15th of September 2014:
Embarking on a journey of a lifetime indeed, the journey I had been looking forward to all year long ever so impatiently. My excitement was of no bounds starting a week ago maybe, had not taken such a long holiday from work before, four full weeks to be precise, with no worries about job, exams, commitments and family. Though I had travelled to the Holy Cities on no less than four previous occasions since I had attained adulthood, discounting the ones I did which I would have the faintest of memories perhaps, ages ago.
Stayed over at Kent at brothers who kindly dropped me at Heathrow terminal 4 early in the morning with at least 5-6 hours to go, needing to kill plenty of time. This incidentally was the same place from where I departed on a similar trip over 2 years back, seemed a bit nostalgic; the thoughts quickly shrugged off. Had to endure a slightly tense period waiting as my Passport was still with the Travel agent who was going to deliver it to me at the terminal and was late. Frankly I was so confident nothing could possibly go wrong as I felt in my heart, nothing will and could stop me going for it! Check in process was very easy, this I found out to be the best Terminal at Heathrow hardly spent any time in the queue both at check in or at the security even. Roamed around for a little while in the shops and observed people while feeling super excited all on my own. While resting in one of the rest chairs, I observed a couple of pianos in the court. Thought of trying my hand at one of them, a decision I didn’t take gladly, as out of nowhere an airport worker in some airline Uniform came in and started playing a familiar tune. No one could appreciate it in the area, one middle aged lady looking at him with surprise when he sought applause which I duly did, remarking at the lady only I could appreciate his wonderful display as it was the once highly popular “Tujhay dekha to yeh Jana Sanam”. Maybe I wont hear it ever again at least on purpose, but I enjoyed it in the otherwise dull part of airport terminal.
Boarded the Boeing 777 with nice cushy leather seats of Saudia, a stark contrast to our very own PIA. The food was good, watched the Despicable Me 2, as I am sure Mustafa will ask me next time about it and I didn’t want to be left behind on the review. Fell in love with Gru( a male character, by the way!) Sat alongside a very young couple from Leicester going for Hajj and praised the guy for prioritizing the Hajj at such an early stage of their lives, a matter which we tend to put aside for latter years unfortunately. The crew, which I came to know later on was from Pakistan mostly was welcoming and friendly, maybe flirtatious in a pleasant sense at times. The food was good and we were well taken care of. Prayed in the plane at prayer times in the designated area, the relieving factor was that we were going to Madina first rather than Jeddah, which I knew was going to take ages at the terminal. Surprisingly it was very quick at the airport after we stepped out of the aircraft in hot air around 33’C. The staff at airport were helpful, at least less intimidating as I felt on my last visits to this country. It took less than 40 minutes for the whole process, getting our luggage and out of the airport, far less time than it would have taken at Heathrow. There was a bit of a wait for all the buses and everyone to be counted and the short journey to the hotel started. Reached the Hotel where we were staying just in time for the buffet dinner to be taken away. And what a sumptuous dinner it was, the highlight being Um-e-Ali; a kind of filo pastry cum pudding, an Egyptian delight, which is a distant cousin of Sheerkhurma and Shahi Tukray! That’s the best way to describe it and I reckon is not very difficult to make either. Since I started cooking and making dishes nothing seems out of bound. But the amount of sugar will dissuade me from trying it, as when I learnt how to make Zarda (the sweet rice). Anyway that started my love affair, quite literally with Um-e-Ali which would last till the very last day in Makkah Hotels!
After the dinner, had some rest, a quick shower and off I went to the majestic mosque; the Masjid-e-Nabawi, prayed and offered Salam at the Roza Mubarak, with throngs of people at this time of the night. At hajj times, the mosque was teeming with people even late at night. Came back at around 0200 and just flopped on the bed. The room was spacious but a bit dark, the water was boiling hot, a fact which I had to contend with over the next 2 weeks. I can tolerate freezing cold water for a bath but certainly not hot water. This was also the start of my relationship with my roommate originally hailing from Yemen, whom I met briefly at the Hajj seminar in North London, who was going to be a very good friend in the days and indeed years to come.
16th to 19th September 2014:
Serene Madina tul Munawarra
Got up in the morning after a fulfilling sleep, overjoyed, euphoric and what not, no superlatives can describe that feeling. I was here without an iota of a doubt. After a hearty buffet breakfast, only standing in queue for getting an omelette done and Fajr, it was time to relax in the majestic mosque, the place which the Prophet SAW made his very own and every pilgrim who comes for Umra or Hajj always tries to pay a visit here as reverence to the greatest human being who graced this planet. Inevitably you go down the history lanes, how it must have been to live in the city around 1300 years ago with the highly regarded companions roaming in the streets, the company of the Prophet SAW and the life evolving with the passage of time. How this mosque now so majestic and one of the architectural marvels, would have been so simple and primitive made of mud walls and palm leaves! The arches very much appeared like the Cordoba Mosque I visited just a few months back, yet more elegant, bright and pleasing to the eye. There is simply no comparison. Admiration of the beauty of the mosque is one thing which you just can’t avoid but that was not the reason I was here. It was no sightseeing tour. Though I had been to this place many times before and I knew what was the significance and value of prayers offered in this place, second only to the Masjid al Haram, according to one tradition, better than a thousand prayers elsewhere (Bukhari, Muslim), I intended to spend as much time in prayer and recitation as possible, not thinking of numbers which probably might be taken in context. You could see pilgrims from everywhere, you name it. I was getting the Hajj flavour form Madina expectedly. Thousands of people, men and women, very few children though coming in throngs in and out of the Mosque and its umbrella covered courtyard, especially at prayer times, all the shades between white and black, different ethnicities, races, backgrounds; Asians, Africans, Chinese even in their peculiar light blue waistcoats with the Chinese flag and “Alhaj al Seini” sewn onto them. Some you could tell by the dress, like Sudanese, some wearing colourful characteristic robes men and women alike, pilgrims from Niger, Cote de Ivore, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal. There were the typical North Africans from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Couldnt see any Saudis apart from the guards and religious men. Then there were Malays and Indonesians in their characteristic large monochrome groups soon to be annoyed by in a few days time! Even their luggage seen in Hotel lobby was distinct Yellow or Orange, all exactly the same, no wonder they would have lot of trouble at the airport. Wearing the same kind of dress for identification or keep the group together might be a practical thing but I don’t approve it in the spirit of Hajj, I always felt we are not just here to do some rites and indulge in fervent prayers, cut off from other people, the millions who have come across for the same purpose, one of the ideas is to mingle with other pilgrims and have a feeling of Muslim Brotherhood which is lost if you try to be distinct. Many pilgrims from countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh for instance had no obvious tell-tale signs where they belonged form apart from their faces, dress (Shalwar Qameez) and language and maybe ID Cards. I was glad to see a large Indian contingent from various states again, displayed proudly, including the North east state of Manipur with their typical Chinese countenance.
The threat of MERS( a hidden one and people mostly kept unawares though lots of deaths in one area especially in Arabia) and Ebola was there with hundreds of thousands of people around, some from areas exposed to it as well. Even this couldn’t keep people away from this awesome occasion, for some once in a lifetime, spending all their lifelong savings to be able to perform a rite which is the pinnacle of their lives. The authorities had banned everyone from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the 3 countries most affected by Ebola. It was sad not to see many Libyans or Syrians around, a testament to what was going on there. I was gladly surprised to be proved wrong later on in Makkah.
I observed the Kyrgyz with their costumes and peculiar hats, Kazakhs, Uzbeks(in their light blues), Tajiks with their flags imprinted. There were throngs of Iranians in their typical attire especially the Imams, with a stubble and moist red eyes, you can’t but only admire the reverence they and many others have for the place and the love of the Holy Prophet SAW and his Mosque. Even pilgrims from as far away as Australia, one could spot a very few White Caucasian Europeans in between. Then there were Afghans, Turks ( a lot of them ), Iraqis even Kurds with their flags sewn across their backs, people from Darfur and Eritrea newly independent countries. Mustafa would have loved to see all this.
One cant even imagine how lucky we are seeing this spectacle, observing the rich and the poor, many you can tell, would have saved all life to be able to do this pilgrimage which is the last pillar of Islam and obligatory for everyone who can afford it, once in their life time. Many would have faced extreme difficulties even hostilities in the parent country where they were living especially the Burmese and the Uighurs.
The Roza Mubarak, the place where the Prophet SAW used to live and is buried now, the Hujra (place of abode) of Mother of Believers Ayesha RA, is always a spectacle, people paying their homage in throngs all day long before and after prayer times, first thing in the morning and last act in the mosque at times, as if the Prophet SAW is still very much there in essence and the respect and the awe of that place has no match in the whole mosque. Along with the significance of praying in this mosque, this is the Ziarah people wish for all their lives all over the world. There is usually a long queue especially after prayer times. It is appropriately named as Bab us Salam! No one can compare it with any courts now or before, of the mightiest of the Kings. One can only imagine how it would be at the time when the Prophet Muhammad SAW was alive. Many an eye is moist and a multitude in obvious tears. I amongst many thousands each day pay regards and Salam to the Prophet SAW and his two illustrious companions Abu Bakr and Umar RA who are buried alongside here. I make a routine to try to do so at the start and the end of the day, how much I wished to be alive in those days in his illustrious company, like millions of others I am sure. Some first comers are guided by the gentle servants of the mosque and explained where the Prophet SAW is buried. Many people are taking snapshots, even selfies, one American I saw alongside me, surely on his first visit on some app online maybe Whatsapp doing a running commentary. Someone I told gently to lower his shoes in respect. I couldn’t bring myself to taking even a photo there in respect I guess though have done so in the past admittedly.
I used to go to Jannat ul Baqeeh nearly every morning in my previous trip after fajr at or before sunrise. This time wanted to conserve my energies and focus on what I was here for mostly. Went along after Fajr prayers one day, the typical chirping of birds as if they were praising the Lord of the Heavens. It was inevitably thronged by thousands of people not only Iranians but devotees from all over the world this time. The women were barred from entering, some praying long the walls or besides. This is the famous cemetery which the Prophet SAW also used to visit and pray for the dead, some of the finest names in Islamic history including the wives, daughters, son and relatives of Prophet SAW, some of the illustrious companions RA and Tabai’ins and great scholars of Islam are buried. I find the South Asians and Africans to be revering such historic places more and more, the officials gently escorting the few aside if someone tried to explain to his group whose grave it was. Now all a flat vast expanse with pigeons feasting on the grain thrown as charity by many a sundry, which is always discouraged by the officials but people still manage to. You can see mud graves all exactly similar with small unmarked tombstones, some of them in a raised area or with some demarcation around, as one I knew from previous visits was Ibrahim ( Prophet SAW son who died in his infancy) and one was Jaffar ibn e Abi Talib’s to name a few.
The area called Riaz ul Jannah, the place between the Roza Mubarak to the Minbar (pulpit) which has been called as such in an authentic tradition, has huge significance, as being not only the ancient part of the mosque but acclaimed to be a garden of paradise!
“ Between my house and my Minbar lies one of the gardens of paradise (Bukhari)
It was always thronged by hundreds of devotees, didn’t have the opportunity to stay in the area much at all during this particular visit, in contrast to my previous visits when I could just go there on my will; perhaps the desire wasn’t there as much as before as I had the main mission in site and to pray more in solitude and peace rather than in an area teeming with activity. My room mate could boast at night that he had spent some time in the area at the times when most people were vacating the mosque. But I wasn’t too well on some of the days and I needed to conserve my energy for the coming days. The hajj lectures were at times more of a compulsion than by choice, reminiscing the good old days of school and college when we were half asleep or trying to catch the sermon giver off guard!
In four short days we were ready to leave and already awaiting our next step which was the Umrah and then onwards the big thing for which we were all here………to follow soon!