Hajj memories

Actual unedited photos from Hajj 2018

As the last month of the lunar calendar Zil Hajj, the month of the pilgrimage approaches us, my mind travels back to the year 2018. That year that we still knew nothing about Covid, when the ‘old normal’ was the ‘normal’ and when crowds thronged the lands of Hejaz and worshippers from around the world gathered at Mecca and it’s adjoining sites to perform Hajj.

That year had been tumultuous for me, to say the least. Earlier that year I had been dangerously close to falling into depression – I remember seeking guidance and direction and I remember going down an unfortunate spiral of sadness. Then, out of the blue, and at the very last moment, unexpectedly, our Hajj requests got approved and I realized that I would be going for a pilgrimage. As the news sunk in and I began preparing cautiously for Hajj, hardly daring to believe it, I knew one thing. If it actually happened, it would be a dream come true.

I had embarked on that journey broken, disinterested in life, and having lost that spark that people have come to associate with me. But there is something inexplicable, something magical about taking that journey, that tells you are still good enough, that you still matter – that the world is still good enough to give it another go. It was through those 15 days that I learnt to believe in myself again, that I decided I was going to fight the odds as best as I could.

The closeness that one feels with the Almighty there is unparalleled, being in front of Allah’s house, witnessing what the Prophets before us witnessed and praying and walking in the same places that they had – is not an experience to be taken lightly. Allah’s greatness is evident as close to two million people united as one declare ‘Labbayk Allahumma Labbyak’ which means “Here I am Oh Allah” and perform the rituals of Hajj hoping for forgiveness and salvation.

It moves the hardest of hearts and the realization of how wrong one has been and that it is time to now put things right becomes as clear as day. Through those precious days and nights I began to realize the fact that at the end of the day, what really matters is my relationship with Allah, and that one day I would return to Him.

I gradually got my mojo back, and through that journey Allah blessed me to find some amazing people who are still very close to my heart. There is something about spending a night under the stars in your Ihram and being vulnerable and disheveled – you can’t not befriend the people who support you through this. There’s a certain unity – Allah unites the hearts as you spend those special Mina nights alongside each other in a camp and wake up for Fajr together.

It was one such night that for me, remains unforgettable. So as I lay in my sofa bed in the dark, with close to 40 women in the same tent lined up on the floor next to me I looked around the tent in the darkness and wondered, “What would death be like? How snug would the qabar (grave) be? Would it be dark?” The sofa bed was snug, a little too snug, it barely fit the dimensions of my body and turning on my side was a challenge. The AC in the tent felt a little too cold but of course I couldn’t tinker with it. I took a deep breath and decided to leave the tent.

They say that the holy cities never sleep and I am delighted to say that as I walked outside the tent with my pocket Quran there was the usual hustle and bustle of people which immediately made me comfortable. While it was certainly more quiet than it would typically be at day-time, I decided to prolong my walk (even though I wasn’t carrying my bag or my phone) and wandered outside the tents’ enclosure on to the streets of Mina.

There were no cars allowed there so it seemed like a nice safe place to walk, and while it was a bit quiet, you could see people and families walking back to their tents or in transit. Lost in my thoughts I began walking while trying to remember exactly where the entrance to our enclosure was. Every single enclosure looks the same – one must be really good at navigating oneself back to Point A, or one must have a Maps app, and one must remember the numbers. Remembering the numbers is essential!

Mina, the city of tents

As expected, I had none of the above and as I meandered across the streets of Mina at 2 am I thought I shouldn’t stray too far and decided to sit on the footpath. I leaned against the wall and pulled my pocket Quran and began reading softly to myself. In that one moment, I felt more fulfilled than I ever had – I just wished the night could go on forever. Alas, I had just been reciting a few minutes when a man walked up to me and handed me a bag of food. Being interrupted from my recitation I didn’t realize what he wanted and I looked closely at the plastic bag containing a foil container (presumably biryani) some bread and juice. I looked askance at him until I realized – he was offering me charity!

When a woman is sitting on a footpath at 2 am, all alone, in attire that is dusty and scruffy one might assume she is homeless or begging or both. I probably came across as a more dignified beggar – I wasn’t even actively begging – I was just reciting the Quran so God-fearing individuals would pay heed and cough up cash. This realization dawned on me at long last and I couldn’t help laughing. I refused the food ever so politely and got up rather self-consciously from the sidewalk and dusted my clothes and cleaned my shoes. It was an embarrassed laugh, but the incident had amused me greatly and certainly brought me out of my reverie. I decided to head home lest another Good Samaritan find me and offer alms!

This part I was dreading a little bit – I am known to use Google Maps for the most obvious locations. Thankfully after some trial and error I found my way back to our enclosure – nearly ended up at the wrong one but I was safely back in my bunk which started feeling a lot more comfortable as I drifted off into a restful sleep.

Finding the way back without any major mishap was lucky and I should probably have been more careful. A visual marker of some type is beneficial – that’s where the big garbage is – something like that. But because everything in Mina looks the same, visual markers are hard to come by. Few could one up my Dad who actually kept a CLOUD as his visual marker. Yes, I’m serious. When climbing the Mount of Mercy (Jabal e Rahmat) in the plain of Arafah my Dad ascended from ‘under the big weird-looking cloud’ and once at the summit, he wanted to descend from the big, weird looking cloud – which unfortunately, had deserted him! His story of how he got lost (and somehow found) is a far more interesting recount than mine, but that dear friends, is for another time.

As I sign off, I make sincere dua for the pilgrims performing Hajj this year that may they find peace, salvation, forgiveness and closeness to Allah in this blessed journey and may their pilgrimage be accepted. And those that desire to perform the pilgrimage, Allah makes ways and means for them to do so. And I pray that my Hajj, crazy as it was, with all its adventures, somehow got accepted too. Wassalam!

And I complain about my tent…