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Mecca’s Other Pilgrimage

It was well past midnight. Lit with fluorescent tubes in the colors of the Saudi flag, the petrol station had the energy of a middle-aged man toiling through a graveyard shift. Men stood beside a few cars out front. More were parked in the back for the night, forming a sort of question mark on the station’s perimeter. A man approached me with a question about my destination: “Mecca? Mecca, Mecca, Mecca.”

Situated on the outskirts of Jeddah, this taxi stand is popular with those who wish to reach the holiest city of Islam. It’s a short distance, around 70 kilometers, and the drive takes about three-quarters of an hour. For most passengers, it’s the final stretch of a journey of a lifetime.

Getting out of the cab that brought me from the airport, I was on my way to Mecca for Umrah, the lesser version of the Hajj pilgrimage for Muslims. Unlike Hajj, which is done on the last month of the Islamic calendar and takes three days, Umrah can be done any time in the year, and completed in a couple of hours. It involves making seven rounds of the Kaaba, walking seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah, and ends with cutting one’s hair.

Standing in the desert breeze, I realized that this taxi stand uncannily combined Saudi Arabia’s notorious national products: oil and religion.

A couple returning from Mecca at Jeddah’s popular cab drop-off point. Photo: Asif Khan

Earlier that day, I had been sitting in the airport of Lucknow, India, next to my wife when a woman started making conversation. “Our Umrah experience was terrible,” she sighed, taking off her Ray-Ban prescription glasses. She was an unusual presence in the departure hall, which is used to pilgrims and migrant workers, not a lady like her, with her gold Michael Kors bag, gold handmade jootis, and gold-bordered dupatta headscarf.

She was talking about her trip to Saudi Arabia a few months earlier. As soon as they had exited the Jeddah airport, her husband and she had been accosted by locals impersonating as officials. They didn’t know any better and felt intimidated by the threatening tone and foreign language—the only word of which they understood was “bassbort”—so they handed theirs over.

It was, apparently, a scam. “They return a copy of your passport, telling you to collect the original when you leave at the end of your trip,” she said. Just then, her story was interrupted by the boarding for her flight to Abu Dhabi. She left us with quick goodbyes and the mystery of how she had gotten her passport back in the end.

Nineteen years. It had been that long since my last visit to the Kingdom. Long enough for me to turn from an energetic teenager at the threshold of infinite possibilities to a tired mid-lifer, bumping up against the limit of his potential.

My last trip had been a family visit. I had traveled with my mother to spend some time with my father, whom we would otherwise only see on his annual trips to India. He was living in Khamis Mushayt, in the southwest of Saudi Arabia. Visa restrictions didn’t allow us to go there, so we had met in Jeddah. Of course, we had performed Umrah together, without which the visit would have been incomplete. One of my fondest childhood photographs shows me standing with my cousins somewhere on the side of the road to Mecca, each one of us in different stages of eating a shawarma. It remains unclear to me how the ihram, the customary two pieces of unstitched white cloth worn by pilgrims, stayed on our restless bodies.

Unlike Umrah, the Hajj must be performed by all Muslims at least once in their lifetime. It was natural for me then to believe that the next time I would travel for a pilgrimage, it would be for Hajj. Among the things it is said to transform, I had heard stories from couples about how performing it together bonded them in a much stronger relationship. I began harboring the romantic notion of performing the Hajj together with my wife in the first year of marriage.

We married last year. As life would have it, we didn’t have the funds to perform the Hajj when the time came. Muslims are known to save up during their entire lives for it, some being able to make the pilgrimage only in their twilight years. The most prominent cost is that of traveling to and living in a foreign country for a period of three to six weeks in addition to the pilgrim’s fee, which is fixed by the Saudi government. In our case, the irony was that when we did have the funds for Hajj in the past, we didn’t have each other.

The Umrah visa, however, is usually issued free of cost for two weeks, and the period of stay can be as short as a few days. It was the strength of conviction in my wife’s voice that made me agree with her suggestion: between us, we had about enough to perform Umrah together.

“Let’s not hold back this year. InshaAllah, we will do Hajj later. Who knows what this Umrah brings with it?”

If you utter one more word, I’m going to tear your passport

Saudi Arabia’s government is well-known for its strict view of Islamic law. Perhaps that is why clearing immigration at Jeddah airport is like a bad parody of Judgment Day. The entire diversity of humankind gathers together in endless lines punctuated only by the wailing of babies and groaning of the elderly. The travelers grow hungrier, thirstier and more exasperated, but the line barely moves.

An argument was breaking out at the front of the line. “If you utter one more word, I’m going to tear your passport. There is no way that I’m letting you through.” A group of Arab women had walked up to the front of the queue, demanding to be let through before the others and citing their old age as grounds for compassion. The head of the Pakistani family standing first in line wasn’t having any of it. “We’ve been waiting for three and a half hours,” he said, adjusting the ihram over his shoulder. The women replied in loud Arabic, directing their complaints towards the immigration official.

“Even my mother is eighty years old,” the Pakistani shouted back. On this cue, a petite old lady with a case of vitiligo and bad knees emerged from the back of the hall. Led by the hand of her 10-year-old grandson, she was proof that if anybody there could claim compassion based shortcuts, it was her family.

The gentleman ahead of us turned back with a wry smile. “In all my years of working here, I’ve seen that Arab women are very shrewd when it comes to getting their work done. Especially the Masri and Falasteeni. No care for rules. They talk themselves out of every situation.” He spoke Urdu laced with an accent from Western Uttar Pradesh.

Another half hour and no movement later, I walked up to the front of the queue to ask about the reason for the continued deadlock.

“Oh man, it’s the Kashmir issue… Just refuses to get resolved,” joked another ihram-wearing man in Urdu. The irony of the mention of Kashmir by a Pakistani man as the analogy for his impasse with a Palestinian woman wasn’t lost on me. All traces of hope evaporated in the middle of this fluorescent, air-conditioned desert.

Luck arrived ten minutes later in the form of shift change at midnight. The line sped up and we were out in a total of two and a half hours. Considering immigration officials probably worked for a total of one hour during their shift, it wouldn’t be presumptuous to believe the next chunk of arrivals would be walking out at sunrise, after collectively offering Fajr prayers in that hall.

At the exit, a local in uniform approached us. He demanded our passport flashing some kind of ID. I don’t know what worked: my refusal to acknowledge him, or the fuck-you expression on my face.

Indian men waiting for their flight at King Abdul Aziz airport. Photo: Asif Khan

My wife and I split up here. She wanted to rest the first night and do her Umrah after that, but she urged me to go on. My nervous energy wouldn’t have let me sleep even if I had wanted to: I would complete the Umrah that night by myself. Outside the Jeddah airport, I took the first car that would bring me to the petrol station on the outskirts of the city, where the taxi stand for Mecca was located. There, I got into a beat-up 90s Japanese sedan, with synthetic fur lining the dashboard and steering wheel. After all the planning, I was finally on the last leg of my journey to reach Mecca.

Like me, two of my co-passengers were dressed in an ihram. Sitting next to me in the middle of the rear seat, the third had his knees spread as wide he could in his thawb, the white ankle-length robe worn by Arab men. I joined the other passengers in chanting praises of Allah, known asdhikr, in unison.

In the darkness surrounding the Mecca highway, sleep was tempting. If I kept up the dhikr in between little naps, the time asleep would also still count toward the goal of doing as many as possible. But I wanted to stay awake. Concrete barriers lined a construction project on either side of the highway’s center. I trained my eyes on the low wattage bulbs as they flew past like the time lapse of a dream.

On my previous trip to Mecca all those years ago, as the cab slowed to a halt outside the perimeter of the Holy Mosque, our old Bedouin driver had pointed with his right index finger towards the minarets, proclaiming with the strength of a faithful’s heart: Allahu Akbar. In my mind, that’s how I will always reach Masjid Al-Haram, the Inviolable Holy Mosque.

A speed bump woke me up from my dream. The highway had narrowed to one lane. Closed shutters and switched off signboards lined either side of the road. The taxi had entered Mecca.

In the pre-dawn hour, the white marble paving the outer courtyard of the Holy Mosque was cool to the step. Later during the afternoon blaze, the same marble would be blinding in its glare. Entering the gates, I paused to take off my slippers. A Pakistani in shalwar-kameez threw a plastic bag at me from the other side of the barrier, saving me the trouble of finding something to carry my slippers in before entering the mosque. On either side, between the pillars that hold up the enclosure of the mosque, men and women of faith were engaged in acts of devotion—bowing, lying prostrate, and raising up their hands in prayer.

By the time I crossed one of the passages leading to Mataf, the central courtyard of the mosque, I had started trembling in my walk. This was hallowed ground. My feet were walking on the same patches of earth through which my forefathers had passed. They had come by land, water, and air. Not only them, but the Prophet walked with his loyal companions here, spreading the message for which he was first ridiculed then attacked, after which he migrated to the city of Medina, only to return to his birthplace victorious.

The environment enveloped my consciousness with each step. From between the arches, a part of the familiar black curtain became visible.

Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik

“I am here, O Allah, I am here.”

For centuries, pilgrims have been chanting these words, known as talbiyah, as they make the journey towards the Kaaba, the universally recognizable cube. Covered with black cloth known as kiswa, it was originally built by Prophet Abraham as a house for Allah. Since then, the Kaaba has become the focal point towards which all Muslims face while praying five times a day, and the vortex around which they converge for pilgrimage. There is nothing more central or holy for Islamic identity. From a humble structure of wood and mud, the surrounding enclosure has expanded to become an imposing building that can accommodate about a million people within its premises.

Pilgrims of different nationalities in the outer perimeter of the Masjid Al-Haram. Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Asif Khan

Seeing the Kaaba brings on a overwhelming mix of emotion: an infinity of hope, a fear of the inviolable, the relief of mercy, the abandon of joy, and above all, the vigor of submission. There is only one way to react when confronted with such complexity: a gush of tears. All the prayers that relatives, friends, and loved ones had asked me to beseech for them, all of that which I wanted to ask for myself, washed away in that stream. I remembered nothing.

Entering the mataf, the enclosure around the Kaaba, in the endless streams of humans circling the cube, it felt impossible to walk without being crushed. I allowed the current of human movement to take over. As I reached the eastern corner that holds the Hijr-e-Aswad, the black meteoric stone, I raised my arm in its direction and brought fingers to my lips to mark the beginning of the circumambulation. The stone is said to have descended from heaven and was given to Abraham to be placed at the Kaaba. Ahead of me, I saw men jostling over each other in attempts to kiss, or just touch, that black stone.

Pilgrims trying to touch the door of the Kaaba. Photo: Asif Khan

A group of Turks went by, repeating the verses recited by their leader. Their women wore a hijab of pink cotton. Another group followed, this one from Kerala, with women dressed in green. Then came Tunisians with red headscarves. Then Pakistanis in blue. The Indonesians wore purple. Seen from above, they must have looked like islands of color floating downstream together.

I couldn’t reach the black stone, nor could I touch the door of the Kaaba. However, I managed to get a good look at Maqaam-e-Ibrahim. The crystal dome that enclosed it was the same as when I first saw it as a child. Inside was the smooth stone with the imprint of a large pair of feet said to be those of Prophet Abraham as he stood building the Kaaba. The rush of pilgrims around it wouldn’t have let a child come close to it unaided, as I had done years ago. After completing my seven rounds of the Kaaba, I headed towards the hill of Safa for the second part of Umrah.

Pilgrims performing Tawaf in the early morning hours. Video: Asif Khan

When the Prophet Abraham left his wife Hajar in the desert of Mecca, she ran seven times between the hill of Safa and the hill of Marwah, desperate to find water for her infant son Ishmael. To keep sight of him, her pace was quicker in the valley between the hills. She couldn’t find water, but the spot that the wailing Ishmael was touching with his feet is where the Well of Zamzam is said to have spouted.

Today, following that tradition, everyone who performs Umrah runs between the two hills. The floor has been leveled with smooth marble, but there are green lights hanging from the ceiling to indicate the stretch that’s meant to be covered quicker. As kids, we would sprint across it. As an adult on those hills, I saw a a little one running past everyone, followed by a distraught man a minute later, tearing through the walking crowd with eyes peeled in search. I pointed frantically in the direction of the boy. A few meters later, the father held the boy again in his arms.

Strange, how easy it is to get lost so close to the Kaaba. We face in its direction five times a day throughout life, but once you are here… Where do you point the compass when you are at the pole?

I walked to the barber’s booth to have my head shaved. It was the final ritual; my Umrah was complete.

Asif Khan
Asif Khan is a photographer and writer based in India. His work can be seen at www.asifkhan.in, on instagram, and on twitter.
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