Leaving Mina – Hajj Remembered

With the tragic, and it seems entirely avoidable deaths in Mina this year, I am reminded of the stifling heat and chaos of leaving the tent city during my own Hajj in 2011.

The story of that particular trial follows:

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Leaving Mina was an emotional rollercoaster. I went from despair to ecstasy with detour through all the flavours of anger.

 

Shia and Sunni leaving times are separate. You might think that the fewer overall numbers of Shia would make our exit shortly after midday a seamless and trouble free affair, with the true chaos to follow. How wrong, oh my Lord, how wrong.

 

Someone had pinched the wheelchair. It is heavy and does not fold up into a particularly compact shape, so I found it eventually outside one of the Iranian tents. The tingle of annoyance began here, let’s call it 1 on the overall scale, although my wife might argue my baseline of irritation is about 5.

 

A bit of deep breathing and the reassurance of locating Mum quickly helped me regain my Hajji calm. We joined the queue to go up the concrete steps to the exit gate. The stairs were split down the middle by a narrow ramp, theoretically a plausible way of rolling the wheelchair up without trying to carry it, but in practice gravity is as inevitable as the day of judgement and the stairs were very steep. I resorted to carrying it, surrounded by Iranian women, probably from the same tent that had attempted the wheelchair theft. In any event they seemed to have some momentum of antipathy towards me, and no sympathy for the fact that I was trying to lug a large metal object up steep stairs in a crowd. There were inevitably some bumps and scrapes.

 

A few people helpfully pointed to the ramp as if I was some kind of moron. I tried again, to show goodwill, and more people got hurt. When two objects try to occupy the same space the hard metal one is likely to win over the soft fleshy one. At times like these I think the grey matter at the head end of the soft fleshy things should take charge. Alas it seemed the folks around me were using the very soft fleshy bits at the back and halfway down for decision making.

 

By the time I got the top of the steps I was probably on a 6, but the relief of getting there eased me back to a 3.

 

Trust me on the maths, there were about a quarter of a million Shia attempting to leave Mina through one gate a couple of metres wide. In Hajj terms this is a reasonable but not overwhelming crowd. There were also police 4x4s, policemen on foot, and importantly, a huge crowd of Sunnis trying to go the other way and get into Mina before their own official departure time.

 

I spotted our group flag, pointed it out to mum, who was by now a couple of metres and a dozen bodies away, and steeled myself to forge through the intervening distance. At a guess I had about twenty metres to traverse. Progress was in inches. At every step the wheelchair caught on something. That something was invariably attached to a someone.

 

Sailors thrown overboard in a storm may feel like this as an unthinking, unreasoning force drags them away from the tantalising sight of safety.

 

I went sideways, I went backwards, and rarely did I go forwards. The police looked on impassively. At one point they tried to force their 4×4 through the crowd, and then gave up. I lost mum, I got shoved and shouted at, it was insanely hot, and everyone was trying to breathe the same air and sucking in each other’s carbon dioxide. And then the red mist came down.

 

I was in a hostile crowd with a significant weight of pointy metal. Things could have gone very badly, but some element of the Hajj spirit remained. I wasn’t going to force my way through, but I was not going to be moved. If someone pushed and hurt themselves on the wheelchair, so be it. I planted my feet, set my shoulders and secured my grip on the frame of the folded wheelchair.

 

My determination must have shown in my expression. My pleading and apologies had had no effect, but looking at my clenched jaw and flinty eyed glare the crowd parted minutely. I edged painstakingly through the crowd to the group flag. They were an eye of calm in the storm of humanity around me, and I was welcomed in with arms draped around my shoulders. There was no relief; there was no sign of mum.

 

I asked them to look after the wheelchair while I dived back into the writhing mass of bodies and those same welcoming arms held me back. I was on the verge of panic. I looked to the heavens and vowed a day’s fast if mum made it through the crowd safely.

 

An agonising minute passed, I scanned the crowd desperately, trying to see over the heads for her diminutive form. A second minute passed, bodies surged away from us and deeper into Mina. She would be carried back by the incoming Sunni tide as far as the Jamaraat before the crowd thinned, and that would be the best that I could hope for.

 

Raza’s wife emerged from the inexorable press of bodies. As the men at the outer edge of our group parted to let her through to safety, she said: “Ali bhai, I’ve found Auntie, she’s with me.”

 

Sure enough there was mum. I closed my eyes for a moment to give thanks and ushered her to safety too. I did not begrudge Allah the two minutes of panic. Any less than that would have required a more overt miracle of the moon splitting variety.

 

As the group slowly coalesced we moved en masse towards the main gates. I was at the edge with Raza and still towing the wheelchair when a lady from another group collapsed near us. It was a moment of real danger. Falling in a Hajj crowd has a high probability of ending in death.

 

I opened out the wheelchair as the crowd struggled to make some space, and the people with the lady helped her sit in it. Raza, with great presence of mind popped out a couple of glucose tablets which they gave her.

 

I realised then why I had fought to bring the wheelchair through the crowds, this lady needed it. I gave it up then. There was a man with the lady, he could have been brother or husband. I used hand signals to tell him to take the wheelchair. After demurring several times he accepted, only for the lady to surge to her feet, and decline the help. The glucose tablets had kicked in, and her momentary faint in the press and heat had passed.

 

We settled mum into the wheelchair, which was decidedly the worse for wear, and then began the long walk back to Azizia.

END

My Hajj diary is available here

Further extracts here

Link

My new book is out now!

My new book is out now!

In 2011 I took my mother and a wheelchair on Hajj. I’m still not sure how she talked me into it. It turned out to be a journey filled with tragedy, comedy and epiphany.

This travelogue gives an insight into the essential and yet mysterious Islamic endeavour of Hajj. It is a guide for the unprepared and light relief for those who, like me, struggle to take things too seriously.

Those of particularly orthodox or conservative religious views should beware.

The ebook is available for Kindle, the paperback is now in a range of retail channels.

Extracts are available on my blog.

Please Read, Rate, Review and Recommend

 

You can see both my books on my author central page

DP: Never Surrender – Leaving Mina (Hajj Diary Extract)

This is probably the last extract from my Hajj diary before publication (yes it is finally ready)

 

Leaving Mina

 

Leaving Mina was an emotional rollercoaster. I went from despair to ecstasy with detour through all the flavours of anger.

 

Shia and Sunni leaving times are separate. You might think that the fewer overall numbers of Shia would make our exit shortly after midday a seamless and trouble free affair, with the true chaos to follow. How wrong, oh my Lord, how wrong.

 

Someone had pinched the wheelchair. It is heavy and does not fold up into a particularly compact shape, so I found it eventually outside one of the Iranian tents. The tingle of annoyance began here, let’s call it 1 on the overall scale, although my wife might argue my baseline of irritation is about 5.

 

A bit of deep breathing and the reassurance of locating Mum quickly helped me regain my Hajji calm. We joined the queue to go up the concrete steps to the exit gate. The stairs were split down the middle by a narrow ramp, theoretically a plausible way of rolling the wheelchair up without trying to carry it, but in practice gravity is as inevitable as the day of judgement and the stairs were very steep. I resorted to carrying it, surrounded by Iranian women, probably from the same tent that had attempted the wheelchair theft. In any event they seemed to have some momentum of antipathy towards me, and no sympathy for the fact that I was trying to lug a large metal object up steep stairs in a crowd. There were inevitably some bumps and scrapes.

 

A few people helpfully pointed to the ramp as if I was some kind of moron. I tried again, to show goodwill, and more people got hurt. When two objects try to occupy the same space the hard metal one is likely to win over the soft fleshy one. At times like these I think the grey matter at the head end of the soft fleshy things should take charge. Alas it seemed the folks around me were using the very soft fleshy bits at the back and halfway down for decision making.

 

By the time I got the top of the steps I was probably on a 6, but the relief of getting there eased me back to a 3.

 

Trust me on the maths, there were about a quarter of a million Shia attempting to leave Mina through one gate a couple of metres wide. In Hajj terms this is a reasonable but not overwhelming crowd. There were also police 4x4s, policemen on foot, and importantly, a huge crowd of Sunnis trying to go the other way and get into Mina before their own official departure time.

 

I spotted our group flag, pointed it out to mum, who was by now a couple of metres and a dozen bodies away, and steeled myself to forge through the intervening distance. At a guess I had about twenty metres to traverse. Progress was in inches. At every step the wheelchair caught on something. That something was invariably attached to a someone.

 

Sailors thrown overboard in a storm may feel like this as an unthinking, unreasoning force drags them away from the tantalising sight of safety.

 

I went sideways, I went backwards, and rarely did I go forwards. The police looked on impassively. At one point they tried to force their 4×4 through the crowd, and then gave up. I lost mum, I got shoved and shouted at, it was insanely hot, and everyone was trying to breathe the same air and sucking in each other’s carbon dioxide. And then the red mist came down.

 

I was in a hostile crowd with a significant weight of pointy metal. Things could have gone very badly, but some element of the Hajj spirit remained. I wasn’t going to force my way through, but I was not going to be moved. If someone pushed and hurt themselves on the wheelchair, so be it. I planted my feet, set my shoulders and secured my grip on the frame of the folded wheelchair.

 

My determination must have shown in my expression. My pleading and apologies had had no effect, but looking at my clenched jaw and flinty eyed glare the crowd parted minutely. I edged painstakingly through the crowd to the group flag. They were an eye of calm in the storm of humanity around me, and I was welcomed in with arms draped around my shoulders. There was no relief; there was no sign of mum.

 

I asked them to look after the wheelchair while I dived back into the writhing mass of bodies and those same welcoming arms held me back. I was on the verge of panic. I looked to the heavens and vowed a day’s fast if mum made it through the crowd safely.

 

An agonising minute passed, I scanned the crowd desperately, trying to see over the heads for her diminutive form. A second minute passed, bodies surged away from us and deeper into Mina. She would be carried back by the incoming Sunni tide as far as the Jamaraat before the crowd thinned, and that would be the best that I could hope for.

 

Raza’s wife emerged from the inexorable press of bodies. As the men at the outer edge of our group parted to let her through to safety, she said: “Ali bhai, I’ve found Auntie, she’s with me.”

 

END
More about my Hajj experiences and about my Hajj book here

My book of short stories is available here and here among others. Buy it, review it, tell me what you think.

DP Perspective – The History Rant (Hajj diary extract)

Today’s prompt was to consider how something that drives you crazy and something that makes you happy may make you change your perspective.

I started with good intentions then wandered off topic a bit. Another snippet from the Hajj diary.

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The balance between preserving historical monuments and providing living architecture for modern use divides opinion. The Masjid al Nabawi (Mosque of The Prophet) in Medina is a case in point.

The Saudi approach is firmly in the present, the past is razed as much from an ideological perspective as practicality. Millennia of history and archaeological evidence have been bulldozed and concreted over and then sealed below marble. The result is a beautiful, awe inspiring space that swallows up two million people. And there is the trade-off: allowing the annual movement of so many people and accommodating their ease, comfort and visual pleasure; or retaining a sense of history and connection to the past.

We gain great architecture at the cost of our roots. The practicality is evident in the Masjid al Nabawi itself, and the ideological underpinning in the graveyard beside it. Graves dating back to the very first days of The Prophet in Medina, and perhaps even earlier have been allowed to decay, pre-existing shrines and tombs have been demolished, and there is nothing to identify where the specific graves of key individuals in Islamic history lie.

I’ve travelled much of the world. Every other country I have seen venerates, protects, or at least acknowledges the existence of its forbears and makes some attempt to protect its history. Not so in the holy city of Medina. There the past is an inconvenience and a burden against the needs of the present.

Nowhere is perfect, sometime soon I’ll be blogging about Hutchison Wampoa’s dastardly plans for Deptford, and the consequences for the historic shipyard, but I digress.

Putting aside the loss of history, the experience of the Masjid al Nabawi is exquisite. In the heat of the day huge pillars open up like flowers casting acres of shade. The marble is always cool underfoot, and aside from the very congested areas near the tomb and the pulpit of The Prophet there is always room to find a quiet spot for personal prayer and reflection. That is a remarkable feat.

Of course the trade-off is not so black and white, I was trying to begin with a sense of balance, but that is as lost as the Arabian historical record. Kerbala manages five times as many people and yet is a shrine and a city all at once, and it does this with a fraction of the wealth at the disposal of Saudi Arabia. St Mark’s Square and St Peter’s Square manage large flows of people, and yet retain their deep historical foundations.

It makes you wonder what evidence the past holds that makes them fear it so much.

END

Image

More about my Hajj experiences and about my Hajj book here

If you are interested in more of my writing please check out my book:Image and Other Stories

DP: Confusion / Surreal – Morning Prayer at Mina (Hajj diary extract)

This is an extract from the my Hajj diary, which is finally out with my beta readers. The DP kicked off the recollection of the event below; and it was worth a re-run when the prompt was surreal.

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As we packed up in Arafat I felt hollow, the epic high of the afternoon had emptied me. Salvation was an excoriating wrench.

I was also feeling a bit grumpy. Mum wouldn’t let any of the ladies in our group handle the wheelchair, and so I had to ask Sheikh Shomali for permission to stay with the elderly men and the women, and not join the other men on the overnight march to Mina. There were rules permitting this which he showed me in his Hajj rule book. He didn’t pick up on any of my hints that I really didn’t want him to find the appropriate ruling.

So it was that I was packed into the coach like a reluctant schoolboy who has been cut from the sports team and watched my comrades prepare for what I would later learn was an exciting and uplifting experience. In contrast I had one of the most disturbing experiences of my Hajj.

The coach journey gave me a chance to chat to Sheikh Arif, who like all of our organisers and facilitators was a fascinating and unusual character. I’ll not colour your perceptions too far, but I do recommend you take the chance to hear him speak. He’s one of the new generation of clerics that has a natural facility with English, combined with a spiritual and inclusive world view.

We talked about the role of verbal repetition in calming the chatter of the mind, and so allowing the brain to access the functions which have a greater inclination to opening themselves to the divine. When I suggested that our repeated prayers while circumambulating the Kaaba, or while reading the tasbeeh (rosary) were similar to dharmic repitition disciplines he didn’t launch me bodily from the coach for heresy. We got on well after that.

Mum was right as usual. The coach dropped us a couple of kilometres from our camp in Mina and the route was crowded. It would have been a huge imposition on the girls in the group to ask them to weave the recalcitrant wheelchair, dodgy wheels and all, between the milling hordes, up and over kerbs, round what we all hoped was water, and finally down the long, steep stairs that lead to the camp.

More on the wheelchair, which had a personality all its own, later.

We’d been warned about the mosquitoes in Mina. In truth there were fewer than the sun obscuring clouds I had expected, but there were still plenty and they were persistent. It made for a cold and uncomfortable night curled in the two sheets of my ehram, hoping I hadn’t left any holes for the little bloodsuckers to get in.

When the call to prayer sounded from the nearby Masjid al Khayf, I leapt at the excuse to get out of the tent. It was darker than I expected for dawn prayers, although the ubiquitous fluorescent light made it impossible to truly assess time between dusk and dawn.

Praying in Masjid al Khayf is highly recommended, so I was surprised none of the older men wanted to go as well, but I chalked it up to age and the demands of the last few days. I skipped off to wash, and feeling righteous made my way to join what I expected to be a long queue of pilgrims lining up to pray.

There was a single armed guard on duty, and only a few other ghostly souls wandering about. The guard watched me curiously as I navigated the unnecessarily perilous steps. No one else seemed to be coming in, all the stalls outside were closed, my holy buzz began to evaporate.

It looked like a morgue. Across the acres of floor space were littered bodies in shrouds. Anonymous and still. It was the aftermath of a natural disaster, an act of God. As I picked my way between the carelessly strewn shapes, a few faces peered out between the folds of cloth. To a man they were heavily bearded, most had the ruddy strong featured faces of the Pashtun.

I made two startling realisations at once. Those who were here without the benefit of a well organised caravan from a wealthy nation had to stay somewhere, and the masjid was at least marginally warmer and more comfortable than the asphalt outside. The other was that it was not time for Fajr at all, the dawn prayer was hours off, I’d woken to the call to the optional non communal night prayer.

The holy buzz had not drained out completely, so I figured some prayer and contemplation amongst my fellow pilgrims would be better than returning to the tent.

Thus began an unnerving couple of hours. I chose a quiet spot away from where people would need to pass by expecting to immerse myself in my books until the actual prayer time. The first few minutes were OK, but then things started to get weird.

I ignored the first couple of people to pass by unnecessarily close, thinking they may have friends on that side of the vast prayer hall. It was after the next few that I noticed a pattern. Everyone coming down the stairs to the main level would swerve hard left, and walk one pillar width away from the wall towards me. I was seated between the wall and the first row of pillars, but quite a long way from where the eventual front rank of prayer would be.

At each pillar was a small bookshelf with copies of the Qur’an. Everyone stopped at the bookshelf nearest me, picked up exactly the same copy of the Qur’an from the several on the shelf, flicked a couple of pages, looked at me, and then went on their way. Everyone. At first I dismissed it as an odd ritual, and I had by chance chosen the particular “pillar of blessing” to sit by. Then a more alarming thought intruded.

After what had happened in Medina we were all dialled into the sectarian divisions between ourselves and our Saudi hosts. Even in the supposed anonymity of ehram you can get a pretty fair idea of someone’s religious outlook, if not their precise sect, nation of origin, and choice of full English or continental breakfast.

The faces stopping by me all had the moustache-less scraggily unwholesome beard of every Al Qaeda wannabe the media have spent the years since 9\11 demonizing. I cursed and berated myself for falling into the trap of prejudice and tried to concentrate on my prayer. But the procession continued and the stares grew longer and more pointed, the flicks through the pages of the Qur’an more cursory. And it was everyone.

I have spent a very tedious part of my life as a statistician, I know a valid sample and a level of correlation when it stares at me from a heavily bearded face. Everyone came down off the stairs, paused, turned left, walked between the pillars to the one near me, picked up a Qur’an, flicked through the pages without reading them, looked at me then went on their way.

I checked my ehram over and over, costume malfunction is very possible when you are wrapped in two pieces of cloth, but everything was modestly covered.

I could think of no other reason for it than some latent hostility. It may have been some essence of westerner that clung to me, or my very obviously newly grown beard. Somehow in the middle of the unifying event for all Muslims there was a palpable sense of difference. I had not felt it anywhere else, but here I was the other and alone.

I wasn’t going to move. I sat through their distaste, their distrust, until the Fajr call to prayer. Even then my unease continued. Around me everyone crossed their arms to pray, my arms were open. They were content to rest their heads in supplication on the man made carpet, I put mine on a rough piece of clay. I was utterly alone, but I was not going to move.

It didn’t help that I had still not mastered the art of managing the top half of my ehram, or the bag which held my shoes. The cloth slipped from one shoulder, was tugged back only to slip off the other. I balled some of it in my fist to stop it flapping around. In the meantime whenever I went from sitting to prostrating myself my bag would slide forward on my back and my shoes would whack me on the back of the head.

Far from being the brave and dignified in the midst of hard eyes and cold hearts I was reducing the solemnity of prayer to slapstick. Each time my shoes hit me I imagined it was Allah, slapping me on the back of the head, shaking his own head in disbelief and saying with a resigned sigh, “You Muppet.”*

For what it was worth I finished my prayers, although I may not have attained the proximity to the divine the experience was supposed to achieve. I had some bumps on the back of my head though.

In the lifelong game of Kerplunk that is the quest for wisdom the penny dropped a couple of levels for me a while later. All the hale and hearty pilgrims were still walking to Mina. I was unusual: a young man in pilgrim garb but miles away from where he should be. It didn’t explain it all, but it held up a mirror to my own fear and prejudice. My spiritual growth still had a long way to go.

END

More about my Hajj experiences and about my Hajj book here

 

If you are interested in more of my writing please check out my book: Image and Other Stories

* I am aware of God being incorporeal, omniscient and omnipresent, however in my head the following moment of beauty from Kazantzakis is as good a description of God as I have ever read:

“I’m not joking boss. I think of God as being exactly like me. Only bigger, stronger, crazier. And immortal too, into the bargain. He’s sitting on a pile of soft sheep-skins, and his hut’s in the sky. It isn’t made out of old petrol-cans, like ours is, but clouds. In his right hand he is holding not a knife or a pair of scales – those damned instruments are meant for butchers and grocers – no, he’s holding a large sponge full of water, like a rain cloud. On his right is Paradise, on his left Hell. Here comes a soul; poor little thing’s quite naked because it’s lost its cloak – it’s body I mean – and it’s shivering. God looks at it, laughing up his sleeve, but he plays the bogy man: “Come here,” he roars, “come here you miserable wretch!”

“And he begins his questioning. The naked soul throws itself at God’s feet. “Mercy,” it cries. “I have sinned.” And away it goes reciting it’s sins. It recites a whole rigmarole and there’s no end to it. God thinks this is too much of a good thing. He yawns. “For heaven’s sake stop!” he shouts. “I’ve heard enough of all that!” Flap! Slap! A wipe of the sponge, and he washes out all the sins. “Away with you, clear out, run off to Paradise!” he says to the soul. “Peterkin, let this poor creature in, too!”

“Because God, you know, is a great lord, and that’s what being a lord is all about: to forgive!”

from Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis