PERFORMING THE HAJJ: A PERSONAL REFLECTION (PART I)
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Last year, the author fulfilled one of Islam's core obligations of performing the Hajj in the Holy City of Mecca. He writes about his experiences of both the preparatory and the perfunctory stages of the Hajj.
Alh. Sellou and wife Ms. Asmaw Jallow
By Mamadou Sellou Jallow
This is about my greatest journey undertaken in my life, the“ Hajj”. I will explain my preparation, both physically and spiritually, and I will also try to express the impossible, namely how I felt during my Hajj; and describe the places where I made Ziarah. I will also describe how my life has changed forever.
I had been planning this trip for more than five years. I had always kept it to myself except my wife who knew about it. Each year I would intend to go, but then something would get in the way, and then I would put it off not because I had cared less but because of my weakness in Iman and in my will to help others.
It was last year and I was determined that whatever happened, InsaAllah, I would go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. So I started by saving my vacation time. For the Hajj, I needed to stay away for four weeks. With this intention in mind , I started searching around for possible Hajj organizers. Obviously I was very careful not to fall prey to shady so-called Hajj organizers. I had watched a documentary about how people were duped in Belgium and France. So I was well aware of these practices.
The search went on through the Internet. I made calls to many people but most of them had no idea as to what the packages were yet but I could register myself on a list to be contacted once the prices had been announced just before the Ramadan or right after it. One day while searching online, I bumped into an offer from an organization called “World Islamic Mission”. So I tried to get the contact details of this organization. Since this organization is not a commercial agent, it is not well known nationwide in The Netherlands but rather in the City of The Hague where they have a mosque and a considerable community of Surinamese origin.
I contacted the organizer, a certain Mr. Walidin, well experienced and very helpful. He told me that he would be leaving for Umrah but when he got back I should contact him again. So by this time, I had already known the exact Hajj package they were offering. All in all, it was €3300 without food during the Hajj period but Mr. Walidin was quick to reassure me that food was cheap in Saudi. So why pay for an expensive package when I could take care of that myself? I took heed, because this man has been going to the Hajj for more than 25 years; so he knew what he was talking about. Now my plan was getting in shape. Mr. Walidin explained to me extensively how to get prepared and where to get reasonable compulsory vaccinations in The Hague.
Getting Prepared for the Hajj
During the Ramadan, I was much occupied with preparation for the Hajj 2009. How did I go with the preparation? Thanks to the Almighty Allah, there are endless sources out there on the Internet which I used to the maximum. I must confess that two of my colleagues who had been to the Hajj also helped me as well. So I was very curious, asking questions about everything and their experiences. This is the most important part of the Hajj preparations because what I saw while I was in Mecca and Medina was something I cannot fully express in words. Many folks go to Hajj unprepared with all the consequences. Like doing rituals that are not part of the Hajj. But I am sure these folks are ignorant of what they were doing and some are well aware of what they were doing. So preparedness did pull me through; and I was not like a lost person. Others had to imitate anything they saw being done. Before I left, I had been listening to and watching many reputable scholars on YouTube as part of my preparation.
The Ramadan was approaching its ending and I was getting excited especially when watching live Salat Taraweeh in Mecca and Medina wondering if I will ever be there. After the Ramadan, I contacted Mr. Walidin and he asked me to make a deposit of €500 to demonstrate that I was serious and that I was sure to be on the final list. I got the bank details and I was at work making the payment online and the transaction was almost done. What remained was only to click the “send button” and then I would be on the list. I would not change my mind and nor would I book with another organizer. I looked at my colleague and told him 'there goes my euros' jokingly because we had just finished talking about bad elements who cheat innocent folks wishing to go for Hajj. The payment was completed and I had taken the full intention and the first step for the pilgrimage.
Weeks later, I had to submit my passport through Mr. Wallidin for visa processing. Prior to this, I had to take one vaccination because I already had most of them due to my frequent travels to other parts of the world for my employer. With some passport-size photos and vaccination certificates, the visa application was concluded.
Early November 2009, I received a message to attend an information event for the group I will be traveling with. Finally I was able to see and meet the people I would be with for the coming four weeks in the Holy Land. Most of them were, as expected, older people and of Hindustani or Pakistani origin. The youngest guy was around 43 or so and he was going to be one of my roommates throughout the Hajj. A very gentle man by the name of Irfan Ulhaq. During the information session, we were given clear instructions on how to wear “Ihraam” the two pieces of white unsewn clothes worn during the Hajj and Ummrah. We were also prepared for what to expect like the type of clothes and shoes to take along, pocket money and other matters pertaining to the Hajj. The journey took place from the Amsterdam Schiphol international airport to Jeddah International via Amman, Jordan. I was very satisfied with the information and I must say that everybody was very helpful to each other.
Now that it was obvious I was set to undertake the greatest journey of my life, I started to inform family members and friends. I asked for forgiveness from those whom I had wronged one way or the other. My wife, been more social than I am, had been insisting that I did this much earlier, but due to my nature of doing things, I felt when the time arrived I would do so. She was afraid that people would say that I did not bid them farewell on time. I thought that was not important.
In the Thursday morning of November 19, 2009, I took our daughter Hassatu to school. I picked her up in the afternoon. I had taken permission from her school that she had wanted to see me off. When I arrived with her at home, I did the ritual of praying special Rakaats prior to departure. After completing this, it was almost time to catch the train to the airport with my family (wife and two kids ). I was getting nervous but also excited. Why nervous? One wonders. It was a reflective moment for me. The thought of traveling and leaving my family behind knowing that I might never see them again shook me. This is where faith comes in. Even the Prophet (pbuh) advised a special Dua to make when leaving on a journey. Obviously my faith in my “Rabb” is strong. So the feeling of going to Hajj and of its excitement was vivid on my face. I was unusually quiet. Very quite. Upon arriving at the airport later, I went to check in my luggage which was not much. Our passports and tickets had already been arranged by the Hajj organizer’s partner. Mr Wallidin had already left for Mecca a few days earlier to ensure that all arrangements were intact. Then came the inevitable: saying good-bye to my wife and kids. I wanted them to take the train first prior to my going through the gates. So I walked them to the trains just underground of the airport. What happened afterward is anybody's good guess. The feeling between my family and I was mutually intense. It was such an intense moment for us all.
We flew with Royal Jordanian Airlines via Amman to Jeddah. We boarded the flight at around 18:00hrs bound for Amman where we would have a transit delay of three hours. Unlike others, we were lucky to be able to wear our Ihraam and make intentions for the Ummrah before leaving Amman. Why this? Because we would be flying directly into Jeddah and during the flight, we would pass the “Miqatt” border of making intention for Ummrah / Hajj. This is for people like us coming from another direction. There are many of such boundaries for people coming from many directions. Take note: one cannot have his Hajj/Ummrah valid if he/she ignored this ritual. We left Amman at 03:00 am for Jeddah. It was a flight of roughly 1 hour 30 minutes.
When we arrived in Jeddah, it began to dawn on me about what the Hajj was all about. There were endless flights coming from all over the world to Jeddah and there were lots of people all in plain white unsewn cloths waiting for entry clearance This is one of the most logistical problems the Saudi authorities encounter year in year out.
Upon arrival, we were received by the assigned people in a hall while waiting for entry clearance. This was early in the morning but yet you could feel the heat in the waiting rooms despite several fans, some hanging and others standing. We were offered some mineral water and some biscuits. It was now almost 24 hours since I last had a sleep and the test that I heard from other Hajjis was beginning to emerge. You don’t know what and when it is going to happen. The only thing you see is people in white and some lying down, some reading and some talking to each other. To my amazement, people were very patient despite the chaotic situation. Few hours later, our passports were collected and were to be given back at the time of departure to our respective countries.
Going to Mecca
After finishing all the entry formalities and picking our luggage , we waited under a huge tent-like corridor for our special guide to arrange transport with air-conditioned buses to the Holy City of Mecca. The time was already around 11:00hrs and people were just coming and going. Since we did not know when we would leave for Mecca, some of us decided to take a nap and others reading while people like me went to change a few euros to Saudi Riyals to have some cash to buy food at the airport mall. Another thing I noticed was that at the airport shopping mall, there was hardly any Saudi but only foreigners of mainly Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani origins and possibly some Arabs of Yemeni , Sudanese and Syrian origins. The clock was ticking fast and it seemed that we would not leave the airport. Many folks who had met us there left before us. Some of our people were by now constantly asking when would we leave. We did all our five daily Salat at the airport and this may help you figure how long we had been waiting at the airport. During all this time, I was prepping myself up by reading and thinking about the pieces of advice I got during my preparation while at home in The Netherlands.
By this time, I was, like all the others, getting tired due to lack of sleep and flight fatigue. It was now more than 36 hours since I last slept and I felt it was getting tough physically. At around 21:30, the relieve call came in that we were to go and verify if all our luggage had been packed because if you missed yours, the chance was high that you may lose or not see it in time. Half an hour later, we finally boarded our bus bound to the HOLY CITY. All of a sudden, my fatigue disappeared and I was getting nervous. We were offered drinks and snacks after we got on board. We also received Hajj guidelines in English, Urdu and Arabic. We already had these guidelines but it was helpful just in case. And the Saudis are aware of the many different opinions regarding certain rituals; so they do offer this service to those who want to be sure of what they are doing. It was later in Mecca that I realized it was vital to have the Hajj guidelines issued by the Hajj ministry. Their guidelines were better.
The bus left and we disappeared into the deserts and towns between Jeddah and the Holy City of Mecca. It was a 1-2 hour journey but obviously there were a lot of formalities to be completed along the way to Mecca. The most vivid one was the diverting of traffic for non-Muslims to another route away from the one to the Holy City. No non-Muslim is allowed to go in that direction, let alone to the City. So we arrived at the check-point and our passports were collected from our assigned Hajj guide. The passports were collected again when we departed Mecca. Later, we stopped in another town or city. It was late in the night. We were issued wrist bands with information of our origins and Hajj numbers. This was to help locate lost pilgrims or trace out their origins should anything befall them. Now we were just a few miles away from the Haram (sanctuary). Minutes later, we arrived and the bright lights of the City caught my attention immediately. My heart started to beat faster and I thought my pulse rate suddenly increased.
The bus drove to our hotel where we would stay for the coming eight days or so. This was just 2-3 hundred meters from the Masjid Haram. The time was almost a few minutes to one in the night but it was just like midday. People were walking about, shops were open and traffic moving left and right. We disembarked from our bus and the Dutch Hajj guide called out our names to ensure that each one of us was present. Thereafter we were taken to our rooms which I happened to share with four other people. I had by now forgotten about the sleepless hours. Now I am almost next to the”KABBA”. Subuhanallah!!!! It was like a dream but this one was going to happen in a few minutes because I was going to perform Ummrah straight away. Others wanted to wait until the following day after they had rested. I went with my roommates straight to the Masjid Haram. It seemed more and more people were arriving and heading in the same direction. I felt my feet shaking beneath me. I don’t know why. I cannot describe the feeling and I doubt if I will ever be able to. The more we walked the closer we got to the Haram.
The Emotive Side of Hajj
Here I was standing, looking at the Holy Masjid Haram. I could not withstand the emotion going through my body. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I felt so light in weight. Obviously in going through this process, we were wearing our Ihrams (white garments) and there were conditions that had to be adhered to. We made an agreement among ourselves that we would meet at the gate (Baa bun Salam). This was the gate the Prophet (pbuh) used to pass through. It was closed due to the sheer number of people. We sensed that we would lose each other; so we went inside the mosque and, Subuhanallah, I had my first gaze of the Kabba. I made the required Dua upon seeing the Kabba. At this moment, I was so tensed; I could not have felt it even if you had cut off my limbs. The more I approached it, the bigger it became and it was a sea of people making Tawaf (going around the Kabba). The rituals started for me here in the Haram, and by this time, I had already lost my roommates who might also be somewhere performing their rituals. This is where the good preparation comes in. I knew what to do; so I could find my way without waiting for others or asking for help because everyone was personally occupied and it was hard to ask for some information from folks, and besides, one must be lucky to see someone in that sea of people who could speak English. There, I also disappeared to perform Tawaf. I finished all the rituals including Sá’y (walking between As Safa and Ar–Marwa).
I was glad and grateful when I completed the Ummrah service. So by now I had not slept for almost two days. My eyes were burning and I was longing to have a sleep after such an intensive and long journey. It was also time to remove the white garments and dress normally. Thereafter, I was free from certain obligations of being in a state of Ihram. By the time I finished, it was Fajr Salat which was around 04:20. So I performed my first normal daily prayers in the Masjid. What a feeling that was hearing the Imam (Shiek Abdullah Al-Juany) recite in his nice voice so early in the morning! It was like I was at home watching Saudi channel live but no, this was for real. I was in the Masjid Haram Makka ta al mu karramah!
After the Fajr Salat, I had to find my way back to the hotel 300 hundred meters away, not far from the King’s palace. This was so funny. I missed the way and ended in another direction. Mecca is full of tunnels and mountains. Without realizing it, you could be heading in another direction rather than the one of your wish. When I realized this, I had to walk back to the Masjid again and tried to retrace my steps to the hotel. I was getting more tired.
Mamadou Sellou Jallow is the Vice-president of the Basse Association. He lives in Deventer, The Netherlands.