May 12, 2012

Traveling to Mecca for Hajj

It is eight years now since I’ve been to Mecca to perform hajj but it is an experience I will never forget. I documented the entire journey. To get to Mecca you first have to go to Cairo to connect to Jeddah and then journey by bus from there to Medina. Here is an excerpt from The Mecca Diaries.

Wednesday, December 15th 2004

We arrive at the Haj Terminal in Jeddah at around ten in the morning. This is not the international airport, but an airport that only operates once during the year, for a few weeks during haj, and then is closed again. It is huge and accommodates three millions pilgrims who all have to pass through it into Medina and Mecca, and then home again, in a very short space of time.

We enter the airport building, and meet in a large room with long rows of benches. Up ahead is a wire fence with a gate and several young Saudi clerks in brown uniforms and berets, and some officials in white robes and red scarves, in glass-enclosed cubicles checking passports - two or three clerks per cubicle. We wait almost an hour before our documents are inspected and re-inspected and double-checked, before being handed back to us. By this time my passport has taken on the look of a coupon book with my yellow vaccination certificate stapled inside, a Saudi visa, and bar codes in several colors.

I am let through and have to hand the passport to another stern looking official at the door, after which I receive a dismissive wave of the hand, as if to say, go woman, that way. After picking up our luggage we go outside, to a bank of white robed and red-scarved officials sitting at a long table, asking for our passports again. We pay our tanazul of $275 U.S.; a fee for the different services the Saudi government provides for pilgrims during haj. And we are happy to pay. To cater for three million pilgrims during haj is no joke. The sanitation provided at Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafah, the water trucks, hospital services, cleaning of the haram, the monstrous task of directing traffic and keeping control of hordes of people all there for the same purpose, at the same time, takes a lot of doing.

Outside, we see Tent City - the huge, tall tents erected overhead, stretching out into the distance. This is where pilgrims from different countries will all be allocated a spot to wait with their luggage, either for a bus to take them into Medina or Makkah, or on the home bound journey, to wait for a plane.

Our bags are loaded onto a baggage carrier, and we walk behind it for a good few minutes to an empty location with benches. The bags are offloaded, and we’re told that we’ll wait a few hours for a bus. We’ve been warned beforehand that there will be a lot of waiting around.

We look around. Tent City is airy and filled with pilgrims from different parts of the world. A hundred feet away, stands a row of brightly-colored, air-conditioned buses. These are for the pilgrims already in ihram who are going to Mecca directly. We’re going to Jeddah; we have to wait. We don’t mind a few hours of stretching our legs after so many hours on a plane. We need to freshen up, and take ablution for prayers. We’ll have our first squat on the dreaded toilet. I had heard about this toilet, and had built up all kinds of images in my head. On this particular afternoon, however, I am pleasantly surprised. I open the door, and there it is; a brown porcelain hole in the floor, which flushes like a regular toilet. A thin little hose coming out of the wall, gives you a quick spray between the legs. We have had so many tips from friends on how to overcome the indignities of the squatting toilet, that we have come prepared with a piece of elastic which we pull on over our clothes, then haul up our robes so that when we bend down, our hems don’t drag on the wet floor. I am grateful for that tip. Perched in this undignified position wearing a robe and a long scarf; holding everything up, using the spray, locating the tissue - is quite a manoeuver.

3.00 p.m. – We are finally told that a bus is waiting for us. Two young Saudis in crisp white robes and red scarves, with walkie talkies into which they speak intermittently, tell us to stand in two rows; one for the women and one for the men. We have to walk single file, like schoolchildren to the bus. We board. The luggage is loaded. The driver gets in. Everyone is counted and re-counted. I look out the window as the bus pulls away. A group of young men in crisp white robes and red scarves rolled a special way about their heads are standing around in groups talking and strolling about.

“Don’t they have any work to do?” someone asks. “And look at their feet.”

She was right. Most of them had their heels hanging over the edges. But they are handsome young men. I sense restlesness in them. They seem to have nothing to do.

In the bus, the air-conditioning is directly overhead, and shoots a cold stream of air at my shoulder. Everywhere people are fiddling with the controls, covering themselves with jerseys and towels. The bus driver nods at our requests for him to turn down the air-conditioning, but does nothing. In the end, I sit with my prayer mat draped over my back.

Outside the window, the land is yellow and brown, rocky, and barren. After some hours, it changes to black and grey stone. The bus drones on. We pass by derelict little buildings, with no windows and no doors, the odd little shop, an occasional petrol station with no customers - reminding me of a strip on the edge of a ghost town. The sun starts to go down. As the bus drifts down the highway, its passengers fast asleep, it seems as if we’re floating in space; no music, no talking, just gentle breathing, and rows of slumped bodies as we give in to fatigue.

The bus stops for forty minutes at a restaurant where we can have something to drink and eat and freshen up. It’s prayer time. We have to take ablution. This is a remote, backwoods kind of place, except there’s no backwoods. It’s along the highway traveling to Medina. There’s a humble, dusty little building with sacks of rice and foodstuffs, with big letters, SUPER MARKET, on the white washed wall. A mosque in the process of being renovated, with cement dust and bricks and planks, stands waiting and a dark-looking restaurant with pilgrims filtering inside where a group of men are sharing a platter of chicken and rice on the floor.

This is a family restaurant, so women are allowed in also. Still, I am careful not to be brazen, and ask one of the men in my party to go up to the counter with me. The man serving is tall, in his early forties, with a kind of cloth hat on his head, and a long brown cloth jacket over a robe. I ask if I can have a piece of chicken, without rice. He makes a sound with his teeth, which means yes. I ask if I can have it grilled. He says, “flame, flame.” I take this to mean that it will be grilled, and agree. He writes something on a piece of paper, and tells me to go to the end of the wall, to the fourth window. Then, without blinking an eye, he lifts up his leg and puts his foot, shoe and all, on top of the counter, which comes up to about his waist, and turns to the next customer. I look around to see if anyone is watching. But it seems to be nothing unusual. The man is just being his normal self. He is changing position, resting his foot on the food counter - and doesn’t look one bit perturbed or uncomfortable in this strange position.

“What do you think?” I turn to my friend.

“Die’s die Arab se land,” he says. (This is the land of the Arab).

We get the chicken, but no one feels much like eating.

Back in the bus, we huddle under our jackets and prayer mats, shivering. We’re nearing Medina. Sheikh Gabriel gets up in the front of the bus, and gives a short history of the holy prophet Muhammad, (pbuh), and his migration to the radiant city.

We recite all the way into Medina and arrive at ten thirty at night. We’re not at our destination yet, however. With pilgrims there’s lots of red tape and paperwork, and first, we have to go to the control centre where arriving and departing hujaj have to check in. We remain seated. Our passports are collected by our group leader, and taken away. We wait almost an hour and a half, before we get going again. Shortly before midnight, we check in at the al-Shourfah Hotel. It’s one of the nicer hotels, and we have a suite with two bedrooms, and a bathroom. Our bedroom is fair, with four beds, and a large window. The two men in the party are in the room next to ours. We unpack, have a shower, and drop into bed. We hadn’t slept in almost two days.

Three hours later, we hear the call to prayer. It is 5.30 a.m. We have overslept. We jump out of bed, take ablution, and head for the mosque for our first of forty sets of prayers. It’s our intention to catch forty waq’ts – sets of prayers - in the mosque before we leave for Mecca. It’s not compulsory or part of haj – in fact, coming to Medina isn’t part of the haj, but it’s part of the build-up, and it’s hoped that when you come to the mosque for eight days in a row, not missing any of the five daily prayers, that when you return to your own country, you will continue to go to mosque, and be steadfast in your prayers.