MECCA, Saudi Arabia >> It is incumbent upon every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so to travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest site, at least once in his or her lifetime. The annual six-day pilgrimage, which began last Saturday, is known as the hajj, and it is one of the five pillars of Islam, prescribed in the Quran.
This year, 1437 according to the Islamic calendar, I am making my first hajj, which runs through Wednesday. I have joined nearly 2 million fellow Muslims from around the world for prayer, Islamic rites and rituals commemorating the Prophet Muhammad’s final pilgrimage before his death in 632 A.D.
We’re all sisters
When I arrived in Saudi Arabia last week for the hajj, I did so without antibiotics or the disinfectant gel my family had insisted I carry. The airline had lost my luggage and, with it, my defenses against what we call “the hajj flu.” I also did not have a proper head scarf or even a prayer mat.
As the call to prayer sounded on my first day in Mecca, I stood outside the Grand Mosque in a line of women and realized that I would have no clean place to put my head during the full prostrations we make in a symbolic act of submission to God. I figured, never mind, this is the hajj, once in a lifetime. Then the woman standing next to me said, “I’ve made space for you.” We had to pray very close together, our heads touching on her tiny mat.
Afterward, I thanked her. Her name was Samira, a professor in Algeria. She kissed me on the cheek and said that that was the way a Muslim should behave, and that I was her sister.
Samira was one of dozens of fellow Muslims I encountered who shared a simple kindness or opened up about their spiritual ambitions for their hajj. Other veteran pilgrims shared tips for practicing the rites we would perform, where to find bargains during the hajj and how to beat the heat.
Pray for peace
The indispensable part of the hajj took place Sunday, when pilgrims were to clamber onto Mount Arafat to ask for God’s forgiveness and make specific requests by prayer. Muslims believe that a supplication at that place at that time will be answered.
My mum had instructed me to pray for a husband as I make my first hajj. Also: the health of her best friend and the release, from jail in Egypt, of the son of my aunt’s maid.
Along with Mum’s list, I prayed for Syria; for refugees to find homes and acceptance; that children would go to sleep with full stomachs and mothers able to love and care for them. I prayed for my friend’s mother who has cancer, and tried to remember all the other friends, most of them secular, who had asked me to sneak in a word for them.
Peace seemed to be the most popular prayer among the pilgrims I met. Mervat, a 30-year-old cardiologist from Yemen, said she would ask “to go to paradise with my parents” and that her war-torn country might heal. Hassan Abbas, a doctor from Nigeria, said he hoped that his war-torn country might find peace, too. Sayida Bakri, 68, asked for terrorism to be defeated and “for Egypt to stand on its feet” after years of instability.
Abd Aziz Hj Johari — who is 18 and from Brunei, and who wore a T-shirt proclaiming, “I Love the Prophet” — shrugged when I asked what he was praying for. His mother, Siti Hayun Hj Abdul Qadi, said she would ask that her son “become a good boy in the future, a good husband, especially, a good son.”
On the third day of the hajj, pilgrims throw rocks at three stone pillars near Jamarat Bridge in a re-enactment of Ibrahim (or Abraham) stoning the devil as he tries to follow God’s commandment. Jamarat is a notorious choke point for hajj crowds. It was as pilgrims were heading to the Jamarat ritual last year that hundreds, maybe thousands, of pilgrims died in a crush of people.
Security officials this year are trying to limit the numbers of pilgrims who can go to Jamarat at any given time. To avoid dangerous backups, they have instituted one-way pedestrian roads for pilgrims from the tent city of Mina where they walk to the Jamarat building. And directions flash in English and Arabic to keep people moving.
I collected 49 small rocks in an empty water bottle for the ritual, and some more experienced pilgrims showed me how to carefully but purposefully throw my stones. Tip: Nobody likes a lefty. After throwing my first batch of stones with my left hand, I was politely corrected to throw them with my right next time. I joked that any devil could duck my left-handed throw.
After prayers at the Grand Mosque, pilgrims flocked to the Aesra ice cream shop nearby, where there are separate lines for men and women. “After worship, there’s a treat,” said Arar Hafsi, 51, an Algerian pilgrim, giggling.
I met one young woman in a niqab, her face and body covered in heavy black cloth, clutching a plastic cup filled with cold swirls of mango and strawberry. She said, laughing, that maybe she had one after every prayer — that’s five times a day.
“Is it good?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “it’s all there is.”
I know you want to know, so: A woman wearing a niqab eats ice cream by filling the spoon, then raising her veil just a bit and sticking the spoon into her mouth.
Qasim, 16, a worker I interviewed at the shop, gave free cups to me and Abdul-Rahman, the Saudi minder who follows me everywhere under the government’s rules for journalists covering the hajj. The ice cream tasted good. Also: It’s all there is.
Sitting next to a group of Saudi women who resembled large black crows in their billowing robes, double-face veils and gloves, I noticed that they all wore little rings that looked like miniature pedometers. When I asked how many miles one woman had walked that day, she laughed.
It turned out that the rings were electronic prayer counters. Muslims often keep track of individual prayers like “I seek God’s forgiveness,” believing that they earn credit for a good deed, or hasana, with each supplication. Prayers uttered at the Grand Mosque are said to be worth 100,000 times those said elsewhere.
One of the women, Hanan, showed me her counter: 266, and it was only noon. Then she thrust the device into my hands and told me to “keep it, so you can always count your prayers.” I politely declined.
Keepsakes and souvenirs
I mean no disrespect when I say that Mecca is, well, a mecca for shopping. People have come here to pray, but even five times daily leaves time for the glittering gold shops that line Ajyad Street.
This year’s big sellers: lightweight rings and white, rose and yellow bracelets so finely spun that they feel like cotton candy on the wrist. Traders, as they do, lament that last year was better — instability throughout the Middle East has left fewer buyers for the higher-priced bling.
For those with lighter wallets, children hawk velvet prayer rugs decorated with images of the Kaaba for $2.60. People sell flip-flops for the inevitable pilgrim who has lost her shoes somewhere around the Grand Mosque, calling out the prices in Urdu: “Panj! Panj! Panj!” Five! Five! Five! The pharmacy on Ajyad Street is constantly packed, doing a roaring trade in antibiotics — hajj flu again — and anti-diarrhea pills.
At the end of the hajj, men are required to shave their heads, and women to cut a lock of hair. At the busy barber complex near the Grand Mosque, they’ll buzz you with a razor (disposable) or scissors for $4; a buzz cut is $2.70. Signs around the mosque warn pilgrims not to cut hair inside the complex — it turns out that some people like to DIY at Islam’s holiest site.
Ask a pilgrim
“Are women and men allowed to circle the Kaaba together, or are the genders segregated?” asked Mary Ann Hall of North Charleston, S.C., in a query posted to The Times’ website.
The Kaaba, which is also known as the House of Allah, is in the Grand Mosque of Mecca. It houses a black stone, which is believed to have descended from paradise whiter than the color of milk, but was later stained by the sins of humans. At the hajj, pilgrims dressed in white circle the Kaaba seven times, trying to kiss the black stone. This is one of the most iconic images of the hajj.
The Kaaba is mostly empty save for two pillars, an altar, incense lamps and plaques on the wall. I love the idea that the place Muslims must pray to is empty. Muslims are internalizing in every prayer that the one god they worship cannot be represented in an image and cannot be imagined, to the point where the house sanctified to God is empty.
Men and women do walk around the Kaaba at the same time. In that way, it’s a unique holy site in Islam where the sexes mix and undertake their rites together.