I was lucky enough to be able to interview a person (i.e. via email) who has been to the Hajj for her first time about three months ago. Mrs. Hasan (who is Sara’s mom), left to go to Mecca and complete the journey of the Hajj with her husband about 3 months ago. Here is her captivating memoir of how the Hajj has influenced her and – to an extent, changed her life.
Have you ever been to the Hajj before?
No, this was the first time. I had been to Mecca a couple of times earlier to perform what is called ‘Umra’, which is a lesser Hajj.
Who accompanied you during the trip?
My husband accompanied me on the trip. A woman cannot perform Hajj alone. She must be accompanied by a male member and that person has to be either the husband/father/brother/son. It is said that Islam is not so strict about this rule but rather that this law is one that was imposed by Saudi Arabia. It is said that the Prophet initially suggested this for reasons such as it would be better for a woman to have a companion to avoid facing the inconveniences of traveling alone as well as to protect her reputation.
How did you prepare for your spiritual voyage?
You have to prepare yourself mentally because you are now going to be one of the 3 million people there. A question I frequently asked myself before the trip was – will I be able to cope with that huge of a crowd? You also have to prepare yourself physically – I started doing a 4-5 km walk every day a month or so before departure. The Hajj is a test of your mental and physical endurance.
Did you ever have any worries of disasters (e.g. bombings, stampedes) while you were in Mecca?
None, whatsoever. In your heart you know all will be fine. If death came, what better place to die than in Mecca. A lot of people actually perform Hajj when they are very old in the hope that they die there; as that is said to be a direct ticket to heaven!
What emotions did you have when you first entered Mecca? And when you first saw the Kaaba?
Unbelievable, unexplainable! It is said that when you first see the Kaaba, whatever wishes you can make in one breath come true!
Describe the different parts of the voyage and your experiences with each of them.
I am assuming here that you are referring to my travel. We had taken the shortest Hajj package – about 15 days. People usually go for at least 40 days. I think we were among the last pilgrims to arrive. Two days after our arrival, the Hajj airport was shut down as they do not allow any more pilgrims to land after a certain date. Our journey was meant to be trying unfortunately. If you recall, Suvarnabhumi airport had been shut down. We couldn’t take the flight from Bangkok. Hence we had to drive all night to get to Phuket because our flight had been diverted there. So the journey started off a little difficult. The flight was from Phuket to Luxor, Egypt, and then to Jeddah. The flight was uneventful. Due to the fact that we were among the last pilgrims to arrive, we were lucky in that it took us only a couple of hours to clear immigration. Others who arrived few days or weeks before us had spent hours at immigration because of the influx of pilgrims/flights. As I mentioned, immigration was quick but then we waited nearly 8 hours at the airport for other formalities: your passports are collected and handed over to an Arab in charge + waiting for your bus to come along. Also, when we reached Mecca, the bus could not take us all the way to the hotel as it was prayer time and the roads had been closed. Some of us literally got off the bus with our carry-ons and walked a few blocks to the hotel. We had arrived at the airport around 5 a.m. and it was 4 p.m. when we entered Mecca. I guess we had had enough – so decided to walk. It was great to reach the hotel. The nicest part about this hotel (Hilton Hotel) was that it was located overlooking the Holy mosque. It was that close. I loved it!
While in Mecca, did you meet anyone you knew? Did you make any friends?
We did not meet anyone we knew. In fact, we found out later that one of our closest friends from Canada were there too – staying in the hotel right next door; but unfortunately, we never met.
I roomed with a few other women from Thailand; I ended up making very good friends with one who spoke fluent English. She had studied in New York. She and I would just walk down to the mosque together for the five prayers of the day. My husband would go with other men. Since my husband and I carried mobiles, it was easy to keep in touch. I was happy to have her company because I wanted to say every prayer at the mosque and not at the hotel – my husband often prayed in one of the hotel rooms set up for this purpose.
What was the most memorable experience that you had during the Hajj (good or bad)?
I am not sure if there was any memorable experience. The whole Hajj was a memorable experience. One slight problem we had as a group (there were about 8 to 10 of us) was that on our way back to Mina from Mecca, the bus dropped us off on the outskirts of Mina. We had to make our way back to our tent – and that was the hardest thing we ever did. All the tents looked the same and we had the most difficult time communicating and figuring out where to go.
What was your favorite part of the Hajj?
The circling of the Kaaba – you look at it and you are in awe. And then you look at the people around you and you realize you all are looking at the Kaaba the same. There is no status. Rich or poor, you were rubbing shoulders with one another.
What was your least favorite part of the Hajj? Is there anything that you wish you didn’t have to do?
One thing I wish I didn’t have to do was the fact that we had to stay in tents in Mina for an extra night when we could have been in Mecca. I could have been saying my prayers at the mosque – it is said that one prayer inside the Kaaba is the equivalent of a 100,000 some place else. I did not mind the tents one bit – it was the toilets that left something to be desired.
Did you feel any different after you left Mecca?
I did. I felt as if I had been born again – all cleansed of sins and that I was starting afresh. That everything would work well and end well.
Are you planning to return to Mecca later in your life? Would you take Sara with you; if not when do you expect that Sara will go on the voyage, if at all?
You bet I am. Yes, I would take Sara with me. The first time I wanted to go without her because I did not know what to expect and because I did not want to have to be worried about her all the time – her with food, her in a crowd and so on. I wanted this time just to be for me – so that I could concentrate on the Hajj and the rituals involved and not be constantly worried about her.
Sara will definitely go on this journey. I would like to take her if that is possible; unfortunately, with school, it would be hard for her to get away – I wouldn’t want to take her out of school. If, for some reason, she is unable to go with me, I am sure she will end up going with her husband. Hajj is usually undertaken when you are a lot older and understand the intricacies of religion.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I will go again, inshallah (which means God willing). I did not get to go to Medina. That was one of my biggest regrets. Mind you, it is not compulsory, but it is recommended. This time when I go, I will know exactly what is involved, what to expect and will include Medina in my trip!
From reading about Mrs. Hasan’s experiences while in performing the Hajj, I feel I have a deeper understanding for the voyage and the experiences that the pilgrims go through. It made me realize the magnitude of the power of the spiritual and theological depth of this journey and how it affects the individual pilgrims. The part of this interview which I thought was the most meaningful was when Mrs. Hasan said that there was no status between pilgrims and they all were just focusing on worshipping the one God and loving Him as much as they can within the time that it takes them to circle the Kaaba seven times.
This is the Kaaba and around it are Muslims praying during prayer time in Mecca. Mrs. Hasan refers to this when she says that everybody is circling the Kaaba and there is no status between each individual.
While people are circling the Kaaba 7 times, they try to touch it. This is the door of the Kaaba and these hands are of pilgrims who were lucky enough to touch the door. The different colours of the hands represent the variety of races in the Islamic religion.
This pilgrim is picking up pebbles in preparation for the next step of the Hajj. In Medina, pilgrims throw pebbles at three different pebbles, which re-lives the struggle for a woman to cast the devil away centuries ago.
These are the tents in Mina. As you can see, there are hundreds of tents that all look identical, so Mrs. Hasan’s problems of finding her designated tent are more than understandable.