Memories, nostalgia and a personal account …
Each year at this time, nostalgia consumes me totally. I start reliving my haj experience, reminiscing what I had gone through and how countless souls from all over the world go through the same rituals each year.
The haj is a totally consuming experience – physically, mentally and spiritually. And to me, it is the most exciting spiritual adventure one can experience. I use the word ‘adventure’ because of the nature of what has to be accomplished, the tasking mental and physical demands, the euphoria when a seemingly impossibility resolves into reality in the blink of an eye, the travelling involved and the exhaustion at the end of it all.
You prepare yourself to really rough it out, carrying the bare minimum that you will need, staying in a camp in Mina, spending the afternoon, preferably under the sun, in Arafat, sleeping out in the open in Muzdalfah, struggling to stone the Satan at Jamrah, rushing to perform Tawafe-e-Ziarat and returning to Mina, and after stoning the Satan on the last day, hastening to leave Mina before sunset to avoid spending an additional night there and having to go to Jamrah for the fourth time.
All these things and so much more make you feel you are on a spiritual safari, where instead of other creatures of God, you get to see so many of your kind, yet so very different. All your instincts and skills come into use, and you get to discover much more about yourself and others than you ever knew before.
Patience and tolerance are what you need most, and what pay off most. You have to be tolerant first with the group of people you are travelling, and then all the other pilgrims and people you encounter. Living with people you don’t know for more than a month is not easy. Those whom you may start off thinking highly of and forming a bond with, may be the ones you would start avoiding by the end of the period. On the other hand, a kind gesture and the humbleness of someone you though was a bit too unrefined,may have you respecting that person the most in your group.
The haj experience is about sharing and individual identities dissolving into the common identity of a Muslim. If you give way to another person while performing a ritual, you are bound to be rewarded by things becoming very easy for you too. Or out of the blue, a total stranger may help you out when you may be in dire need of assistance.
In the holy land, you seem to reap what you sow instantly. Soon after you have been unfair or selfish, you end up facing some hurdle yourself. Or maybe because of one’s conscience being highly alive during pilgrimage, you tend to find Devine intervention in everything.
For us, the travelling was more exhausting than performing any of the rituals. Or perhaps we were rewarded for enduring difficulties while moving from one place to another by getting to perform the rituals with relative easy. Like when we spend the whole day on a bus that we boarded from Muzdalfah to get to Mina. We started at eight in the morning from Muzdalfah to head back to Mina for the stoning at Jamrah in the afternoon. We had planned to return to our camp, drop our belongings and head for the stoning, but Allah had other plans.
We got stuck in endless traffic jams, became lost and landed in Mecca, boarded another bus and finally arrived at Mina at five in the evening. All of us were exhausted, had eaten just what we had with us or nothing, had not made a trip to the washroom and were simply miserable in all ways.
When we finally arrived near the Jamrah, we had to race against time to do the stoning before sunset. Our legs were wobbly with fatigue, hunger and sitting in the bus all day. The elderly, particularly females, were left resting on the footpath for we believed it would be too crowded to take them and their mehrams would stone the Satan on their behalf. The rest of us headed towards the Jamrah, a place most of us were seeing for the first time.
We had been told that the stoning is most difficult from the ground level so we looked around for a way to climb the bridge to do the stoning from the top, thinking it would be less crowded there. As we moved to climb the bridge, another Pakistani man, a total stranger, stopped us and asked us where we wanted to go.
After we told him that we were heading to climb the bridge we were almost standing under, he told us, “But why are you going there? The shaitan is right in front of you.”
To our astonishment, just 20 metres or so away in front of us was a stone pillar and the crowd around it was as thin as can be at any time during haj. In no time, we were standing so close to the pillar that we could easily touch it.
Over with this ritual in no time, we were hugging each other with joy at being able to do it so easily. And the man who had helped us had simply vanished in the crowd.
Soon those who were left behind were also brought there to do the stoning and as we happily headed back to our tent, we were recharged by jubilation. All that we had endured during the day was forgotten after being rewarded in such an unbelievable wonderful manner.
This is a ritual that appears to be the most difficult and where most accidental deaths occur. With all the millions of pilgrims converging at the three pillars signifying the spots where the Satan tried to mislead Prophet Ibrahim, and with only a few hours in hand to do the stoning, it is no wonder that stampede frequently occurs and many get crushed to death. But since 2003, when I performed haj, there has been a total redesigning of the Jamraht and the pilgrim traffic flows comparatively more smoothly.
The haj is indeed a celebration of faith. Whether in Mecca or Medina, you tend to find miracles everywhere and at the most unexpected times. It’s a magical world where wishes come true even before you realise you had wished for something. The crowd simply melts away to bring you right in front of the Ka’aba or in Riaz-ul-Jannah. Everything reminds you of how blessed you are.
And somewhere in this spiritual journey comes the feeling of being reborn. And I can pinpoint the exact moment when I felt that way. Completing the two rakat prayers in front of Moqamm-e-Ibrahim, after the Tawaf-e-Ziarat, I went into sajadah again and prayed like I had never prayed in my life, asking forgiveness for my sins.
After I don’t know how long, when I sat up, wiping my eyes and nose, I just felt so light. I had this light feeling that my prayers were heard and accepted. I had been forgiven. I was meant to be blessed otherwise I would not have made it this far. I know it may sound weird but after haj, I was even ready to die. Having all my sins forgiven, I felt it was the best time to meet my Maker. The fear of death was not there for a long, long time.
During haj, you realise that it is something that should not be kept off till old age as you not only put yourself through a lot of problems, but those who are travelling with you have a tougher time looking after you. It is rather noticeable that majority of the pilgrims from the subcontinent were old while those from other countries, particularly Malaysia, were all very young. In fact, I was told that in Malaysia people can marry only after they have performed the haj!
You have to walk like you have never walked before and it takes longer to go anywhere by bus than walking the distance. All that takes place during the haj makes you realise that there definitely is an unseen higher Power behind all that goes on in the world. The fact that an unbelievable number of people, of literally all ages and in all kinds of conditions, perform the same rituals at the same time and at the same place is a realisation that leaves you wonderstruck. The haj is a celebration of fate that recharges you in every way.
A shorter version of this article originally appeared in The Review, Dawn, on December 20, 2007