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Our journey began with the intention of ihram: “I’ve made my skin, my hair, and my nails sacred for You, Allah.” I had prayed to be enveloped by enough light to lead me all the way to Mecca from my bedroom in hilly Amman, Jordan. Qibla-bound, we first stopped in Jeddah. I tried to remain indifferent to the lavishness of the glitzy port-city. Instead, I was excited by the prospect of completing umrah under the clear, starry nights of Mecca.
This has long been a fantasy of mine. I hoped that we would arrive in Mecca after midnight so that we could perform tawaf in the cool, crisp night air when anxiety-inducing concepts such as “late” and “early” do not exist. Despite delay after delay in our journey, we piled onto a bus and left Jeddah by midnight, destined for Mecca. We recited resoundingly into the darkness of the age-old city, “Labayka Allahumma labayak! Labayka la sharika laka labayk!” (“I answer your call, O God, I answer your call!). This was the very call that Abraham, the Father of the Prophets, was asked to make. I felt proud to be fulfilling this ancient duty.
In the back of the bus, my mom and aunts were laughing and giggling loudly, much to the annoyance of most of the solemn hajjis around us, but I thanked God for my mother’s laughter and I thanked Him for enabling me to go on this journey with my family. Despite being mahram-less, I felt safe in the company of six mothers; mothers that shroud their children in the same warmth and safety Hajar offered her baby, Ismail.
The entrance to Mecca was, admittedly, somewhat disenchanting. I used to scoff at the infinite number of McDonald’s restaurants located at every exit on the Virginia Turnpike. Here, in the birth-place of Islam, it was no different. The “Entering Mecca – Muslims Only” sign, signaling a gateway into a sacred land, was also a gateway to scores of fast-food chains and window dressings of scantily-clad mannequins. This seemed oddly paradoxical. I secretly thought that if I were the Amir(a) of Mecca, I would only allow local, specialized restaurants to open here and would ban the advertisements of silly, obscene polyester clothing which greeted pilgrims as they entered. I would insist that pilgrim mascots greet pilgrims at the gates of the city.
Having booked our accommodations late, the hotel we managed to find wasn’t exactly the type that left you a mint on your pillow, but it was clean and friendly. I was afraid that a five-star, glitzy hajj would detract from the spiritual aesthetics of Mecca and diminish my experience as a pilgrim. In the coming days, I came to see our hotel as a palace (really, it was called the White Palace Hotel) relative to the living situation of most of the pilgrims we saw, who found nightly shelter on the bare cold rocks of the hajj trail.
Walking to the Masjid al-Haram, I felt like a nervous bride, anxious to see her groom for the first time on their wedding day. It was exhilarating to be conscious of entering an immediate portal to the Divine. I asked my Mama to hold my hands and walk me to the Ka’abah with my eyes closed so that, when I opened them, I would see it there, fully and in all its majesty, before me.
When Mama said “We’re here, open your eyes,” my lips mumbled a little prayer and my eyes sprung open. It was as if my entire life was leading up to that moment. I felt like I had known this place since birth; like it had been waiting for me, perhaps because I turned my face to it five times, every day. As if pulled by a magnetic field, I began to float in circles around it and praised my Creator and Sustainer for inviting me here. My heart fluttered, and I felt wiped clean with the wings of angels. I had never felt such joy in my life! I prayed for the eternal joy of this ummah, my extended Muslim family. And I thought about how elegant and sophisticated my creed was for enjoining such a gentle physical ritual in complete unity alongside the river of blessed water in this otherwise scorching desert!
After tawaf, I prayed behind the Maqam of Abraham (peace be upon him) and went to collect zamzam water for myself and my mother. I went to the nearest water station without realizing that there were designated stations for women to get zamzam. A brother snapped at me when I tried to stand in line behind the men: “Men only, lady!” I replied defiantly, “It’s all the same, brother.” He laughed and said “No, it’s not!”
By then I was surrounded by a crowd of men and felt embarrassed by the man’s remarks. This being the Haram, chivalry found its way and another man kindly offered to pour me a cup-full while I retreated to the back. I thought about the otherwise open atmosphere that allowed for the mixing of the sexes here and compared them to those of mosques in most Muslim-majority communities; there a woman would not be welcomed into the main space of the mosque as she is in the House of God. Despite the men-only water stations and many a pushy religious police’s attempts to keep women in the back during prayers, the imprints of Wahhabi patriarchy could not penetrate these walls, thankfully.
Next, I performed sai between the hills of Safa and Marwa . I could now call myself a mu’tamirah – one who has completed umrah. The following day, I was set for Arafah. The day before arafat is called tarwiyah, and it is the day pilgrims begin to settle into Mina. But since it is not a mandatory rite, we spent the day in Mecca. In Arabic, tarwiyah can mean “quenching” and, appropriately, the dryness of our day in Mecca and Jeddah was quenched by heavy rainfall. This was perhaps one of the most memorable afternoons of my journey.
I left our hotel to catch dhuhr prayer at the Haram when suddenly a light pitter-patter fell from the sky. By the time the adhan sounded off, thousands of pilgrims were circumambulating under a heavy downpour. The Holy Masjid was cleansed, as if in preparation for the hajj crowds. It was an incredible experience to hear takbeers and tahleels through the rain with my head on the cold, wet marble before the drenched black House. Like a shower from Heaven itself, that rainy day in Mecca was both miraculous and merciful but, above all it was beautiful.
By nightfall, it was time for us to reenter our sacred state of ihram and proceed to Arafah, the mountain where Adam and Eve first “arafah” – literally “came to know” – one another, and where the beloved Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, gave his historic last sermon. “Hajj is Arafah”, as the Prophet proclaimed, and after seeing the mountain during the day, it was easy to understand why it defines hajj. Two million Muslims from all over the world with different social, cultural and economic backgrounds left their homes behind and journeyed to this scorching desert mountain for one purpose and one purpose only: to fulfill the call of their one God. I listened to the khutbah of Arafah from Namirah mosque and admired the general themes: “the ummah of Muhammad needs to unite! …Terrorism has no place in Islam! …Return to the true teachings of your religion and you will succeed! …Be clean, save the earth!” What powerful messages for a powerful audience.
The diversity of all humankind lay before me on Arafah. The sight was so awe-inspiring that even a non-believer would not help but feel overwhelmed when considering the magic of it. It is said that after Asr time on Arafah day, God Himself descends to the earth and boasts of his loving pilgrims to the angels! A complete yet glorious surrender of hearts happens here a million fold, and with it brings promises of paradise and a new-born state of purity. I saw old men and young children beaming with joy after the call to maghrib came in. We flowed down the mountain in unison in what is called the nafrah, excited for our newly acquired “clean slates”. We were all sons and daughters of Adam, and we rejoiced in the great steps towards heaven that we made together that day.
Our journey was not over yet. We headed to Muzdalifah to pick up the jimars, or stones, to later use at Mina. There was a pile of stones prepared for us next to our tents. I hated these unnecessary short cuts! The Saudi guards were puzzled when we told them that we wanted to collect our own stones. Stones in hand, we lay under the stars like the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did in Muzdalifah. It was there that I met a pilgrim from the Maldives who told me about their young and environmentally-conscious president whose efforts to save the dwindling coral reefs were, so far, futile. We then prayed together for the coral reef of Maldives. During our conversation, I made no cynical political remarks as I usually would, and I decided to be more optimistic after hajj.
Next, we went to Mina to throw the first seven jimars of Aqaba. I did not expect the act of throwing stones to be so fulfilling! My arm felt powerful when I threw pebbles at a figurative Devil. The mere act of stoning was much more than cursing the devil: it was an expression of our collective choice to live, without compromise, a sinless life to the best of our abilities. I pledged to be more vigorous in my own struggle against sin and temptation. I was going to stop backbiting and complaining once and for all!
The move from Mina to Mecca was heavy and surreal. After all, saying goodbye to a loved one is never easy. As a final treat, we arrived in Mecca after midnight and I could do my last tawaf at night once more. Bidding this wondrous city farewell, I prayed for the opportunity to make this life-changing journey at least once more. As a twenty-two year old with many passions, I knew that my life was destined for many more changes, challenges and opportunities. Despite any apprehension I felt, I found great solace in knowing that I will always have my “sophisticated creed” to guide me along the way. Hajj made this realization all the more strong. At a time when I felt so unaccomplished still, I felt like I mastered the greatest accomplishment of all: to live by the reminder that even when my face is not turned towards the qibla, my compass should forever point towards the Almighty and Him alone.
Farah El-Sharif is a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service where she majored in Culture and Politics with a concentration in Islam and Colonialism studies. She currently resides in Amman, Jordan with her family. This article was published on AltMuslimah on December 11, 2009.