One week after my rapid completion of umrah, getting out of ihram, and exploring the grand mosque inside and out, upstairs and into the basement, it was time for hajj. By this time the number of persons who had flooded the city was astronomical. The roommate and I often opted for joining prayer lines out on the street, rather than to fight with the crowds for the Haram mosque at this point. That is, unless we planned ahead by at least an hour. They said the Saudi government had allowed five million this year. I don’t know where the information comes from and besides, can one individual actually tell the difference between the three million norm and a five million tops? All of the next few days were meant to be completed in concert with millions of people at this juncture. Yet, somehow, it is also supposed to remain intensely personal.
I call this M & M, because afterwards it may not be possible to keep up with all the names of places that start with an M: Makkah, Madinah, Muzdalifah, and Mina. But besides that, I’ll give some of the day-by-day expectations, and experiences. Hopefully, the place names themselves will get sorted out. This is hajj. Some people, including locals who live in Saudi, come here only for these days; so whatever madness of number is simply multiplied.
Okay, so on Sunday night, Mr. Mansour said, we should sleep in ihram. I first took this to mean, sleep in my day clothes, but actually, it just meant that I should take the full ritual bath with the unscented soaps, make my intentions, niyyah and pray two rakaats, before going to bed. Tentatively, he said, there would be two busloads (full to standing-room only) that would leave for the camps at Mina. The first bus was scheduled for midnight. Mina is only about five miles from Makkah. Give or take two hours for complication, I thought this meant that bus number two would be leaving around 2 a.m. He arbitrarily divided the group by floors: floors 6 and below would go at midnight and the rest of us would go sometime later, on the second bus.
Because this is what I came for, the hajj that is, I was way off in the “on pins and needles” camp. I lay in bed sometime around ten, after the bath and packing a backpack and deciding what I would actually wear. Again this is where solid advice is really, really helpful. I took a little from a friend who had made hajj previously, and a little from Mr. Mansour. (Later I’ll assess this advice because it really is important here, how you plan.)
Mina is a tent city. For 4 or 5 days pilgrims will camp here. It is pretty close to what I imagine a refugee camp would be like, except we are housed in homo-social settings. Our group had more men than women, but most of the women were in some way attached to one or more of the men. This was comical because all though this, the men would hover around the tent entries, send notes, make phone calls, actually get their phone cords recharged, and send food and drink through every possible opening in the tent. As far as I could tell, it was always the men hanging around our tent and not the women hanging around the men’s tent. Pretty funny if you think about it. They were like lost puppies without their women. Yet patriarchy would have us think they are the masters.
Around 2 a.m. I went downstairs with my backpack because I was so anxious about the hajj that I could not sleep. As it was, bus number one had not yet departed and I was ordered to get on it. Good thing too, because bus number two did not leave for another eight hours! Anyway, eventually we are all there in the camp and there is only one night before we proceed to Arafat.
Wuquf Arafat, standing on the plains of Mt. Arafat is the hajj, the penultimate event, which only happens once a year on the ninth day of the twelfth month, Zhul-Hijjah. I was psyched. I brought all the essentials for spending a day in meditation, prayer, and gratitude: my “lists” of people to remember to pray for, my Qur’an, my zhikr beads, and my wits. The night before Arafat, I considered it to be a warm-up. We are supposed to be focused on ibadah, thinking about Allah, repenting for our shortcomings, reading Qur’an, meditating, praying. For some reason, I took this as the opportunity to organize our motley crew and said, “We have no fard (obligatory mandates) for this night, only sunnah, but we will be closed together for the day of Arafat. Maybe we could organize ourselves into more of group.” I suggested we formulate a get to know each other activity, starting after maghrib prayer.
Well, that did not go over at all, and honestly, it was my first and last attempt at making some sense out of this ragtag sharing of experiences with 70 strange women. Although collectively, for the whole tent, this did not work (or should I say was declined), individually I did it with my neighbor. A few other ladies came later to tell me they had also done it in smaller groups. This inability to organize ourselves into a group affected everything we did from then until departure. I compared notes with others on hajj, in other locations in the camps and after. Some had more of something that resembled a group experience enhancing the individual experiences. I think it would have gone a long way to make it through the next few days.
At one other point that evening, another member of this motley crew suggested that we organize to get at least 30 people to each read one juz’, one part of the Qur’an, so that collectively, in this tent, we could say that we had read the whole Qur’an the night before Arafat. That too failed. One person complained, the Prophet never did this—as if the Prophet had the whole Qur’an available in paper form in order to do it. There were about 16 of us who did read a juz’ each. I told the organizer thank you for this and to keep soliciting participants and just ignore those who did not wish to do it. Those who did would. Just think; everyone would benefit. Never mind.
The day of Arafat, we are supposed to proceed after the morning prayer of fajr, to the plain of Arafat. At this point, I accepted that this cultural hajj is the one Allah chose for me to have.
The day of Arafat, I get up before 3 a.m. and the queue at the toilets is already building up. Better now than to risk being caught up in the mad rush closer to fajr prayer. No extra prayers today, but a lot to think about. At the top on my list is reflecting on this cultural hajj before proceeding to Arafat. I would have preferred a hajj surrounded by religious zealots, or Sufis, but Allah chose this hajj of cultural Muslims, so I will do best to surrender to it and find both strength and humility therein.
Next I will outline our Arafat experience and define cultural Islam.