The year President Sadat was killed I lived in Cairo. That was 1981. Egypt is just across the water from the Saudi Arabian peninsula so it occurred to me it would be a very easy to make hajj from there. I bought an airline ticket and was in contact with the family of one of my graduate school friends. They would pick me up from the airport and host me during my stay and the days of ritual. Nice plan.
So I went to the embassy to get the visa and was denied because (as an American) I needed proof that I was Muslim. How do I prove I have been a practicing Muslim for a decade? I went to the famous al-Azhar university and secured a shahadah document in French, Arabic and English. I returned to the embassy and was told one has to be Muslim for at least six months to make hajj. So I go to the American embassy and secure an affidavit stating I have been practicing Islam since 1972.
When I brought that to the embassy they said: you need to have a mahram, the male guardian. At the time I was divorced and my son, Muhammad was only six years old, living with his dad while I was away. My father was deceased and all the other living males in my family were not Muslim. There was no office I could do to secure what was demanded of me, so the day for my flight came and went and the ticket never got used.
During that year, a woman read my tea leaves after supper with some of my new friends. If you don’t know how that works, first I drank a cup of tea with leaves still settled at the bottom. Once the liquid is mostly all drunk, the reader takes the leaves, swishes them around in the bottom of the cup, turns the cup upside down and “reads” the tracks and pattern stains left by the leaves. I remember only one thing she said, that I would make hajj in the next year or two.
This year I made my intentions during the previous hajj season. As I have said, I committed to use my little bit of savings to pay for this once in a lifetime trip and then my sister dies suddenly leaving me the beneficiary of her life insurance policies. The cost for the trip was secured and as the year wore on I simply waited for my return to the US to begin my hunt for a travel agency to handle the details.
My first question was about the visa. Having been stalled at the embassy when I tried to make hajj almost three decades ago, I must admit, I was nervous. Unfortunately the tour company has never allayed my fears. They never really came forward with any information or with any response to direct questions. So I have stayed nervous. I knew that from the US there are no quotas, and that what had been a factor —no matter what technicalities were used from the embassy in Cairo—the real matter was that Egypt is not only very conveniently located vis-à-vis the Arabian Peninsula, it is also a very highly populated Muslim country and too many people request visas for hajj. Like Indonesia, one has to plan two or three years in advance. No walking up to the embassy three weeks before.
So, mostly I was nervous because of the failed experience before—I know what it is like to be denied. But honestly that is only part of the problem. In 2005, I was invited to lead a Friday jumu’ah prayer consisting of a mixed gender congregation in a public religious space. I have not lingered over this event here and maybe never will. For one thing, it was hotly contested. In order for me to downplay the sensationalism, I choose mostly not to dwell on it. Anyway, I certainly never wish to play into the hands of sensationalism; it is my hope that one day we will normalize women and men praying side by side, as they do in Makkah, and we will see women and men equally as prayer leaders. Until that time, it continues to be an event.
Only two official fatwas were given against the women-led prayer and one of them was from Saudi Arabia. At the time I asked some colleagues whether they thought the fatwa would be a problem if I sought to secure a visa to perform my hajj and they said, “It might.” One of those whom I asked was the late Dr. Nasr aAbu-Zayd, who also offered this consolation: “People have a short memory, it will blow over.”
I had no idea if five years was long enough for it to “blow over” when I applied for visa to make hajj this year. I also had no idea if the people who work in the embassy connect every detail of your life with your passport and visa requests. I know when I come into the United States from travel abroad, no matter where I have been, as “allied” as Europe or as “non-allied” as Muslim majority countries, I am stopped at the US border. Every time. And this has been for two or three years. It’s like there is some kind of mark next to my name, in the system. I never know what that mark is and the extent of my detainment varies but I am always searched.
Whenever I would enter in Indonesia, having done so at least 15 times in the year and half I lived there, I could see the computers as the passport is swiped and it reads “No known alerts.” I still hover over the counter as they swipe, wondering if the “alert” from the US side or the “fatwas” from various parties, will one day appear there and I will be stopped from entry. Once I came into Indonesia when my previous passport had only five months remaining before renewal. I don’t know how many countries have this stipulation —Saudi Arabia did — but there must be at least six months remaining. It doesn’t matter if you plan to stay two days, you need six months left on the passport before expiry.
I was stopped then and taken into a room, offered something to drink, while they flipped through and through my passport. I was so nervous I could hardly sit still, but then they said: well, you need to renew this. And the next day, I went to the US embassy and applied for a new one, the one I have now. Here’s a tip, the fastest way to get a passport is to get one outside the US. Imagine that. But I digress…
A friend of mine who lives in Madinah now once wrote a reminder on Facebook, that no one makes hajj except by invitation from Allah. When I saw that I put in my requisition, I must admit. But I also admit, I’m a bit skeptical of considering this literally. Mainly because there are three million people who make it (and two million back when I was denied in 1981). I can’t say any of the factors would have just disappeared, had I thought to ask Allah first. But this year as I posted comments about waiting I did get a few reminders about this in the more optimistic form. Whom Allah invites, no one can keep away. And my Zappos shoes person recounted almost missing a plane, landing without her bags, but how she and her husband still managed to get there, because “once Allah invites you, then no one and nothing will keep you away.”
So I tried to be optimistic. It didn’t help that my daughter accused me of the contrary. Or rather, she asked: aren’t you ever optimistic? I told her about waiting for the visa and how NOT being optimistic was driving me crazy. She said, “Trust in God and don’t worry.” She said, “You can’t have both: either it’s the trust or it’s the worry.” So I let go, for just a minute.
Yesterday was magnanimous! It had been two weeks since the tour company received my passport by express mail when they told me I had to choose, apply for the visa or go to Berlin. They said then, the embassy says it will take 10-12 business days. I figured: if they got my visa into the embassy on the same day it arrived, at least ten days were up. Anyway I was too nervous NOT to make contact before the weekend, because, well, I was just nervous, okay? So when I finally got up the nerve to call the tour agency about my visa process, the woman said, “you got the visa, but since your passport was submitted late, we don’t have it back yet, but you got the visa.”
I know she said more, something about the package. But I just wanted to get off the phone, so I could say out loud a soft, “yes!”, make a silent prayer of gratitude, and then just cry a little.
I dressed in white to attend Friday prayer (not as the imam, mind you). Then later in the day, the mailman delivered my unscented cosmetics, from the Labayk Company; and my shoes came by parcel post, from Zappos. I put them on and started walking with them. Altogether, it was a magnanimous day.
I’m so happy I got my visa. Now, I have eight days, before departure.