“I’m going for Hajj this year!” When I announced this decision, my mother who had spent almost three decades in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] as an expat pulled out delicately preserved newspaper cut-outs that she had painstakingly taken from the ‘Islam in Perspective’ columns on Hajj and Umrah by Adel Salahi which had appeared in the Arab News. My husband and I were grateful for the wealth of information collected by her and we spent a month poring over these articles and other books in order to understand our Hajj rituals better. We felt well prepared but curious nevertheless for the rituals seemed fairly simple in print. We reached the Kingdom merely days prior to the 8th of DhulHijjah and proceeded to perform our Umrah as soon as we reached. From the time we arrived we were quick to remind one another to be patient with all sorts of delays and idiosyncrasies of fellow travellers. We couldn’t help but marvel at the neat and organised way the officials dealt with the paperwork based on the country of domicile. Yet unforeseen delays ensued, followed by myriad confusions over finding lost passengers and we had to wait for a long while before we could get our first glimpse of the Haram. Surprisingly we were patient through it all and I reflected why we didn’t exercise this same patience back home. Once at the Haram we drank in with glee the multi-cultural throng of a vibrant tapestry of people all united with a single purpose of total submission on special invitation from their Master. It was truly an international congress the like of which didn’t exist anywhere else in the world with people thronging from every nook and corner talking the same language of worship and devotion.
My good spirits were somewhat marred though when we stopped for our prayers during Tawaf and a group of men angrily ordered ‘Nisa’aWara’a’. A few women and I made our way behind the men folk. Even if Allah had ordered for women to stand behind men I think there is a better way to address the situation than pointing angrily at the women and treating us as secondary in Allah’s Temple of worship for Allah says in the Qur’an that the believing men and women are equal in His Sight. Still I reminded myself to be patient and forgive the ignorant. Thanks to God we finished our Umrah with ease. But at the Haram we were a little jostled to see the police behave in a rude manner at times. We realize it is a tremendous job to control the crowds and we also felt the need for educating the pilgrims.
After a few days, donning the Ihram once again, we started our spiritual adventure of expeditions requiring planning and executions of rituals in a punctual manner. We all set out to Mina for the rituals of Hajj. At Mina our patience was tested in innumerable ways but there were some amongst us who were quick to remind us how blessed we are when compared to the early Muslims who carried out this journey without any of the modern day conveniences. Slowly each of us realized that we were all in this together and how blessed each of us are. Our routine of prayer and supplication instilled a sense of calm and peace amidst the difficulties. We were in a state of a heightened level of tolerance and patience and were keen to forgive others so that God would forgive us our slights as well. However, the most difficult task was to control the flights of our wandering minds and the absent-minded banter of our tongue.
At Mina I was discouraged to see that a toilet for the handicapped had been provided only for the men’s section whereas a high step had to be climbed to use the women’s toilet facility. While I helped an old lady, who had difficulty walking to the toilet I had to explain to many men through gritted teeth why we couldn’t just use the women’s facilities. Why are the women not given the same considerations as men? Would the Prophet ever have advocated this, I fumed inside. “Sabr, Patience,” I reminded myself.
Humbled by our experience at Mina we next made our halt at Arafat on the 9th of DhulHijjah. At Arafat we continued praying and making supplications. One among two million pilgrims standing on the plain of Arafat! The thought was truly awe-inspiring. The day passed by too quickly. We prayed together and in solitude and by the end of the evening we were hugging our fellow travellers. A deep camaraderie had developed amongst all of us. For lunch we were treated by the Arabs to a feast of Camel meat and Mandi Rice for which we were grateful. But as our group had already brought lunch, we had to waste some food for which we felt very guilty.
By nightfall we were at Muzdalifah. I don’t think any of our reading prepared us for the actual experience at Muzdalifah. By the time we reached there the place was teeming with people. We found it difficult to find a suitable spot and in our haste spread our sheets on the hot asphalt road. The heat from the vehicles that went by and the noxious fumes from the combustion made it difficult for me to concentrate on anything. We got up and after much deliberation; found a place on the desert sands albeit near the toilets. It was a bit uncomfortable, but I marvelled at how God was slowly teaching us the true essence of Islam through these series of experiences. We were tired and dozed off to sleep almost immediately. I woke up early to see people reclining amidst debris everywhere. I know that it is difficult to control and manage a large crowd, but the boxes of half eaten food strewn around saddened me very much. I wondered if Saudi officials could not seize this wonderful opportunity to educate pilgrims from across the world on better waste disposal and sanitation practices. For these Saudi officials must be well versed in a lot of other languages as well.
The next day we walked back to Mina from Muzdalifah. It was a motley lot of us who decided to walk, and progress was slow as we looked out for one another. We reached Mina after weaving our way through throngs of pilgrims who were going towards Jamrat. On reaching Mina we set out for Jamrat as well. Surprisingly it was not very crowded and after the stoning ritual we made our way towards the Haram in the blistering heat. Covered walkways provided some shade and as we walked, we were inundated with calls from loved ones. That is when we learnt of the stampede at Mina. “How could it be?” we wondered aloud. We had just come through those very lanes. The stampede proved a great dampener as we started making worried calls to other fellow travellers to ensure their safety. Later we would hear many allegations about mismanagement. We couldn’t really agree to that as we personally felt that the Police in Jamrat were very helpful officials. The only problem we encountered was that they were unable to converse in any language other than Arabic.
After performing our Tawaf of Ifadhah we hailed a taxi to return to Mina. By this time we were used to the taxi drivers ripping our wallets by demanding hundred Saudi Riyals per person for even the short distance from the Haram to Aziziah South. Public transport systems were practically non-existent. We lamented the need for some public conveyance like a metro to places of accommodation nearby. We knew we were blessed to hire a taxi. Many others did not have that luxury having to walk back long distances to reach their places of accommodation. From the Haram, we immediately agreed to a hundred Riyals to return to Mina as I felt very tired. Unfortunately for us the taxi driver took us to King Faisal Bridge at Mina. We were not aware that this Bridge was located a good 3 kilometres away from our place of accommodation. We paid a Hundred Riyals per person and had to walk for 3 kilometres through the night to reach our camp. Police officials could barely help us as we were not conversant in the Arabic language. Finally volunteers from our country helped us understand how we could reach our camp. At that point I wondered if it would help to provide each pilgrim with a small map equipping them with some understanding of where they were headed instead of walking through the maze of roads and bridges in utter confusion.
The next two days of Stoning was uneventful. But I was very concerned to see beggars seated inside the Jamrat building with small children in tow. They would be crushed if someone stepped over them, I thought with worry tugging the anguished strings of my heart. I had heard they were not allowed to sit and yet there were very many of them there.
For us this journey was a most humbling experience wherein we sacrificed the luxuries of life which we had taken so much for granted. When we saw the old and the frail struggling through this, we realised how blessed we were to take this journey while young and healthy. We hope to carry the lessons we have learnt in Hajj with us wherever we go and try to be in our life as we learnt to be during Hajj.
The saddest part of this journey was the crass disregard with which some pilgrims and officials smoked cigarettes in front of women, children and the elderly. If smoking is completely banned on the five days of Hajj, it would be a wonderful message to the world at large and Hajji’s can breathe a cleaner air. The vehicles with their air-conditioning running contributed to the environmental pollution as well in addition to raising the ambient heat at most places and we often wondered how that necessary evil could be combatted.
While leaving Muzdalifah as well as Mina I was very disturbed to see the squelch and squalor of rotting garbage lining the streets. We as Muslims should be role models in society. Alas, we come to the holy places to be cleansed and yet we leave behind rotting garbage and rubbish including cartons of wasted food and unopened bottled juice lying on the streets. What is our message in the face of such crass disregard for the environment? Would Prophet Muhammed (ﷺ) have approved?
We saw and felt appreciation for the Saudi government’s efforts to make Hajj as convenient as possible. Allah knows best why the accidents happened. Let us all pray for those who lost their lives. Meanwhile we felt a pressing need for the pilgrims to be well educated. Group operators can be given some training to impart to their group members the finer aspects of going about their Pilgrimage with due considerations to other pilgrims.
What if we saw Hajj as an international conference to discuss and find solutions for world problems attended by representatives of many countries? What would be the most pressing concern we would need to discuss today?