This week my 41-year-old son will make the pilgrimage to Mecca to perform the Hajj—the once-in-a-lifetime requirement for all Muslims who can afford the journey. His preparations have led me to reflect on my own Hajj, 14 years ago.
I’ll start with my moment of fear. My husband and I were performing the ritual of circumambulating the Kaaba, the house that Prophet Abraham built. As the masses surged, I was forced to let go, and I lost him. He blended into a million pilgrims in white. I had to keep moving, propelled by the crowd. I would never find him! I raised my unopened umbrella, signaling, and then felt a tug at my arm. “That was smart,” he said, coming up from behind.
It is said that your time for the Hajj comes when God calls you to His house. It could be a series of coincidences or a sense of resolve. We were in our 50s when we felt it. The urge to kneel at the Kaaba—the place I face in prayer—and hopefully cleanse my soul, dispelled any worries.
Knowing the hardships pilgrims endured in bygone days, I was embarrassed at the trivia I indulged: Will the bathroom facilities be adequate? Will the tent be air-conditioned? I nudged myself to focus on the purpose of the Hajj—to humble oneself before the Creator.
Friends bid us farewell: “Pray for us at the Kaaba . . . pray my daughter finds a good husband.” I started keeping a prayer list, lest I get them mixed up. Safety tips were dispensed: “Walk with the flow . . . If you drop something, don’t stoop to retrieve it.”
From the airport in Saudi Arabia, we boarded a bus to the changing station. What can be more humbling than being equal in the eyes of God? Men—be they kings or paupers—drape themselves in two pieces of white unstitched cloth, a toga of sorts. Women wear loose-fitted clothing, covering all parts of the body except the hands, feet and face. Veiling the face is forbidden during the Hajj. Saudi women, visibly uncomfortable, kept bringing their hands to their faces, fingers spread, in an attempt to conceal. I tucked in the last strand of stray hair, sealing it with a pin. I was in a state of ihram—spiritual purity.
As the bus headed to Mecca, men began chanting: “Here I am at your service, O God. . . .” It came from the buses behind, and ahead, in surround-sound; I felt my heart beat to its rhythm. As we approached the Grand Mosque, the streets became tighter, the chanting more urgent. On foot we crossed the plaza encircling the mosque, yearning to behold the Kaaba. I walked through the aisle of the circular portico with rows of white marble pillars and archways, taking in the hum of silent prayers.
Then it appeared: The Kaaba stood in all its majesty and simplicity in the center of the courtyard, a 40-foot-high cubic structure, draped in black, with inscriptions of Quranic verses in gold along its rim. The faithful encircled it, hundreds of thousands of them in white, walking counterclockwise. I stopped, moved and unable to move. Was I really here O God! Letting the tears flow, I raised my hands in prayer.
The courtyard was packed, body to body. I put my arm through my husband’s and began the tawaaf, the circumambulation, walking in Prophet Abraham’s footsteps. First circle—“Thank you, God, for bringing us here.” Second circle—“Forgive me, O God!” Third circle—“Bless this life and save me a place in heaven.” Fourth circle—“Bless my family, friends and country.” Fifth circle—“I’ve lost my husband.” Sixth circle—He found me. “Thank you God.” Seventh circle—Done.
We had honored the father of all religions, a man; now it was the woman’s turn. Beyond the courtyard is an adjoining gallery, built over two hills. This is where Hagar looked for water for her baby Ishmael, running back and forth between the hills. After the seventh run, a spring gushed, and to this day, the Zamzam flows. We walked in her footsteps, paying homage to a mother’s struggle. I prayed that God infuse me with Hagar’s spirit, and we drank from the spring of the Zamzam, now in taps.
The muezzin’s call to prayer sounded. In minutes, pilgrims lined up in rows around the Kaaba. I made my way to the women’s section, and squeezed into a six-inch space between two ladies. People from all parts of the world, side by side. I prayed that this moment of harmony and peace spread through our world.
There is much more: We prayed under the blazing sun at Arafat, where Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon. We spent a night in Muzdalifa, under the stars—call it spiritual camping. I collected pebbles to stone the pillars symbolizing Satan. “Will you be stoning the devil or give your proxy to your husband?” a woman asked. With millions converging, people can get trampled. But I put my faith in God and did my own stoning. A lamb was sacrificed to honor Abraham’s sacrifice.
By day five, we had completed our rituals. I was now a Hajji. There was no jubilation, as in caps flying, but simply a feeling of peace, calm and tranquility—and a sense of awe. On leaving, I prayed that one day I would return.