I had two people from afar think of me in the past few days enough to tell me about it - Sis. Scorp and Koonj, and it made me feel a bit awestruck and wondering at the significance - thanks and thanks to Allah swt.
As hajj season is coming to a close, I found myself reflecting on my own experience.
I went for hajj in 1999 by the grace of Allah swt. I think that year it was late February to early March or so. I was totally surprised to be going because I didn't have the money to go. However, for some reason, some people I knew up in British Columbia said I should make intention to go for hajj and then if Allah swt willed it, it would happen. I had just graduated from university in December and was working as a substitute teacher and night shift at an assembly line. And I got a call that someone in Dubai had made an anonymous donation to send someone for hajj and the caravan decided I should go.
I had converted in 1994. It had been about 4 1/2 years since I converted and in many ways I still felt like a newbie and an outsider. It had taken me many months just to learn to pray because I didn't have much direct contact with other Muslims to show me and I was unsure about some of the directions I had found and about pronunciations, etc. So I had no idea what to expect in going for hajj - I hadn't read or prepared about what I would be doing and I had never even been anywhere that I needed a passport and vaccinations for.
My family was so worried - they thought something horrible would happen to me because it was the middle east, and I would never come back. I wasn't worried about people doing something to me, but I knew hajj was an obligation and an invitation and I hoped I could be successful at it.
So I went - I few to JFK where I met up with the American caravan and we then flew to Athens. There I made sure to buy something in the airport so I could get Greek coins to bring back to my dad. There I first saw some hajis putting on their ihram. From Athens it was on to Jeddah where I met with the West Canadian caravan that I would actually be rooming with because I had met some of the ladies before. Jeddah was at night and it had no walls but the tent ceilings were like those of Denver International Airport. And they served Pepsi. They took our bags and passports and you just hoped you saw them again. The security people acted happy to see American passports, wanting to see what an American Muslim was, some kind of paradox to their thinking. But the body-searching women in their black abayahs were lunching and waved us through much to my relief.
We started in Medina. What I remember now is spending a lot of time with a few women close to my age who had been on hajj before and had decided to take me under their wings, much to my gratitude because I would've been totally lost without it. We hardly slept. We were within walking distance of Masjid ul Nabiy and walked there many times throughout the day for the prayers and to nearby places for ziarat. I had so much information to take in because I was at that time ignorant about most of the holy places. We would get up in the middle of the night to go there for the night prayer and it was truly beautiful. The room would get so packed that you didn't think anyone else could possibly fit. But it was incredibly peaceful in Medina. It was very beautiful somehow especially in and around the Prophet's (saw) Mosque; something in the air that permeated the soul was beautiful there. At a certain time of day they opened part of the masjid normally closed to women and it would become a crushing horde as they tried to get closer to the Prophet (saw), locked behind a cage, and then it would close again.
Iranian ladies would sometimes see us and recognize us by our turbahs and stand around us while we prayed so no one took them, and the Iranians also put together a massive crowd reciting Dua Kumayl on the Thursday night in the plaza by the Mosque. It stopped all traffic. The Saudi police were there in riot gear but everyone just participated or watched and then we disbursed.
Behind the Masjid were complex alleys of shops that went on for a seemingly endless distance, and at times I accompanied those seeking the obligatory souvenirs to take back home like dates, prayer beads, prayer rugs, key chains, perfumes, abayas, and so on. I hadn't saved money to buy stuff, I hadn't even thought about it because I didn't have any Muslims to bring back souvenirs to, but someone in our caravan stuffed 400 riyals in my hand so I could buy things too. In any store there or in Mecca, they wanted to know where you were from and when they found out they expected you to have lots and lots of money. The gold sellers always haggled prices by typing in numbers in a calculator - then the buyer would hit clear and type in a new number, and so on back and forth until they reached a deal - thus bypassing language barriers. Money exchanges were on many corners and if you needed to exchange money you got better deals with large bills.
Janatul Baqi was a giant caged square where pigeons roamed amongst broken, unmarked stubs of pillars that had once been gravemarkers. Those of Imam Sadiq (as) and others were pointed out to me, but nothing distinguished them aside from a square of stones around them to separate them from some of the rest.
I ate my first and only halal Burger King there. Honestly, it wasn't very impressive.
Then at some point we moved on to performing hajj - we entered ihram and traveled overnight to Mecca. I remember the bus stopping and Saudis coming on and handing out food packages to every passenger - I tasted Bobeye milk (Popeye) - it wasn't refrigerated but I laughed to myself at seeing Popeye without the P.
Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik. Labbaik, La Shareek Laka, Labbaik. Innal Hamdah, Wan Nematah, Laka wal Mulk, La Shareek Laka Labbaik.
Here I am at Thy service O Lord, here I am. Here I am at Thy service and Thou hast no partners. Thine alone is All Praise and All Bounty, and Thine alone is The Sovereignty. Thou hast no partners, here I am.
We chanted it as we approached. In Mecca we were much farther from the Haram than we had been from the Masjid un Nabiy. We were in Azizia and while we could take a very long walk to Mina it had to be cab ride to the Haram. The order of events isn't clear in my mind anymore, but I remember going to the Haram and seeing to Ka'aba for the first time. It was in a sense something ordinary, but to see it with my own eyes was something astounding - I was overwhelmed that I had ended up here from the other side of the world and none of it my own doing, and it made me cry at the sight. Performing Tawaf was actually very difficult - it was extremely crowded and hard to stay with anyone and hard to keep track of where you were and keep count of the number of circumambulations because you were being crushed and pushed and trying to keep in mind what was happening and what it all meant.
I remember being really quite surprised to discover that Safa and Marwa were not mountains but smoothed small hills and under a roof at that. Saiy, walking back and forth between the mountains was physically much easier although still a good distance walk. And it was easy to think of Hagar walking back and forth in the search for water as we too walked back and forth.
The Haram was large and beautiful and inside of it people at times would form small circles and perform recitation of Qur'an as if in competition and we would listen. We prayed sometimes on the roof because there was room nowhere else, and it was oh so beautiful at night. You would find your place to pray and then more and more people would show up and more and more and more and more would come, and then you'd have to move because you were surrounded by men and they would be upset that you were there as a woman in the area they had taken over.
When we went to Muzadalifa we picked up pebbles and put them in little bags - these were little bags that we carried our slippers in everywhere because you had to remove them when entering the mosques, of course, and we also carried little prayer books in them, and a small thin prayer rug with a grass square sewn in for prostration if our mohr was taken or lost, and a few people snuck disposable cameras in them and usually they weren't confiscated when they were searched. I learned about the birds who had stoned the Elephants in the time of Abdullah, the year of the Elephant. These were their stones.
Stoning the Jamarats was perhaps the greatest danger - there were three to stone, symbolizing the temptations of Hagar, Ibrahim, Ishmael. But as you are throwing stones so are countless others, and sometimes someone would be hit and bleed in their Ihram. And the ground was littered with this tiny sharp stones from missed throws and people would step on your feet and your slippers might come off and then you were stepping on these sharp stones. One time that happened to me and I fell forward. As I did so I instinctively reached out in front of me. That was a big mistake I guess, because in front of me was a white-robed man in a long long beard who turned around and yelled at me furiously with pure hatred in his face because I had touched him. It was probably good I had no idea what he said, I was just totally stunned by his behavior. It didn't belong in the world of ihram, the world of dying and death and entering the real life. In Mina we stayed in large tents with spring bunk beds and fans and desert sand floors. We wore pink ribbons pinned to the tops of our hijabs to try to identify us in our caravan so we could find one another. The paths in Mina were tiny because every spot of Earth along the way overflowed with people who had no tents and just slept on the sand and stone wherever they found a spot - they slept on the garbage dumpsters, everywhere, and there was no spot of earth in sight where a human being was not on it.
I remember noting how skinny the Saudi policemen I saw were. One time, a lady and I had to ask one to hail us a Taxi because none wanted to stop for us because they didn't want to go to Azizia. I remember seeing dark-skinned ladies with scarred faces where they had cuts stripes down their faces. I remember tiny children being sat in the streets to beg and when their little pockets would get full, an adult would appear to empty it and then sit them out again. But a banana offered would be scornfully refused. I remember when we would go somewhere for ziarat as soon as we got any distance away from the Haram or the Masjid un Nabiy, the landscape changed. You would see crumbling buildings and medium brown desert instead of marble and white. We went to a Shia masjid and it was but a mud brick building without any AC or anything to identify it and people went about quietly not wanting to be identified as a Saudi Shia by someone who might care in a bad way. We were turned away and told it would not be opening that day for prayer.
I remember date palms - shorter than I expected, as my mindview of palms had been giant palms of uncharted tropical isles - fields of them that we walked through. And a tiny decaying brick buildling with an uneven sandy floor of 4th Imam (as).
I remember falling asleep after days of sleeping almost not at all; someone woke me to say Qurbani had been done. I hadn't hardly realized it was time for it. We didn't eat much either and I came home at least 10 pounds lighter; for one, everything served was spicy hot, even breakfast, and it could be hard to stomach, but you were just too busy with other things. We took a bus to Arafat and traffic was crazy as ever. In Azizia, someone was hit by a cab in front of our rooms and the cab didn't stop and the man died instantly. The smell of the gas was awful as the gas was different, like it was all unfiltered diesel, but we couldn't cover our noses from it in Ihram. At some point in each day we had speeches of our caravan leaders explaining what was coming, how to do it and what it meant. There were no street lights that were obeyed and buses hit each other and scraped by each other amongst throngs of walking people.
Arafat was hot and open. People covered the mount and the plain in camps. We recited through the night. By certain particular of our recitations, which were amplified by microphone, other Shia including Saudis wandered our way. Staying in Ihram was hard because the bathrooms were difficult - no running water, just whatever bottled water you came with, and the floor was covered in najis water just behind a door and there is no seat, you just squat. In the hotel it was fine because you had running water from a hose and you could lock a door and take your time as you tried to figure out squatting without falling and without getting your clothes wet. But out in the fields of the hajj, it was harder.
We went to some other masjids - Masjid Quba was one name I remember, the masjid where the direction of Qiblah changed, one where it was said all the prophets (sa) had prayed, and what was left of Fatima's (as) masjid (just an open corner in a plaza, really). Each was different from the others.
While there, one hardly thought of the world. A thought of back home didn't enter the mind, not even of family; - that was another universe, a fake one that one had been dreaming in, and here was the real life, where all focus, despite the pressing chaotic life all around you, was on nothing but God. I walked around in awe most of the time of the presence of God and that here I am, Labbayk. There were no expectations, you were just there where God had called and whatever happened was as it was meant to be and not in your control. There was no such thing as human control, that was only an illusion for the other fake universe. Some stranger might see you and say your face was glowing with piety when really it was just lost to the physical world and thunderstruck by all that was, by Allah swt. Patience was called on because things never went as planned, so you just went and received what came and tried to fulfill what was incumbent of you humbly, knowing that success or failure depended on He Whom upon all things depend.
Then it was time to leave, and a plane that was supposed to leave at noon might really leave at midnight. You just showed up and sat in throngs of people and waited. The Greeks always applauded when the plane landed. The people boarding the plane did not pay attention to assigned seats and would fight if someone tried to sit in their assigned seat that was already taken. Poor Indian women carried large jugs of zam zam water on their heads to take home but looked fearful of security letting them through with it. Saudia airlines was another world of airline - it didn't look like the others - we took it for a short flight somewhere and it had those drop down screens which were new to me then and the Saudi flight attendants shocked me for I did not see them in the black abayahs and three-layered burqahs that they lifted up in the stores to see what they were buying as I had seen on the streets; these were wearing makeup so heavy it might be for a stage show and wore electric blue tight-fitting shalwar khameez.
Somehow I ended up back in Denver, and the transport I had reserved home didn't come, the reservation had been lost. So I was going to stay in the airport all night. But then I met a Muslim cab driver from Afghanistan and when he found I was coming back from hajj he was so excited he drove me all the way home from Denver to Colorado Springs for only $45. I gave him some prayer beads and I still remember his name. I owe a lot of gratitude to those who helped bring about my journey and helped me navigate it every step of the way. They are forever special in one's heart.
Then I was back in my parents' house where I was then living and experiencing the most painful withdrawal I ever felt in my life. I felt as if I had been living and now I was in the aluminum foil world, the fake one, the glaring one where nothing made sense and I didn't know how I could stand it. It was physically painful, an asphyxiation. A fish on dry land or a man held under water. And my parents were glad to have me back and I struggled to relate to the pleasure of being back home when it really felt like I had left home, but I had so little to tell them of my experience, especially what had happened inside me, because there was nothing they could relate to or understand, it was beyond anything I could tie it to for them. I had been to another universe that could not be grasped unless one had been there - like a two dimensional being entering a three dimensional vista and then coming back again to the flat world.
And then gradually the flat world felt real again, with a sense of loss of the real 3D reality of what lies beyond. But there is another home, the real one, and you had glimpsed it. And now you are not a convert, you are a Muslim. There is a difference, and now you are different, forever. Why you were blessed to go, and so early, when others were not you may never know and cannot guess, but can only accept and hope for acceptance of your absolutely inadequate answer to the call. All the answer was, and all it could be, was to be open to receive from God and to set aside any notion of self, for there is nothing to give Him and nothing but Him.
God calls, and we turn to Him. Then we turn away and back and away and back, and but for the guidance and mercy of Allah swt we sell our souls to the flat world. The flat aluminum world would shine before our eyes and fill our vision if we would forget that it is flat and fake. We are not made for this world. We are not made for this world. We are not made for this world. But we can destroy ourselves in it, nonetheless. This dreamworld we can die in, or we can wake up.