the pilgrimage seemed untenable then. Living in New York as an adult, it seemed unwarranted, perhaps unnecessary. Still, the descriptions I read of hajj from sources as varied as Ibn Batuta, the Arabian explorer who journeyed from western Africa to China in the 14th century, and Malcolm X, primed me for the experience. When the opportunity came, I took it.


Our hajj group consisted primarily of middle-aged, upper-middle-class South Asian Americans like ourselves: that is to say, Indian and Pakistani doctors and engineers. Most had spent hefty sums of money securing "super deluxe" reservations guaranteeing well-appointed hotels and tents, comfortable travel and sanitised meals, thus ensuring minimal interaction with the supplicating masses – a Disneyland version of a pilgrimage. It sounded like the kind of spiritual journey that I could handle. Then my brother Abel (not his real name) decided to run off on our second day in the Hijaz mountains.


When I last saw him, we had been ascending Mount Arafat. As on most of our hikes, I went first, carving a path through pilgrims prostrating themselves on precarious ledges. About three-quarters of the way up, I turned to find that Abel had been swept away in the flood of people that washed over every crag of the mountain. I soldiered on, hoping that a higher vantage point would help me find him.


A white obelisk jutted from the peak. In a flowing script the marker commemorates the site of Mohammed's last sermon. It is an unusual tribute from the Saudi government, which tends not to memorialise historic events or ­locations, fearful of encouraging idolatry. I stood and shaded my eyes in search of Abel. It was futile: spilling into the chalky valley, every man as far as one could see was dressed ­identically – as a shepherd.


Before hajj begins, pilgrims enter a state of ritual purity called ihram. To signify this, men wear two towel-length strips of unstitched white cotton cloth. One wraps around the waist and the other across the torso. Women are free to wear whatever style of modest attire and headscarf they choose. (A word to future male hajjis: if you are, like me, blessed with a robust carriage, I suggest you assume a wide stance before wrapping the ihram cloths around you. No one likes chafing.)


This humble uniform obliterates wealth and class distinctions, and any inkling of the significance of self. Hajj's dual purposes are to submit yourself to God and cleanse your sins by enacting Abraham's torment. Ihram is a key ingredient. It also, however, meant that Abel would stay lost. He dissolved into a sea of white cotton and dark hair: shepherds tending shepherds. Or in my case, shepherd allowing fellow shepherd of dubious navigational skills to wander off.


Abel and I had spent the day, the second of the three most important days of the pilgrimage, wandering the broad Plain of Arafat, which is about 15km south-east of Mecca. Pilgrims rest in this sandy strip of land amid the Hijaz range from sunrise to sunset, fasting in an all-day vigil.


Earlier that day, we had come across an elder from the subcontinent. He was lean, with a face calcified in stubble. Many pilgrims come to perform the ritual as their final living act, to wash away their sins and then succumb, the heat hastening their way. We had followed the man towards Mount Arafat, and as I clambered down the mountain in search of Abel, I passed him as he began an improbable ascent. A slip of the foot and hundreds would come crashing down.


. . .


The Hijaz Mountains run parallel to the Red Sea and cordon off Mecca from the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. Like the plains of the American midwest, where we were raised, it was not hard to imagine religion taking hold here. Both lands' austerity inspires survivalist notions; the sky is vast, often sombre and unmarred by clouds.


Mecca has been home to a pilgrimage in one way or another since before Mohammed's birth – as far back as the second millennium BC. Pilgrims face myriad obstacles and small triumphs as they complete the rites, which swallow you in ancient stories that link Islam and the ancient struggle for survival in this desiccated country: Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son; Hagar's desperate search for water; Abraham's confrontation with the Devil. As it is now performed, hajj dates from Mohammed's farewell pilgrimage to Mecca, three months before his death in 632AD in Medina.


I neared our gated compound and ran into Wessam, our tour group's guide. An Australian of Lebanese descent, the 25-year-old had come to the kingdom to become an imam. Like all effective preachers I've heard, Wessam had a plaintive tone to his voice. In his serious way, he told me that he hadn't seen Abel in quite a while. He then scuttled off to plan our night in Muzdalifah, where we would sleep under the stars.


I made my way to our tent – as fine a use of a wedding tent for a non-nuptial function as I've seen – and parted the curtains that served as a doorway. Air-conditioned and full of men in ihram, it could have passed for the vestibule of a hamam. There, on a cushioned bench, Abel dangled his spindly legs.


. . .


Although my first hajj, this trip to Mecca was my third. As most travellers do, my family flew into the Red Sea port city of Jeddah. (Mecca has no commercial airport.) As we left the terminal, a small army of men approached, among them chain-smoking Saudis who handed out ­pamphlets informing pilgrims of the easiest way to perform hajj – but also warned against "innovations," a word often used by the Sunni Saudi religious authorities to designate the alternative practices of Shias.


On the buses to Mecca, Wessam led us through the ­Talbiya, a chant that signals a pilgrim's arrival in the holy land. "I respond to Your call Lord, and I am obedient to Your command." Our coach filled with the prayer as night fell.


Two sites have always captivated me on the hour-long drive from Jeddah to Mecca: the first is a simple green-and-white traffic sign. As you approach the holy city, it directs non-Muslims towards a slip road with a firm exhortation: "Non-Muslims Exit Here." The other site is more picturesque: a stone sculpture of an open Koran straddles the highway. ­Pilgrims must pass under it to enter or leave the city. At night, when floodlights illuminate the petrified pages and the arid landscape has sufficiently numbed you, the incandescent book becomes a revelation in itself. The dual messages of these two signposts, the authoritarian and the inviting, seem to summarise the state of modern Muslim life.


. . .


Wessam encouraged us to perform the first of our rites, known as the entry tawaf, before dawn broke and the grand mosque filled. Each tawaf consists of making seven anticlockwise circuits around the Kaaba, the shrouded, four-storey-high cuboidal building towards which Muslims pray. Circumambulation as prayer.


Even at that early hour, scores of worshippers packed the streets in and around Masjid al-Haram, the Sacred Mosque that surrounds the Kaaba. Fluorescent stalls sold shawarma wraps by the fistful and embroidered prayer rugs flew from ad hoc kiosks. Lamppost signs advertised a leading anti-cold medicine and wished us a successful hajj.


As spectacular as the mosque is, it is dwarfed by the seven neck-wrenchingly tall towers of the Abraj al-Bait complex – a gargantuan high-end hotel/shopping mall/apartment building that has sprung up directly across the courtyard in the past few years. It stands on the site of a historic Ottoman-era fortress, which was – in keeping with Saudi tradition – razed.


We followed Wessam into the mosque, depositing our sandals in plastic shopping bags. Occasionally, a shout of "hajji tarik!" broke through the muffled commotion of worship. It was the most common expression I heard during the ­pilgrimage, spoken even by those who knew little Arabic. It's a useful phrase, communicating universal sentiments such as: "Hajji, please clear a path!" and "You're crushing my toes!"


Pressed tightly against my brother and a burly man of indecipherable ethnicity, we took short steps, nearly in unison, nearly involuntarily. Although many Muslims (including Salman Rushdie) may be unhappy to hear it, performing the rites of hajj reminded me of the end of Midnight's Children, when the protagonist Saleem Sinai is trampled and turned into dust. Saleem transforms from an individual agent in history to the physical soil of his country, and during hajj, the unavoidable interactions with other pilgrims force you to become not a part of the Muslim ummah, or community, but to be the ummah.


Into our fourth lap, a Pakistani auntie fainted and collapsed to the floor. I dug my feet into the tiles and tried to prevent others from trampling her, but the crowd carried me along like a pebble in a river. Somehow, the mass of pilgrims broke around the crumpled woman like a stream does for a boulder. The next time we circled round, she was gone. An oft repeated phrase about hajj scurried through my head: "Indeed, along with hardship comes ease."


. . .


Between the rites of hajj and the five daily prayers, Abel and I decided to visit the Abraj Al-Bait towers. The wearing of ihram doesn't preclude conspicuous consumption, and yet if there is anything that belies the purpose of hajj, it is this complex, where a one-room studio during the pilgrimage can rent for more than £90,000 – per week.


The glass and tile shopping mall was empty – blissfully empty. And cold – blissfully air-conditioned.


I was eager to check out Abraj al-Bait's third-floor food court, which was supposedly themed on the travels of Ibn Batuta. As we ascended the escalators, a group of African women, barefoot in navy and spinach-coloured gowns and clearly unfamiliar with the sharp, toothy steps, attempted a descent. They clutched the side rails and were dragged on to the treads. They crouched in a surfing pose and tried to ride the escalator as if it were a funhouse floor, until they finally sat down. Noticing their distress, a guard came over and stopped the intimidating contraption. At this point, the women, laughing among themselves, stood and walked down.


Abraj al-Bait clearly wasn't attracting the right customers. Pilgrims who had spent their savings to take this "life-changing trip" couldn't afford Ray-Bans that cost a month's wages.


In the food court, which Abel and I had pictured as one mouthwateringly comprehensive buffet, we ate halal Hardee's roast beef sandwiches and curly fries.


. . .


On the evening Abel was lost, then found, the group drove to Muzdalifah. Mohammed slept there before his caravan travelled to Mina, a tent city hemmed in by coarse mountains. There we'd be re-enacting Mohammed's re-enactment of Abraham's confrontation with the Devil, and celebrating Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice.


Muzdalifah felt like the world's largest refugee camp. Bare fluorescent bulbs illuminated clusters of pilgrims, largely segregated by nationality. Each tribe found a spot to camp for the night, under an overpass or out on the plain, encircled by vehicles like wagons on a western trail. Volunteers unloaded free bottles of water and snacks from flatbed trucks, and a repurposed ice-cream van sold steaming cups of tea.


This devoted subset of the Muslim world, middle-aged or older, sinewy from hard labour or plump with western excesses, spent the night praying and chatting, napping and discussing the final few days ahead. Under charcoal skies, we collected the pebbles we would need in Mina.


Lying down, we stared at the moon. Beside me, Abel quickly fell asleep and our uncle commenced his snoring. I covered myself with a stiff blanket to safeguard against the wintry desert night and tried to block out the cacophony of vehicles headed back to Mecca or on to Mina.


At the ­Jamrah, a three-storey, hangar-like construction with M.C. Escher-esque elevated pathways, broad columns represent the Devil. And so we'd pelt them with stones. This rite re-enacts Abraham's resistance to the Devil, who questioned God's command to the prophet to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. Afterwards, we would be reborn and cleansed of sin. Our heads would be shaved (women need only cut a lock of their hair) and we would be liberated from ihram.


. . .


Clutching a broom handle with our group's number affixed to the top, Wessam led our charge into the complex like some Old Testament zealot. Wall signs written in the universal language of the comic strip detailed what to do in an emergency. Big red "X"s slashed through images of hajjis waving their arms in panic.


The complex reverberated with a deafening sound as ­pilgrims hurled their pebbles. These were funnelled into a pit somewhere in the complex's bowels; with their fleeting purpose served, they would be trucked the 3km back to Muzdalifah. I tried to focus on the ritual's historical symbolism rather than its Sisyphean qualities.


We still had to complete two days of stone-throwing and 14 circles around the Kaaba, but a quick haircut and we'd again be in familiar attire (in my case: jeans, a grey tunic purchased in Medina and trainers). Back in our tent, a Pakistani-born surgeon from Canada offered to use his beard-trimmer on me. I accepted, although he couldn't sculpt the faux-hawk I requested. What do they teach surgeons in Canada?


. . .


It was hard to say when exactly I became sick, but a fever swept through me on the final night of stone-throwing. That day also happened to be my birthday. My slightly hypochondriac mother, a physician, whipped out antibiotics like a trained gunslinger. I crawled under several layers of blankets in our tent in Mina. By morning, my fever had broken, and Abel had slayed the Devil on my behalf.


On our final day of hajj, we returned to Mecca to walk around the Kaaba a final seven times. Still worn down by illness, I chose a path far from the inner courtyard, and Abel came dutifully along.


We happened into a lane reserved for wheelchair-bound pilgrims. Hajj at times seemed like a state employment programme for young Saudi men and teenagers, and several of them chatted as they wheeled elderly hajjis. No sooner had I finished praying to the Lord to alleviate any further difficulties, than one of these "helpers" began jamming my heel with his wheelchair-bound charge, taking a sliver of my skin.


Unable to divert the teenager's attention from his conversation, or say more than "Hajji tarik!" in Arabic, I vented my frustration by scowling at the shrivelled woman in the chair. She didn't appreciate the un-ihramic treatment, and I grabbed Abel by the arm and sped ahead.


Hajj takes a toll on pilgrims. The year before our pilgrimage, a close family friend died from a suspected pulmonary embolism the morning after he returned. On our flight home, a returning hajji seated in my row, who looked oddly like Ronald Reagan, passed out from exhaustion. Flight attendants told me that nearly every post-hajj flight has at least one such case. He and his wife were bumped up to first class.


Spiritually, though, it is hard to describe the power of witnessing an extraordinarily diverse congregation who, with little obvious external direction, know where to be and what to do day after day, as though part of some organic mass migration. It was seductive, even for someone who lives in a big, densely populated city and considers himself relatively unaffected by the lure of organised religion.


Recent research by Ijaz Khwaja at the Harvard Kennedy School has demonstrated that returned hajjis, while often more orthodox in their practice, are more tolerant of people from other religions and believe that Muslims and non-Muslims can live together harmoniously.


If I gained anything from my hajj, aside from a minor infection, it was a similar sense of tolerance – towards those people, in this case, with whom I share a religion. Along with hardship comes ease…


Farooq Ahmed is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York



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