I remember going on the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) in December 2005. I went for three weeks, at the end of December and returned in the middle of January 2006. While it was very cold in England as we left the airport at Heathrow, it was very hot and muggy in Jeddah airport as we landed in Saudi Arabia.
On the way, we spent 24 hours in Sana’a in Yemen. We stayed in a luxury hotel in the Presidential Suite. I went with my Mum and my youngest brother, who was only 13 at the time. We walked around Sana’a to take a look around. It was very mountainous; people made their homes against mountain sides with the rock of the mountain as one or two walls and they built other walls with stone to complete their house. It was very hot. Many of the houses had bouganvillea flowers growing in their gardens or balconies with purple, fuchsia or pink coloured flowers. This made Sana’a look like the hilly districts of Sylhet, Bangladesh.
Before we got on the plane at Sana’a airport,we all had a shower and put on our Ihram, which is the two pieces of unsewn garments that male pilgrims wear on the Hajj. One of my friends from Somalia, Ahmed, who was staying in the room next to us in the hotel showed me and my brother, Rashid, how to put on the towel that would serve instead of trousers in the Somalian style. This style makes it easier to walk than the normal style.
The Actual Hajj starts when we pass over a marker between Yemen and Jeddah while we are still on the plane. We have to make our intention for Hajj and Umrah (which is like a minor Hajj) as we were doing a type of Hajj called Hajj Tamattu where you do the Main Hajj and the Umrah together.
When we passed over the marker called the Miqaat, the pilot told us that our Hajj has started. From this moment you cannot have a shower or bath until you have finished the Umrah part of the Hajj. You cannot wear perfume or use fragrant soaps or cosmetics. You are not allowed to scratch yourself if that makes any blood come out, pull out any hair from your body or break a twig from any tree or pull off any leaf from a plant, not even a blade of grass. Everyone should recite the ‘talbiyyah’ until you reach the Ka’ba which is the holiest Mosque in Islam. The talbiyyah means ‘Hear I am Oh Allah, Hear I am…’.
Once we reached Jeddah airport, we went on a coach for nearly three hours to reach Mecca. We recited the talbiyya all the way to Mecca. We put our bags in the hotel room, made wudu, which is to wash our face and arms, wipe your head and wash your feet. Then we all walked towards the Ka’ba to complete the Umrah. When we reached the Ka’ba, there were many gates to go through the Holy Mosque to the inner courtyard where the Ka’ba is situated. We all agreed that if we got separated inside, we would meet up again outside the same gate we entered through by the line of palm trees nearby.
We circled the Ka’ba seven times, stopping when the call to prayer sounded to pray with the Imam of the Ka’ba and then carrying on from the number of circuits we had completed. When we finished all seven circuits, we prayed two units of optional prayers at the place where the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) used to pray on the East side of the Ka’ba. Then we went to drink from the well of Zamzam.
We then had to walk to the hills of Safa and Marwa to run from one hill to the next until we make seven trips between the hills. My Mum, my brother and I walked together and ran together in the middle section between the hills. We stayed together until the fifth trip.
The call for the late afternoon (Asr) prayer sounded. We stopped our running to pray. When we returned, we could not find my brother Rashid. My Mum was very worried, but we continued with our running between the hills until we finished the seven trips. The only thing we needed to do now to finish our Umrah was to cut some hair.
We could not find Rashid. We waited anxiously for a long time at the top of one of the hills. Then we walked to the other hill looking for Rashid along the way. There were six million people doing the pilgrimage that year, the largest crowd to gather in history. We could not see Rashid anywhere. We waited on the other hill for a long time, then we walked back to the first hill. We waited there for a long time. The call for sunset prayer came and went. We prayed and we continued looking for Rashid, without any success. Eventually we decided to head for the barbers shop to have our hair cut and finish the Umrah. We then walked back to the hotel, with my Mum crying with worry. I left my Mum with some Muslim sisters and took a group of six or seven friends to look for Rashid.
We looked for several hours, with my heart heavy with worry. At times I had to fight back tears, as I thought that we might never see him again. Eventually one of my friends found Rashid waiting at the ‘Lost and Found’ department inside the Holy Mosque. A wave of relief went through my chest. My Mum was crying her eyes out back at the hotel; I didn’t have a mobile phone to tell her straight away. She would have to get the news when she saw Rashid with her own eyes.
That was the end of the Umrah part of our pilgrimage. We had to spend a week in Mecca waiting for the exact date of the Islamic Calendar for the main Hajj to begin. Then we would wear the Ihram again, circle the Ka’ba again seven times, run between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times again. Then we would travel to the Valley of Mina to spend three days in tents there. On the ninth day of Dhul Hijjah (the last month of the Arabic calendar) we would go to the plain of Arafat to pray for forgiveness to Allah for all our sins. This is the most important part of the Hajj. If you miss this part, your Hajj is not valid. If you miss anything else you could do something to make up for it.
At sunset we travelled to the Valley of Muzdalifah where we have to sleep in sleeping bags in the open without any tent. This is the most difficult night. There is no water, no toilets, no shops. We had to eat dry food that we carried with us and drink from bottles of mineral water that we brought from Mina.
The next morning is the day of Eid. We head back to Mina to arrange for the slaughtering of a sheep each. We then had to walk to the Jamaraat and throw three stones at the marker where the devil had tempted the Prophet Ismail (peace beupon him). Then my brother and I had our heads shaved. Women only have to cut a lock of hair off. Once this is done, We can take off the Ihram, have a shower and wear normal clothes again.
That night we had to return to Mecca to circle the Ka’ba seven times again and run between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times for the last time. Everyone needs to be back at Mina after this before the dawn. We were stuck in a massive traffic jam. Some people got off the minibuses and decided to walk to make it back for dawn. I had hurt my left leg when I had fallen over in the Holy Mosque, so I could not walk fast. I arrived at Mina after dawn. I had to sacrifice another sheep as penance.
The final acts of the Hajj were to return to the three places where the devil tempted the prophet Ismail to disobey his Father Abraham. We had to throw three stones at each of the three markers. This is the most dangerous part of the Hajj. After weeks of being patient and enduring hardship, people are eager to finish the Hajj and return home. The devils are also whispering to people to make them behave selfishly. Many pilgrims start to push and shove and rush on this day.
Many people, mostly from Africa carry large suitcases on their heads as they carry out this task. Sometimes a suitcase falls off and hurts another pilgrim. The Saudi Army form lines of linked arms to control the crowd. Some soldiers shout commands in Arabic on loudhailers. Unfortunately, most people do not understand Arabic. Sometimes they repeat some commands in English. There are many who do not understand English either. Every year we hear of pilgrims dying during the pushing and rushing of this task. Many pilgrims are old and frail. Some children can also be seen carried on the shoulders of their parents or carers. Sometimes the stones miss the markers and hit other pilgrims on the back of the head. I got hit a few times. Thankfully, the stones are only small.
When this was over, we returned to the Holy City of Mecca for the farewell tawaaf, the final circling of the Ka’ba seven times. We picked up our things from the Hotel and boarded the coach for Medina, the City of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). The Hajj was over. We were going to spend a relaxing seven days visiting the Holy Mosque in Medina and traveling around the City before returning home.