On the bus to Mecca

 We finally boarded our bus to Makkah. My eyes were glued to the window, and I wanted to take in everything out there. Soon the freeway took us outside the city of Jeddah. It was a dark, moonless night, and people in the bus started falling asleep. I would nod off for 5 minutes or so and then wake up. I would look outside to see if anything was visible. Besides the lights from other vehicles, I could barely make out the silhouettes of hills all around us. After staring into the darkness for a while I would fall asleep again.

I was very anxious about what would happen in the coming hours, but felt good about one thing: I had made it to Saudi Arabia, and my chances of reaching Makkah looked pretty good now. There was still the possibility that I could die in an accident and not see the Ka’ba with my own eyes. To minimize that possibility I had started eating less than usual a few days before my journey started. That’s because according Islamic teaching, a person’s provision (including food) in this life is predestined. When a person has consumed all of the provisions alloted to them, their death occurs by whatever means God chooses. I thought, perchance if I’m close to the end of my rope, then if I eat less I might be able to extend my life just enough to achieve my goal. It’s too bad that the idea of dying early didn’t prevent me from overeating after Hajj.

As we got close to Makkah, the bus passed under a white structure and stopped at a check point. This marked the beginning of the Haram. The Haram is an area around the city of Mecca where only Muslims are allowed to enter. At the checkpoint, police occasionally ask people in cars to recite the “Shahadah” which is an Arabic phrase meaning, “I bear witness that there is no one worthy of worship except God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is his slave and messenger”. Buses are usually waived through since the passengers are obviously Haajis.

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A short distance from the checkpoint was a rest area where all buses stopped. This place was run by the Ministry of Hajj. They provided boxed snacks and drinks to everyone. The boxes also contained pamphlets about Hajj. I wasn’t too interested in eating, as I mentioned previously, so I started reading one of the pamphlets.

A sentence in the pamphlet caught my attention: “Please avoid other people’s nasal and thought secretions”. I laughed because I thought some one in the Ministry of Hajj had a clever sense of humor. If you don’t avoid other people’s nasal secretions, you will get sick, and your Hajj will be ruined. And thinking along the same line, if you don’t ignore someones thoughtless words, and start arguing or fighting, your Hajj will be ruined too. Then I realized that the Saudi government doesn’t a have a sense of humor. They were probably relying on a spell checker rather than a proof reader. Instead of “thought secretions”they likely meant “throat secretions”.

On holy ground

Entering the Haram made us more alert, and excited that Mecca was just around the corner. Most of us had been quietly reciting “labbaik Allahumma laabaik…” (Here I am at your service, O Lord, here I am…) since our flight to Jeddah. But now the recitation grew louder, and we were doing it in unison. We entered the city of Mecca and got off the freeway. Everyone was sitting upright, and looking around for signs of the Sacred Mosque (Masjid-ul-Haraam in Arabic).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQXWnsXqK6o

As time passed, the labbaik got out of sync, but we kept it up, thinking, we must be very close to the Sacred Mosque. But the bus kept driving. I noticed that some of the street signs and shops seemed familiar, and wondered if we had passed by these places before. The labbaik stopped because our enthusiasm had turned into confusion. It was past midnight, and people were looking at each other – puzzled, but not daring to say anything. We noticed the driver taking a few U-turns, and stopping by the side of the road every now and then. Sometimes we would pass by a road sign indicating the way to the Sacred Mosque, but the driver would just ignore it and go the other way. Many people were getting upset, and one Haaji who spoke Arabic finally asked, “Why don’t you just stop and ask for directions if you’re lost!”. The driver wasn’t listening. This whole situation seemed very funny to me. Of all the problems people face on Hajj, I had never imagined this. We had gotten a driver who could not find the Sacred Mosque inside the city of Makkah.

It turned out that the driver was looking for the Mutawwaf’s office. I learned later that all Hajj groups are assigned to a person known as a Mutawwaf, who’s responsibilities include acting as an immigration officer, arranging for tents and food during the days of Hajj, and helping any Haaji who needs assistance beyond what their travel agent can provide. We had to submit our passports at his office before going to our hotel near the Sacred Mosque.

We left the Mutawwaf’s office and headed towards our hotel. The hotel was just a few steps from the Sacred Mosque. As we got close to the mosque, the streets became more crowded. I was surprised to see so many people. It looked like Manhattan or Tokyo during morning rush hour, except this was the middle of the night. Thousands of people were walking to the mosque, or walking back to their hotel rooms. Many people were socializing, shopping, or eating at the small restaurants near the mosque. They came from all over the world for one purpose – to perform pilgrimage in fulfillment of God’s command. It reminded me of the following verses from the Qur’an: For, when We assigned unto Abraham the site of this Temple, [We said unto him:] “Do not ascribe divinity to any beside Me!” and: “Purify My Temple for those who will walk around it,and those who will stand before it, and those who will bow down, and prostrate themselves [in prayer]”. Hence proclaim thou unto all people the [duty of] pilgrimage: they will come unto thee on foot and on every [kind of] fast mount, coming from every far-away point [on earth]. (Qur’an 22:26-27)

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By the time we checked in to our hotel it was around 2 AM. Given the choice between resting for the night, and visiting the Ka’ba right then, we all chose the later. So we put our luggage away and performed ablution (washing one’s face, arms, and feet before prayer, just as the early Jews and Christians did*).  All of us gathered in the lobby and walked towards the mosque as a group.

* Exodus 40:31-32 and Acts 21:26

To be continued…