Friday, January 30, 2009

Diary of A Pilgrim - Mina On My Mind (III)

The Jamrah as it is today
The Jamrah in the 70s
The Jamrah in the 50s

Day Three (cont'd)

It was a bleak start to Day Three. With one lens missing and a nagging headache that persisted despite medication, I decided the safest recourse would be to remain in the tent, and say my prayers and doas.

As the day progressed, it was one misfortune after another. As if losing the lens of one’s spectacles wasn’t enough, my all-important Pilgrim Identification Tag and a brand new pair of flip-flops purchased just the day before to replace a ruined pair of leather sandals, also disappeared.

Without glasses I was as good as blind; without the tag I was a Tabung Haji non-entity. I could very well be left sick and penniless too, for only the tag could be used to seek medical treatment and to withdraw Tabung Haji savings while on pilgrimage.

For the uninitiated, Tabung Haji's functions in Mina were minimal; the bulk of the Hajj operations with regards pilgrim management were handled by Saudi Arabia's Muasasah Office.

The said Office also undertook provision of meals to Nusantara pilgrims. However, I must add (without malice, that is) that Tabung Haji-appointed caterers in Makkah and Madinah did a much better job in terms of food quality.

While in Mina, Tabung Haji was only allowed to offer medical and religious advisory services to Malaysian pilgrims; as such I had to wait until we return to Makkah to have a new tag done.

By noon, my headache had mercifully gone. With that, the gloom lifted. Myopia notwithstanding, I felt a lot happier. “Submission to the will of God” found a new meaning that day. It must be said that acceptance of one’s fate was a lot easier in the Holy Land.

God never felt closer and more real. Alone in my corner of the tent offering prayers and supplications, I was imbued with calmness and tranquility. It was a most peculiar, yet pleasing, feeling.

I would like to believe that Mina was where my spiritual journey reached its zenith. No word could explain how I felt. It is still impossible for me to translate this emotional intensity into mere words. Suffice to say the ‘rahmat’ (blessing) felt tangible, something you could physically hug and hold.

Stoning the devil was a foregone conclusion; I would be an unmitigated fool to attempt it in my current state of myopia, when I could hardly see the earth under my feet.

Anyway, the ritual is 'wajib' (must-do, with options) and not 'rukun' (pillar, some with options as well). Although a ‘must-do’, it is one that can be entrusted upon another person (like I did with Pak Abu), failing which one has to pay ‘dam’ (a pre-determined sum as penalty).

There were movement aplenty within the tents that day , with many pilgrims packing to return to Makkah after two nights in Mina. These pilgrims had opted for Nafar Awwal (literally, “to leave earlier”), thus must be out of Mina's boundary before dusk.

[Note: Nafar Awwal is when pilgrims complete two days of stoning and then opt to leave Mina to return to Makkah, which they must do before sunset. Those staying for the full, prescribed three days in Mina are deemed to have opted for Nafar Tsani]

The Nafar Awwal option was not encouraged by Tabung Haji; I think it was more of a logistic issue than anything else (the lack of adequate transport had a lot to do with it). Still, Tabung Haji did arrange for buses to carry the early leavers back to Makkah.

Although announcements were made about the availability of buses and departure times, some pilgrims still hauled their luggage and parked themselves at the camp gate, causing mini-congestion at the entrance.

Many pilgrims were eager to leave the discomfort of Mina for Makkah, thus the Nafar Awwal rush. On the other hand, I had this sudden urge to stick around in Mina a while longer.

Pak Abu agreed Mina had taught many good lessons. If one could look beyond the physical discomforts – the overcrowded tents, the lack of toilets, the throngs, the constant clamour and din, the barely-palatable food – Mina was a paradise, spiritually. Mina was proving to be one heck of a memorable sojourn.

Day Four

Thursday the 11th of December was a bright new day. A beautiful day too. The bus taking us back to Makkah would be leaving at 10 in the morning, giving me ample time to pack and say my goodbyes to new friends made in Mina.

As I looked around the tent, now half empty, with many pilgrims gone the day before, I felt a twinge of sadness and melancholy. After the torment of Arafah, I had not expected to be severely tested yet again in Mina. But He knew best, and that was good enough for me.

After all, the Hajj is a 'jihad' and its rewards commensurate with the level of hardship and suffering one is subjected to. I know He loves this humble servant still. Thank You, God.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Diary of A Pilgrim - Mina On My Mind (II)

Mina at night
People, people everywhere
Sunrise over the hills of Mina

From left: Nor Aziah, Zabiah, Jaimah and Norizan (my Makkah roommates). We stuck together through thick and thin during the Hajj. Their kindness and understanding helped pull me through in my moments of despair.

Mina - Day Two

Truth be told, life under the Mina tent wasn’t all peaches. Serenity was a precious commodity. Sometimes it was like the Tower of Babel in there that one couldn't even 'hear' one's own thought!

Nobody minded the prayers, zikirs and Quran-reading, but they certainly did the idle talks interspersed with raucous laughter. It could be quite trying on one’s already frayed nerves.

Late at night one could hear a cacophony of coughs and sneezes from one end of the tent to the other, for the flu epidemic was at its height in Mina. It reminded me of a hospital ward.

Outside, the lanes between tents were narrow, making it difficult to negotiate one’s way. Puddles were everywhere, courtesy of pilgrims taking their ablution outside the tent instead of at the wash area.

Rubbish overflowed faster than they could be collected. Miraculously, just like in Makkah, neither maggot nor fly could be found in Mina.

The bins were cleared twice daily by a motley band of African boys, using wheelbarrows. And they would sing merrily while doing their work.

There was neither stench nor unpleasant smell anywhere, not even from the toilet. However, one young woman was found retching her guts out one day near the loo. She said the stench was unbearable. Wallahualam.

For want of a shower, I woke up at 3.00 am that second day in Mina. All was well and good; a refreshing bath I did have, before performing dawn prayers and partaking breakfast with Pak Abu at one of the foodstalls by the main road.

Although I had ‘deputised’ Pak Abu to do the stoning ritual on my behalf the day before because of my persistent headache, I did express my intention to experience it myself, at least once, and he agreed.

It was to have been that evening; then news filtered out that a pilgrim was trampled to death at the Jamrah that very day. That got me all tensed up, which prompted Pak Abu to decide it might not be safe for me, then still nursing an aching head, to go.

That evening, Malaysian pilgrims were strongly advised by both Tabung Haji and the Muasasah management not to leave camp until further notice; via ‘live’ feed at the Sheikh’s tent, we could see how dangerously overcrowded the Jamrah was.

To further emphasise the seriousness of the situation, the main entrance and exit to our camp was locked for a few hours to prevent pilgrims from leaving. Pandemonium broke out and voices were raised when they realised they had to wait for the Jamrah throng to subside.

In other words, the pilgrims were angry at Tabung Haji and Muasasah for taking measures to ensure their own safety. As usual, some pilgrims simply ignored advice and ‘escaped’ via emergency exits at the back of the encampment. Worse, a few even had the gall to leave by climbing over the fencing!

As it were, Pak Abu left without me after Maghrib. The mass of humanity thronging the three jamarats were clearly visible on the Sheikh’s TV, as I waited with bated breath for his return.

Alhamdulillah, he did two hours later, with news that the movement of people in Muassim Tunnel was extraordinarily massive that evening. We decided to call it a night after having dinner, by the roadside again, around 11pm.

Two days in Mina, and I wasn’t even close to Muassim Tunnel, let alone the jamarats on the other side of the hill. Along with a throbbing head, I was beginning to feel rather irritable with the whole situation.

Mina - Day Three

Day Three dawned with me yet again making a beeline for the toilet at 3.00 am to shower. This time, as God willed it, there was a big crowd comprising women pilgrims from a neighbouring country up north waiting to use the facilities.

I knew their mother tongue well enough to understand snippets of their conversation. They were belly-aching about Malaysian women pilgrims ‘encroaching’ into ‘their’ territory, using ‘their’ toilet facilities and such.

Noticing a few of us Malaysian women pilgrims waiting for our turn at the cubicles, one of them turned and berated us of same, in Kelantanese dialect.

Our ladies behaved perfectly, averting their eyes and ignoring the tirade, albeit with a strained look on their faces. It was, after all, three o'clock in the morning and we were still bleary-eyed with sleep.

I remember thinking to myself: "We don't need this crap. This is everybody's toilet. So be it." But I was slowly getting hot under the collar all the same as she droned on and on, unabated.

Cantankerous and crabby by now, I well and truly lost it. I should have had the grace to hold my tongue; instead I turned, looked at her squarely in the eyes and in perfect Kelantanese, gave her a piece of my mind.

I told her off in no uncertain terms that she was wasting her time in the Holy Land with that disgraceful attitude of hers.

Hardly had the words left my mouth the right lens of my glasses popped out! It plopped right there in front of the toilet cubicle and disappeared into the grating. How swift was Divine retribution!

Blind as a bat now, I hung my head low in shame and walked away from the toilet, measuring my steps slowly for fear I might trip and fall. Full of regret, I returned to the tent.

With no spare glasses to speak of, and miles away from the nearest optometrist (hopefully there was one in Makkah), what was I to do?

Me and my obsessive preoccupation with 'toilet issues'; How could I be such a moron? I knew I had earned demerit points in the eyes of God and had just received my dues.

Not a day passed in Mina after the incident that I didn’t beseech God to forgive my momentary lapse of reason.......

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Diary of A Pilgrim - Mina On My Mind (I)

Pretty ladies all in a row - my Makkah roommates as well as new friends made in Mina. The lady in the middle was the one who got left behind in Muzdalifah.

Our tent in all its 'tongkang pecah' glory. This picture was taken before the luggage was sorted out (obviously!). Where the Quran was, was my little corner ....

Pak Abu, sporting his new Kojak hairdo, and garbed in a daring red after 2 weeks of ihram attire, at the Smoker's Corner (Sudut Sedut)

Pilgrims from India obliging yours truly for a picture.

Feeling patriotic - with Tabung Haji officials just back from leading a group of pilgrims from the Jamrah.

Morning scene in Mina

In 1997, a fire ripped through the sprawling, overcrowded ‘tent city’ of Mina, trapping and killing more than 340 pilgrims and injuring some 1,500 others.

Seven years later, in 2004, 244 pilgrims were crushed to death in a horrific stampede at nearby Jamrah, the ‘stoning of the devil’ ritual area.

Nineteen years earlier, in 1990, a stampede in the Muassim tunnel connecting Mina and the Jamrah area killed 1,426 pilgrims. It was the worst (in terms of casualty) single Hajj-related catastrophe in recent memory.

Mina, in particular the Jamrah, have seen several similar incidents in the past three decades, mostly stampedes resulting from overcrowding, over-enthusiastic pilgrims throwing caution to the wind when pelting the pillars representing Satan, and poor crowd control.

With this sobering thought in mind, I wearily gathered my luggage and cast one final look at Muzdalifah, saying a brief prayer for our safety as we inched our way to join the impatient crowd waiting for the bus that would take us to Mina.

For the next four days, this desert valley five kilometres east of Makkah on the road to Arafah would be yet another transit in our spiritual journey, before returning to Makkah for the final Hajj rites of Tawaf and Sa’ei.

I had no illusions about what to expect in Mina. After the trials and tribulations of Arafah, I was resigned to my fate.

The Saudi Government has since spent billions to modernise Mina; it now has 40,000 durable fireproof tents with cooling systems, state-of-the-art communication facilities that include flyovers and tunnels, and water and electricity networks.

At the Jamrah, the three pillars of As-Sughra, Al-Wusta and Al-Kubra have since been replaced with 26-metre long walls to facilitate easier casting of stones.

A single tiered pedestrian bridge has also been built around the three above-mentioned jamarat so pilgrims could perform the ritual from either ground level or the bridge.

It was half past one in the morning when our bus finally entered the Nusantara Pilgrims encampment. The seven-kilometre journey took two hours, a decent enough travel time given the circumstances.

In fact, the last batch of Malaysian pilgrims limped into Mina at 10 the following morning, almost nine hours after leaving Muzdalifah.

After dumping my luggage at the allocated spot, I made a beeline for the toilet, determined to bathe at whatever cost. I had not showered for over a day and felt incredibly grimy, with a foul mood to match.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait for long; the queue was only 5-people deep. It was heavenly to feel the rush of water on one's head...

That night, sprawled on a thin Tabung Haji-issued, bright-orange plastic mat laid on an existing sand-infused woollen carpet, pillowless and with only a length of ‘batik lepas’ for blanket, I zonked out completely.

Our tent housed 320 pilgrims, divided into groups of 16 women each section. It was quite an experience to be under one roof with over 300 women.

By nature a loner and very private, I found it extremely hard at first to even wash my face in full view of everyone. Soon enough, I learned to be a little less self-conscious. Over time, I couldn't care less any more!

Dawn saw me up and early for subuh prayers .... and the trial began again. The toilet was packed to the brim with pilgrims from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. There was no way I could do my toilet and take ablution, let alone bathe.

I wandered around checking out the other toilets; they were just as congested. Worried that the hours for subuh prayers would soon be over, I decided to take my wudhu’ from a bottle of mineral water. It was 10 am when the crowd finally thinned out that I was able to have a quick shower.

Soon the dull, thudding headache of Muzdalifah sprang to life once again; this time with a vengeance. Although it wasn't migraine, the pain was, nonetheless, just as excruciating. My head felt like exploding.

I had no choice but to down a couple of aspirins and hit the sack once again. The pain subsided somewhat in the late afternoon but my vision had, by then, become blurry.

There was no way I could make it to the Jamrah for the stoning ritual that day. Pak Abu, bless his soul, decided he would cast the stones on my behalf.

For certain Hajj rituals, it is allowed to deputise another person to perform it due to unavoidable circumstances (sickness, old age, or fear for one's safety, for example), provided the two parties officially ‘aqad’ (make a covenant) and mutually agree upon it.

The crowd leaving for the Jamrah was building up when Pak Abu left at 5.30pm. They seemed to have poured out from every nook and cranny of Mina, briskly walking in an endless mass towards Muassim tunnel that divides the tent city and the jamarats.

Security was tight, with helicopters monitoring the trek from above and thousands of police personnel guarding the roads.

Thankfully, Pak Abu returned just an hour later, saying the situation wasn’t as bad as he had envisioned it and that he was able to cast the stones without much hassle.

By now he was as bald as an eagle; he had had his head shaved, whereupon I cut off a lock of my hair, thus marking the end of our state of Ihram. (Note: A woman normally clips her hair the length of a fingertip; she is not required to do a ‘Kojak’).

This shaving of the head/clipping of hair marks the rite of Tahlul, symbolising the partial ending of Ihram. It can only be done after one has completed the first day of the stoning ritual.

Pilgrims can now shed their ihram attire (the unsewn two-piece clothing that a male pilgrim wears) and put on everyday clothes, and return to normal life as all ihram obligations (except conjugal relations) are now lifted.

It being Id-Adha (Hari Raya Haji), most pilgrims sacrificed a goat, sheep or some other animal, giving the meat to the poor. Pak Abu had earlier contributed a sum of money for one such sacrifice.

That evening, we decided to celebrate the “Festival of Sacrifice’ our own way – by plonking our respective folding chairs by the side of the thoroughfare leading to Muassim tunnel, and eating ‘roti arab’ with a meat dish bought from a nearby vendor.

Returning to tent, we stopped by one of the many street vendors lining the side lanes of our encampment and bought even more souvenirs.

At that juncture, I honestly didn’t even know who I was buying them for; it certainly seemed a good idea to just stock up....

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Diary of A Pilgrim - Moon Over Muzdalifah

Knackered and drained in more ways than one, Muzdalifah offered a welcome respite from the torment and misery of Arafah for this weary guest of God ...

Taking a snooze after all the prayers, supplications and pebble-collecting. It wasn't easy to look for pea-sized 'batus' in semi-darkness.

My roommate Nor Aziah and her husband Ahmad, from Sungai Buloh, Selangor. The pint-sized grandma regaled us with witty, poignant tales of her year-long sojourn in New Delhi many years ago.

The boundary for collecting pebbles.

It was midnight rendezvous of the strangest kind; in a desert valley beneath a cloudless sky and not a twinkle in sight, the bluish-white moon casting a long shadow on the teeming mass of humanity below.

Weary beyond words, I reclined gently on a rocky mound, grateful to have found a nook to rest my aching feet. Improbable as it may sound, somewhere in my subconscious ‘Ole Blue Eyes was crooning “Blue Moon” as I gazed, mesmerised, at the most beautiful blue moon I had ever seen.

The ordeal of Arafah was still fresh in my mind as we left for Muzdalifah eight kilometres away not long after sunset, to collect pea-sized pebbles to 'Stone the Devil’ in Mina the following day.

Apart from a tree or two planted as landmarks for pilgrims, this stark, pebbly valley between Arafah and Mina is devoid of any vegetation. Neither was there any permanent structure, save for a couple of toilets with no more than 10 cubicles each.

Muzdalifah has a special mention in the Qur’an, where it is referred to as Al-Masy’ar Al-Haraam, indicating it as a sacred place where worship and devotion are richly rewarded.

There was no tent in Muzdalifah, just sheets of green tarpaulin neatly laid on the sandy, pebbly expanse to give a measure of comfort to pilgrims for the few hours that they spent in Muzdalifah before moving on to Mina.

The main duty of staying at Muzdalifah is deemed to have been fulfilled if one spends any part of the second half of the night there. Malaysian pilgrims under Tabung Haji usually spend four or five hours in Muzdalifah, departing for Mina after midnight.

Tabung Haji officials confided Muzdalifah had always been a logistic nightmare to them, considering the limited number of buses allocated (they’d be lucky to get 20) to move 27,000 Malaysian pilgrims from Muzdalifah to Mina 7 kilometres away, within the hours of midnight to dawn the following day.

Our allocated station in Muzdalifah was, thankfully, quite near a wash area so we didn’t have to walk very far for toilet and ablution. Upon arrival, we performed the customary two-raka’at sunat prayer and continued with our supplications and doas.

After the tribulations of Arafah, it was simply heavenly to experience the serenity of Muzdalifah. The evening air was windless and still, yet cool. Despite the crowd, a sense of peace and calmness prevailed. My spirit lifted considerably.

I took the opportunity to have a snooze while Pak Abu wandered off, torchlight and pouch in hand, to collect pebbles. Well aware of my now-acute headache, he later returned with pebbles enough for the two of us, bless his heart.

It is easy to lose one’s bearing in Muzdalifah. Apart from the aforesaid trees, a few signboards in Arabic, English and French (the three main languages used in the Holy land), minimal streetlight and a couple of toilet facilities dotting the barren landscape, there is nothing to differentiate one’s allocated station from that of the next group.

The presence of fellow Nusantara pilgrims (250,000 pilgrims from Indonesia alongside us) flanking us on both sides, made station identification twice as difficult when all one saw was a sea of white, although there were banners and flags to indicate the boundary between the two countries.

Thus, over the next few hours we were subjected to a series of announcements by Tabung Haji officials using megaphones, calling out the names of spouses, parents and relatives who had somehow gone ‘missing’ in the teeming mass.

They were mostly the elderly and the infirmed, many of them illiterate, who had simply become disoriented, clueless as to where their stations were, wandering in circles to find their way back. The announcements served to guide them back to their respective groups.

Except for the inevitable pushing and jostling (when will they ever learn?) when the buses started arriving at midnight to take us onwards to Mina, Muzdalifah passed without incidence for Pak Abu and I.

Pak Abu, however, was on the verge of losing his cool when some of the elderly pilgrims were rudely shoved and elbowed by impatient younger pilgrims, causing the hapless senior citizens, women amongst them, to lose their footing, nearly toppling over, in the rush to stake a seat in the bus.

Such behaviour, shameful and unbecoming, was contrary to God's command: "Take necessary provisions with you for the Hajj journey, but the best provision is right (good) conduct." (Al-Baqarah: 197).

It was two o'clock in the morning when we finally reached the tent city of Mina, tired and hungry, but happy to have arrived safely and in good time.

We were later to learn a woman pilgrim from Perak was inadvertently left behind in Muzdalifah. Her husband had gone to the washroom when everyone was boarding. Upon returning, he couldn't find her anywhere. Assuming she had left on an earlier bus, he hopped on the last one and left for Mina.

In the meantime, the wife was waiting patiently for him to turn up at their prescribed meeting place, to leave together. The strangest thing was, he walked past that very same place many times over searching for her yet saw nothing, when she was right there, praying and saying her supplications.

It was many hours later when he realised she hadn't arrived that he returned to Mudzalifah, to find one highly agitated, panic-stricken spouse, alone in the now deserted plain. Thank be to Allah (swt) she wasn't harmed in any way....

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Diary of A Pilgrim - The Agony of Arafah

Oh my aching head!

Finding temporary relief in the shade.

Luggage everywhere, not that we cared; we just needed a small space to pray and perhaps, a shut-eye, till subuh..

Four of my 5 Makkah roomates (from left) Ustazah Zabiah, Norizan, Jaimah and Masnah.

Mention The Hajj, and the spectre that looms large in everyone’s mind is usually a sea of white moving at snail pace around the Kaabah.

The tawaf is but one of the six prescribed rukuns (pillars) in performing the Hajj. It’s wukuf (standing/keeping still) in Arafah that’s the key rukun and the most fundamental rite of all, for Prophet Muhammad (saw) had said: “Hajj is Arafah.”

Pilgrims who choose to spend the daytime at Arafah must stay there until after sunset for this was what Prophet Muhammad (saw) did in Wada' Hajj (Farewell Pilgrimage). In this respect, Prophet Muhammad (saw) said: "Follow my example in performing the rites of 'Umrah and Hajj."

If a pilgrim goes to Arafah and misses everything else, his Hajj, while flawed, is still sound; however, if he does everything else but misses Arafah, his Hajj is no longer valid. That’s how crucial Arafah is.

The 9th of Zulhijjah is the day of Arafah and the hours between noon (Zohor) of the 9th and dawn (Subuh) of the 10th of Zulhijjah are of utmost importance for these are the prescribed hours of wukuf.

It is the day when pilgrims from all over the world stand on the desolate plains and at the foot of Mount Arafah facing the qiblat, and acknowledge their transgressions and faults, renew their covenant with God, submit to Him and ask for His forgiveness.

The Hadith says there is no doa like doas on Arafah for this is the time when the doors of the Heavens are open wide to accept the prayers and supplications of pilgrims in Arafah, for which Allah (swt) guarantees deliverance.

The 9th of Zulhijjah is also no ordinary day, as reflected in this verse, revealed to Prophet Muhammad (saw) as he stood at Arafah: “This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your way of life.” (Al-Maidah:3).

["Pada hari ini Aku telah sempurnakan bagi kamu agamamu, dan Aku telah cukupkan nikmatKu kepadamu, dan Aku telah redakan Islam itu menjadi agama untukmu."]

Arafah is also mentioned in the Qur’an: “Then when ye file from Arafah (for Muzdalifah), celebrate the praises of Allah at Mas’yar al-Haram (in Muzdalifah). (Al-Baqarah:198)

[“Kemudian apabila kamu bertolak turun dari padang 'Arafah (menuju Muzdalifah) maka sebutlah nama Allah (dengan doa, talbiah dan tasbih) di tempat Masy'ar al-Haram (di Muzdalifah)."]

The massive movement of pilgrims from Makkah to Arafah had already begun when we boarded our bus at 9.30pm on the 8th of Zulhijjah for Arafah 22 kilometres away.

From the comfort of our air-conditioned transport, we saw a mass of humanity slowly trudging on foot making the same journey. We were thankful for the relative comfort that we were in, compared to other pilgrims, many of whom slept in the open and depended on the kindness of others to survive the Hajj.

Syukur Alhamdulillah, God was kind to us for we arrived without a hitch hardly 30 minutes later. There were instances of delay due to transport breakdown and massive jams, causing pilgrims to walk for hours for the remaining distance.

The women pilgrims of Maktab 78-KT 73 (of which I was one) were then ushered into a massive makeshift tent housing some 300 people. We quickly found our respective spot, settled down and began praying.

The evening air was cool to the touch, a slight breeze blew and I decided to step out for a while to savour the moment. In the stillness of the night, only the murmurs of prayers, zikir and talbiyah could be heard from all corners of the encampment.

After taking ablution I returned to tent, refreshed. I performed a couple of sunat prayers and then started on a series of doas. It was while reciting the Doa Taubat that the floodgates opened.

I remember sobbing uncontrollably with every word. The sense of grief, of regret, was so great and the pain within so excruciating that it felt as though the heart was about to be wrenched free from the body.

Steeling myself, I proceeded with Doa Arafah. By this time, I could hardly read the doa book anymore for the tears. Inhaling deeply, I heard sniffles and muted sobbings all around me. Hands reached out, gently patting my back in consolation. I continued:

Ya Allah, sesungguhnya aku pohon dengan kemuliaan zatMu, dengan kemurahanMu yang kekal abadi, dengan namaMu Yang Maha Besar, dengan apa yang diturunkan keatas NabiMu Muhammad (saw) dan sekelian saudara-saudaranya daripada nabi-nabi dan rasul-rasul serta keluarganya, sahabat-sahabat dan semua pengikut mereka daripada golongan ulama-ulama yang beramal dan wali-wali yang soleh juga para solihin.

Ya Allah, dengan kehormatan hari yang mulia ini, bahawa Engkau memberi rahmat keatas Nabi Muhammad (saw), bahawa Engkau ampunkan kami, kedua ibubapa kami, anak-anak kami, saudara mara kami, sekelian kaum keluarga kami, guru-guru kami, sahabat handai kami, mereka yang berbuat baik kepada kami, mereka yang mempunyai hak keatas kami, mereka yang kami zalimi atau sakiti, dan kepada sakalian orang Islam lelaki dan perempuan sama ada yang masih hidup atau yang telah mati.

Ya Allah, Engkau memberi rezeki dan kebajikan kepada kami dan mereka di dunia dan akhirat dan Engkau peliharakan kami dan mereka daripada segala bencana. Engkau jauhkan malapetaka dunia dan akhirat. Bahawa Engkau kurniakan kepada kami dengan ilmu pengetahuan yang berguna dan amalan yang salih, Engkau peliharakan kami daripada perbuatan-perbuatan jahat sama ada daripada manusia, jin, binatang buas dan lain-lainnya. Engkau matikan kami dan mereka itu dalam husnul-khatimah (kesudahan yang baik).

Wahai Tuhan kami, berilah kami didunia ini kebaikan, diakhirat juga kebaikan, peliharalah kami dari azab neraka. Salawat dan salam keatas Nabi Muhammad (saw) dan keluarganya, sahabat-sahabatnya, Maha Suci Engkau Ya Allah daripada segala sifat kekurangan. Salam sejahtera keatas sekelian rasul-rasul dan segala pujian itu tertentu kepada Allah yang memiliki sekelian alam.”

There was something surreal about Arafah. In the midst of millions, I experienced an acute sense of loneliness. The nearness of God was palpable, yet I felt like an intruder in His presence. Worse, I felt unclean; I long to shed my own skin. That night I cried myself to sleep.

After such an unsettling night, I woke up for Subuh prayers feeling light and somewhat cheerful. It seemed and even felt like the beginning of a new dawn for me. Little did I realise the worst had yet to come.

Limited toilet facilities in Arafah - 10 cubicles to be shared with 300 people - saw perpetually long queues, especially near prayer times. There were far too many people at the wash area that morning that bathing was next to impossible. In fact, one would be lucky to do one's toilet decently and in good time.

This, by the way, is not a shortcoming on the Saudi government's part; it was planned that way so that pilgrims may experience hardship and difficulties.

In essence, Arafah gives a foretaste of what it would be like to rise from the dead on Judgement Day - dank and smelly, dishevelled and disoriented with not stitch on, and with the blazing sun inches away from one's head.

As wukuf hours approached, it got progressively hot. My trial had just begun. All my adult life, I had always proclaimed how much I didn’t like the heat of the sun. I took pride in avoiding sunlight. I consistently refused to go out under the sun for fear of migraine.

Well, I got my just desserts in Arafah. The relentless heat saw me sweltering under the steaming tent. Unable to bear it any longer, I took to sitting outside the tent, shifting with the shade as the sun moved, pouring bottle upon bottle of water on my head.

My Makkah roommates shook their heads sympathetically. Yes, it was hot, they said, but not THAT hot. But it was unbearably hot for me. I returned to the tent sporadically, to pray and say my doas. Then it would be writhing like ‘cacing kepanasan’ outside the tent again.

Each time I prayed, relief would come in the form of a slight breeze. I would feel comfortable for a while, before the next wave of heat overcame me all over again. It was no ordinary heat I was experiencing. It seared the skin; such was my azab.

Although distraught, I soldiered on, saying my prayers and doas through a blurry world of tears, begging for God's Mercy and Forgiveness. I remember a poignant thought that crossed my mind then, that if tears could wash away sins, I would probably be as pure as a newborn that unforgiving day in Arafah.

Mercifully, as evening approached the air got cooler. By this time, however, I could feel a twinge of headache developing. Fortunately, it was not the usual dull throbbing on the left side of my temple, which would indicate heat-induced migraine. Instead, it was just an ordinary headache.

Ignoring the gnawing pain, I joined the rest as we prepared to leave Arafah for Muzdalifah 8 kilometres away to collect pebbles for the Stoning ritual the following day in Mina.

Deep in my heart, I couldn't thank Allah (swt) enough for surviving Arafah...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Diary of A Pilgrim - Counting The Days To Arafah

Our favourite eating place, the unimaginatively named Makkah Restaurant, about 200 metres from Qutubah Barakah Hotel. The mutton curry served here, eaten with 'roti arab', was to die for!

The bazaar-like atmosphere in the vicinity of the mosque. Although prices were already cheap, haggling was customary. A seasoned haggler's paradise, truly.

My bed in Qutubah. It faced the window from which I could see people praying on the upper floors of Masjidil Haram.

Our daily fare. Tabung Haji provided two meals a day - lunch and dinner - and they came packaged as above - rice with curry (meat or fish), a serving of vegetables and a fruit (either apple, orange, pear or banana) for dessert.

A well-known date shop situated beyond the traffic light intersection some 1000 metres down the road from Qutubah, run by a couple of Indian nationals.

A common enough street scene in Makkah - people 20 to 30 deep, returning from Subuh prayers, seeking breakfast at one of the many shops lining the narrow street.

View of the mosque courtyard from the 9th floor of Inter-Continental.

Another view of the mosque from the Inter-Continental.

Thirteen kilos (28lbs) lighter and feeling like a million dollars. Among the first things that I did upon reaching home was to weigh myself. I knew I had shed some pounds – my hefty middle had shrunk noticeably - but I didn’t realise it was that much.

A couple of favourite kurungs and beaded jubah (robes) that had been hanging dejectedly in the closet for the last two years are now seeing sunlight again. I wore one to a wedding reception last weekend, mighty pleased with the fact that I no longer needed to hold my breath and wriggle into it like I used to. And corset be gone!

“Enjoy it while it lasts”, said acerbic Pak Abu, seeing how smug I was. Yet to recover fully from his Hajj-acquired coughing fit, Pak Abu shed 10 kilos (22lbs) himself and had to punch additional holes in his belt.

It is an established fact that the Hajj, apart from being a soul-cleansing exercise, also provides exercise of the physical kind, making it a most effective weight-loss programme.

There are exceptions to the rule, however. The husband of one of Pak Abu’s cousins gained 5lbs while on pilgrimage two years ago; this despite all the walking and climbing. He ate like a horse while in the Holy Land, he admitted. He added that his appetite soared like never before.

The flu had, by now, reached epidemic proportions. People were sneezing and coughing and bringing up phlegm everywhere. We took to carrying wads of tissue paper at all times in our Tabung Haji-issued blue pouch bag, discreetly depositing the soiled ones in bins placed all over the city.

Much to Pak Abu’s disgust, many simply spat and regurgitated their phlegm wherever convenient. Fortunately, the streets were hosed down often in a day. Strangely enough, in Makkah, the usually finicky me wasn’t in the least bothered by the sight of phlegm and spit.

Divine reward and retribution are swift and instantaneous in the Holy Land and many pilgrims bear witness to this, especially those not short on complaints, comments and grouses.

In the case of Pak Abu, for example, his constant griping about phlegm saw people spitting directly into his path (narrowly missing his foot), and phlegm from nowhere sticking to his sarong, until I cautioned him not to voice it out anymore for fear of more 'phlegmatic' torment.

As for me, a fleeting yet uncharitable thought had me properly and promptly chastised. Once I was about to begin Subuh prayer on the top floor of Masjidil Haram when a woman joined our saf (row). Seeing that she didn't have a sejadah (prayer mat), I adjusted mine to share with her.

As I raised my hands for 'takbir', another woman, also sans sejadah, joined us. I quickly readjusted mine to include her as well. I began again, this time feeling a little peeved at the interruption and thinking crossly, "These women knew they were coming to the mosque. Why on earth didn't they bring their own sejadah?"

As soon as the thought crossed my mind however, a sudden gust of wind blew so hard that the sejadah lifted and rolled quite a distance away, leaving the three of us matless! Sufficiently chastened, I said a quick prayer, asking for forgiveness for my pettiness. (We ended up prostrating on the very cold, finely-veined marbled floor).

With the contagious flu infection now spreading rapidly, the Tabung Haji medical team had their hands full with sick pilgrims. To add to my misery, I was also down with fever and had to pay a visit to the clinic. Located on the first floor of the hotel, the clinic went full steam from eight in the morning until 10 at night.

I asked the doctor why, despite my hundred-ringgit jab, I was still affected by the flu. “It’s God’s work. You will only recover once you reach Malaysia,” he replied with a smile.

With days to go before leaving for wukuf in Arafah, there wasn’t much to do but to continue familiarising ourselves with the numerous prayers and supplications, absorbing as much as we could, and attending religious talks held at the hotel surau (prayer hall).

One morning we met up with Dato Zaki of Darul Fikir, a close friend and golfing buddy of Pak Abu, for a scrumptious breakfast at the opulent Dar Al Tawheed Inter-Continental directly across Masjidil Haram, after which we adjourned to the upper floors for an overview of the Grand Mosque.

The six-star Inter-Continental was a favourite of the rich and famous and this was where pilgrims of Tabung Haji’s lavish Al-Maas Package were put up. I gasped to learn the said package costs RM100,000 apiece. We were told a lot of wealthy Indonesians stayed at the hotel; in fact we saw a few during breakfast, the ladies sporting huge sparkling rocks.

Dato Zaki told us of a wealthy Malaysian he knew who spent RM2 million a year to send people from his kampung on the Al-Maas package. When asked why he chose the most expensive package when he could have sent more through Muasasah or the cheaper packages, his answer was very telling.

The man said he wanted the kampung folks, living a hardscrabble existence most of their lives, to experience the very best, at least in terms of physical comfort, in their once-in-a-lifetime journey. Put that way, I really couldn't argue with his reasoning.

The evening before we ran into another close acquaintance, Datuk Mohaiyani Shamsuddin (who founded stockbroking firm Mohaiyani Securities) and her entourage. She had heard of Qutubah Barakah’s famous crispy roti canai and had dropped by for a personal rating. The good-looking Datuk looked exceptionally comely in a tudung.

Makkah may be a holy city but there were creeps and cretins aplenty, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting. A woman pilgrim walking alone got mugged at the darkened walkway just before the two escalators that led up to the hotel entrance. Luckily she wasn’t sexually molested.

A male pilgrim lost RM3,000 when he hung his pouch at the toilet door to relieve himself, only to find it gone in an instant. Another male pilgrim, lost in the mosque and seeking help, was manhandled by a rogue who relieved him of RM2,000 before dumping him in a secluded area.

Women were warned time and again by Tabung Haji officials not to walk alone, even to the mosque, not to enter public conveniences (like toilets) unaccompanied, and to avoid backstreets and alleys unless in groups. Personal safety should never be compromised.

The night before our departure for Arafah was a sobering one for us. After almost two weeks in Makkah, we were finally on the threshold of the ‘big ones’ – the Wukuf, Stoning, conclusion of our Ihram state and subsequently, Tawaf and Sa’ei Haji.

We packed our hand luggage in silence, contemplating the historic journey, well aware of the significance of the shift to Arafah, Muzdalifah and the Mina encampment the following day. We would be away from the safe cocoon of Qutubah for five days, joining three million others in the tent city of Mina.

Simply put, wukuf means “keeping still”. It is a key rukun in Hajj, a must, failing which one’s Hajj quest is rendered null and void. A pilgrim must be present on the plains of Arafah, even if for one second, between noon (selepas gelincir matahari) and before the sun sets on the 9th of Zulhijjah.

The standard practice (at least for pilgrims under Tabung Haji) however, is to spend one whole day in searing hot Arafah, in makeshift tents, praying and making doas. Prophet Muhammad (saw) had said that there is no doa like doas in Arafah, for Allah (swt) guarantees its deliverance.

I went to bed that night fearful and anxious, not knowing what awaited on the barren plains of Arafah....

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Diary of A Pilgrim - Solat & Shopping

Once a cat lover, always a cat lover. The 'ibu kucing' playing with a kitten, one of many, in the gardens of Qutubah Barakah Hotel.

Pak Abu, still clad in ihram & on the way back from masjid, with Masjidil Haram in the background.

Kenangan di Jabal Rahmah. Standing here reminded me of my late mother...

With Pak Menteri and the MCKK gang

One for the album - one could almost feel the happiness and joy radiating from their faces.

Three million people congregating in one small place the size of a few football fields, and not a whiff of body odour; hundreds of thousands of pilgrims utilising the cavernous, two-storey washrooms just outside Masjidil Haram 24 hours daily, yet there was no stench whatsoever; rubbish piling up faster than they could be removed, yet there wasn’t a single fly, cockroach or maggot amongst the debris. Miracles never ceased in this blessed land.

Makkah sits in a valley so arid, barren and desolate that no natural vegetation exists apart from a few shrubs. The city is ringed by the Sirat Mountains, the peaks of which include Jabal Ajyad, Jabal Abu Qubays and Jabal Qu’ayq’an.

Then there’s Jabal Hira’ in the northeast, where Prophet Muhammad (saw) received his first Quranic revelations, and Jabal Thur in the south, where he hid from the Quraisyh seeking to kill him.

In the days that followed our arrival, our confidence grew as we became more comfortable with our surroundings. A certain routine was established; daily treks to Masjidil Haram for prayers, participating in ziarah (visiting) activities, attending religious lectures and talks organised by Tabung Haji, as well as checking out the numerous shops lining the streets and alleys of this ancient city.

Whilst the streets beyond the mosque area were wide multi-carriageways, those in the vicinity of the mosque were narrow and winding, wending in multiple directions and off-limits to commercial vehicles during the Hajj season. One really needs to be fit for the Hajj, for it involves a lot of walking and climbing.

Pak Abu, being a seasoned golfer, wasn’t much affected by the heat and all the walking. But I took a while longer to acclimatise. A chronic migraine sufferer, I was fearful of falling sick, especially because my migraine, almost always, was heat-induced.

And I often lagged behind when we walked together. With the sun bearing down harshly, the mere act of walking became an arduous chore for me.

In due time, I established my own ‘solat’ routine; going to the mosque only for Subuh, Maghrib and Isya’ and performing the noon prayers either at the hotel surau or in my room.

I held fast to my own conviction of doing the best I could under the circumstances. I felt there was no reason to force myself beyond my capability, only to end up sick, unable to perform any ibadah at all.

Thankfully, I was spared migraine and heatstroke throughout my stay in the Holy Land except for one brief period during ‘wukuf’ in Arafah, when I succumbed to an excruciating headache and subsequently was unable to perform the first day of melontar (stoning ritual) in Mina the following day.

As such, I had to ‘aqad’ (made a covenant) with Pak Abu to carry out the ritual on my behalf. Simply put, I got ‘stoned’ well before the stoning!

Praying in Masjidil Haram with millions of fellow Muslims from all over the globe was an experience unto itself. Despite God’s explicit admonition in the Quran not to upset and hurt others while carrying out the Hajj rituals, the excessive emotional zeal of some pilgrims, especially during tawaf, caused much disservice to others.

Although convention dictates that men and women should pray separately and should never be in the same saf (row/line), many pilgrims simply abandoned this practice and prayed willy-nilly, refusing to budge even when advised.

Only when the mosque guards came bearing down on them did they move, only to regroup when the guards left. Some of our own pilgrims were also guilty of same; On many occasions we saw husbands and wives praying together, alongside each other.

At the height of the Hajj season, getting a solat space inside the Grand Mosque was like winning the jackpot. To get a decent prayer spot, one had to be at the mosque at least a couple of hours before prayer time.

And once you got it, you would hang on to it as though your life depended upon it! Despite the cramped condition, it was never uncomfortable. Instead I found enjoyment doing my solat in the company of so many.

Another reason why solat jamaah (praying in a congregation) was meaningful to me was because I was able to participate in the solat jenazah (prayer for the dead), something I had never done back home.

One couldn't help but feel how transient life on earth is when the bodies, shrouded in white, were carried out and placed in rows alongside Kaabah for the final rites. That realization, and the vision of shrouded bodies borne on stretchers, moving slowly in a single file towards Kaabah, leave a lasting impression on me.

We were advised that should our wudhu’ (ablution) disappear for whatever reason between solat, we should just retake it using a cup of zamzam water instead of risking losing our prayer space. I must say it was real neat, taking one’s ablution using a cupful of water!

A couple of days after we arrived, I followed Pak Abu to a reunion of sort, and I have to say this about the old boys of Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) – their sense of camaraderie and togetherness is beyond compare. Wherever they are, they always make time to meet and catch up with each other.

The guys decided to meet for dinner at Felda-owned restaurant, D’Saji, located on the second floor of a building directly opposite Masjidil Haram. One of them, Razli Nordin, came all the way from Jeddah where he was attached to OIC, to reconnect with his old classmates. The rest, like us, were on pilgrimage.

At D’Saji we spied upon Cabinet Minister Datuk Zahid Hamidi, another old boy (their junior, apparently) and decided to corner him for updates from home, as well as to take some photographs together.

He was also on pilgrimage but took the opportunity to check out Tabung Haji's operations (which came under his purview) and to visit Malaysian pilgrims in the various maktabs (stations) all over Makkah.

Earlier in the morning, we were taken on a pre-Hajj visit to see Jabal Thur, Arafah, Jabal Rahmah, Muzdalifah, Mina and Jabal Hira’. We were not allowed to climb the rocks leading to the two caves of Thur and Hira’. It was time-consuming, anyway.

The Cave of Thur, where Prophet Muhammad (saw) together with Saidina Abu Bakar hid from the Quraiysh, could only be reached after a two-hour climb. And to reach the Cave of Hira’, where the Prophet went into seclusion and received his first revelations, took even longer.

Neither were we allowed to climb Jabal Rahmah, simply because Tabung Haji didn’t want to risk us falling off the rocky incline, thus hurting ourselves before wukuf. Despite advice, some foolhardy pilgrims threw caution to the wind and climbed it anyway.

I did some shopping in the days that followed - basic things like soap for washing clothes, wooden pegs, foodstuff like bread and spreads, fruits, and the inevitable souvenirs for loved ones.

A word of caution about buying things in Makkah (and Madinah too, for that matter) – one could lose one’s bearing (and common sense) easily when shopping in these two cities. Things were incredibly cheap and plentiful.

I bought scarves, shawls, robes, skullcaps, tasbih, mini-telekungs, kafiyyeh, trinkets and heaven knows what else, by the dozens each. This did not include items bought from our students who doubled up as tour guides for the ziarah activities of Nusantara pilgrims during the Hajj season.

The students took the opportunity to raise money for their common study funds (many were self-financed), by selling mostly traditional medicine, the famous Arabian honey, and perfume. More often than not, fellow pilgrims gladly 'sadaqah' to their fund.

It was also around this time, one week after arrival, that we began to develop the sniffles, sneezes and racking coughs that was to plague almost all pilgrims until the day we left the Holy Land... ...and this despite the RM125.00 flu jab that we availed ourselves to before leaving Malaysia!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Diary of A Pilgrim - Kaabah Conundrum

Feeling pensive at Jeddah Airport while waiting for the bus to take us to Makkah

New arrivals resting at the lobby of Qutubah Barakah, while waiting for their luggage

The young men manning the hotel reception desk

In all honesty, I was a tad apprehensive at the idea of performing the Hajj. Was I ready to face my moment of truth? And with my chequered past, would He welcome me into His Sacred House? Would He accept my repentance and forgive me? Or would I receive my comeuppance instead, in the Holy Land of all places, for my past sins?

Horror stories abound about pilgrims denied the sight of Kaabah despite standing right in front of it, or about those lost to wander for days in Masjidil Haram looking for an exit (this despite the Grand Mosque having nearly 100 doors).

And then there were those perfectly healthy pilgrims suddenly struck by mysterious, debilitating illnesses, some even lapsing into a coma, just before the all-important ‘wukuf’ in Arafah, only to miraculously recover the moment ‘wukuf’ was over, thus rendering their Hajj a non-event.

While I didn’t know what fate awaited me, deep in my heart I knew my time had come. I must answer this seruan (call) and make this trip, for it could very well be the only opportunity I ever had to shed my past, cleanse myself and start anew.

Pak Abu, himself no angel in his younger days, naturally shared my sentiment. To say he was nervous was putting it very mildly. In our hour of reckoning, the fear of Divine retribution became very real indeed. Be that as it may, we prayed hard for His mercy to allow us the privilege of performing the Hajj without much hindrance.

We bid Malaysia goodbye in the wee hours of Tuesday, 25th November 2008, and touched down at Jeddah International Airport at five in the morning, Saudi time. We performed our dawn prayers at the airport while waiting for customs & immigration clearance.

It was a two-hour wait, the first of many 'waiting games' that we played over and over again in the Holy Land. But we had been warned by Tabung Haji of the thoroughness of Saudi authorities, so we were prepared for it.

Our ‘miqat’ i.e. pilgrimage boundary and the starting point of our ‘ihram’ (state of purity preceding the Hajj) where we had to officially express our ‘niat’ (intention) to do the Hajj, was Qarnul-Manazil, about one hour before touchdown. So a special announcement was made by a flight stewardess, to remind us to 'niat', as soon as the aircraft flew over the area.

Because our flight was among the last from Malaysia to enter the Holy Land, our route took us direct to Makkah Al-Mukarramah from Jeddah. Pilgrims who arrived earlier usually disembarked in Madinah Al-Munawwarah, where they spent some 10 days of ibadah at Masjid Nabawi before journeying by bus to Makkah 447 kilometres away.

For us, Madinah would come after the Hajj. As such, Pak Abu and I opted for 'Haji Ifrad', which means our 'ihram' period was much longer than usual 'Haji Tamattu’' and 'Haji Qiran'. Doing Haji Ifrad would mean completing the obligatory Hajj rituals first, before doing the Umrah.

[Note: Pilgrims who arrive 'late' i.e. within days of the all-important 'wukuf', usually opt for Ifrad while those who arrive much earlier, via Madinah, would have ample time to do their Umrah first, thus opting for Tamattu'.

As for Qiran, this means pilgrims only perform the obligatory Hajj rituals sans umrah. Pilgrims whose continuous ill-health does not allow them to expose themselves to the full rigours of the Hajj, for example cancer sufferers or those recovering from surgery, are usually advised to opt for Haji Qiran].

The eight-hour flight was uneventful, apart from a slight glitch that saw Pak Abu and I sitting one row apart. It was no issue to us, anyway. My seatmates were a couple in their late fifties, from Tanjung Karang, Selangor. Both were first-time fliers and were understandably nervous.

The wife shyly asked if I had flown before. When I answered in the affirmative, her face broke into a smile and she asked me to teach her how to buckle the seatbelt. We introduced ourselves and made some small talk before sleep overtook us all. Pak Abu and I were pleasantly surprised later when the couple, Masnah and Arshad, ended up as our respective roommates in both Makkah and Madinah.

The two-hour bus journey from Jeddah Airport to the holy city of Makkah Al-Mukarramah resonated with the Talbiyah "Labbaikallah Hummalabbaikk. Labbaikallah La Syarie Kalakalabbaik. Innal-Hamdah, Wan-Nekmatah, Laka Wal Mulk, La Syarie Kalak" from fellow pilgrims, which brought tears to our eyes. Reality dawned. We were in the Holy Land as guests of Allah swt.

"Here I am at Thy service O Lord, here I am. Here I am at Thy service and Thou hast no partners. Thine alone is All Praise and All Bounty, and Thine alone is the Sovereignty. Thou hast no partners."

Hamba-Mu datang menyahut panggilan-Mu Ya Allah! Hamba-Mu datang menyahut panggilan-Mu Ya Allah! Sesunggunya segala puji-pujian dan nikmat dan kerajaan adalah kepunyaan-Mu dan tiada sekutu bagi-Mu."

Our bus journey ended at Cordoba Hotel (known in Arabic as Qutubah Barakah) which was to be our home for the next one month. As we entered Makkah, I had my first view of the sea of humanity associated with the Hajj. It was a frightening yet wondrous sight to behold.

We were fortunate to be housed in Qutubah (a three-star hotel in the same league with erstwhile Holiday Inn in Malaysia), simply because it was only 500 metres, or five minutes’ walk away, from Masjidil Haram. Its CEO was a Malay hotelier who used to run PJ Hilton and the all-male workforce was a combination of Indian, African and Indonesian personnel.

Qutubah’s Room 914 housed six women (four grandmothers among them) in their late 40s and mid-50s, who were to become firm friends in the days and weeks that followed.

There was Zabiah, a quiet and soft-spoken ustazah (religious teacher) who hailed from Lenggong, Perak. Diminutive Nor Aziah, my only other English-speaking roommate, was a diabetic who had undergone a heart bypass. Nor, who was on insulin jabs twice daily, hailed from Sungai Buloh, Selangor.

There was reed-thin Jaimah, chirpy and talkative, from Parit, Perak; ever-smiling and very helpful Norizan, wife of a school headmaster, from Klang, Selangor; and kindly and observant Masnah, from Tanjung Karang, Selangor.

And then there was me, sticking out like a sore thumb, self-conscious and feeling utterly inadequate amongst the good, Quran-reading ladies. They good-naturedly took my hands and guided me through throughout our stay together.

Pak Abu’s room was just down the aisle on the same floor. At 56, he was the youngest amongst his new room-mates Pak Arshad, Pak Baharin, Pak Ahmad, Pak Abu Bakar the imam and Pak Azmi, all of whom in their 60s or early 70s.

Living in such close proximity with total strangers was a humbling experience, as both Pak Abu and I eventually learned. If at all, living amongst these honest kampung folks - the salt of the earth kind - stripped us both of whatever bourgeois pretensions that remained within us.

Barely rested, we trooped to the Grand Mosque after dinner for the required 'Tawaf Qudum' i.e. the first of our Hajj obligations. Tawaf Qudum is basically the ‘Welcome Tawaf' and must be done soonest when a pilgrim arrives in Makkah for the Hajj.

While Pak Abu broke down and cried upon seeing the Kaabah for the first time, I found myself strangely bereft of tears. Instead my mind was inordinately preoccupied with the size of Baitullah – it loomed large in my thoughts but wasn’t such a big structure in reality.

I was to have this detached feeling towards the Kaabah for the next few days, resulting in me questioning myself why wasn’t I emotionally affected like the rest. It was much later that I realised I was so much in awe of the whole experience that I was struck dumb, unable to comprehend the magnitude of it all.

That first circumambulation experience was quite trying. We were reduced to shuffling our feet, one tiny step at a time, while trying to ward off marauding pilgrims who descended upon us like a runaway train – arms linked together in an unbroken chain, pushing, jostling and elbowing their way aggressively, loudly chanting prayers and supplications with nary a care for other pilgrims. It took all we had to preserve our patience and dignity while doing the 'Tawaf'.

Pak Abu and I decided to continue with 'Sa’ei Haji' immediately after the tawaf, permissible to us since we were doing Haji Ifrad. Those opting for Haji Tamattu’ and Haji Qiran would have to wait until after the completion of the main tawaf – Tawaf Haji – to do the Sa’ei.

Sa’ei was the shuttling between the two hills of Safa and Marwah, to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham’s wife, Siti Hajar, in seeking water for their infant son, Ishmael. Prophet Abraham was commanded by God to leave mother and child in the dry, arid valley of Makkah, surrounded by rocky outcrops. It was here that the Archangel Gabriel (Jibrail) dipped its wing into the ground at Ishmael’s feet, from where water - the Zamzam Spring - miraculously spouted forth.

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed the Sa’ei – walking back and forth seven times between the two hills – probably because it wasn’t much different from our usual morning walk, and also because the shuttling was done in the relative comfort of air-conditioned walkways!

Malaysian pilgrims were known in Saudi Arabia for their discipline and good behaviour, their politeness and considerable restraint in carrying out the Hajj obligations and rituals. Wherever we were, be it Jeddah, Makkah or Madinah, all we heard was “Malizia? Malizia baguus!” Was I proud of my countrymen, to carry the banner of Malaysia so commendably.

Thus ended our first day in Tanah Haram – a very long, tiring day indeed - but a very satisfying one, being unceremoniously elbowed in front of the Kaabah notwithstanding!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mercy Malaysia's Appeal

There is so much grief coming out of Gaza that mere words are inadequate to express our sentiment and solidarity with the oppressed in Palestine.

Blogger Elviza sms-ed fellow bloggers with a simple request to spread the word of appeal for aid. Bless you, Elviza, for taking the initiative:-

"Mercy Malaysia has, on 30th December 2008, formed an Emergency Response Assessment Team to face the humanitarian crisis in Gaza strip. The team has been promptly dispatched to Egypt led by President, Datuk Dr. Jemilah Mahmood and Exco Member Norazam Ab. Samah.

The air strike and ground offensive on Gaza - as reported by AlJazeera - have killed more than 700 Palestinians, 219 of which are children. More than 3000 have been wounded.

Therefore, Mercy Malaysia appeals to generous Malaysians to send it cash donations. Contributions will support Mercy Malaysia to procure emergency surgical kits, medicines and hospital equipments to help the hospitals in Gaza.

Cheque is to be made payable to “MERCY MALAYSIA” and addressed to Mercy Malaysia, Level 2, Podium Block, City Point, Kompleks Dayabumi, Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, 50050 Kuala Lumpur.

Cash donations can be made via on-line transmission or deposit at CIMB Bank Account No: 1424-000-6561053.

Donation form can be downloaded from here.

Further enquiries are to be directed to +603-22733999 or

Let us make a difference by whatever little we have. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your generosity."


Diary of A Pilgrim - Mukadimah

The face of a weary pilgrim..

Frankly, leaving the Holy Land upset my emotional equilibrium terribly. In days leading to our departure, I suffered deep conflicting emotions. The pain was palpable, leading to torrents of tears and feelings of helplessness.

Half of me wanted desperately to come home, to all that was familiar. After 41 days in a sea of black (women clad head-to-toe in black jubbahs) and white (men togged in white ihram and light-coloured abayas), and shuffling my feet in tiny steps like a geisha in the midst of some three million pilgrims, I was ready for home.

I needed space. Lots of space. And I needed colour. Any colour except black and white. I missed my long strides. I missed the children, the house, the greenery, the bookstores, the food, the general abundance of things.

Yet, the other half of me yearned to stay, to be close to all that was good and holy. In fact, in the last few days of my stay in Makkah, each visit to Masjidil Haram would culminate in a tearful gaze at the Kaabah.

Likewise, my heart was torn asunder in Madinah each time I entered The Prophet’s mosque, Masjid Nabawi. Each word of greeting, each ‘salam’ to Rasulullah and the two Sahabah (Companions), Abu Bakar and Umar who were buried alongside him, would inevitably be accompanied by a deep sense of sadness and strange longings.

Tears came easy in the Holy Land. Tears of regret for the sins of yesteryears. Tears as we pitifully begged for Divine forgiveness. Like many others, we arrived burdened with every conceivable sin. We laid bare our heart and soul in the hope of salvation.

Nowhere was this felt the most than on the barren plains of Arafah under the scorching sun, where sitting in the open was a better option than staying under a steaming tent, or in equally barren Muzdalifah (thankfully in the late evening) under a most beautiful moon as we picked pebbles for the ‘stoning of the Devil’ ritual.

And then there was jam-packed Mina, where claustrophobic me had to endure three nights in a tent shared with hundreds of women, where one had to queue for nearly a hour just to relieve oneself, where taking a bath was a luxury one could ill-afford, where taking ablution was sometimes reduced to washing oneself from a bottle or a cup of water....

‘Azab’ (suffering) was the byword of the Haj; so said the good ustaz from Tabung Haji, Hj Helmi Akhtar, who couldn't have been more eloquent when he cautioned us not to make light of the experience by saying the Haj was a-okay. It wasn’t.

But it was an 'azab' that I would gladly endure time and again. My heart bled the moment I stepped foot on ‘Haram’ soil. The bleeding hasn’t stopped. Baitullah, how I miss you...

Monday, January 5, 2009

It's Good To Be Home!

Salam to all. Alhamdulillah, we are home, safe and sound, thank be to Allah Subhanahu Wata'ala. Arrived early this morning by Saudi Air. Insyaallah, I'll write as soon as time permits. It's soooo good to be home! Kama.