My Umrah was complete. I now wanted to look around and ‘discover’ this exotic place which was thousands of miles away from my home in Michigan. Up till that point I had been preoccupied with the logistics of the journey, and focused on completing the rites of Umrah, but now my mind was at ease. So, instead of going back to the hotel and resting, myself, and two other guys from my group, decided to just walk around and take-in the sights and sounds of this unique mosque.

We went up to the top floor and stood at the edge of the wall overlooking the courtyard. We stood there, gazing at the Ka’bah, and observing all the people going around it. The sun was coming up, and we could now see the hotels and apartment buildings surrounding the sacred mosque. Beyond them, the barren hills of the Makkah valley were now clearly visible.

Hills

A dream come true

Whenever I travel, there are moments when I look around, and feel like this is all a dream. I’m struck by the strangeness of the land, the people, the culture, and the languages that are so different from mine. Perhaps this is the mind’s way of reacting to the shock of being in a completely strange environment. As I stood there, on the roof of the most sacred mosque, looking around the city of Makkah, I was struck by that feeling. It was only three days ago that I was in snow covered Michigan, and now I was oceans away, in a barren desert valley.

After a while, the three of us performed the optional after-sunrise prayer, and decided to head back to our hotel. When one comes as a pilgrim, one has little else to do besides worshiping and praying. So, it is quite common for a Haaji to perform prayers that the Prophet Muhammad used to do on a regular basis, but which are not one of the obligatory five daily prayers. For Muslims, there are five times during the day when we are obligated to perform certain prayers. The first of these five prayers is to be performed before sunrise, while the last one is offered after night fall. These five prayers are done in congregation as the faithful gather in their local mosques.

Congregational prayer at the Sacred Mosque with English sub-titles:

We got back to the hotel, and headed straight for the cafeteria. Still dressed in two sheets of un-stitched white cloth, we decided to eat breakfast before going to our rooms since the cafeteria was about to close for the morning. Breakfast and dinner were included in our tour package, so we didn’t want to miss our ‘free’ meal.

Conflicted and tired

Our hotel was on a hill, and the cafeteria had a large window overlooking the Grand Mosque. As we ate our breakfast, we could see hundreds of pilgrims below us going in and out of the mosque, and thousands more circumambulating the Ka’ba. Looking at that scene made me yearn to be back in the mosque and be ‘one’ with my fellow pilgrims.

This feeling was completely opposite from what I felt just a few hours earlier when I was going around the Ka’ba. At that time I wished the crushing crowds would just vanish so that I could have some personal space, and concentrate on my worship. I constantly found myself in this state of ambivalence throughout the journey. Whenever I was in a crowded place, I wanted to get away from everyone and be ‘me’ instead of being just another bobbing head among thousands of other bobbing heads. However, whenever I was away from the other pilgrims, I felt like I was missing out on something. I had a strong urge to be part of the collective, and experience the same things together.

MIDEAST SAUDI HAJJ

It was finally time to shower and change. I was sharing a room with three other guys, so we had to take turns using the bathroom. We were all tired, and our plan was to take a nap. I picked my bed, and laid down on it. It was then that I realized how exhausted I was. My heart was beating as if I had just come off a treadmill. I had started my journey on Christmas day, and it was now the morning of December 28th. The last time I had a full nights rest was the night before Christmas.

Imperfections are a blessing

I don’t remember how I got up, but when I looked at my watch (which I had already adjusted to show Makkah time) I found it was after 3 PM. One of my roommates told me to quickly get ready for the late afternoon prayer. I was surprised that I had slept for so long. But more importantly, I had missed the obligatory afternoon prayer. I was devastated. I wanted my pilgrimage to be perfect, but within a day of being in Makkah I had fallen short of that objective.

Over time, however, I came to the realization that imperfections in one’s worship, or any other aspect of life, may be blessings from God. If we were able to plan and execute everything perfectly, perhaps we would become arrogant. Our imperfections remind us of our mortality. Which makes us more humble in front of God.

We stayed in Makkah for four days. I had developed a daily routine which revolved around prayer timings. In between prayers at the Grand Mosque, I performed the Tawwaaf (going around the Ka’ba seven times), attended lectures, ate, rested, and read the Qur’an. Back in Michigan I was an engineer by profession, but in Makkah I felt like a professional worshipper. The one exception to my routine was the day our tour operator took us to see the historical sites around Makkah, and the places where we would be spending the official days of Hajj.

My distraction

Among the books I had read about Hajj before my journey was a travelogue written in the 1960s. The author was a novelist who wrote about his Hajj experience with an emphasis on observations of human behavior. One of the things he mentioned was that when people go for Hajj, they discover the one thing that most distracts them away from God. When I read this in Michigan, I did not understand what he meant, but when I got to Makkah, I quickly realized that this observation was indeed true, and it applied to almost everyone.

I saw that people were distracted by different things, like shopping, the endless variety of foods available in Makkah, architecture, history, television, business opportunities, geology, and even the plumbing system in the Grand mosque. Of course, I also discovered the thing that most distracted me: Languages.

I wished I could communicate with every Haaji in their native language. I listened to people from different countries talking to each other, just to get a feel for the cadence of their language. I found myself trying especially hard to learn as much Arabic as I could since I was in an Arabic speaking country. My eyes turned to every street sign and billboard in sight, trying to understand the words. I asked Arabic speakers about the meanings of words. I asked them to teach me how to say common phrases, and tried my best to speak Arabic in the markets. When I was alone, I repeated Arabic phrases in my head, and I may have even dreamt in Arabic.

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My obsession with speaking to the locals in their own language even lead to an uncomfortable encounter with a policeman.

To be continued…