By Rabia Khedr
I cannot believe that this time last year we were preparing for our ultimate trip.
My husband, Hossam, and I embarked on a journey of a lifetime, Hajj.
Although we had just done Umrah the summer of 2011, Hossam said 2012 was the year and I agreed to tag along.
I had always felt that Hajj was something one has to be prepared for, an event in one’s life that results in a 360 degree turn, a moment after which one is more committed to God than to the worldly life.
I did not think I was there yet.
I wasn’t quite ready or prepared.
But, I was not going to give up the opportunity to share this moment with my best friend, my husband, and not to mention my best guide.
So, I had to go.
Hajj is the 5th pillar of Islam, an obligation on Muslim women and men who are in reasonable health and can financially afford the trip to Makkah.
The rituals follow Abrahamic tradition every step of the way.
I had many fears about the environment there based on all those horror stories everyone comes back to tell and some of the tragic episodes that occasionally take place when 5 million people descend on one region.
I was really putting myself out of my element not being able to visualize the surroundings.
I was glad to discover that Dr. Munir El-Kassem, Sheikh Alaa and Sheikh Riyad were among the Imams supporting the Falcon Travel group.
At least, I knew who they were.
I was unaware of any women going whom I might know.
After one of the seminars, I did discover that I knew a couple of people going.
As the time to leave got closer, I started to feel more and more at ease.
I was ready to go with the flow.
Besides, I was born in my grandmother’s mud hut in the village of Dhidwal, Pakistan, and spent the first 4 years of my life there.
There were not even the conventional basics back then.
Today, they do have electricity on a load-shedding system (they are lucky if it is there for 8 hours of the day), running water and whole-in-the ground toilets.
I am a survivor and can live in any circumstances I like to think.
I was prepared for anything.
We arrived at Pearson Airport on October 18.
We said goodbye to my parents, brother and the kids.
I remembered Sheikh Alaa’s words.
I understood that Hajj is the ultimate journey to cleanse oneself with no guarantees of returning home.
It is advisable to repair relationships, write a will and tell people you care about how you feel.
Sheikh Alaa said to say goodbye knowing that you may not meet in this life again.
I hugged and kissed my 4 kids as if I may not see them again.
In the line-up to check-in, we met a wonderful young couple, Hira and Mobashir, in front of us.
Hira had heard me speak at a couple of conferences – I said, ‘yes.’ She would be my saviour.
And, indeed she was along with a number of other wonderful women I got to know slowly, once we arrived in Madina.
We stayed at the Intercontinental, a two-minute walk from the Prophet Mohammed’s Mosque or Masjid Al-Nabawi.
We were served lavish breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets – not expected but I decided to enjoy giving into the worldly nature of a human being.
Given the 7-hour time difference, we worked hard to adjust.
Our stay in Madina was short and we wanted to take full advantage of this tranquil city.
We ran for each prayer, last minute.
Hossam would identify a perfect stranger who looked approachable and grab her attention so that I could ask her to assist me to line up in the women’s prayer area.
This really gave me an opportunity to meet people from different parts of the world.
I’m sure I left them with a story to tell of their journey.
I am not the model blind person you assist in life you know.
Falcon Travel provided us a bus tour of historical sites.
We had visited these on our trip before, but it was nice to experience them with an Imam providing stories behind them, especially Sheikh Alaa who knew us well.
We went to the Mountain of Uhud where a major battle took place between the Muslims and their enemy tribes.
We visited Masjid al-Quba and Masjid Al-Kiblatain, both, where we would offer prayers.
This meant that the women would go into a separate area from the men.
So, time to get the group use to me.
I asked Sheikh Alaa if he could identify a woman to assist me, and so he did.
Masjid Al-Quba was the first mosque built in history.
Masjid Al-Kiblathain meaning the mosque with 2 kiblas or prayer directions was where the Prophet was told during the prayer to change the direction.
The first Muslims faced Jerusalem while praying, but God told the Prophet to now begin facing Makka where he would return and reclaim the Kaaba originally established by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham.
That evening, Dr. Munir took us on a walking tour of Masjid Al-Nabawi, the grounds of which have been expanded to accommodate 1 million worshippers.
We also managed to squeeze in some shopping for the kids before preparing for Makka.
When travelling to Makka with the intention of performing Hajj or Umrah, one is required to cleanse oneself and be in a state of ihram before entering the Makka region.
For men, this means wearing 2 pieces of white unstitched cloth with the luxury of kilt pins or a money belt for some security.
Women have more choice.
We are expected to adhere to the Islamic dress code of hijab.
This means a loose, non-revealing gown with a hijab covering the hair.
Women tend to keep it simple in black, white or earthy colours.
We got ready in the hotel in Madina and headed with our group to the airport for our trip to Makka.
As a group, we declared our intention for Umrah, which involves Tawaf or seven rounds of the Kaaba and Saee or walking seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa in Abrahamic tradition and, let me not forget, drinking the thirst-quenching water of Zamzam
The well of Zamzam has given water to its visitors since Abraham’s wife Hajar (known as the slave woman in Biblical tradition) left their son Ishmail as a baby on the ground while she ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa.
He lay there kicking and crying.
When she stopped hearing his cry, she gave up her search for water and came to make sure he was okay.
She found him and she found water coming out of the ground where he had been kicking.
We individually and collectively chanted the Talbiya translated as “Here I am, O Allah, here I am! There is none comparable to You and to You I have come, Here I am!
Verily all Praise and Grace are Yours and so is the Kingdom. One Beloved are you, without a partner. In my Heart there is room for none, only You. Here I am, O Allah, here I am!”
We were to chant this as much as we wished until Eid.
Our entire luggage was taken on a truck to our hotel in Makka while we flew to Jeddah and took a bus to Makka, which is an hour’s drive outside of the Hajj season.
We made a stop at a checkpoint and were given a hospitality pack of refreshments compliments of the Hajj Ministry.
Government giving something free – what a foreign concept.
Well, we were in a foreign country.
Expect the unexpected.
We arrived to the Hajj building where we would be staying in Shisha, a 45-minute walk from the Kaaba.
This was not a five-star hotel.
It was an apartment building converted into Hajj residences for the season with a 5-star buffet service 3 times a day.
This was a gradual change of lifestyle to prepare for the 5 days of Hajj.
Hossam and I appreciated the travel agency accommodating my needs and providing us a double room.
Most people with us had to be separated from their spouses and share rooms with 3 or 4 other occupants.
The rooms were basic – a cot with a foam mattress, pillow, bed sheet, blanket and a garbage pail.
O yes, I must mention the grumbling air-conditioner.
The washroom facilities were shared between several rooms.
We checked in, claimed our luggage, which was waiting for us in the basement of the building, freshened up and boarded the bus for the Kaaba to perform Umrah.
I thought I was prepared for the crowds, but there were definitely more people than when we came in Ramadan on previous trips.
Everyone said that the crowds in the last 10 days of Ramadan are like Hajj, but nothing of the crowds is like Hajj.
We completed our Umrah rituals taking our time with the crowds.
This is one mosque where there is no segregation of men and women simply because it is impossible.
We prayed in clusters of men and of women.
I sat on the marble tiles with the women from our group outside of the mosque with a cool mist blowing above waiting for the men to return from having their heads shaved signifying the end of their state of ihram.
Thank God women don’t have to shave our hair.
We just have to trim an inch off all of it.
None of us brought scissors so we waited until returning to the Hajj building.
We spent the next couple of days resting, visiting the Kaaba on our own, doing some shopping, attending some lectures by the Imams and spiritually preparing ourselves for the 5 days of Hajj.
With overnight bags, we gathered in groups.
We were provided white umbrellas to protect from the sun.
Some of us walked through the tunnel to Mina, otherwise known as the tent city, while others took the bus, a more time consuming journey.
We were encouraged to walk simply because of the traffic situation, which would make the ride over an hour.
The bus was an accommodation for seniors who did not have the stamina and for people using wheelchairs.
Interestingly, the buses used by the travel agency were not accessible in any way.
I suppose, in contrast to our overly insured societies in the West, liability was not of huge concern and staff would simply assist in carrying people in wheelchairs, etc.
In other words, people would do what is necessary to help each other out in the circumstances.
Accessibility was non-existent on the walk to Mina.
Our campsite was also not very accessible for able-bodied people, never mind for people with disabilities.
There were steps at the entrance of the reserved Canadian area.
The paths were narrow between the rows of tents and lined with coolers, chairs and garbage cans.
Our tent was huge, but not huge enough to allow any space for comfortable movement.
The tent accommodated 60 women with 3 rows of pull out mats.
Each tent was air-conditioned protecting us from the desert heat.
There was an abundance of food again.
We spent time in conversation and worship.
The Imams gave us instruction on what was to come and the tour staff informed us of the schedule of events.
We were constantly reminded to expect the basics in terms of facilities during this part of the Hajj journey.
After spending the night in Mina, we were told to have a light breakfast minimizing the need to use the facilities even though there was still this abundance of food.
I didn’t quite digest their definition of light.
We walked to the train station in order to make our way to the ultimate gathering on the Mountain of Arafat which some say was the place where Adam and Eve reunited after being sent to earth.
I confidently rode an endless number of escalators while people from developing parts of the world hesitated and conformed after seeing no other alternative than these wildly moving stairs.
This train service was into its second year of full operation.
It took us perhaps 15 to 20 minutes to get to Mount Arafat.
Expecting to be in open space on the mountain, I was again surprised to experience the luxury of an air-conditioned tent situated about 5 to 10 minutes from the train station.
I must say I was disappointed not to have the feeling of an enormous gathering of congressional worship on the mountain under the hot desert sun simulating the final gathering on the Day of Judgement.
The Imams reminded us not to interfere with any living thing, a special requirement of visiting the Arafat region.
We were told not to kill a fly, remove a twig on the ground or pick off a leaf.
I guess the transition was simply the fact that we were now in a massive tent with women on one side and men on the other.
There were a few plastic chairs similar to the ones in my backyard (a small symbol of reality of global economic colonization).
These were a necessity or luxury depending on the situation.
Otherwise, we simply sat and lay on the carpeted ground.
This massive tent was put up around the existing natural environment so we had some small trees inside our tents.
I did not pick off any leaves, but had to touch one just to see it so to speak.
The washroom facilities were again surprisingly exceptional refuting prior warnings.
We were told to take time to reflect, seek forgiveness and ask for whatever we wish for, as this is the day to make the ultimate supplication or dua to God – the magnificent moment of opportunity to ask for his mercy and bounty.
Dr. Munir delivered a sermon and led us in congressional prayer in the afternoon.
We individually sat facing in the direction of the Kaaba supplicating to God, thanking him for the blessings, seeking his mercy for our sins and asking for our deepest hopes and dreams.
I held my hands side-by-side, palms toward me, fingers lined up and curved in as if holding a scoop of nuts, bowing my head and thanked God for everything in my life, my lifestyle, my home, my husband and children, my family, friends and community.
I expressed my eternal gratitude for the many abilities He gave me.
I presumed that everyone around me, knowing that I was blind, would expect me to make the ultimate ask – asking God to give me sight.
Seeing was not my ultimate ask because I have come to view blindness as a mercy allowing me to be who I really am, uninhibited by materialistic and pretentious desires and able to feel self-fulfillment and success in real meaningful ways.
Instead, I prayed for all the people who mattered to me.
I begged for ease for my parents and their struggle caring for my two brothers with developmental disabilities.
I prayed for a full life for my sister.
I prayed that I be successful and true to the inclusion work I do for people who cannot demand their own rights.
I focussed deeply on my plea to God.
Tears ran abundantly down my cheeks.
My heart ached toward my Creator.
I bowed my head on the ground and felt a tremendous sense of peace hearing nothing but my own voice talking to my Lord.
The afternoon continued with lectures and supplications in Arabic, English and Urdu by other accompanying Sheikhs.
I felt relieved and revitalized, ready for the so-called toughest part of this journey, Muzdallifa.
Back to the train station.
We arrived in Muzdallifa in time to pray Maghrib, the prayer after sunset.
Muzdallifa was an open park with lots of stones and sand.
There were some paved streets and pretty good washroom facilities.
I was expecting nothing.
It was much better than the nothing I imagined.
This part of Hajj required us to collect pebbles, which we would later use in the pelting ritual, and sleep in the open, a reason why we were told to bring sleeping bags.
Hossam and I were together and he collected my share of pebbles of course.
The air was clean.
The temperature was comfortable.
It was a perfect night.
Our train was to depart at 12:03; the first train back to Mina, the tent city.
Some Hajjis felt they had to sleep in Muzdallifa till the dawn prayer.
Our Imams told us that 12:03am was sufficient.
We promptly reached the train station.
Empty trains kept coming from Mina and continued non-stop toward Arafat.
They were still trying to get people into Muzdallifa, a time sensitive journey.
Finally, around 3 a.m., our train arrived from Arafat and stopped.
Now I witnessed the horror stories.
My expectations of chaotic crowds came true.
I hung on to Hossam for dear life while an anxious crowd of worshippers fearing missing the train swept us aboard the train.
A 10-minute trip seemed to take a half hour.
We safely got back to Mina.
Our group gathered together and went to the Jamarat for the pelting ritual.
Dr. Munir assured us that this too would be smooth if we stuck together and followed him.
Aboard a sea of escalators again, we followed with our small cloth bags of stones in hand anxious to pelt the pillars symbolizing Satan.
These 3 pillars represent Satan appearing in 3 places to tempt Abraham to disobey God’s commandments.
Abraham threw stones at Satan resisting his whispers of disobedience.
A shower of pebbles rained.
Hossam made room for me to stand against the wall and helped me aim.
I threw the pebbles with all my strength.
After completing this round, we returned back to the campsite which had been prepared for the celebrations of Eid.
Lanterns were strung up decorating the pathways.
Women dressed their best for Eid.
Once we got word that the ritual of sacrificing a lamb was complete, men went to shave their hair and women trimmed an inch off theirs.
We went back to the Kaaba for Umrah returning back to Mina to pelt the Jumarat a couple of times again.
We returned to the Hajj building, visited the Kaaba, did some shopping for the kids and took our chance to travel 70km to visit Jeddah to see Hossam’s sisters and mother.
Waffa and Momma had also done Hajj but there was no chance for us to meet during the process anywhere.
We were advised not to go because travel is restricted, especially when we did not have our passports in hand.
In fact, we had to surrender our passports upon arrival to the travel representatives because they had to submit them to the officials in trust until our departure.
We had our special Hajj identification cards only.
We made it there and back by the morning.
We missed the party celebrating the end of the journey.
We collected our belongings and went to the Kaaba for the final or farewell rounds of the Kaaba before heading for the prolonged wait at the Jeddah airport to return home.
Back at Pearson Airport, my parents and children waited to greet us.
We were home Alhamdulillah (all praise is to Allah).