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For an American pilgrim in Saudi Arabia, a discovery of fellowship

Religion and BeliefHajjSaudi ArabiaTrips and VacationsTravelSeptember 11, 2001 AttacksIrfan Khan

Joining Muslim faithful from around the globe, and sharing in the rituals of ages, brings joy—and reflection.

In Mecca, a crush of Muslims can be seen circling the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, in the early morning. (Rubaina Azhar / Los Angeles Times)

In Mecca, a crush of Muslims can be seen circling the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, in the early morning. (Rubaina Azhar / Los Angeles Times)

November 5, 2011

A first-person account of a pilgrimage to Mecca

We arrived in Mecca near dawn last November, shortly before Fajr, the first prayer of the day.

Although the hajj pilgrimage was not yet officially underway, the crowds were so thick that we could not even enter the Grand Mosque.

So I made my first prayer in Mecca outside the Abraj al Bayt shopping mall in front of one of the mosque’s gates. Here I was at age 39 prostrate in Islam’s holiest city, in the shadow of the world’s largest clock and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

For some time I had pressed my parents—both hajj veterans—to make the journey with me. I try to observe my faith. But it’s not always easy being a Muslim in America. A year ago, I was keenly feeling the hostility toward members of my religion.

A taxi driver in New York (the city of my birth) was repeatedly stabbed after he told a passenger he was a Muslim. An Islamic center planned near the site of the World Trade Center towers met with protest. A Florida pastor threatened to burn copies of Islam’s holiest book, the Koran.

My whole life I thought it must be easier to practice Islam in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of my religion. Now I was here, with my parents and my younger sister, to fulfill a once-in-a-lifetime requirement for all Muslims who can afford it.

Before us the throngs exiting the mosque made it impossible to enter. Electronic signs with red-slashed circles indicated no one else would be admitted for some time. We returned to our hotel to take showers and to eat. I was eager to perform my first umrah, a series of rituals that includes circling the Kaaba—the cube-shaped structure that sits in the center of the mosque—seven times.

My first glimpse of the Kaaba

The exterior of the Grand Mosque in Mecca at dawn. (Rubaina Azhar / Los Angeles Times)

The exterior of the Grand Mosque in Mecca at dawn. (Rubaina Azhar / Los Angeles Times)

Muslims pray five times a day toward the building, the holiest site in Islam. The Kaaba is believed to have been first built by the prophet Adam, and then later rebuilt by the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael).

After so many years of praying toward the Kaaba, the yearning to see it with my own eyes was intense.

We again approached the Grand Mosque. The electronic signs displayed green arrows, so we entered. The closer we got to the King Abdul Aziz Gate, the more congested it became. I hooked one arm in my mother’s to keep from getting separated. My sister and father stayed close.

And then, through a row of pillars, I saw a glimpse of black draping. “Dhikya!” I cried to my mom in Urdu: “It is seen!” Another two steps and I could make out a corner. I pulled my mom and grasped my sister’s arm, yanking them closer to the structure that I was compelled to touch.

A neon green light on one side of the mosque marks the beginning of each circuit, a GO signal that made me think of the green light in “The Great Gatsby,” a symbol of unrelenting yearning.

We completed our first circuit, steadily edging our way in closer and closer to the cube. Halfway through the second circuit, my mother said the crowd was too much. She wanted to pull back. The Kaaba was within maybe 10 feet. I broke apart to continue. Within another circuit, I was close enough to place my right palm squarely on the eastern wall. I felt ... relief.

I backed away to keep going at a more contemplative pace. My mother had painstakingly copied prayers in Arabic that could be said during specific rounds of the ritual, and I dutifully read those in my first umrah. But I am not fluent in Arabic; even with a translation, I find myself focusing on the pronunciation of the words rather than their meaning.

A hajj prayer is a different prayer

Wearing white robes and often adding bits of color so family members can find one another, millions of pilgrims walk counterclockwise around the Kaaba—the holiest site in Islam—seven times, in ever-tightening circles. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / December 14, 2007)

Wearing white robes and often adding bits of color so family members can find one another, millions of pilgrims walk counterclockwise around the Kaaba—the holiest site in Islam—seven times, in ever-tightening circles. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / December 14, 2007)

For hajj, I simply prayed from the heart. It was a liberating experience for me, to not be mandated to say such and such words at such and such time. The five daily prayers that Muslims are required to make are well-structured. You can change up what verses of the Koran you recite in some parts, but there’s not otherwise a whole lot of room for variation. Hajj offered an opportunity for freestyle praying, something I had never done before at such length, or with such joy. I literally counted all the blessings in my life and found myself tearing with happiness, and gratefulness, over and over again.

It is said every prayer recited within the Grand Mosque is worth 100,000 times a regular prayer. I have missed a lot of prayers in my life, so that type of extra credit was a welcome makeup option.

My sister and I made a game on our trip of figuring out a Muslim woman’s country of origin by identifying the flag on her hijab. Many travel groups gave members such hijabs to help them stay together and find each other. Turkey, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Mauritania, Canada, Brazil—we must have spotted the flags of more than 40 countries by trip’s end. That diversity made me feel a part of the Muslim ummah, or community, in a way that I have never experienced before.

It is said every prayer recited within the Grand Mosque is worth 100,000 times a regular prayer.

Not all the surprises were good ones. I was taken aback during some circuits by the disrespect pilgrims showed for others and the mosque. Some spit phlegm or date pits on the floor.

My sister, at one point, was run over by a child pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair. There is a designated wheelchair lane on the second level of the mosque and older pilgrims can hire Saudi youngsters to push their wheelchairs. The faster the youngsters go, the faster they can move on to another client, so crossing the wheelchair lane is a bit like a living version of the 1980s video game Frogger.

The biggest surprise during my circuits of the Kaaba was that men and women prayed side by side during the five daily prayers. Traditionally, men and women are segregated in prayer, but in the Grand Mosque, when the time of prayer arrives, everyone just prays wherever they are standing at that moment.

I would have thought praying next to a man would be, at least symbolically, an equalizing experience, but in truth, I found it awkward. It’s hard to shed so many years of habit, I suppose. And let’s be honest: Men’s body odor is worse than women’s. During hajj, one has to adopt a state of purity called ihram. As some interpret it, that means not wearing any deodorant.

After the seven circuits of the Kaaba are made, pilgrims head to a part of the Grand Mosque called the masaa. The masaa connects two small mountains, Safa and Marwa.

For me and many other Muslim women, this part of hajj, called sa’ee, holds special meaning. It is a commemoration of motherhood and of a woman’s devotion to her family and God. In sa’ee, pilgrims walk/run seven times between the mountains in remembrance of Hajira, Ibrahim’s second wife and the mother of his first son, Ismail. At God’s command, Muslims believe Ibrahim left Hajira and the infant Ismail in the desert. When Hajira ran out of drinking water, she ran between the two mountains in search of more. Again and again and again. A total of seven times. At the end of her last circuit, as her son lay dying, the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) appeared before her and stamped his foot on the ground. On that spot, the miraculous well of Zamzam sprang and Hajira and Ismail were spared death. Hajira’s devotion to her child and her faith in God were rewarded.

As I retraced Hajira’s steps with my own mother, it was hard not to think of the sacrifices a woman makes for her children.

At the crux of the pilgrimage

The day spent in prayer in the desert plain of Arafat is considered the crux of the hajj pilgrimage. (Rubaina Azhar / Los Angeles Times)

The day spent in prayer in the desert plain is considered the crux of the hajj pilgrimage. (Rubaina Azhar / Los Angeles Times)

At the core of the hajj pilgrimage is a day spent in Arafat.

We arrived in the desert plain in the early morning. Our travel group had arranged for tents so we did not have to bear the full heat as so many other pilgrims did. Never in my life had I spent an entire day in prayer. It was humbling to see so many worshipers break down in tears as they sought God’s guidance and mercy. More than once that day I found myself gasping for air as the weight of the day (and yes, the heat) bore down on me.

Prayer had never been so emotionally draining for me. There was no going-through-the-motions at Arafat. I meant my prayers. I felt them.

We then headed out for Muzdalifah, which is essentially a giant dirt field, in the late evening. We would be spending the night outside. My family staked out a “camping” spot near a tree that wasn’t too far from our travel bus or the restrooms. I didn’t have a tent, or a sleeping bag, just a plastic mat between me and the rocky floor. And even though the diesel fumes from the buses and the perpetual flying dust forced me to put a surgical mask on for easier breathing, I found myself having a solid night’s rest. Sheer exhaustion certainly played a role, but a sense of peace that comes from feeling you’re part of an incredible tradition did more.

“On today’s agenda: Stoning the devil.”

Muslims throw stones at pillars symbolic of the devil in Mina. Pilgrims throw the pebbles, seven at a time, at the pillars on different days to demonstrate their rejection of evil. (Rubaina Azhar / Los Angeles Times)

Muslims throw stones at pillars symbolic of the devil in Mina. Pilgrims throw the pebbles, seven at a time, at the pillars on different days to demonstrate their rejection of evil. (Rubaina Azhar / Los Angeles Times)

After the morning Fajr prayer, my sister and I gathered some 300 pebbles for ourselves and our parents for the next series of hajj rituals, the stoning of three pillars in Mina. The pillars are supposed to be symbolic of the devil, and pilgrims throw the pebbles, seven at a time, at the pillars on different days to demonstrate their rejection of Shaithan. Admittedly, this was one of my favorite parts of hajj. My sister at one point pelted her rock with such zeal that a fellow pilgrim commented: “You got him in the eye!”

In capturing some video of pilgrims throwing stones, I found myself thinking that non-Muslims would probably see the jamarah ritual as primitive. Who cares? I was again living a part of Islamic tradition, and frankly, a fun one. I loved looking at my itinerary on those days and thinking, “On today’s agenda: Stoning the devil.”

From Mina we returned to Mecca to make our final circuits around the Kaaba, the tawaaf-al-wada, or farewell tawaaf. There was a sense of relief to these circuits, even a casualness, that hadn’t been evident before.

A number of Muslim couples choose to perform hajj for their honeymoon. On the farewell tawaaf, I saw numerous young men and women holding hands as their made their circuits. Other husbands were more protective of their wives, standing behind them and creating a barrier against others with their embracing arms. I noticed older husbands taking their wives by their elbows in a gentle, connective way. These sort of blatant shows of affection are rare in my parents’ South Asian immigrant community, and I’d wager it’s not the image most in the West have of Muslims making hajj. It made me jealous that my own husband had to stay behind in California with our two young children while I embarked on the pilgrimage. But, God willing, I will be able to return to Saudi Arabia with those three members of my family someday.

America is my home. I’m not interested in moving to Saudi Arabia or any other Muslim country. But I’m grateful to have felt, because of the godsend journey of hajj, a part of global Islam.

This year’s hajj started Friday. It took me a year to write about my journey. Part of that was because I wanted some perspective, part was difficulty in putting down the experience in print. And part of it was fear that my story could be used to ridicule and deride Islam, to stoke more anti-Muslim sentiment.

I don’t want that.

I am proud to be a Muslim. And I want others, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to know what an amazing experience hajj is. Ultimately, that’s what compelled me to write.

It’s hard to practice all the required tenets of Islam. Hajj didn’t change that. But it did change my desire to observe my faith, in a deeper, more heartfelt way.

Rubaina Azhar is an assistant copy chief at the Los Angeles Times, where she has worked for 13 years.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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