Part 15 – The Haj
21 October 2018
In Part 14, I promised to ‘reveal the surreal experiences I had only shared with a few on the journey of my lifetime.’ I would not be doing justice to my promise if I convey the mundane details about the logistics of travel, albeit a part of the whole experience. What preceded our journey may be more significant in the bigger picture though. We had spent our travel money on renovations to our flat and didn’t expect to receive accreditation to go on the trip, when we were bestowed with what is commonly called the ‘invitation’ to go on the pilgrimage. The crossing of hurdles to get there having always being intense in one way or another, when the opportunity presents itself, it is regarded as a tacit invitation from the God, to seek him in the holy place. We received news from the South African Haj regulatory body that we were approved to go for Haj for December 2008 / January 2009. I was trembling with excitement and at the same time concerned about my lack of financial resources to meet the invitation. I felt that if the invitation was there the money would come. That very night an unexpected work performance bonus came through fulfilling the prophecy of what was to come. I have heard many stories about people experiencing similar wonders before they went on their Haj missions. I am convinced that anyone seeking the ‘face’ of their Creator through whichever means and to whichever place of sanctity, all that is needed is a true intention and everything else will fall into place. The Haj was mine. We only went for 10 days, as we left the kids with my sister-in-law and Zahra was only 3 at the time. We had to make the most of that time.
The Haj includes a visit to the cities of both Mecca and Medina and when we reached Jeddah, én-route to our first stop in Medina, we were greeted by gigantic white umbrella type tent coverings called tent city at Jeddah airport, the like of which I had never encountered before. I marvelled at the grandeur until I was faced with my first exposure to pit toilets. Plumbing and sanitation are the key reasons that I am relieved not to have been born before the advent of flushing toilets, yet here I was in a world that was caught between ultra-modern infrastructure and almost neo-lithic ablution facilities. I knew then that I would encounter many such dualities on this strange enchanting journey. The next test was the ever-elusive gift of patience, of which I was not a fortunate recipient. I always need everything to happen now, but the forces were against me, as we were forced to wait an inordinately long time for transport to Medina. We had booked road transport which was no longer possible due to unexpected road closures on the way to Medina. We tried to book flights to no avail, walking up and down several times without success. We finally got an offer from a Saudi bus company, who could get access past these blockages. When we eventually boarded the bus, we were pleasantly surprised by the hospitality as we received gratuitous food packs to sustain us on our journey. We were, of course forced to endure endless queues to use another set of pit toilets on the way, which was unavoidable. Enduring the latrine system turned out to be one of my biggest tests, and there were many. I wondered why such a wealthy nation would not have a sophisticated latrine system for the hordes of people that throng to these parts of Arabia throughout the year. Perhaps there are engineering limitations of which I wouldn’t have the foggiest clue, but whatever the reason, I had no choice in the matter and had to endure these conditions. I wondered why the issue of hygiene and the lofty ideals of worship were so closely linked on this journey, and the intensity of the duality grew as we progressed. Medina, which was the city where the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) spent his final days. Entry into this city was like a drink of cool water on a hot day. It seemed to permeate a peaceful energy that clothed everything with soothing harmony. I felt the calm sedateness enter my pores and take over my mind and body as if I became a part of it somehow. I looked in amazement as we wondered through the beautifully lit abandoned streets the evening we arrived. There were unsecured stalls with their goods under thinly veiled cloths with no security, locks or anything to shield them from theft or vandalism. In Medina I had no need to be concerned about the plumbing as we had access to hotels, toilets and all the amenities of the 21st century. Was I going to escape the challenges in this serene place of sanctuary? Aahhh but what would the value of the journey be then? I was struck by the remarkable architecture of the sacred mosque, with a roof and ceiling that opened up like an umbrella in the evening to reveal starry skies. In this beautiful mosque, part of which housed the burial place of the burial place of the Prophet (PBUH) that I experienced an odd contradiction. My entry into the sacred mosque was indelibly marred by the rough treatment that I and everyone around me seemed to be receiving from the young women who were the guardians and ushers at the mosque, placed there to control the crowds. Race also played a part in how well or not one was treated. Groups of people awaited their turns to visit the ‘Rauda’ (garden – as in a symbolic part of the garden of paradise) a sacred place in the mosque on which one paid homage to the Prophet M(PBUH) and where one’s prayers are said to be accepted. Arabs, and Arabic speaking states were given the highest favour being first in line with Africans (surprise surprise!) being relegated to the back of the queue. I received resistance when I identified myself as South African, being met with “no Afrika!” despite my protestations, because my skin was apparently not dark enough. I was struck by the irony that the Arabs who were carrying the custom of the Prophet and the culture of the first Muslims, were behaving in exactly the opposite of what he espoused in his teachings and his way of life. His renowned kindness, patience and gentle disposition seemed to have been lost in the echelons of time. His last sermon which stated that there is no difference between Arabs and non-Arabs and that all human are equal, the only discernment between them being their level of Taqwa (being conscious and cognizant of God, of truth, of the rational reality, “piety, fear of God”), was not adhered to in the very space where his body was laid to rest and billions of people would visit over the centuries. I was tempted to resist and fight and establish righteous justice, and yet those very thoughts were thwarted by the reality of my helplessness in this situation. Yet when I had gained entry to pray in the mosque all those barriers melted away as if the sun suddenly shone upon a hidden flower revealing the beauty of its bloom and the brightness of its colour. I realised that I had to experience both extremes to appreciate the duality of the human condition. The Yin and Yang suddenly made sense. We are human and are capable of both darkness and light on various points on that spectrum, at different times. The choices we make with either of these capacities, either ennoble us or debase us. It is that choice that sets us apart from other living creatures on our planet. As I journeyed from the coolness of Medina to Mecca, I observed all my emotions, so that I was acutely aware of all my experiences, reactions and engagements with fellow pilgrims and my own extremes, which surfaced more intensely than ever before.
I didn’t know what to expect from Mecca, but it hit me like a ray of sun in the horizon of my own darkness. As much as the calm coolness of Medina engulfed me, the minute I entered Mecca, I knew that the bustle and energy of this lively city drew me in a way I could not explain. Again, I found myself in a world caught between the ways of ancient Bedouins with street vendours, open market stalls, dirty pavements and spitting foreign nationals to a metropolis with high rise buildings, grandiose hotels, electrified splendour, and Burger King, MacDonald’s and every other major food franchise that defines the modern world. This was not more evident than when one crossed the distinct line from the dirty street pavement to the parameter of the outside of the mataaf (the open white area marble tiled immediately around the Kaaba where tawaf (perambulation around the Kaaba) takes place.) The marble floors of the mataaf were shiny and scrupulously clean in contrast to the dusty street that surrounded it. I had been anxious to visit the Kaaba (a small stone building in the court of the Great Mosque at Mecca that contains a sacred black stone and is the goal of Islamic pilgrimage and the point toward which Muslims turn in prayer). I had read somewhere that it was built on a ley line which fascinated me and given the significance of what I was taught about it, I was like a child waiting to enter the carnival. At the same time, I thought “What if I’m disappointed? Or worse, what if I have no reaction at all?” I felt a closeness and dependency on Shafiq as he shielded me from the bustling crowds and made sure that I was always close to him. As we made our way closer to the Kaaba, I found myself absorbed by a magical air, like someone had sprinkled fairy dust in the air that made everything hazy and fantastic. I felt a sense of unreality and tried to focus several times as if to regain my senses. I couldn’t shake the mystical cloud that seemed to consume me. Instead of trying to regain control, I submitted to it and was struck with an awe and majesty I had never experienced before. The throngs of people disappeared. I saw and heard nothing around me. I was swept up in this fantastic aura of magic. The Kaaba itself looked so much smaller than I expected but had an atmosphere that took my breath away. It took me some time to emerge from that altered state and when we left I found tears rolling down my cheeks.
During Haj in Mecca, women were not treated any differently from men. People from different cultures, dress codes and identities, rich and poor converged for a common purpose, where their differences assumed less importance than their purpose. We followed what turned out to be powerful rituals of Haj that are intended to awaken our relationship with the Divine and with one another. It turned out to reveal my own inadequacies and intolerance towards my fellow human beings. The ritual of Tawaaf (revolving around the Kaaba in an anti-clockwise motion), serves as a reminder to make sure our lives revolve around God. Every time we did a tawaaf there was pushing and shoving as people tried to get ahead. Some were on their cell phones. Others made a human chain and pushed past pilgrims with some degree of force. I watched in consternation, and sometimes reacted with aggression. How was it that in this space, the very object of the ritual was belied by the human haste, fear and carelessness towards others? I had to concentrate and work hard at letting go of my irritation and impatience and to focus on devotion. My husband encircled me with his long arms and protected me all the while. His patience and tolerance served him well. During prayer times, a view from the upper levels would be spectacular as the mass of pilgrims resemble the opening and closing of a flower as they bow, prostrate and stand up again in unison.
One of the legs of the journey involves throwing pebbles at the Jamarat pillars, which reminds the pilgrim to be conscious of evil temptations and to remain steadfast in serving God. I witnessed frenzy among pilgrims as they hurled the stones, releasing pent up angst. They appeared to be spent at the end of it. For me it was revealing of my own fears and vices and the many negativities I harboured and carried with me. I thought that as much as there are external temptations, it was inevitably my choice to give in to them or to take the higher path. The release of hurling the stones had a cleansing effect. What struck me most about this part of the pilgrimage was the long walk to the Jamarat, where we encountered a woman who walked bent over in a 90 degree angle. She walked unaided. I was humbled and almost afraid of my own lack of strength and tenacity. The long walk to Mina (a temporary campground) was a reminder of the transient nature of this life. With minimal clothing and just a change of underwear, the ablution facilities were almost primal and the toilets proved once again to be the most challenging part of my journey to Mina. The sense of community and dependency was inevitable on this part of the journey. I watched women engage in small talk and gossip, and observed my own fears, inadequacies and envies surface. I was consoled by the camaraderie. Sleeping over on the open rocky plains of Muzdalifah a reminder of the reality of the transience and our ultimate end on this earth, filled me with a sense of wonder at the stars that were visible on that warm night in the rocky field. We returned to Mecca first by bus which was stuck in the most horrendous traffic, causing Shafiq and I to exit and start walking instead. I struggled to get accustomed to the constant hooting, which was apparently a way of life on the busy streets of Mecca. The cars seemed to follow no rules of the road, yet everyone got around safely in the chaos, constantly hooting their way through traffic. As we walked for what seemed like hours, I started panicking and became short of breath, stopped suddenly in the middle of the buzzing city and broke down in tears. I cried for all the frustrations I felt in the situations where the worst side of my character surfaced. I cried for the frustrations of seeing pilgrims disrespect others not only in the streets of this holy city but in its most sacred space around the Kaaba. I cried for a failing humanity. I cried for a failing me.
We reached Mecca in a state of extreme physical exhaustion, but were not ready to rest our weary bodies, having to fulfil the last leg of this part of the pilgrimage. It was dawn, we had been walking for the better part of the night. We had yet to complete the journey of walking between the two hills of Safa and Marwa during the ritual of Sa’i commemorating Hagar’s optimism and trust in God, which gave rise to the opening of the perpetual well/springs of Zam Zam. I lay my head on the cool marble of the mataaf inside the Kaaba precinct and felt as if I would pass out. How was I going to find the strength to pray let alone walk the stretch between the two hills? Unbelievably I managed to do both. My mind reached into what seemed like the last reserves of my ailing body and overcame the seemingly impossible. During this pilgrimage I experienced the most extreme emotions and conditions from darkness to light as if my life had been intensified and compressed into a brief but lasting encounter.
When I got back from this experience and was back in the hotel, I found myself on my prayer mat in the room supplicating. I heard the athaan (call to prayer) mutedly in the background, although it was not prayer time. I thought I was imagining and silenced myself, pausing my thoughts but the sound just got louder and louder, eventually ringing in my head till it reached a crescendo. All the while I experience the odd feeling of being in a cocoon and saw myself emerging and breaking through till my wings surfaced and I became this butterfly. I thought I was going crazy. I told Shafiq about my experience and he said it probably symbolised a transformation. That wasn’t the only esoteric experience I had. In the Kaaba one of the times I was there during prayer time, just before the prayer commenced I looked up and saw gigantic men dressed in Arab regalia and gigantic camels who walked around the area as if on an invisible plane, not disturbing any of the pilgrims. It was almost as if I saw a hologram superimposed in the Kaaba precinct. On another occasion, I saw a burst of energy that looked like a flood of intense white light emanating from the centre of the black stone towards the sky. As suddenly as it appeared it disappeared from my sight. Shafiq said that he had seen something similar. The pinnacle of my journey was when we gathered on the planes of Arafa, which symbolises the resurrection and gathering before God of all souls. I relished every moment of my time here. I felt like I was kneeling before the King of Kings in a space of closeness that would last for a day and I had to grasp at every moment. I prayed for all the things I wished for me and my loved ones. I wish I had prayed for the whole of humanity as hard, but my heart had not reached that level of awareness yet. I wish to return one day and to not forget to appeal for all of humanity, of which I am part of the whole.
On my last day of the Haj, as I was leaving the Kaaba on my last visit, I felt a deep sadness and loss as if I were saying goodbye to a loved one, not sure if I would ever see them again. My heart was full, as I wept and before I left, I felt a longing to come back. I understood why people returned there so often. The magnetism of that space is inexplicable. This should be a place accessible to anyone to visit without exclusivity.
When we got home, I felt like I was still floating for about two weeks, engulfed in a surrealistic glow. People commented on how different I looked. I felt a lightness of being. I wished I could hold on to that feeling forever, but alas, I slowly returned to the ‘earth’ and felt my mind and body sink back to the heavy reality of life. Slowly I felt my soul being tarnished again as I reverted to less noble thoughts and actions than I’d have liked. I again began the cycle of struggling to make the right choices in my spectrum of light and dark.
Till the next chapter, God-willing.
With love and warmth from my heart to yours.