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.
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