“You haven’t been to Hajj yet, right?” my husband, M, asked over a lazy breakfast one morning.
“Nope.” I answered with a mouthful of eggs and cheese.
“So, let’s go.”
“Yeah, sure honey. I’d love to. When?”
“Now. Why not?”
I was hesitant to get excited. Saudi Arabia has taught me that. Never get your hopes up until the plans are written in blood on a concrete slab. And even then…
I held my breath as my husband applied for Hajj permits and booked a trip with a campaign. We went to the hospital to get vaccinated, and applied for official leave from work. It wasn’t until we tested various umbrellas at SACO (fans and water mist!), did I let myself exhale. We had been called to the House of Allah!
Then panic struck. Worst case scenarios flashed through my mind. Crowd crush. Fires. Disease. Terrorist attacks.
Why did we sign up for this again?
In order to prepare, I had to push all those fears away. I read as much as I could on Hajj preparation. We cleared out all of the unscented toiletries in our neighborhood Whites pharmacy. Our dua list grew to scroll like proportions. I even purchased a sparkling new white abaya for the occasion. At long last, we were ready.
It started the morning we left. My abaya turned out to be see-through, so I had to change my outfit underneath last minute. We had to wrap the umbrellas at the airport, and weren’t allowed to take them on the plane. The airport bathrooms were all out of tissues. Those small but cleansing irritations, reminders that a spiritual journey is underway.
The Jeddah airport bathrooms were our first true test. Our group alone was 2000, with nearly 800 women. And there were three working stalls, no tissues, and about an inch of water on the floor. I did what any other Hajji hopeful in that situation would do. I found someone with tissues, stuffed as many as I could into my bra, rolled up my abaya, and got some early morning squats in. Those hole-in-the-ground toilets are no joke.
The bus trip to Mecca was segregated, women in the back. Quite early on in the trip, I was having to stuff my rebelliousness down deep. Once we arrived at the Haram, all those feelings dissipated. We made tawaf under the bright sun. Our umrah was finished shortly before maghrib. It was time to go to Mina.
At the camp, I was greeted by the smallest bed in existence outside of a dollhouse — a chair that folds out into a cot. And sits snug up against the neighbors. So, essentially I was sharing a bed with a stranger. I had half a mind to tell my husband I couldn’t do it. Instead, I called him to take his temperature on the situation.
“Hey honey. How’s the room?”
“It’s only a week, honey. You’ll get through it.”
“There isn’t even any space for the luggage!”
“That’s why they gave us these tiny suitcases. It’s Hajj, honey. This is what it’s all about.”
I buried my discomfort, even after noticing that there were 10 bathroom stalls for 400 of us. Only two of them were Western toilets. Showering would be a balancing act over the squatty potty. At least there were tissues.
My burden lessoned when my ‘bunk mates’ arrived. We commiserated over our less-than-ideal living conditions. We chatted easily about our lives and families. It began to resemble a sleep-over. Or camping.
The next day was the day of Arafat.
My spirit soared during the walk to the train station. Early in the morning, the weather was bright and sunny, but not too hot. Within an hour we were entering our tents on the mountain. A breakfast buffet awaited us; foul, eggs, bread, cheese, coffee and tea. There were even ice cream machines and refrigerators full of juice and water.
Two tents with powerful air-conditioners housed more chairs that converted to beds and plush carpeting. I spent the next eight hours praying, making dua, journaling, napping, and snacking. During the peak of the heat, even with the AC on full blast, it was a little hot in the tent. However, the hour before maghrib prayer, the weather changed completely. Underneath a cloudy and gray sky, I stretched my palms upwards. The mercy of rain.
After maghrib, it was time to head to Muzdhalifah.
This is where the true test began. On the way to Muzdhalifah, we got caught in the crowd waiting for the train…for four hours. It took everything I had to stay on my feet, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of hot and sweaty pilgrims. Finally, we entered Muzdhalifah.
When I entered the women’s tent, I thought it was a mistake. It was simply a carpet with cloth walls. There was no ceiling, no air-conditioning, and it was stuffed with females. My elbows were pinned to my sides. I tried to slide in between the bodies, searching for a familiar face. The coolers were out of water, and the food boxes contained only pastries. I found my bunk mates and plopped down next to them. I propped my head up onto my handbag, and slipped into a coma.
Less than an hour later, I woke to someone stepping on my foot. I unbuttoned my abaya in an attempt to air myself out. Although I couldn’t breath or sleep, I couldn’t move either. The soggy air pressed me to the floor. I used the leftover contents of a discarded water bottle to perform ‘wudu — I could only imagine the state of the women’s bathrooms. I prayed and searched for water. Nothing. I came back to find someone in my spot. I curled up next to her, and tried to sleep. The roar of life in the camp kept me conscious. I gave in, and called my husband.
“Do you have any water?”
“Meet me outside.”
I walked out to the men’s side of the tent, to find M sitting on the sidewalk.
“It was too crowded in there.”
He handed me a water bottle. I guzzled it down in three seconds, and then burst into tears. Thankfully, it was nearly the time to leave.
“Go collect your rocks, and meet me back here.”
I filled my pouch with as many small pebbles as I could find, and hurried back. On our way out of Muzdhalifa, we encountered another huge crowd. The military had placed barriers to the exit. We all queued up in a mob. After twenty minutes, they released us. Ten minutes later, we reached another barrier. Seeing me dissolve into hysterics, M checked Google maps.
“Listen, we can either wait for the train again, or walk to Mina. It’s an hour walk.”
“Get me out of here.”
We split from the rest of the pilgrims and hit a guarded fence. Illegal Hajj hopefuls were on the other side of the fence, begging to be let in. Although we hit some resistance, the soldiers eventually let us out. On our way back, we passed thousands sleeping in the streets, in between buses and cars, and under bridges. They offered us water bottles, fruit, and food. Cheerful guards spritzed us with cold water. My cheeks burned with embarrassment. Here I was crying about the lack of air conditioning, when people were happily sleeping on the pavement. After arriving in the camp, I showered and climbed into bed. I’ve never been more thankful for a shower over a squatty potty and a flimsy cot.
The next Hajj rite was Jamarat, or the stoning.
We set off right before Dhuhr, hoping that the mid-day sun would keep most of the crowds away. The first two days, we were right.
The final day, the crowd was an uncontrollable throng. Our bodies were packed like sardines in a can. People launched stones right into the heads of others. Pushing and shoving came from all sides. We pressed onwards into the determined masses. Fighting the crowd was useless, we simply had to become.
Later that evening, we headed for the Haram. It was time to say goodbye. As we made our final tawaf, I prayed for forgiveness, acceptance, and love. I prayed for all the people I’d left behind in America, those who I’d met in Saudi, and everyone in between. Most of all I begged God to forgive me for being such a first-world shit, unaware of the innumerable blessings bestowed on me.
Two rakats later, I was officially a ‘Hajja’. I sat on the floor of the mosque and looked around. My heart swelled with gratitude. I thanked God for the path. For the long bumpy road of heartache, mistakes, pain, and suffering. For finding me, and guiding me to Islam. The road paved with patience and prayer. And finally, for delivering me to the exact spot where I sat.
Hajj is a representation of life on earth. There are ups and downs. Hardships and struggles. Joy and laughter. The world is out of your control, except your actions. Sometimes faith is the only thing that can get you through. Purpose and heart define. And at the end, we should only be grateful.