4. TO THE GATES OF MAKKAH
We had travelled from one side of the world to the other with the sole intention of performing the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah. Every Muslim, who has the means, must perform the Hajj - at least once in their lifetime. Human beings have been performing the Hajj since the time of Prophet Ibrahim. Our group had travelled to Saudi Arabia to fulfil this command, just as billions of people had done before us. We had just landed at the Hajj terminal in Jeddah Airport and we thought it would be as simple as heading to Makkah to perform the first part of the Hajj. We were wrong!
We were told to go into an adjoining room, the customs area, before we can go and collect our luggage. It was more of a hall than a room that was filled with loads of benches stretching from one side of the hall to the other. The people were sitting on both side of the benches with their hand luggage in the aisles. It was packed with people, which reminded me of a cattle market. The waiting people would pass through two gates at the top of the hall and get their passports and paperwork checked. At each door was an attendant who would pick a few people from near the front and ask them to go through.
The Hajjis were tired and many had made a long and arduous journey to get there. Our group itself had been travelling for about a day and a half. People were already tired with the travelling and many were easily irritable. Then they entered this hall, which was already packed with people waiting to get their papers checked. This was pretty distressing in itself but every time the attendants came and selected a few people from the front, people seemed to be getting more annoyed.
We went in and got a few empty seats near the front. Some people had been waiting ages and every time the attendants came they expressed their unhappiness at having to wait so long for their turns. The attendants would ask them to calm down and sit down before select another few people to go through. It wouldn't have been so bad if they had actually selected people in some particular order, maybe there would be fewer disgruntled people. This continued over and over again whilst more and more people got annoyed. The murmur of angry voices was now coming from everywhere and was becoming more of a roar than a murmur.
I sat there patiently with a smile of contentment on my face and watched the whole situation building up. I was quite happy that the sisters were getting through much quicker than the rest of the crowd. The Hajji next to me asked me what are you smiling about and I calmly replied, "I am here, in Saudi, the land of the prophet - what possible reason could I have for being unhappy, after all I am a guest of Allah." Nothing was going to ruffle me, this was simply a test from Allah and I wasn't going to blame anyone, not even the Saudis but was going to wait patiently. The guy looked at me in a strange way, sat down for a moment, smiled then patted me on the back.
I think this Hajji realised that there is more to this than just visiting the Kabbah. It's a means of change and purification; it's a means to improve yourself and lose the bad qualities, such as selfishness and greed, which the dunya has forced into our nature. It wasn't like a post office queue where people are waiting for a Giro but, in its must basic fundamental form, it was an act of worship and a means of purification.
After that, things seem to mellow down and we finally got through the queue. We went through the customs and were immediately greeted by the sight of yet another queue. However, there were many attendants and we managed to whiz right through. These attendants were sitting behind a row of desks checked all our papers, removing stubs and stamping things in our passports. I was the first to get through from my group, with my passport safely clenched in my hand. I felt relieved; it was another step completed and another step closer to Hajj.
After getting through, I closed my eyes took a deep breath and released a sigh of relief. It was hot, I could feel the heat engulfing my whole body but there was a warm breeze coming from somewhere. I looked around and noticed that we were no longer in an airport building but we were actually outside being shaded by the 'mother of all tents'. This massive tent was stretching as far as I could see. I noticed all the flags flapping about in the wind, representing all the different nations. This was the true United Nations, not united on financial and political gain but united on humanity, love, brotherhood and deen.
Our group was together once more to continue our journey and alhamdu-lillah everyone had got through without a hitch. We were surrounded by masses of people, all wearing the traditional white ihram and from this white I could see a small red cloth, above the heads of some people. As this came closer I noticed it was the Turkish flag and with this flag a large group was merging and heading in our general direction. I felt proud that even at this Hajj we had a good representation from the Turkish community. I remembered my parents were also performing Hajj this year and maybe they were part of this group. I watched the group pass by with great excitement and anticipation, hoping to glimpse my parents. It so happened that I met many people in this holiest of holy lands but I wasn't blessed with a reunion with my parents.
Imagine the scene, we are in this scorching desert under a massive array of tents, coming from wintry Scotland. We land in Saudi, the land of desert and sand dunes, in sweltering uncomfortable heat. You are probably reaching for your drinks as you are reading this. Then we are greeted by the heavens, which was really a surprise. Out of nowhere, rain descended from the heavens, not like rain in Scotland but more like the Niagara falls and even with the excellent drainage system, within seconds it was ankle deep. It was literally a jaw-dropping scene. As suddenly as the rain came, it stopped and people began to continue as before. The shopkeepers returned to their shops and the Hajjis continued to make their way through the airport.
We moved to an area marked D12 where our luggage had already been taken and then it was a matter of waiting for our next set of instructions. Everyone seemed to realise that we might be here for a while so they spread mats out on the ground. Some of the Hajjis got food out and started eating and sharing with each other; some went to sleep to shake off this tiredness; some prayed or read the Quran; and others just sat down and simply waited. I was unable to rest or sleep and began to explore the airport around me. I checked out the facilities, the Wudhu and prayer areas; the entrances and exits and looking at the different people with their own customs and mannerisms. It was during this 'adventure' that I made contact with brother Abd ur Raqeeb, who from that minute onwards became a close brother and great friend.
I remember doing Wudhu at the airport, once, twice then thrice. I finished washing feeling refreshed and noticed a brother crouching and in such a state as if he was in deep thought and reflection. I looked again scanning his features and thought this brother is neither a Pakistani nor a Turk. I was sure that he was a Scotsman or maybe even an American Muslim. I wandered over and said to him 'Deep in thought brother?" and he suddenly woke up. After a few moments he responded "Asslamu-alaykum brother." I joked with him for a while and apologised for waking him up. After that brief encounter, we were bonded as the best of friends and brothers.
Everyone was checking through their papers and making sure everything was in order. I began to check mine and realised that there were no hotel reservations under my name, infact there was no information about my hotel at all. Initially, I was a little surprised by it but then I spoke to a few other brothers and I became a bit worried. Everyone seemed to have their reservations but me. I then spoke to the brother who had got ready the day before we left and even he had his hotel papers! I became really worried and thought to myself I think I might be sleeping in the streets!
I decided to find and speak to Ashfaq, our group leader, guide and organiser. I explained to him that I don't have the papers for the hotel. He simply replied "Brother, its not my problem, I gave you the papers!" After a frantic call to my wife, she confirmed that they weren't in Scotland.I could only accept the situation and left it in the hands of Allah, if I needed to sleep in the street, then alhamdulillah. I joked to myself that I was with good brothers, if I got really stuck, they would surely loan me a pillow!
We all had this hope and desire to pray the Jummah salah that day in Makkah. All these delays and the different checks and double checks had made us really late. Then the Azan for Jummah came through the speaker system. We immediately got ourselves together and did our first Jummah prayer at the airport. We were pleased to have prayed in Saudi but we were deeply disappointed that were not able to perform our Jummah in the Haram, the mosque that houses the Kabbah. It is the holiest sites in Islam and is associated with great spiritual blessings and reward.
After a few more delays and a few formalities our bus was ready to leave for Makkah and we were ready to leave the Hajj terminal. I had been restless all the time at the airport but we were close now and with the words of lubaik on my tongue, I fell asleep. I was suddenly woken up by a thud as we drove over a pothole in the road. As I woke up, the words labaik-allahumma labaik were resounding through the whole bus. I must have dosed off for 20 mins but it felt as if I had a good nights sleep, I felt totally refreshed.
The bus had made good progress until we approached the city and then things slowed down. The rain had caused a lot of chaos on a road system which was chaotic enough in Hajj season. It was frustrating as we inched onwards towards Makkah. At times I felt that it was better to jump out and walk, at least I could make better progress than the bus. We gradually made our way through Makkah and were getting closer to the Haram, the sacred mosque in Makkah which houses the Kabbah.
There seemed to be some problem with the guy navigating this trip to our hotel. He would occasionally pull over, jump out and speak to someone and them jump in. He would change his direction for a bit then seemed to stop off somewhere else and again ask someone some information. He would continue his journey. I asked someone what is happening. He replied, " I don't know but I think the driver is lost!" I thought "Great, if only I had an A to Z of Makkah streetmap"
We made a zig-zag journey towards the centre of Makkah until the driver stopped, got out with our group leader closely behind him. They both returned with a load of wrist bands with some Arabic writing on them. I felt a little at ease and relaxed because I knew that we were heading for our hotel now. The wrist bands had information about our hotel and group. This would be useful to the authorities who could point us in the right direction if we managed to get lost.
As we got near we were really excited and were reciting the Lubaik in loud and excited voices. The anticipation was unbearable and the whole bus was now buzzing as people looked around at the sights of Makkah from their seats. When we saw one of the corner of the great mosque we were amazed and scanning everything, absorbing every detail around us. Such was the excitement and longing to see Makkah. The excitement and suspense was getting unbearable and the lubaik was getting louder and louder.
We seemed to drive round and round until we finally located the right Hotel. Our luggage was unloaded from the bus onto the pavement and some members of our group went into the hotel and sort out the rooms.
I remember standing outside the hotel, overcome by emotion. My knees felt as if they were going to give way as I leaned against the bags. I reflected on the long and difficult journey we had undertaken and the many friends I had made. I thanked Allah for this great blessing and prayed that I would complete the Hajj successfully. My thoughts kept drifting to how I would react when I walked into the mosque and made my way to the centre. I would be laying my eyes on the Kabbah, the building in which direction I had prayed all my life; the Kabbah which the great Prophet Ibrahim had built with his own hands; the Kabbah around which the greatest of Human beings - prophet Muhammad had walked; the Kabbah to which billions of souls had visited and found peace.
How would I react would I be able to control my emotions or would I cry like a baby? I just didn't know what to do or think. More pressing problems were at hand like where would I sleep and where would I put my luggage if the hotel had no reservation for me? It would be impossible to find another room at the peak of Hajj season. For a moment things were a bit of a blur as I moved from one emotion to another on this emotional rollercoaster!