Chanting “Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik” (Here I am Oh Lord), I joined a gathering of over two million people clad in white garments. This was a congregation of Hajj 2007, I attended with my wife. Every able-bodied adult Muslim, having means to bear the cost, must perform Hajj once in his/her lifetime. It involves pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia at a certain time each year.
We boarded a plane on 21st Nov 07, from Karachi, Pakistan for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The plane landed after 4 hours, covering an aerial distance of 2,050 km. Hajj was 27 days away. For logistic reasons, the pilgrims were being brought in much earlier. A steady stream of aircraft from all over the world was outpouring thousands of devotees in a tent-shaped terminal said to be largest in the world. I was holding hand of my wife all the time. If she got lost, it would be a miracle to find her.
Before boarding the plane, I had taken a bath, wrapped a seamless white cotton sheet around my waist and secured it with a belt. I donned another similar sheet over my back and the left shoulder keeping the right shoulder uncovered. Wearing a pair of rubber slippers, I was in proper attire called “Ihram”, a must for anyone proceeding to Saudi Arabia for religious reasons. Ladies were exempted but were expected to wear long robes and head scarves.
Jeddah - Mecca Expressway
After custom and immigration formalities, everyone was given (i) coupons for internal travel, (ii) a rubber bracelet with identification marks and (iii) a hajj security badge. This took a long time, about six hours before we could board a bus. Because of traffic congestions, the bus moved slowly on the 80 km expressway along a mountain chain with peaks rising up to 3,000 meters. There were many stoppages because of security-checks as no non-Muslim could enter the Holy City of Mecca. However, we did not feel any boredom as on each stop, a stream of canned juices, biscuits and crackers flowed in as a matter of hospitality. At long last, we reached Mecca at about midnight and got a double in a hotel “Ufukal Fateh”, hardly 700 meters away from the Grand Mosque, the holiest site of Islam. Soon we were snorting to mark the end of phase one of the holy journey.
Next morning, I got up and looked around. The room had TV, telephone, air-conditioning, attached bath, refrigerator and power outlets. I went out to market and brought a tiny electric tea-kettle and a hot-plate costing hardly three dollars each, viva la China! There were scores of shops and restaurants around our hotel and finding foods was no problem.
First gathering at the Grand Mosque
At 11:30, we all gathered in the Grand Mosque. Our leader explained to us three types of Hajj of which we selected Tamattu. Since we were already in Ihram, we would now perform Umrah and dispense with Ihram. On the day of commencement of Hajj, we would put on our Ihram again and carry out all of its requirements.
Since we had come early in the Hajj season, there was not much rush in the Grand Mosque. We were required to perform Tawaaf which involves circumambulating seven times around Kaabah, a tall structure made up of granite with height of 13.1 meters, length of 12 meters and width of 11 meters. It was covered with a black silk and gold curtain which is changed each year. In its south-east corner is the famous Black Stone about 1.5 meters high from the ground. Every devotee salutes this stone with the right hand while passing by and it is a great honor to kiss it, if it is feasible in very early season.
We were lucky as we were very near the Kaabah and we just walked in a 90-meter circumference. It hardly took us 30 minutes to complete the seven rounds with recitation of prayers and supplication. There was no gender segregation and we moved together holding each other hands.
Safa & Marwa
After performing Tawaaf, we moved towards two hillocks known as Safa and Marwa. These were at short distance within the boundaries of the Grand Mosque. These were located in a long gallery with three levels and the ritual of ‘running between the two hills’ can be performed at any level. Since it was early in the season, we found enough space in the ground floor.
The distance between Safa and Marwa is approximately 450 meters, so that seven trips amount to roughly 3.15 kilometers which we covered in about 55 minutes. We were quite relaxed having no hurry or tension anytime and completed the ritual smoothly and quite peacefully.
Afterwards, we got out of the mosque and looked for a barber. Soon many approached us yelling 10 Riyal, 8 Riyal. With some patience we caught hold of one charging only five riyals roughly one dollar. He shaved my head making me look like Yul Brynner. As for my wife, she cut off a symbolic hair lock by borrowing a small scissors from other ladies.
Thereafter, we went to our hotel, dispensed with ihram, changed into everyday clothing and jumped on the bed to have a sound sleep.
Staying at Mecca
Since Hajj was 26 days away, we spend the time in praying five times in the mosque, strolling in the streets and quite often observing other believers in their prayers. Many were squatting on the Kaabah floor in extreme humility, their imploring hand raised up in passionate prayer, their tears tricking from their numbed eyes. Many a times, we went to the Holy Well, Zam Zam, to sip sweetest water in the world. Also we had the pleasure to watch tiny birds and pigeons flying gracefully over the mosque.
Quite often, we went to downtown commercial plazas for window-shopping but postponed emptying our pockets till the fag end.
Departure to Medina
On 12th day, the 2nd of Dec 07, we left for Medina, 447 km away by bus. The journey was smooth with a 4-lane expressway with a lot of tunnels, flyovers and underpasses. There were hills, deserts, oasis, towns, mosques, civic amenity centres, food stalls, teashops and barren land along the road. It took us about seven hours to reach the second holy city of Islam, Medina. The city is 625 meters above sea level amidst fertile oasis bounded by hills, the highest, Mount Uhud, rising 2,000 meters.
We were lodged in a hotel. However, no private rooms were available and 4-6 persons were accommodated in one room, ladies and gents separately. This was unexpected and we were refunded the premium paid for a private rooms. Sharing with me were Aqueel, Sarwar, Haq and our wives were in the next room. We developed a deep friendship and moved together for prayers, eating in restaurants, shopping and sight-seeing.
A visit to Medina is not part of Hajj but every adherent visits it to pray at the grave of great prophet, Muhammad (s.a.w.s.) in Masjid-e-Nabvi, the second holiest mosque in Islam. The mosque has a unique construction with domes, sliding roofs, big umbrellas and artistic ceiling. It is pleasantly cool inside as a tunnel connects it with an air-conditioning plant about eight km away. Outside, there is a marbled area with underground rest-rooms separately for gents and ladies. The mosque is flanked by innumerable shops, fast-food restaurants and teashops.
We stayed at Medina for 8 days. It was the loveliest destination on the earth. As in Mecca, we prayed regularly five times days in the mosque. Unlike Mecca, the ladies had a separate enclosure for prayer. Thanks to mobile phone, my wife used to give me a call whenever she came out of the prayer hall and asked me to fetch her.
It was much cooler in Medina. We enjoyed the cool breeze and whirling of birds in the air. We loitered about in the streets of Medina. There was hardly any sign of old city. It is said that the mosque has covered the entire old Medina Town and the expansion was still going on.
Our stay was very near to the mosque. We always enjoyed the melodious calls to the prayer. Our eight days stay was a unique pleasure, a real exhilarating tonic.
Return to Mecca
On return from Medina, we again put on Ihram but first went to a guest house at Kudi, a suburban area of Mecca about 3 km away. After taking some rest, we came to Mecca and performed the Umrah and returned to the guesthouse. After two days stay we move to Mina, the tent city. The Hajj was still two days away. Next phase as per Haj-II