My Hajj Experience... amazing, refreshing, one-of-a-kind!

Without a doubt, Hajj has been the greatest experience of my twenty-year old life and it'll probably stay that way even when all my hair have turned white! I don't mean to say that in terms of spirituality and worship such as Quranic recitation and prayers (however, if you consider every step, every breath as an ibadat during Hajj, then it doesn't mean that closeness to Allah in Hajj depends on simply recitation or offering Salah).

There was so much about Hajj that I had anticipated and so much more that I couldn't ever have imagined even if I'd been given several minute-by-minute descriptions of the trip by previous Hajis! It's amazing how two-and-a-half million people (correct me if I am wrong, the official and unofficial figures keep changing) come together in a unique, almost incomprehensible way during those few days. It seems as if the whole world has shrunk to nothing but Makkah and the adjoining areas. The population of such a 'world' is two-and-a-half million and everything that happens there is the only reality - but what is reality when those dressed in plain white, are all there to reaffirm their beliefs, to refresh their faith in the Hereafter? Then, it seems as if no earth ever existed and mankind is now moving towards some sort of end.

I hadn't intended to go into my own version of Philosophy. You can read that in every other article about Hajj. Let's stick to my story:

(Initially, my journal kept pace with our travel but then I couldn't find time to write at all! I have added portions from what I had written in my journal (in italics), and thus, generally, it'll be in present tense.)

Day 1: 5th January (5th Dhul-Hijj)
Departure to Madinah from Tabuk

:: 8:20 am, Tabuk-Madinah Highway:

Assalam-o-alaikum! We’re on the highway to Madinah, settling into comfort in the car. Madinah is still 650 km away but our closest stopping spot is Tayma, 240 km away.

The road is very scenic. First, fruit farms, then sandy rocks. The sky has a smattering of clouds, pierced by the rays of the morning sun. The beauty of such a landscape can only be appreciated if you’ve had the opportunity of staying in a desert area. Imagine this: dark rocky hills with sand, as if sprinkled at some places, piles of it at others, giving a glittery, golden effect. I could stop to take a picture but the journey is long and we must keep moving. The sun is out again to light up the bare, barren area. It’s like driving on Mars!

:: 2:30 pm, Khyber

After stopping at the outskirts of Tayma, we were off to Khyber 230 km away. I was feeling weird in the head, having slept only six hours in two days! My primary concern was sleep and, having snacked on an omlette sandwich and fruit yoghurt, I settled into my seat, awaiting slumber. Slowly, lulled by the images of vast desert beyond the car window, and the then the craggy peaks at Ashash, I took a nap for half-an-hour.

On waking, I found Khyber was only 38 km away. At this point, refreshed, my sisters and I spotted several ‘weather rockets’ zooming through the sky, collecting data. Then, we marveled at the colored stripes in the mountains… red, fawn, dark green striations all together…as specifically mentioned in the Quran.

“Has thou not seen that Allah causeth water to fall from the sky, and We produced therewith fruit of diverse hues; and among the hills are streaks white and red, of diverse hues; and among the hills are streaks white and red, or diverse hues, and (others) raven black.” (Quran: Al Mala’ikah 35:27)

Khyber, remembered by Muslims mainly through the battles against the Khybarite Jews in 7 AH, still has that special feel about it. On entering Khyber, we spotted an old well in a garden that somehow seemed to represent the town. At Khyber, we stopped for Zuhr prayers at a small mosque surrounded by a park lined with green trees. The rocky mountains in the background perfect the picture completely.

I might add now, that the mosque was so small (especially the ladies section, which was just a small courtyard with short walls) and simple… with old, dusty prayer mats that I couldn’t help but feel elated. Yes, elated! There is something in that powerful Arabian setting that when you pair it with such simplicity, the effect on the soul is… indescribable. In modern, air-conditioned mosques with plush carpets, you might find a Qari with beautiful recitation very pleasing, but move him to that mosque in Khyber and everything about Islam suddenly becomes clear. Everything about life becomes clear. Simplicity, simplicity…

We returned from the women’s prayer courtyard to find fresh Ruz-al-Bukhari (a special rice preparation with raisins and shredded carrots) and grilled chicken Abba had bought for lunch. The picnic mat was out and in completely basic Bedouin style, we had our delicious lunch. The cool breeze refreshed us instantly and after snapping a few quick pics, we were back on the highway.

Madinah is about 200 km away. As I write this, we are driving through a plain desert area with mountains on the horizon again. Madinah is close now and what distance used to be covered in 3-4 days takes just around two hours today.

:: 3:50 pm, 40 km from Madinah

As we approach Madinah, the mountains have taken upon a more typical, conical shape. I think they’re also called lava tracts. Date farms characteristic of Madinah are situated along the highway. I wish I could stop at one and walk amongst the trees, imagining myself a humble resident of Yathrib. Ah… Ajwa dates!

It’s getting greener now, as we approach the ‘check point’ of Madinah. There doesn’t seem to be anyone actually stopping to check for Hajj passes here. Ah, but there are policemen. I hope this doesn’t take too long. And it doesn’t, Alhamdolillah. They take a look and let us pass. Madinah is 20 km away and we all want something ‘fresh’ to drink. A great journey, Alhamdolillah.

When we finally got a room in Madinah, close to the Pakistan House where we’d stayed in the summer, it was nearing Maghrib time and we had to hurry to make it to the mosque. That’s when I first saw the pilgrims! Emerging from cars, buses, hotels in groups… groups upon groups, all heading for the mosque. It was interesting to what method each group had adopted to make sure none of the members would go missing. Some had colored bows pinned to their scarves and Ihrams, others used badges or bandannas for identification. One Bangladeshi group had all the women wear neon-orange Ihram!

I was particularly excited about meeting people from different countries, though I hadn’t realized how difficult that could be when each is concerned about his or her own Hajj! Anyway, it soothed the soul to be part of the Hajis, and to know that in the next day and half, we’d all set off for the Meeqat for a common goal.

I should write something about the hotel in Madinah. We couldn’t get a room in the Pakistan House so we located a tiny building with a small sign ‘Dar Az-Zahra’ above the front door. Needless to say, it wasn’t in very good condition. But all we needed was a room to spend the night and we took it, especially when we were quite sure other rooms nearby would all be booked. This is one point to note: If you’re ever stuck without a hotel room, look up these small buildings. They have licenses, yes, and they’re certified by the Hajj authorities, etc. etc. but don’t expect to find great comforts. Our room’s carpet needed changing, the washroom was tiny (with an iron door) and one of the beds creaked so much that only Abeer, the lightest of us sisters, could sleep in it without worrying about the bed breaking. Apart from that, small cockroaches chose to roam over the walls, which we noticed in the morning, saving us a worrisome night. Also, my Amal, my youngest sister, had a particular thing against the pink and blue painted walls.:P So why did I just tell you all that? I’m not complaining, really! My point is… it’s strange how, if you come for Hajj with your mind set to face any problematic situation, you actually get through the troublesome part easily.

That night at Madinah was a bit unpleasant in another way, though. Our Hajj passes/Tasreeh had been delayed and we were to receive them from a man, Mr. Talha, in Madinah instead of Tabuk. This Talha failed to show up after Isha prayers at our hotel and my father got irritated when, on calling him up, he said he was visiting some friends with his mother somewhere in Madinah. My father began to lose his patience when the clock struck 10 pm and we lay in bed, hearing him talk loudly on the mobile phone. My head was buzzing due to lack of sleep and it didn’t help that my father was tossing and turning in the other bed, waiting for Talha to show up with our passes. Finally, after several calls, he showed up at 11:30 pm and handed over the required documents. People need to be more responsible in such matters, especially when time is short and many things can go wrong.

Day 2: 6th January (6th Dhul-Hijj)
Towards Jeddah - Preparing for Mina

Having been short on sleep, everyone but Abba missed Fajr. On waking at 10 am, I found everyone preparing to enter into Ihram. Despite all efforts, by the time we were ready to leave, it was 12:20 pm, just about Zuhr time. The Pakistani restaurant wasn’t serving breakfast anymore as the time for Zuhr approached so that was a bit of a delay.

After Zuhr, we had a quick brunch during which I mostly had yoghurt. This was my practice throughout Hajj – whenever I could get a carton of Yoghurt or the Yoghurt drink Laban, I avoided spicy meals. Also, as perfect bathroom facilities were going to be rare, I also ate and drank little. All this really made me active during Hajj and not once, Alhamdolillah, did I feel suffer from stomach upsets or acidity.

Outside, taxi drivers and small private bus operators were calling pilgrims at bargain rates to Jeddah, Mina, Makkah. People in Ihram were visible everywhere… it felt like the world was being tuned out now. What else mattered? When we finally took the Madinah-Jeddah highway, it was about 2 pm. We were in great spirits (though I had some trouble with anger control whenever my sisters did something stupid… no anger, arguments during Ihram!) and the whole world seemed to be perfectly at peace. Even now, I wish I could relive that day. Thick, fluffy clouds spread over the sky, casting shadows in patches on the road.

There was a good amount of traffic. Understandably, the highway to Jeddah was quite busy, pilgrims had a day-and-a-half to get to Mina, and most weren’t wasting time. My excitement on seeing lots and lots of pilgrims in Ihram was still at it’s peak – it just felt great to see Muslims focusing their energies and time on Hajj – on worshipping and remembering Allah and for a while, I wished I could imagine the whole Muslim world was unified and strong (inshAllah).

People were traveling in all sorts of transport. There were the foreigners who had come by road in huge, powerful coasters… and the local Bedouin who had a good portion of their household stuff laden in their pickups and cars. It was peace… sitting back in the car and watching everyone headed in the direction of Makkah.

As we approached the checkpoint, there was a short queue, but it was being processed quite quickly. All you had to do was show your Tasreeh/Hajj pass and the policemen noted down the number of passengers traveling, and their nationalities. I had my video camera out all this time and I recorded everything… the policemen… the check post, and particularly, the groups of Hajis standing around. This is what I scribbled into my journal hastily at that time…

:: 3:10 pm, Madinah-Jeddah highway

For me, the real ‘Hajj spirit’ took birth just then… looking at buses and buses on Hajis and cars with luggage stacked on top. At the check post, bearded Mutawwaas (religious police) – handed us a pack on religious books and an audiocassette. A charity organization in Madinah was gifting the Hajis packs of snacks and a sixteen-bottle crate of mineral water. They were so generous with everything that we all automatically felt light-hearted and happy. What a good deed to perform, making Hajis happy with gifts!

At the check post, the in-charge glanced at our Hajj pass, noted our nationality and we were off.

The mountains
(here I go again!) here on the highways, as I write this, are so beautiful in their in their bare, rocky feel. To someone who looks at photographs, they might appear to be the same as that on the Tabuk-Madinah highway but you have to be here, feel part of the land to know they are very different and unique in their own way.

These mountains invite a walk – no – they make me wish to just sit down upon them and cry… cry… for Allah, for the life after. They represent the finite nature of existence and thus, the hope for Jannah.

It is cloudy today and beams of sunlight shoot out from behind the cottony shapes, illuminating the landscape in patches and stripes. A little while earlier, I remarked, ‘It’s as if the whole view, and this beautiful landscape has been setup today for the entertainment of the Hajis, by Allah.’

The landscape is flattening now and I think I’ll sit back, close my eyes to attempt to store in memory, all that I feel right now.

:: 5:30 pm: 120 km from Jeddah

Wow! It’s just rained here on the highway for half-an-hour and Subhan-Allah what a pleasant view! It was so beautiful that I simply cannot describe it with justice.

The rain shower in the distance looks like a gray blanket or a sheer curtain across the mountains. The smell of rain on desert sand… vast expanses of desert! Water collecting in puddles, flowing beside the road or in small streams washing over rocks, which a short while ago were parched.

Okay, we’ve just arrived a check post and got into a long line of cars, Ah! The sea of white is such a pleasant sight. It’s here you feel most for the sorry state of the Ummah today. Such a pure and beautiful religion… in a beautiful setting, the region where it took birth, the Middle East.

I wish I could take all of this back to Pakistan. I wish I could share all this with everyone I know. I wish I could show you this land – through my eyes.

Many ambulances and police cars on standby are a good sign that the authorities are, indeed, continuously attempting to improve facilities and be ready for every contingency.

It’s Maghrib time and in another ten minutes, we’ll stop at some roadside mosque to offer prayers, inshAllah.

:: 9:20 pm – Jeddah

We arrived in Jeddah after Maghrib and after about an hour of driving through thick traffic, over and under uncountable flyovers, we finally found Kababish Restaurant where we just had dinner.

[It was actually slightly worrisome to me, when we couldn’t find the restaurant – we had to be at the Departure point fixed by our Hajj group at 12:00 am… Alhamdolillah, we found our way with a lot of time to spare.]

An old friend of Abba’s in Jeddah, Mazhar uncle, met us just now outside the restaurant, as planned, and we’re following him to his home. Our plan is to leave the care there, freshen up, offer Maghrib and Isha together. Mazhar uncle could then drive us to the departure point appointed by the Hajj group.